Israeli Realities

August 22, 2006

Israel is being showering with advice, much if it well intentioned, but much of it ill-informed. So before DU offers its ten cents, here’s our fact base, derived from years doing business with Israeli companies, and visiting the place recently.

People

They fit the stereotype – smart, argumentative, individualistic and family-centered. It’s like MIT expanded to fill a country the size of New Jersey. It acts like a single extended family – every death is mourned in public and in detail. Quite unlike the Brits, who look away from their own casualties.

Society

Israel – uniquely – has always had neighbors that want to destroy it, and that makes its people different from any other nation – imagine what MIT would be like if Boston and New York had been attacking it for the past 60 years.

Wars

Contrary to popular belief, Israel is not militaristic, and all of its wars have been close run things. (Actually most wars are close run, but popular history views victors through rose-colored spectacles).

In 1948, Israel beat the 5 invading armies because as its poorly armed fighters retreated their supply lines shortened, whereas the Muslim supply lines became more extended and easier for Israeli planes to interdict (with a weird mix of Spitfires and ME-109s!).

The last big war in 1973 was just better than a draw, after Muslim armies launched surprise attacks with massive barrages of the latest Russian anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles (sound familiar?).

Military Attitudes

Israelis value toughness, aggression, and creativity over discipline – come to think of it, they drive that way too. But it’s a small nation, so they fight to minimize casualties – their Merkava MBT is the only one in the world with a rear evacuation door for its 4-man crew.

They think our armies are discipline-, process-, and gadget- obsessed. They use whatever works – for example switching from the world-famous Uzi to the more-relaible M16 and M4.

Israeli officers lead from the front – almost all their casualties in Lebanon were officers and senior NCOs. Blair’s habit of prosecuting Brit private soldiers while promoting their officers is incomprehensible to Israelis.

Israelis view see the IDF as made up of three groups: The Children (the teenaged conscripts); The Fathers (Reservists); and The Uncles (Regulars). The current war is Fathers and Uncles looking to rescue Children.

Size

The place is tiny. On a clear day you can stand on a hill outside Jerusalem and see most of the country, from the Ashqelon up to Haifa.

It has about 6 million people, and the infrastructure to match, which means only a few airfields, ports, power stations, and water sources.

Vulnerability

That small area and population makes Israel very vulnerable – its population centers and infrastructure could be easily taken out by 10 nukes, and in a land invasion the IDF has no ground to give.

The US

Israelis I know see the US as a benevolent but absent-minded uncle who can usually – but not always – be trusted. And they have to factor in the risk of a Dem president and Congress, which may abandon them.

Politics

These are university campus style, overlaid with a clarity that comes from facing constant threats to their existence. So their politicians fight like a barrel full of cats, but line up in some sort of order when they’re attacked.

Limits – People

Much criticism of Israeli conduct of the Lebanese action fails to recognize their population constraint.

The IDF lost over 100 men and women – scaled for population that’s 1,000 Brits or 5,000 Americans. Can you imagine the fuss these levels would cause in our two nations? Many Americans want to pull out of Iraq after suffering half this level of casualties over not 4 weeks but 3 years!

Olmert has been criticized for the slow and chaotic call-up and deployment of a mere 30,000 reserves. But, scaled for population again, that’s the same as the Brits calling up 300,000 reservists, or the US 1.5 million. In just 2 weeks! This was a tremendous achievement, and will have caused mayhem to Israel’s industrial base.

Limits – Money

Israel spends about $10 billion a year on its military – almost 8% of its GDP. It gets great value for that – a very modern air force and coastal navy, a nuclear-armed submarine force, a fleet of the best tanks in the world, and the world’s only operational BMD. (By contrast the UK spends about $40 billion (2.4% of GDP) and the US $500 billion (4% of GDP).

In spite of the very high spend on defense; Israel has been growing much faster than the UK and US – 5% in 2005. But there are limits, since dollars spent on BMD are dollars not spent on the industrial investment needed to make the exports to pay for the imports to build the weapons.

So, absent US assistance, it’s unrealistic to expect Israel to mount space age defenses on its own. And US aid to Israel was just $662 million in 2003 – much less than the $1.12 billion Egypt received in 2002.

Bottom Line

Future posts will take these factors and constraints and suggest how the Israelis are likely to react to their threatened destruction by Hezbollah, Syria, and the Mullahs.


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