By Morris J. Amitay
A recurring theme in the media is Israel's alleged military superiority over all its potential Arab foes. But when did little David become the giant Goliath? The answer is the Six-Day War. It was precisely as a result of this war that little Israel became a military giant of mythical proportions, in the eyes of the media and most Middle East commentators. It remains so notwithstanding the Arab successes in the Yom Kippur War, and Israel's troubles in Lebanon.
Nowadays, those making the case for Israeli invincibility invariably allude to Israel's reported nuclear capabilities. In doing so they conveniently overlook the impressive conventional capabilities and high tech weapons in the hands of Israel's potential foes which has lead to the steady erosion of Israel's qualitative edge. These become crucial factors in any non "doomsday" scenario.
It is a reasonable assumption that Israel will only use its alleged nuclear arsenal as a last resort if the State and its Jewish population are threatened with destruction. A growing number of nations who have nukes have, thankfully, have never used them. But Israel with less than 6 million people and only 10,000 square miles - including the so-called West Bank - is especially vulnerable to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) compared to 3 million square miles of Arab territories and almost 200 million Arabs - not counting Iran. What are the emerging threats Israel faces today?
On a macro level, Israel is surrounded by non-democratic despotic regimes - only one country has ever had an election with more than one candidate for President running. And that was Algeria -but not in the most recent election where six of the seven candidates dropped out charging fraud. Syria's Assad recently ran and won with 99.8% of the votes - the .2% deserve to be listed in "Profiles of Courage". A resurgent anti-western Russia is back in the Middle East through arms sales, and the hyperactive diplomacy of Prime Minister and former KGB operative Yevgeny Primakov. Relations between Russia and China are warming up which should be yet another warning to the Clinton Administration.
Islamic fundamentalism is alive and kicking in the region and not only in Afghanistan. The crazies are still calling the shots in Iran and are well represented in Algeria, the Sudan, Saudi Arabia - and the PNA, especially in Gaza. As for the Palestinians, they are now talking about Israel's 1947 borders under the U.N. Partition Plan - not the pre-1967 borders. If anyone thought that Israel's pre-1967 borders were not defensible - the 47 ones are laughable. But given the EU's recent resurrection of General Assembly Resolution 181 - this is no joke.
In recent years there has been the spread of sophisticated U.S., Russian, British and French weaponry throughout the Middle East. This region is still the world's biggest buyer with active missile and WMD programs in just about all the Arab States -notably Iran and Iraq. Israel's ability to defend its population, and any conceivable borders it winds up with - becomes more problematic each day. But you'll rarely hear about this from our media or the think tanks.
In Mr. Rodgers' CNN Neighborhood -Israel is the big bully on the block. This is what CNN's Walter Rodgers had to say in an interview: "Israel is a superpower. It has a huge nuclear stockpile. It has a huge chemical and biological warfare stockpile. It has 4,000 tanks. More than anybody else around. It has the sixth largest air force in the world. It has a huge army. Everybody here is in the army. Don't tell me Israel is a little country."
Actually, compared to its adversaries in the region, Israel is not "little" - it is tiny. Even with the whole West Bank there is hardly any strategic depth. Last year Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had a meeting with a former American general who once commanded the U.S. armored forces in Germany. The P.M. asked him how much of an area he needed in order to maneuver his armored divisions to meet an attack. The general said - "Oh. about three to four hundred miles but we could do it with 150 miles if we had to." Netanyahu laughed and said "150 miles -we'd have to be out in Cyprus!"
Israel's small size creates other special problems. With only a dozen air bases that can handle aircraft, and with Syria deploying hundreds of advanced SCUDs which could hit these air bases and mobilization centers early in a conflict - Israel's ability to defend itself will be seriously constrained. As for Israel's vaunted armor corps, only 2,210 tanks are considered high quality, and the IDF still maintains 40 year-old Centurions, antique M-48s and captured Russian T-62s. Israel's "huge army" has been holding steady at 187,000, and it is still basically a citizens army with 444,000 reserves. The number of divisions, 16, has been the same since 1993. Meanwhile Israel's potential foes have not been sitting still - and some - particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt - are increasingly getting more top of the line U.S. equipment. The numbers help to tell the story. Egypt counts 440,000 regular troops and 254,000 reserves, along with 3,390 tanks and 505 aircraft to Israel's 613 planes. Iraq numbers 382,000 regular, 650,000 reserves, 2,700 tanks and 330 aircraft. Iran's 750,000 troops are less important than its long range missiles which can hit Israel. Syria has 42l,000 regulars, 500,000 reserves, 4,600 tanks and 520 aircraft, and Saudi Arabia with l05,000 regulars, 57,000 reserves and l,055 tanks has 322 modern aircraft -including over 100 F-15s. Besides the recently announced U.S. arms sales to Egypt, openly hostile Syria will soon be re-armed with the latest Russian S-300 air defense system, SU-27 fighter bombers, and T-80 tanks, and it has been amassing a large arsenal of ground to ground missiles. Iraq has now been more than eight months without even non-intrusive inspections. And no one thinks that Saddam has been busy in the meantime with public works and welfare projects. The Saudis, thankfully, had to cut back on buying the latest American weapons because of lower oil prices, but they will soon be getting U.S. AMRAAM long range air to air missiles. Iran is devoting much of its resources to acquiring long range missiles and nuclear weapons, not only with Russia's help - but also with Chinese and North Korean aid. As for Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, the CIA has been saying 5-10 years -but it seems they have been saying this the last 5-10 years.
Of the five countries we list as rogue nations - four, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria, are still bitter enemies of Israel, and the fifth, North Korea, is happy to supply all of them. The only relative bright spots in the region are Jordan and Turkey. But in Amman there is an untested young monarch who may not have the nine lives of his father - and who has Syria, Iraq and the PNC as neighbors. As for Turkey, the recent elections will hopefully result in a more stable secular government there. But with a growing militant Muslim element, and its economic woes, the future is uncertain.
Down the road, of course, there will be some kind of a Palestinian State, but don't count on it being "demilitarized". Already Arafat is stockpiling anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles and other heavy weaponry prohibited by Oslo. His so-called police force of 40,000 are training - certainly not how to give out traffic tickets, but to assault Jewish settlements. And once a State of Palestine comes into being, who realistically will enforce any restrictions on its sovereign right to have an air force, armored corps - or stationing foreign "advisers" on its soil? Will the so- called "international community" do it? Already high Palestinian officials are looking at NATO intervention in Kosovo as a precedent for "the international community to intervene to end Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and to expel the settlers from it".
So looking at these trends in the region, along with diminishing U.S. support, we can paint a very gloomy picture for the future of Israel. But don't expect to hear much about it in the media. It is easier to cite the conventional wisdom describing Israel as a military powerhouse, intimidating its neighbors and oppressing the poor Palestinians. Contrary views are too easily dismissed as just more Jewish paranoia. But more paranoia now could avoid real dangers later.