Fall - 2012 Israel1

Published on November 19th, 2012


Israel – The Poster Child of Realism

by Jo Jakobsen, NTNU

The ongoing attacks by Israel on Gaza provide a fitting, albeit certainly tragic, backdrop for a commentary on the behavior of sovereign states in the international system. Specifically, and leaving aside for a moment normative issues of morality and fairness, Israel is as close as you get to an ideal-type International Relations actor. No state today follows the logic of the realist school of thought more closely, with more vigor, and more consistently than does Israel.

Realism has dominated International Relations discourse and analysis for decades, if not centuries. Only very recently has this hegemonic paradigm met with any consequential challenge from competing schools. There is little reason yet, however, to claim the demise of realist thought; especially when the going gets tough and the issues at hand are vital, states still tend to follow the sober, pessimistic, non-idealist, relatively cynical tenets of realism. And none more so than Israel.

In brief, realist scholars contend that a few basic factors make for a competitive, insecure world in which states inevitably end up in a severe competition for security.

Firstly, the international system lacks a central authority, which means that it is anarchic at root. It also follows that states essentially inhabit a self-help system; there’s no emergency number you can call when you’re in trouble – you cannot expect others to fend for you, so you’d better fend for yourself. In particular, this is so in the realm of state survival and security, which realists hold to be the basic goals of states.

 Yet survival (and security, a more encompassing sister concept of survival) is always potentially under threat. This is so because all states are in possession of at least some offensive military capability, and because you cannot be certain that other states’ current or future intentions are benign. States are thus forced, by structural constraints, to think strategically and rationally about their own security. Key here is the means of power: generally speaking, the more power (economic, political, ideological, territorial, and, most importantly, military power) the better.

This is the very logic that Israel has followed so consistently since its 1948 declaration of independence, which is why we can confidently call it the poster child of realism.

For a start, survival and security constitute the be-all and end-all of Jerusalem’s domestic and foreign policies alike. State survival is judged to be a very real issue in Israel, and it has been that way for 64 years. Numerous wars with its Arab neighbors have only bolstered and contributed to legitimizing Israel’s self-declared status as a nation under permanent siege.

The focus on security is all-embracing. Israel is incredibly strong militarily, for a country of its size, its military spending exceeding 16 billion U.S. dollars in 2011, amounting to 6.5 % of the nation’s GDP (which is substantial; Israel is a highly-developed country). These numbers encompass various sub-dimensions all of which indeed help enable Israel to fend for itself in the anarchic, self-help international-political system.

For example, (non-Arab) citizens have to complete compulsory military service lasting three years (two years for women); Israel’s Air Force and Navy are top-class institutions, as are the agencies for internal and external security (e.g. Shin Bet and Mossad); and, to top it off, in the Negev desert Israel has stored, although officially they do not acknowledge this fact, somewhere between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads, which, if fitted to the country’s bombers, submarines, or ballistic missiles, can potentially wipe any of Israel’s Middle Eastern neighbors off the map.

To this can be added that the quite significant territorial expansions that Israel have conducted – in particular in 1948–49 and 1967 – have strengthened Israel’s power and (sense of) security dramatically. Power equals security, say realists, and so say Israeli leaders – and the latter do indeed act on that very maxim.

Significantly, Israel do not trust anyone; they are at heart skeptical about other states’ intentions, which is in large part one obvious legacy of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath.

Of course, it is a given that Israel is skeptical toward its Arab neighbors (with whom they have fought many wars), and toward the Palestinians, and that its security strategies and its foreign (and domestic) policies reflect just this fact. But that Israel follows realist logic very closely on this score is, in fact, although this is less often highlighted, also obvious with regard to its relations to the rest of the world – including the United States.

Washington’s support for Israel is fairly steadfast, that much is true. But it does not in any way automatically follow that the U.S. unconditionally supports Israel’s every move, or that Jerusalem seeks and gets a green light before shelling Gaza (as they do now), bombing Iraqi (as in 1981) or Syrian (2007) nuclear reactors, invading Egypt (1956), or attacking Iran (somewhere in the near future?).

U.S. support matters greatly to Israel – after all, we’re talking about backing from the world’s hegemon – but its importance should not be exaggerated. Israel, to be sure, is an independent, sovereign state that finds itself existing in a self-help world. And self-help is indeed Israel’s primary strategy; no-one, and certainly not the Americans, fought on Israel’s side in the wars of 1948, 1967, or 1973, for example.

One can also easily conceive of a future situation where Washington’s economic and political support for Israel wanes; perhaps future U.S. administrations will seek to pressure Jerusalem more vigorously on the issues of Palestinian statehood, occupied territories, and human rights.

Perhaps the U.S. will even use the threats of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation (armed intervention against a militarily highly capable and even nuclear-armed Israel will never be on the agenda for the major powers). Would Israel then eventually waver and perhaps give in? The answer is a resounding no! Israel’s policies already, if only implicitly, reflect such scenarios. Just as the U.S. does not hesitate to act unilaterally if national-security concerns so command, Israel very rarely, if at all, compromises on security issues.

Experiences from the first term of the Obama administration are testament to this: quarrels between Israel and the U.S. centering on Israeli settlements, the West Bank “security fence,” the lack of thrust in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and the urgency and response to the Iranian nuclear threat all signal what should be a crystal-clear fact concerning interstate relations more generally: that independent, sovereign states are just that: independent, sovereign – and ultimately self-interested and even selfish. The stuff of realism, in other words! Israel does – and will continue to do – what is in Israel’s own interest. And they can do these things because, I dare say, they have interpreted the world using “realist” glasses, which means that they focus on four things: security, security, security, and military strength.

What about the recent situation concerning Israel’s unmerciful attack on Gaza? Well, the issue at hand is not really that complicated. Leaving domestic issues (i.e. the upcoming Israeli elections) aside, Israel judges its security to be under threat from Palestinian rockets.

Israel attempts to deal with this security threat by using overwhelming force. In terms of consequences of these actions, we can usefully point to a couple of things. Firstly, the immediate threat from the Palestinians will be diminished – it is really that simple: a major military power meets and deals with an “asymmetric,” geographically contained threat largely consisting of small, short-range, unsophisticated rockets. Realism would predict Israel to employ its military machinery to that effect, and the poster child logically makes these predictions come true.

Secondly, a caveat is in order. Many people argue that Israel’s international standing and legitimacy – and ultimately the country’s power – are signifianctly harmed by its heavy-handed military responses, and that it should be in Jerusalem’s long-term interest to stop shelling Palestianian areas, to move forward in earnest with the peace negotiations, and, more generally, to stop treating Palestinians as second-class citizens.

Such arguments, while certainly carrying some moral merit, unfortunately rest on a faulty interpretation of how the (realist) world really works. For a start, in terms of legitimacy, Israel really does not have much more to lose. The vast majority of the world’s states consistently react strongly and unequivocally to the brutal treatment of Palestinians by Israel – in times of peace as well as war. These reactions, however, are impotent and inconsequential.

The consequential states – that is, the major powers and, in particular, the U.S. – notably and equally consistently, albeit for many different reasons, signal a profound understanding of Israel’s security concerns, even if not all of them always wholeheartedly support Israel’s way of dealing with its concerns. In other words, Israel are, tacitly at least, allowed to do pretty much whatever they want toward the Palestinians; negative repercussions are far and few between. And in any case, legitimacy takes a backseat role for Israel every time the country’s perceived core national security is under threat.

One should also note that the ability of Israel largely to disregard “world opinion” is fundamentally linked with Israel’s military capabilities. For example, the reactions of Arab states to the conflagration in Gaza is merely rhetorical; never have these countries, many of which have consistently been spearheaded by relatively incompetent regimes, represented a cohesive alliance militarily capable of actually doing anything of note to reverse Israel’s policies and grand strategy. In an anarchic, realist world of security competition between self-interested sovereign states, the relative distribution of military strength constrains the actions of states – and so it shapes the future of regional and world affairs.

Furthermore, and again with regard to the argument about Israel’s purported long-term interest in settling the Palestinian issue peacefully and fairly, many fail to grasp the fact that Israel in fact is quite satisfied with the status quo, which, for one, has left the state of Israel vastly bigger than originally envisaged by the UN and the major powers back in 1947. Moreover, the uncertainties and insecurity that would follow from the actual realization of the “two-state solution” should make a sovereign Palestinian state, even a tiny one, fairly unattractive from Jerusalem’s point of view.

Today, the threat from the Palestinians is containable and manageable for Israel. Again, it really is that simple, and again this is due almost wholly to the military strength of Israel. But it is also due to a second factor, namely that in the international system – and not only the “realist” version of it, one should point out – special legal rights and protection are conferred on states that are acknowledged as independent.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict would, if Palestine were to become a sovereign state, suddenly become an interstate conflict – which is to say an international dispute or (very likely) war. In terms of international law, and consequently in terms of the expected or required involvement of the “international community” in the dispute or war, this would complicate matters greatly for Israel.

As it is now, Israel receives automatic support from what is arguably the basic legal principle underpinning relations between nations: that thou shalt not interfere in the business of sovereign states. Thus, Israeli acceptance of an independent Palestinian state in actuality hinges on that Palestinian state, before statehood is granted, making credible promises (which in itself is, virtually by definition, impossible in an anarchic international system) that it will live peacefully side-by-side with Israel, that it will disarm completely, and that it will continue to be demilitarized for eternity. Again, the (realist) world simply does not work that way, in particular not when the antagonists are the most bitter of enemies, an argument or fact of which Israeli leaders are all too cognizant.

An independent Palestinian state could certainly be handled by Israel’s mighty military and security services. But the point is that it is much easier to control a nation if you simultaneously control that nation’s territory – which effectively is the case today. And it is much easier to control a nation that is really devoid of any clear-cut special rights and protection by the sovereign-state-focused international law – which is also the case today.


The world is not fair. Neither will the world become fair anytime soon. If one wishes to solve the world’s many seemingly intractable conflicts, like the one commented on herein, the natural first step is to understand the issue at hand – the goals, motivations, and the strategies available to the protagonists, as well as the regional and global contexts within which the actors operate. Israel follows the logic of realism more consistently and wholeheartedly than perhaps any other country on the face of the earth. Wishful thinking will not alter the fact that Israel is realism’s poster child, and it will certainly not solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.



Cover photo by Eylon Israely, shooting range photo by Alex, Gaza photo by Al Jazeera, dog photo by David Poe, ruins photo by US Army, military exercise photo by US embassy in Tel Aviv

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Back to Top ↑