Israel Table of Contents
Man in military beret and woman in service cap
IN FEW COUNTRIES of the world have matters of national security played as pervasive a role in society as in Israel. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF--commonly known in Israel as Zahal, the Hebrew acronym for Zvah Haganah Le Yisrael) was organized to be the ultimate guarantor of national security. Israeli policy makers, however, have believed that strong armed forces alone were not enough to protect the state. All of the state's resources were to be marshalled and applied to national security. In 1960 David Ben-Gurion stated that Israeli security also depended on the integration of immigrants, the settlement and peopling of "empty areas," the dispersal of the population and establishment of industries throughout the country, the development of agriculture, the "conquest of the sea and air," economic independence, and the fostering of research and scientific skill at the highest level of technology in all branches of science. Israel's quest for national security has been a prime motivating factor behind the state's rapid development.
The quest for national security also has imposed great costs on the state and its citizens. Defense expenditures on a per capita basis, and as a percentage of gross national product (GNP--see Glossary), have been consistently higher in Israel than in almost any other country in the world. Moreover, the IDF has diverted scarce manpower from the civilian economy, and Israeli industry has been compelled to manufacture military matériel instead of the consumer items that would raise the standard of living. Defense spending has also fueled double digit inflation for protracted periods and created a large national debt.
The prominence given national security by Israeli society stems from the perceived massive security threat posed by Israel's Arab neighbors. Having founded the State of Israel in the wake of the Holocaust, in which Diaspora (see Glossary) Jews were defenseless against an enemy bent on their destruction, Israeli Jews were determined to devote considerable resources to defend their young nation. In 1988 most outside observers agreed that the IDF was stronger than ever and clearly superior to the armies of its Arab enemies. Unlike the years after the June 1967 War, however, Israelis in the late 1980s did not display overconfidence in their defense capability. The surprise Arab offensive in October 1973 had renewed Israel's fears of defeat at the hands of its Arab enemies. Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon restored confidence in the tactical superiority of the IDF, but it also engendered controversy. The invasion was opposed from its inception by many Israeli politicians and IDF officers, who referred to it as Israel's first imperial war. Moreover, the IDF's victory on the battlefield was not matched by strategic accomplishments. In 1988 the IDF confronted a new problem--sustained protest by Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Many observers in the late 1980s described Israel as a democratic garrison state and a praetorian society. Indeed, in many respects Israel resembled an armed camp, and a wide range of government policies, particularly in foreign affairs, was dictated by security considerations as advised by IDF commanders. Unlike many garrison states, however, in Israel the armed forces played an indirect role in politics, and the IDF was unlikely to abandon its tradition of strict subordination to civilian authority.
Nevertheless, national defense policy was a major component of civilian politics during 1988. The Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories, known as the intifadah, created a new threat to Israel's security. Although the army seemed able to contain the violence militarily, its resources were strained by the dual role of policing the territories while maintaining strong border defenses. A nationwide debate centered on the question of whether Israeli concessions were strategically preferable to further Jewish settlement in the occupied territories. With the growing sophistication and deadliness of modern armaments in the Middle East, the alternative to peace with Israel's neighbors was the specter of increasingly costly wars. Since Israel's birth forty years earlier, such conflicts already had cost nearly 12,000 Israeli lives.
Data as of December 1988
Israel Table of Contents