BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban
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Tapping into the national mood in Israel

Mark Urban | 18:08 UK time, Tuesday, 10 February 2009

JERUSALEM - You hear the word 'hazak' here an awful lot at the moment. It means strong in Hebrew. It features in Benjamin Netanyahu's slogans, in roadside placards and one of the smaller parties contesting these elections has even called itself "Strong Israel".

Conventional wisdom has it that this word plays well after the Gaza offensive because it taps into a national mood: that Israel's bombardment of the Palestinian territory showed the value of strength in dealings with the Arabs. We put up with Hamas rockets for eight years, runs the Israeli popular narrative, and now at last we've done something that's got the Palestinians' attention.

I wonder though how far people who use the word 'strong' so much are not actually those who at some level sense their own weakness. The notion, repeated by many in the centre ground here too that the Gaza operation restored Israel's "deterrent capability", after it was damaged by the 2006 Lebanon War is, to my mind, more an expression of hope than fact.

In the first place, few Israelis - of right or left - think that Hamas has fired its last rocket from Gaza or become any more reconciled to the presence of a Jewish state here. Any advantage gained by January's killing, then, is temporary. In the second it is clear to anyone who knows this part of the world that battering Hamas in the confines of the Gaza strip should not give Israelis any particular confidence that they would do any better against Hezbollah if the 2006 Lebanon campaign was re-run now. The Shiite militant movement is a far more competent, better armed adversary and its position in Lebanon allows it a strategic depth, as well as freedom to import weapons that no Palestinian group could match.

Looking beyond Israel's immediate borders, the strategic situation seems no better now than it was before the Gaza operation. Indeed it can be argued that is has worsened. Barack Obama's White House cannot be relied upon to look the other way quite as often as George Bush's one did. Iran meanwhile is closer to possessing the nuclear weapon.

The possibility of Iran getting the bomb touches Israeli insecurities so deeply that one would be foolish to rule out the possibility of a military strike against those nuclear facilities. My own analysis is that Israel acting on its own lacks the capability to do serious, lasting, damage to the Iranian program. But in a situation where people feel the need to demonstrate their strength so often, it is quite possible that an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities could be one consequence of this election.


  • Comment number 1.


    Small wonder that Richard Dawkins gets so over-wrought when he looks at what man-made gods can do to the future of the world.

    How much better it would be to send Dawkins as peace envoy. 'Third Way Tony', is just a Joke. How many facets of Abraham can one impasse absorb?

    If the two sides could unite in hating Dawkins, they might stop hating each other, in a common cause.

    When those highly intelligent Jews cannot see that, after they have annihilated the Arabs, they will still be only 0.2 percent of world population, it speaks volumes for how primitive we still are. "Go Saint Dawkins", I say.

  • Comment number 2.

    there seems to be a battle over the soul of israel between those who want to establish human rights and those who want to preserve or even increase the current discrimination laws. [e.g marriage laws, land renting/ownership]

    those who want human rights say you best preserve your rights and establish justice by recognising the rights of others. Others believe security comes through laws that enshrine the superiority of one class of people within a country over everybody else [the current position].

    this battle came onto uk street the other day when jews were attacking jews.

    it looks the human rights agenda will lose again?

  • Comment number 3.

    It's interesting you sense Israel feels it has "done something that's got the Palestinians' attention." But isn't it the extension of attention - respect - that both Hamas and Iran seek in their own ways. Hamas through it's rockets, wants recognition and a direct role at the negotiating table. Iran yearns respect, particularly from America, and believes the acquisition of nuclear weapons will induce that respect - which it almost certainly will.

    What would it mean if Iran did acquire nuclear weapons? A balance of power and respect through the Mutally Assured Destruction doctrine. It would help Israel determine it's priorities. Security or land. A permanent peace deal would soon follow.

    Nothing would focus the attention more than a nuclear capable Iran

  • Comment number 4.

    The issue is not one of military strength but of the strength of the political will to survive. So far, the signs are not encouraging. By 2006, Israel seemed to have forgotten that it is in a perpetual state of war for its very survival.

    Israel has a free hand to inflict whatever level of destruction it cares to on its enemies, whomever they may be. Mr. Urban, your statement "My own analysis is that Israel acting on its own lacks the capability to do serious, lasting, damage to the Iranian program" demonstrates that you are an ignorant fool. Israel is a major nuclear power, its arsenal of nuclear weapons is possibly only exceeded by the US and Russia. It also probably has fusion boosted weapons (Nuclear Weapons Archive website estimate as of 10-12 years ago) and by now full thermonuclear weapons. This means that on its own, it has the capability to destroy ANY target on earth including any or all of the entire Middle East, much of Europe, even make human life on the surface of the earth impossible. President Carter said recently that Israel is estimated to have 200 nuclear weapons but the site I referenced which is highly authoritative said the same around 1997 so it may have twice that many. It is not a matter of strength but a matter of will. As a small country, Israel knows that if it does not strike a nuclear weapons armed enemy nation like Iran pre-emptively, it could be annihilated in one blow. Therefore, as the perception that Iran is approaching the capability to create such weapons looms nearer, the compulsion to strike first pre-emptively as a matter of survival will become irresistable. I expect that if Israel attacks Iran, it will wipe out the entire country.

  • Comment number 5.

    OK, here's a provocative, or at least I hope a thought provoking, reason why Israel has no real appetite to reach a settlement of the Palestinian issue.

    My premise is simple: what binds Israel together today, and would it survive if the "siege mentality" of its position as a viable state were removed?

    If we look at what's happening internally, Israel looks hugely split between two broad groups: namely those that would like to see a more secular State, and those wanting a theocracy. Chuck in the variations caused by the various migrations into Israel since 1945, in particular the influx of Soviet Jews in the 1980s, and it's not immediately obvious what binds everyone together. Except, of course, fear of annihilation at the hands of Palestinians. MAII has eloquently pointed out the impossibility of this, given Israel's overwhelming military strength. However, maintaining the myth of Israel's vulnerability is necessary to keep the State intact.

    Yesterday's election has revealed the very real and deep rifts in Israel. I don't think either side has any real interest in reaching an agreement over Palestine. Maybe Hamas and Hizbollah would achieve more if they simply ignored Israel for a while. If peace broke out in such a manner, Israel would end up debating its own future direction, and it's by no means obvious that everyone there would want to travel the same way. Israel's existence is fragile, and I suspect the danger of fracture is much more likely to come from inside the State not outside.

  • Comment number 6.


    If Hamas had ignored Israel by not allowing its territory to be used for firing rockets at it, the three week attack to at least have an impact on the number of rockets being fired at Israel would not have happened. Far from ignoring Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah have made it clear that their very purpose is to destroy Israel and they are well funded, armed, and trained by Iran.

    Israel has not killed off the Palestinians because it does not want to be the perpetrators of genocide the way it was once its victim. But genocide when left as the only viable strategy for survival is entirely defendable and justified. It was the theat of genocide, the killing of evey human being, the destruction of every manmade structure from the Danube River to the Pacific Ocean, Americ's nuclear war fighting strategy code named "MAD" during the cold war that saved Western Europe from becoming a slave to Soviet Communism and eventually freed Eastern Europeans and victims of Soviet enslavement. If you are not prepared to kill in limitless numbers and ultimately die yourself, and nobody else will do it for you, you will not have your freedom very long. That is one lesson of the American Revolution and of WWII and the cold war.


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