Keep the Missile Threat in Perspective

Retired general Benjamin Peled, the commander of the Israeli Air Force during the Yom Kippur War, told the Jerusalem Report (Oct. 12) that the combined potential damage of all of Syria’s warheads would be negligible and that a single squadron of Israeli aircraft could carry more and heavier bombs than all the missiles in Syria and Egypt put together, and deploy them with greater accuracy. Missiles, Peled adds, are like matches; they’re not reusable. And what about the nightmare scenario of chemical or biological warheads? Peled says the Arabs can’t deliver them effectively.

Peled correctly argues the missile threat that many people have become obsessed with is exaggerated. Look, no one is happy that the Arabs are developing increasingly long-range missiles, but the danger of these weapons should not be overstated. It is also worth remembering that missiles can be fired in two directions. The Israeli long-range Jericho missile, which is likely to have nuclear warheads, can be fired against completely defenseless Arab targets.

The Peled observations were made in the context of a discussion of whether the huge investment in the research, development and deployment of the Arrow missile is justified. As you probably know, the Arrow is designed to knock incoming missiles off course and, hopefully, beyond Israeli territory. The latest test of the system was a success and the plan is to deploy it within the next two years.

The argument over the Arrow is similar to that over the “Star Wars” program that Ronald Reagan promoted here. The system is expensive (though a tiny fraction of the cost of Reagan’s) and no one believes it will be one-hundred percent effective in preventing incoming missiles from hitting Israel. In the case of the U.S., this lack of perfection was far more serious, because the incoming ICBMs would undoubtedly be armed with nuclear warheads. In the Israeli case, the incoming missiles would probably have conventional warheads.

Iran is getting a lot of publicity because of advances it has made in the range of its missiles. Apparently I’m the only one in the pro-Israel community who doesn’t worry about the Iranians. The Islamic leadership certainly has no love of Israel and has sponsored terrorism to attack Jews, but that is one reason I believe the threat of war is so low. Terrorism is usually a weapon used by organizations and states that are unable or unwilling to wage war. By backing Hizballah in Lebanon, Iran can inflict the military equivalent of paper cuts (and by this I don’t mean to minimize the value of even a single Israel casualty) on Israel with little cost and without risking any serious retaliation.

And let’s look at the history of Israel-Iran relations. For roughly two decades, Iran was one of Israel’s key strategic allies. Many Iranians still remember those times and see Israel as a friend. Since the revolution, Iran’s strategic orientation changed radically, but, in the nearly 20 years since that event, Iran has never directly attacked Israel. In fact, we know from the Iran-Contra case and a few other episodes that Israel and Iran have had some positive interactions.

The main reason Iran is not a threat is that it is roughly 800 miles from Israel and is not going to march its troops across the Arab world to fight the Israelis. Why would it just lob missiles at Israel, especially knowing that would trigger massive retaliation? Sorry, it makes no sense.

Maybe I’m the one whistling in the wind, but I have maintained for a long time that the greatest military threat to Israel is Egypt. The Report did highlight several of the reasons that I believe this to be true, including Egypt owning some of the most sophisticated American equipment (such as F-16s and M-1 tanks) and employing American military doctrine. What makes Egypt the most serious threat is that it has one of the largest and most effective armies sitting on Israel’s doorstep. The Egyptians will not simply lob missiles across the border (though they could as they did in the War of Attrition); they have the capability to invade and capture Israeli territory.

The Report says Israeli military planners believe the peace treaty makes the possibility of a war with Egypt remote; however, I see it as far more likely, and more threatening to Israel’s existence, than one with Iran or Iraq.

You’re probably thinking: But what about Syria? Again, people have predicted Hafez Assad would try to grab the Golan Heights and sue for peace. It hasn’t happened in 25 years. With Israeli leaders offering Assad the possibility of a return of the territory without a fight, he has even less incentive to risk a war he knows he will lose. Syria could launch a missile attack, but this would certainly trigger an all-out counterstrike by Israeli forces.

It’s tough to accept, but, despite the introduction of more and better missiles in its enemies’ arsenals, Israel is stronger than it has ever been and more secure. Personally, I like it that way.