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The war in Ukraine isn't over – but Israel’s former national security advisor says Israel can already learn several lessons

"Weakness invites evil," Ben-Shabbat says during speech at Israeli Conservatism Conference

Israel’s former National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat at the Israeli Conservatism Conference, May 26, 2022. (Photo: Fabian Koldorff)

Israel’s former National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat believes Israel can learn several lessons about Israel’s security from the current Russian-Ukraine conflict.

“Even through the fog that covers the skies of Ukraine, one can see the historical dimensions of the events... Europe has not experienced a crisis of this magnitude since the Cold War. It would not be an exaggeration to estimate that its results will shape the global balance of power, international norms and even the character of the world in the coming decades. The future of world order is at stake,” Ben-Shabbat told the audience at Israeli Conservatism Conference in Jerusalem last week.

The primary purpose of the conference, organized jointly by the Tikvah Fund and the Friedman Center for Peace Through Strength, is to strengthen the fledgling conservative movement in Israel via discussions ranging from Israeli security and culture, to energy cooperation in the Gulf and the presence of a Muslim population in the Jewish state.

Among his varied roles in the Israeli Security Agency (Shin Bet), Ben-Shabbat was the director of the National Counter-Terrorism, Counter-Espionage, Research and Policy Branch. Because events in Eastern Europe are still unfolding, Ben-Shabbat, referring to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, said it is difficult to predict when and how things will end.

Nevertheless, here are six strategic lessons he presented for Israel to learn from the current situation:

Lesson No. 1: Weakness invites evil

"Many believed that in the 21st century, bloody wars could only take place in remote corners of the world and between backward Third World countries. The reality in Eastern Europe, proved them wrong.

"That which hath been is that which shall be, and that which hath been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun." Ecclesiastes 1:9

The characteristics of wars change frequently and are influenced by technology and other developments, but the nature of war does not change. The human component in it continues to be the most influential element.

Margaret Atwood wrote: "Wars happen because the ones who start them think they can win."

In one word: expectancy.

A side that shows weakness, be it in abilities, readiness or resolve - reinforces the feeling of capability and expectancy on the other side.

I cannot answer the question to what extent the withdrawal from Afghanistan and American Middle Eastern policy affected the developments in Europe, but it is safe to assume they haven’t been a restraining factor.

It is inevitable to determine that despite the world’s impressive progress, the rules of the game are still dictated by power and strength.

It’s not enough to be right. One needs to be strong and act with strength, obviously as a plan and not on a whim, and out of understanding that it is necessary. Because weakness invites evil. It is true in every confrontation, everywhere.

At this time, this perception is important since it pertains the United States’ position on Iran... A further significance of this lesson for Israel, is that, concerning each potential enemy, we must set as our objective the elimination of the expectancy in going to war with us.

Our actions towards the other side must be planned in such a manner that the consequences will establish for them the realization that slamming against Israel’s iron wall is not feasible; the cost will be high and in vain.

Lesson No. 2: Nobody messes with a country with nukes

If Iran was looking for a convincing argument for the profitability of its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, along came the war in Ukraine and gave it.

Iran is watching from the sidelines and sees how the world is tiptoeing regarding conflicts where a nuclear superpower is involved. Furthermore, Iran wonders - would Ukraine have found itself in this situation, if it had nuclear weapons?

The world’s sensitivities towards nuclear Russia - and the price Ukraine pays for not being nuclear - may strengthen Iran's resolve to not give up on nuclear power.

On the other hand, the war sharply demonstrates to the world the limitations of deterrence against extreme power moves of a country that possesses nuclear weapons. The war illustrates the meaning of a nuclear umbrella. One is left to imagine what Iran could permit itself if it becomes nuclear.

Such a scenario can be avoided. The United States can do it in a way that will not necessarily lead to war. To achieve this, the U.S. must pose a credible military threat and exhaust the implementation of crippling sanctions.

Only when the Ayatollahs' regime will be faced with the choice – whether to lose their power or to give up the nuclear program – only then, will they give up the nukes.

Why am I convinced of this? For one simple reason: survival precedes vision. They will have to give it up because the survival of the regime is more important to them than having nuclear capabilities. They will be able to leave these ambitions for the future.

But, if the U.S. chooses the other option, meaning a 2015 watered down, devoid of leverage agreement, it will pave a certain and legitimate way for the nuclearization of Iran. It will allow for Iran to become stronger against America’s allies in the region, and accelerate a nuclear arming race all over the Middle East.

The war in Europe compels the world to look at the events in our region in a longer scope than two, five or ten years. It will be a mistake to enslave the future and put it at such a great risk, simply out of a desire to be free of the gravity of necessary decisions in the future.

Lesson No. 3: Israel must defend itself on its own

Without taking away from the importance of special relations and alliances, the crisis in Ukraine has proven that Israel must only rely on itself. This concept has to be implemented in the country’s raison d’état and be translated into actual policies.

This must be anchored in Israel's perception of national security and translated into practical plans. This statement has heavy significance - from perceptions, policy, enhancement of resources and methods, and up to fundamental and binding decisions regarding non-dependance on any factor in arrangements regarding the security of the State of Israel and its citizens.

As for our relations with the United States - from an American perspective, Israel is the most worthwhile investment for the U.S. Israel is valuable for America strategically, technologically and economically. The stronger we are, the more valuable we are to the U.S. This is the approach we need to adopt.

Lesson No. 4: Adjust your preparedness to your enemy’s capabilities, not intentions

This lesson concerns the building of power in the face of a potential enemy. This lesson bears a heavy significance, especially when it comes to a country like Israel, which is required to deal with a wide range of potential enemies, arenas and capabilities. Military preparedness and optimization of resources must bring into account the range of capabilities available to the enemy, used to the maximum level of operation in a reasonable scenario.

Preparedness, by itself, can also contribute to deterrence and prevention of conflicts. The case of Ukraine illustrates the challenge for intelligence agencies to provide a warning due to many question marks and efforts that were taken to influence the Russian intentions.

Nevertheless, American intelligence has been accurately monitoring the conduct of Russian forces. The agencies alerted and insisted on their assessments, even in the face of many doubts voiced on Russia's intentions. But this achievement can also be a source of frustration, given the gap between the quality of the alert and the ability to prevent a conflict. In any case, the great weight given to the capabilities’ component - has proven itself.

Lesson No. 5: The weakness of ‘soft power’

The deterrence of the West, meant to prevent a military move, relied upon a threat of strong sanctions, and failed. The West, for considerations made clear in the White House message, took no military action. It left the challenge of war to the Ukrainians, and focused on political, logistical and economic support.

The direct action against Russia was, in fact, economic and civil punishment, out of assumption that the price tag would be so painful, it would make Russia accept the West’s dictations.

First, it is encouraging to see that the American administration believes in the efficiency of this leverage, and does not favor voices - nor necessarily officials - doubting it regarding Iran.

Second, we need to be aware of the fact that this method is shaping the war as a prolonged process in practice, since its achievements depend on exhaustion over time and the pressures that will follow it. The choice of this option contains a hidden assumption that the durability of the Ukrainians can last until the breaking point on the Russian side.

The third weakness of this method is rooted in the danger of encouraging the side against which it is operating to become more aggressive and enhance its military achievements, in order to improve its bargaining capabilities, for when it’s time for diplomacy to step in.

As for Israel, for the reasons I mentioned here and due to other characteristics, it should be suggested to view soft power as a secondary effort only.

Lesson No. 6: National spirit and resilience

We didn’t need this war to understand the power and importance of national resilience. Ukraine provides us with a reminder for the necessity of the spirit, the faith in the cause, the optimism and national pride, and consolidation of society - the endurance that society shows and its adaptability to the volatile reality and the transitions between routine and emergency.

The polarization and deepening splits in Israeli society are a cause for concern. The most important challenge of any Israeli government is to preserve the consolidation of Israeli society. It's the government's duty but we must all take part. Together with the faith in our cause and our readiness to fight for it, the unity, solidarity and mutual responsibility were always a hallmark of our people. Its vital importance has not decreased today, perhaps the opposite. These are all crucial to assure our national resilience and our ability to face the tests that reality might summon for us."

Ben-Shabbat has been a public servant of the Jewish state for more than 37 years, holding several high-level positions, including head of Israel’s National Security Council between 2017 and 2021.

He was involved in the Abraham Accords, normalization agreements signed in 2020 between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. In December 2020, Ben-Shabbat received the U.S. Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service. He is currently a visiting senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

Tal Heinrich is a senior correspondent for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS. She is currently based in New York City. Tal also provides reports and analysis for Israeli Hebrew media Channel 14 News.

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