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Analysis: A bold new era

After walling itself in, Israel learns to hazard the jungle beyond

For years, the country tried to protect the ‘villa’ by hunkering behind barriers, physically and mentally; now, it is sallying forth bravely into the region

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A pillbox-style watchtower along the barrier separating Israel from the West Bank outside the Qalandia checkpoint near Jerusalem on July 31, 2007. (Maya Levin / Flash 90 /File)
Maya Levin/Flash 90: A pillbox-style watchtower along the barrier separating Israel from the West Bank outside the Qalandia checkpoint near Jerusalem on July 31, 2007.

“In the end, in the State of Israel, as I see it, there will be a fence surrounding it,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, during a February 2016 tour of the Israel-Jordan border. “They’ll say to me, ‘That’s what you want to do, to defend the villa?’ The answer is yes. ‘Will we surround all of Israel with fences and obstacles?’ The answer is yes. In the environment we live in, we must defend ourselves from the predators.”

The reference to “defending the villa” might sound somewhat odd to most observers, but to Israeli ears, it is familiar shorthand for a widely — almost unconsciously – accepted idea.

Israel is a villa in a jungle.

The phrase is said to have originated with Ehud Barak, who gave a 1996 speech as foreign minister to Jewish communal leaders in St. Louis, saying, “The dreams and aspirations of many in the Arab world have not changed. We still live in a modern and prosperous villa in the middle of the jungle, a place where different laws prevail. No hope for those who cannot defend themselves and no mercy for the weak.”

Sixteen years later, he was still using the phrase. Others continue to do so as well. “Villa in the Jungle” was what veteran military correspondent Alon Ben David called his 2020 lecture series on Israel’s security challenges.

Then-US president Bill Clinton, center, prime minister Ehud Barak, left, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat walk on the grounds of Camp David, Maryland, at the start of the Middle East summit on July 11, 2000. (AP Photo/ Ron Edmonds, File)

It is not just a wry Israeli slogan. The “villa in the jungle” reflects a core Israeli understanding of its place in the Middle East… and how it should act in it.

At the heart of the idea lies a deep-seated fear about what surrounds us. The metaphor recalls a pioneering homesteader who hacks down a small clearing in a dangerous forest, creating a precarious island of order with the trappings of civilization while threats lurk in the shadows beyond.

Of course, the idea has inescapable colonialist undertones, and Barak has been criticized for the impolitic description of Israel’s neighbors. In artistic depictions from the colonial period in Africa, the jungle — a loaded concept, not a scientific designation — represents the limits of European ability to impose order, and thus to make sense of their surroundings. The jungle was, in the words of one author, “a blank screen, stripped of geographical, temporal, and topological specificity, onto which Europeans projected utopian or dystopian ideas about their home culture and its relationship to the colonial Other.”

But whereas the disordered vastness of the jungle spurred Europeans to seek to claim it and impose order on it, the Israeli — and some might say, Jewish — impulse is the opposite. In Barak and Netanyahu’s formulation, the Middle Eastern jungle (the original, Sanskrit meaning of the word is “an arid desert,” so it is even more appropriate for this region than Barak may have realized) is home to primitive, bloodthirsty peoples, who live and die by the sword and the suicide bomb. Faced with what they saw as interminably violent neighbors, Israeli leaders sought to throw up palisades to keep their well-tended home and garden protected from the chaos lurking just beyond the walls.

Herzl’s iron wall

This was not a new idea. From the earliest days of Zionism, leading thinkers saw the future Jewish state as an island of enlightenment that had to be protected from its neighbors. “We should form there a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia,” wrote Theodor Herzl in The Jewish State, “an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” In 1923, Ze’ev Jabotinsky published two essays on his “iron wall” doctrine. “Settlement can only develop under the protection of a force that is not dependent on the local population, behind an iron wall which they will be powerless to break down.”

Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, leans over the balcony of the Drei Konige Hotel during the first Zionist congress August 29, 1897, in Basel, Switzerland. (GPO via Getty Images)

Israel built various desultory fences, but there was still a willingness to shape the region, primarily in an attempt to reduce threats the country faced, in the country’s first half-century. In the 1950s, IDF forces regularly carried out cross-border raids against Jordan as reprisals against deadly Fedayeen infiltrations. In the 1960s and 1970s, Israel worked with Iran to support the Kurdish struggle against Iraq, despatching military advisers and medical teams in a bid to keep Baghdad from sending expeditionary forces to fight against Israel.

Israel’s classic national security concept reflected this urge to deal with threats by physically moving across borders. When war broke out, according to the concept, the small regular army would hold the line for 48 hours, while the massive reserve force was called up. Once it was mobilized, Israel would quickly move to the offensive, carrying the fight to enemy territory and defeating enemy forces with deep rapid maneuver. This concept brought swift battlefield victories in 1956 and 1967 as Israeli armored formations sliced through the Sinai Desert and the Golan Heights.

The pinnacle of Israel’s attempts to shape its environs was in southern Lebanon. After decades of growing support for Christian communities there, in 1982 Israel’s massive ground army invaded Lebanon and tried to install a friendly government in Beirut. When an assassin’s bomb put an end to that effort, Israel in 1985 settled on a security zone. It was meant to be managed and secured by local forces with a minimal Israel presence, but when the South Lebanon Army started to collapse in the face of Hezbollah attacks, Israel could not help but be sucked in. The next 15 years of conflict against Hezbollah would cost hundreds of Israeli lives, and the trauma is still palpable 21 years after the  IDF’s humiliating withdrawal.

Police and paramedics inspect the scene after a suicide bomber blew himself up on a rush-hour bus near the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo during the Second Intifada, on June 18, 2002 (photo credit: Flash90)
Police and paramedics inspect the scene after a suicide bomber blew himself up on a rush-hour bus near the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, during the Second Intifada, on June 18, 2002. (Flash90/File)

Just after the Lebanon ordeal ended, Israel faced a new horror. In late 2000, Palestinian suicide bombers began detonating themselves on buses, outside of clubs, and even at religious events, like a Passover seder. The brutal violence that Israelis saw as inherently Middle Eastern was now everywhere. The residents had gone to sleep in their comfortable, well-appointed villa, and had woken up to find tendrils reaching through the windows and climbing the bedroom walls.

Initially, the IDF believed it could defeat terror through offensive means. It based this belief on its counterterror raids in the Jordan Valley in the 1960s and in Gaza in the 1970s, and the idea carried through to the First Intifada and a wave of Hamas terror during the Oslo process.

But as the Second Intifada wore on, rising public pressure at the failure to stop suicide bombings started to move security leaders like the head of the National Security Council and the Shin Bet. The villa needed better barriers around it. And Israel began to throw them up everywhere it saw a security threat.

After the March 2002 Park Hotel Seder night suicide bombing and the ensuing Operation Defensive Shield, Israel began building the controversial security barrier to separate West Bank Palestinians from Israelis. It built a new and improved fence on the Israel-Gaza border. It spent more than NIS 1.6 billion on a 245-mile fence on its border with Egypt, initially to keep African migrants out and then as a bulwark against Sinai-based terrorist groups. After deadly protests by Palestinians in Syria in May and June 2011, during which dozen of protesters breached the existing fence, Israel built an eight-meter-high barrier running south from Majd al-Shams. In 2016, Israel began building a fence from Eilat to Timna, on the border with Jordan.

Part of the fence along the Israeli-Egyptian border, north of Eilat. (Idobi, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

If it was building walls, Israel had to get its citizens behind them. In 2005, Ariel Sharon pushed through the Disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank, evacuating thousands of Israeli civilians, some by force.

Israeli attitudes shifted in concert with the walls going up, though it is impossible to tell which was the cause and which was the effect. In a 1995 poll, 50 percent of Jewish Israeli respondents said that the country should seek to integrate politically in Europe and North America, instead of in the Middle East, and that number rose to 62% in 2010. Over the same 15-year period, similar jumps were seen in the desire to integrate economically and culturally with the West over the Middle East as well.

While many hemmed over the message the fences were sending, the defensive posture proved its worth. The West Bank fence – along with the death of Yasser Arafat and increasingly effective IDF operations – drastically reduced the number of attacks from the West Bank, though many claim that its importance is exaggerated. While countries across the Middle East collapsed, resulting in massive refugee flows and civil war, Israel managed to come out largely unscathed, and in many important ways strengthened.

The known and the unknown

There are deep psychological foundations for Israel’s desire to wall out the chaos on its borders. Romanian philosopher of religion Mercia Eliade wrote that humans view the world through a primary categorical axis — culture v. nature, or alternatively, familiar v. foreign. This fundamental lens of viewing reality runs so deep that the human brain has developed two systems of adaptation corresponding to these two categories — the known and the unknown, the familiar and the foreign.

The first, which we seek to keep activated, operates when we are in familiar territory. The second functions when we are in unfamiliar territory. We try with all of our might to keep the second system turned off, because when it operates it means we are in a dangerous, unpredictable dominion where our current knowledge is not relevant and mistakes can be fatal.

When we encounter the unfamiliar, writes Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, “we stop and retreat (in which case we have implicitly categorized the new territory as ‘something better avoided hurriedly by someone as vulnerable as me’).” It is tempting to remain huddled contentedly in the predictable, orderly world. But this inevitably becomes impossible. The jungle encroaches on the villa, people change, knowledge becomes outdated. Order inevitably breaks down into chaos.

Illustrative: A male Siberian Tiger. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

We protect the familiar by building ever higher walls to keep out the frightening creatures lurking outside. Rusty cords of barbed wire become state-of-the-art smart fences with sensors and cameras. The Gaza border running across the surface sits on top of a concrete barrier running deep into the ground. Concrete walls snake over Jerusalem’s hills. Israeli leaders congratulate themselves for pushing back the jungle, and restoring calm and order to the villa.

A Palestinian protester running away from the border fence, as Palestinians demonstrate to mark the first anniversary of the ‘March of Return’ protests, March 30, 2019. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

This course is not sustainable. A world that is sealed off from its surroundings becomes increasingly ossified and tyrannical. New ideas, leaders, and ways of thinking cannot take root, and the realm of order starts shrinking and  becoming less stable.

The walls began affecting the mindset of soldiers and leaders back in the villa. There was a feeling of complacency behind them, and now crossing the walls into the jungle had enormous emotional significance. The state had built up mental barriers in the minds of its defenders no less formidable than those on its borders. The Gilad Shalit kidnapping in 2006 — after the Gaza disengagement — remains a stunning illustration of the adverse psychological affects of being walled in. Hamas terrorists tunneled under the border fence, and attacked outposts and a tank where soldiers failed to react effectively. They were either entirely unfocused on a potential threat, or were simply asleep, assuming that the mere presence of the barrier would keep them safe.

According to the report by Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, who investigated the incident, Israeli forces were slow to cross the fence into Gaza in pursuit of the kidnappers, thinking they needed special permissions and preparations to enter the Strip.

Gilad Shalit wears his army uniform on the day of his release from Gaza (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry /Flash90)
Gilad Shalit on the day of his release from Gaza (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry/Flash90)

Even more ominous, however, is the inescapable reality that the jungle inevitably finds its way back in. With barriers separating them and Israel’s population, Hezbollah and Hamas developed increasingly effective rocket arsenals. Its fighters might be fenced off in Gaza, but Hamas can shut down Ben Gurion Airport and send Tel Avivians scrambling frantically from their beachfront cafes into bomb shelters. While the Iron Dome anti-missile system gave Israelis another protective sphere, Hamas and Hezbollah undermined that sense of security with tunnels that led inside communities in Israel. Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups found it easier to facilitate and inspire East Jerusalem residents to carry out attacks than to get terrorists out of the West Bank.

Illustrative: Rockets are fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, on November 13, 2019. (Anas Baba/AFP)

What’s more, it takes growing numbers of soldiers to protect Israel’s walls. It required only eight companies to protect Israel’s borders before 1967. Today, surrounded by walls – and with peace agreements on its longest borders – Israel has numerous brigades on its borders, with some units designed specifically for the task.

Exploring the chaos

There is another way Israel can approach the dangers it perceives around it — one that is certainly more frightening and challenging, but also sustainable and ultimately more rewarding. We can confidently explore the chaos,  and realize the potential within it to generate new knowledge and order.

If we explore the unknown successfully, writes Peterson, “the domain of the known grows, or transforms, and the domain of the unknown shrinks or at least returns to invisibility…” If we fail to do so, “the domain of the unknown gains some ground, as the mistake remains unrectified, and the structure of culture shrinks or becomes more unstable.”

Though the exploration of chaos goes against the human impulse for safety, we — and far less complex mammals — do possess the adaptive system built for just this task. When a new object is placed into a rat’s cage, at first the animal freezes in terror, passively observing the object. If no further threat emanates from the object, then the rat begins its exploration, slowly and at a distance at first. It tries to provoke an action by dashing about the edges of cages. In time, it moves closer, sniffing and scratching at the object.

Through active exploration, the “animal builds its world of significances from the information generated in the course of — as a consequence of — ongoing exploratory behavior,” writes Peterson in his book “Maps of Meaning.”

So it is with human exploration as well. “We feel comfortable somewhere new, once we have discovered that nothing exists there that will threaten or hurt us (more particularly, when we have adjusted our behavior and schemas of representation so that nothing there is likely to or able to threaten or hurt us),” he writes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) claps during a ceremony welcoming passengers on a flight operated by budget airline flydubai to Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv, on November 26, 2020. (Emil Salman/Pool/AFP)

Encouragingly, Israel and Israelis are heading out beyond the walls with increasing confidence. It began with covert ties with Arab states developed by the Prime Minister’s Office, Foreign Ministry and security agencies over the last decade, which are now blooming into broad diplomatic, economic, scientific, and cultural ties. The Foreign Ministry’s digital diplomacy teams used social media to engage with citizens of Arab countries directly, helping prepare the ground for official ties. Private citizens are playing a leading role, as Israeli entrepreneurs seek out opportunities in the UAE and Bahrain, and tens of thousands of travelers visit Dubai.

Rhetoric has changed as well. Officials talk about Israel’s “place in the region,” not as viewed from the safety of a keep but as an active participant.

“Why should I hide?” asked Israel’s envoy to Morocco, David Govrin, recently. “I don’t have to hide. We went two days ago to a big mall…Naturally, we were asked, ‘Where are you from? We were welcomed in a very warm way…It’s really amazing, wonderful.”

Israel’s envoy to Morocco David Govrin (r) with David Toledano, head of the Jewish community in Rabat, January 2021. (Foreign Ministry)

Even beyond the Arab world, there seems to be a new openness to explore. “Israel is returning to Africa, and Africa is returning to Israel in a big way,” said Netanyahu after Equatorial Guinea announced it would be moving its embassy to Jerusalem.

Even in the dangerous “northern theater,” decision-makers realize that defensive measures alone cannot keep the country safe. Starting in 2016, Israel’s so-called Campaign between the Wars has taken the fight to Iran and its proxies in Syria and beyond, striking over a thousand targets including weapons shipments, bases, and other sites.

But just as there are real dangers in the jungle, Israel faces serious threats on its borders. The question is whether this new willingness to engage constructively with the region will lead to a new security approach that leads to better results and possibly novel solutions.

Normalized ties with Arab countries will help security coordination, and could even lead to joint security and intelligence organizations. They could well lead to warmer and broader relationships with Egypt and Jordan, which would improve coordination and help alleviate some root causes of instability along Israel’s longest borders.

Palestinians protest Israeli policies and settler attacks in the south Hebron Hills, as soldiers look on, January 2, 2021. (WAFA)

The final question that remains to be answered – and likely will not be for years — is how this affects the impasse with the Palestinians. It is certainly conceivable that a new openness to Israel in the Arab world will seep into Palestinian society, and pragmatic voices will demand new, less rejectionist leaders. Israel might also help integrate moderate Palestinians into regional partnerships, as has been done with the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, for instance.

In many ways, Israel is learning that protecting the villa cannot mean walling it off only. Walls and defense are one element of a sustainable, effective approach for prospering in the Middle East. It must be accompanied by a spirit of exploration and discovery, and openness to confronting what seems threatening and to discovering new opportunities there.  A jungle is disorienting and threatening, but it is also a place of great riches and opportunity. “It is during the process of exploration of the unpredictable or unexpected that all knowledge and wisdom is generated,” writes Peterson, “all boundaries of adaptive competence extended.”

Israel appears to be increasingly eager to engage in this process, to sally forth into the jungle and find security by crafting its place in the region.

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