Why Israel is not the model for Ukraine’s future security structure9 min read

 In Eastern Europe, Opinion, Politics, War in Ukraine
When its defensive war against Russia ends, Ukraine will have to decide on how to pursue its security. There are a number of countries to learn and borrow lessons from — President Zelensky has singled out Israel as a country for Ukraine to pattern itself on. This would be a grave mistake.

“I’m confident that our security will be the number-one issue over the next ten years,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told reporters in 2022. He went on to state that representatives of the military would be present throughout society in the future. Given that Ukraine is the victim of an unprovoked and brutal war of aggression, this sentiment is understandable. Even if the war were to end tomorrow, Ukraine would still face Russia (almost assuredly under Putin for the foreseeable future) to its east, and would also contend with Russia’s ally Belarus (under Lukashenka) to the north.

According to Zelensky, Ukraine already has a country it can emulate: Israel. “We will definitely become a ‘big Israel’ with its own face,” he asserted. The Atlantic Council has since published a road map to accomplish this, while Michael Brodsky, the Israeli ambassador to Kyiv, has been eager to support this vision. Israel, with its large, modern, citizen army, appears to be the perfect model for Ukraine to follow.

However, the idea that Israel successfully secures itself and its people, is a myth. Throughout the country’s history, it has made numerous decisions that, while giving the appearance of security and safety, have made it less stable and secure in its neighbourhood. Ukraine must look to Israel as an example of what not to follow, rather than as a model to aspire to. 

Weapons for all

Israel, because of its emphasis on its military, has developed one of the most sophisticated and well-financed arms industries in the world. This has allowed it, despite its meagre size, to become the tenth largest weapons exporter in the world. While it claims to be a beacon of democracy in the region, Israel is not afraid to sell tools that boost autocratic regimes. The most noteworthy example is the software Pegasus from the private security firm NSO, which has become the favoured tool for autocrats to track journalists and dissenters — it was famously used in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. More recently, in its 2023 offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan’s military utilised pieces of Israeli equipment.

Ukraine must learn from this lesson. As of 2022, the country is spending 33.5 percent of its GDP on defence. It is also re-structuring its defence industry to streamline it and accommodate western weaponry, while also producing its own material. Ukraine must take heed and resist the urge to sell its weaponry without restraint, although it may be tempting to do so. Defence companies make huge profits by selling their products to third parties, while arms deals also create jobs. There is also a perception that exporting arms to third party states can influence the actions of state actors, but the actual efficacy of this idea is questionable

Yet in the long run, this will backfire. If, after the war, Ukraine again becomes a leading arms exporter with few scruples, it will lose the diplomatic goodwill it has earned. It will also indirectly benefit Russia. More weapons in the world with less accountability lead to instability, which Russia has been happy to capitalise on. Ukraine is developing many high-quality domestic arms. It must exercise caution if it sells them to fill the state’s coffers after the conflict. 

Unfortunately, the West’s own forceful support for Israel in combination with Ukraine’s ambivalent response to the Gaza assault has alienated many in the Global South. Unlike Turkey, which is unafraid to supply arms to less-than-ideal heads of state, it also spent much of the 2010s pursuing foreign policy goals that endeared it to the people of the region. Ukraine, despite its status as a major exporter to the Global South, lacks the goodwill that Turkey has built up. 

While the vast majority of its financial and military aid comes from Europe and the United States, Ukraine can ill-afford to lose the good-will of the world’s emerging economies. For one, these countries represent the majority of the world’s population. Secondly, the support of these countries can be both symbolic and take the form of concrete policies. Again, this has proved to be a boon for Russia. 

Civil-military relations 

The combination of a strong, well-funded military and a focus on security has led to the IDF taking a prominent position in Israeli society. This is evident in the backgrounds of the country’s political class. According to New Profile, thirteen former Chiefs of Staff had entered politics as of 2020. Furthermore, the Israel Democracy Institute noted that in 2022 the Knesset was set to take in five to six senior generals. On its face, this would be logical. The country has faced numerous conflicts over the years and has faced military threats since its inception. Having men with military experience at the helm may seem beneficial.

However, there are drawbacks. For one, a country whose politics is dominated by the military is prone to destabilisation. Of course, this is true in countries with weaker democracies. However, it is also true, albeit more subtly, in strong democracies. Additionally, the heavy representation of the military in the political sphere is evident in Israel’s foreign policy. Israel often utilises military action, or threatens to utilise it, when addressing the threats in its neighbourhood. This focus on military intervention has so far led to little actual security. 

Ukraine should learn from this. While a draft is sensible, and likely necessary after the war, the country must avoid the pitfall of believing that a military background is necessary to enter politics or that it will lead to astute political acumen. Instead, recruiting and fostering individuals from diverse backgrounds will be crucial for a democratic Ukraine. It will also introduce a diverse set of views that will encourage Ukraine to pursue different policies depending on the scenario. 

After the war, Ukraine, much like Israel, will be a country that is bordered by two threats to its security, Russia to the east and Belarus to the north. Additionally, having potentially mobilised huge swathes of its population, the society will be largely militarised. It will be tempting to have its staff officers move into the world of politics. However, politics, much like society as a whole, needs a diverse set of people with a diverse set of backgrounds to successfully navigate the world and its challenges.

‘Mr. Security’

A society that values and puts an emphasis on having its security establishment at the helm has led to its most hardline politician to date. Over the past decades, Benyamin Netanyahu’s image as ‘Mr. Security’ has appealed to many Israelis and has helped him win election after election, despite a corruption scandal and controversial judicial reforms. However, since the 7 October attack by Hamas, it has appeared the title of ‘Mr. Security’ was misplaced. 

Not only was the attack a massive failure by the Israeli security complex, but it also reflected a complete failure of Netanyahu’s security policy. He gave the Israeli population a false sense of security with his strategy in Gaza. Rather than addressing the root causes of Hamas, he and his inner circle elected to “mow the lawn.” With this, he believed he could control the temperature of Hamas’ power and aggression by launching occasional large-scale strikes on the strip. It has also come out that Hamas was funded with his government’s blessing.

This encapsulates the limits of structuring a society around security alone. Ukraine must take note. It cannot fall for populist politicians who claim that they can make the country safe. Making a country safe requires the cooperation of the government, politicians, and society as a whole. Politicians who make grandiose pronouncements that they can sweep in and keep the nation safe are often trying to whip up nationalist sentiments.

The other problem with this is that once in power, security-oriented politicians must always have an enemy to guard against. This incentivises them to always create new threats. If external threats are absent, then it becomes internal ones that imperil the nation and its people. A country filled with minorities, Ukraine would provide plenty of fodder for politicians looking to exploit the peoples’ need for security and stability.

A history of sanity

Ukraine has a history of rejecting realist foreign and security policy prescriptions. In the early 1990s, the country elected to discard its large nuclear weapons cache. This decision was hailed at the time by the United States and was seen as a responsible action. That decision has come into question after 2022. Some claim that Ukraine would have retained its territorial integrity had it been able to threaten Russia with nuclear warfare.

However, this is doubtful. The possession of nuclear weapons has not deterred actors from attacking and probing nuclear-armed states. It is also doubtful that the possession of nuclear weapons would have abated the irredentist claims of Russian officials after the USSR’s collapse. 

A potential way forward

Ukraine has every right to defend itself, and it should make security a priority. Plenty of countries utilise a conscript army while maintaining strong democratic credentials. Finland, South Korea, and the Baltic states are just some of the examples of states that rely on a citizen army while refraining from using said army as the primary tool of foreign policy – Israel is not one of these countries. Its pursuit of tactical successes has left it strategically vulnerable and less secure.

Ukraine will be in a unique position after the war. It will need to rebuild, and it must do so in a manner that truly benefits its people. This is not only true in terms of physical infrastructure, but also political and societal infrastructure as well. Already we are seeing the effects of when the government ignores its citizenry. Ukraine must forge its own path, drawing from the lessons of others and creating new standards. It can also learn from their mistakes. Politicians who promise security through strength and militarism only work to destabilise the society they pledge to protect. It is a daunting task, but it is one that Ukrainians must surmount to achieve the peace and prosperity they so richly deserve.

Feature Image: Wikimedia Commons / Flickr / Canva
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