A dazzling “feel-good” book in the tradition of Start-Up Nation and Let There Be Water, Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot’s analysis of Israel’s rise to prominence as major inventor and manufacturer of sophisticated weapons and weapon systems has a dark side. It is one thing to protect your own nation, another to be fully invested exporter in the arms business. Yet the billions of dollars in income from arms deals are a protective shield for this tiny nation, and mass production lowers the costs of the weapons for Israel’s own arsenals.
The authors’ exciting and surprising narrative is loosely chronological, following the path of Israel’s advances in technology while bringing into play the political and military crises that provoked accelerated research, invention, and even improvisation. One constant theme is that Israelis cannot relax: they always need to be pushing to gain the upper hand, creating a safe distance between themselves and those that threaten them.
From early on the mantra has been that quality would prevail over quantity. The best planning, the best minds, the best manufacturing, the best training, and the highest level of civilian and military cooperation would prevail over greater numbers of weapons and enemy combatants
The chapters focus on specific weapons, detailing both offensive and defensive technologies: drones, armor, satellites, rockets and missiles, “intelligent machines,” and cyber viruses. However, while the history of Israel’s military ascent is largely technical, the methods of reaching and moving readers are quite varied.
Capsule biographies of various leaders humanize the story and underscore the aspects of Israeli — specifically IDF — culture that lead to Israel’s success. The freedom to question, support for research, leadership skills and styles, and the willingness to take enormous risks all contribute to the inspirational story. Even the freedom to fail is part of the astoundingly creative mindset. Personalities count, and the project leaders we meet are quite impressive, if largely unknown beyond Israel’s borders.
Often a chapter begins with a jolt, a serious threat or shift in fortune that must be countered. Then the situation is backgrounded, the steps to the solution are revealed, and the key players celebrated. Almost every major Israeli political leader receives attention in this book, so fully is the overarching weapons story imbedded in all facets of Israeli life and in the actions of its decision makers.
Both weapons acquisitions and weapons sales are stories with significant political dimensions. How has Israel benefitted from and been hindered by its relationship with its big brother, the United States? To what extent has its role as a supplier of weapons and systems to other countries led to durable diplomatic relationships?
The authors are fully aware of the likelihood that Israel’s emergence as a premier arms dealer is not likely to be considered a step on the road to peace. Though Israel has been “revolutionizing the modern battlefield,” one can only have mixed feelings about where the outer limits of this achievement take us. But what are the intangible costs?
Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.