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Might Israel Know What It’s Doing?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tracking the outcome of recent controversial Israeli actions, surprisingly, portrays Israel in an entirely different strategic light.

Sometimes, it seems Israel doesn’t have a clue.

The narrative that Israel is tactically proficient but strategically hapless continues to gain currency. Commentators often criticize the Jewish state for its overreliance on force and its inability to consider the strategic ramifications of its responses to Hezbollah, Hamas, and myriad attempts to delegitimize Israel.

These criticisms grew louder in the wake of this month’s deadly clashes with Palestinian protesters on Israel’s northern borders. Andrew Exum, the insightful creator of the Abu Muqawama blog at Center for a New American Security, wrote that the “IDF almost always seems to do the strategically stupid thing in these situations, either using force more than is necessary or using force indiscriminately.” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged Israel to adhere to international law, cautioning that “the use of live ammunition against allegedly unarmed protesters, resulting in large numbers of deaths and injuries, inevitably raises the question of unnecessary and excessive use of force.”

To be sure, Israel, like the United States, makes its share of foolish and sometimes downright perplexing mistakes. But it is easy to disparage Israel’s actions without appreciating the complexity of the unceasing challenges with which it must cope. What’s more, there has been a dearth of sustained analysis of the ramifications of Israeli “blunders.” Tracking the outcome of recent controversial Israeli actions, surprisingly, portrays Israel in an entirely different strategic light. Though often caught off-guard, the Israeli government and military learn quickly, understand the calculations of its enemies, and are able to minimize continued bloodshed by firm deterrent responses.  

Challenge and Response

Israel’s recent challenges range from intense battles against Hezbollah fighters to mostly unarmed protesters trying to cross Israel’s borders. In the major incidents with which Israel has had to cope in recent years, the immediate reaction, domestically and abroad, was that its response was ineffective and ill-conceived.

The grand strategic question of Israel’s presence in the West Bank, while important, is not germane to this discussion. Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, and the various anti-Israel activists are fighting Israel’s existence, not its policies in territory captured in 1967. Israel would face the same, if not worse, challenges if it was not in these areas.

Israel faces a complex set of threats—Iran’s nuclear program, Hezbollah and Hamas rockets, neighboring regimes falling, flotillas, protesters willing to die, international pressure, and terrorism, to name a few.

Against Hezbollah in 2006, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) relied heavily on standoff firepower—air and artillery strikes instead of ground maneuver—to damage the organization, leading to significant destruction in parts of Lebanon and what is seen widely as a disappointing performance from the IDF. The Economist boldly declared, “Nasrallah wins the war.”

 Israel fought again in late 2008, this time against Hamas in Gaza. In this operation, the IDF maneuvered hard on the ground, using massive firepower, while Israeli Air Force jets pounded strategic targets and provided close air support. But in so doing, the IDF killed at least 300 civilians, and brought upon itself the opprobrium of the international community. The UN Goldstone Report accused Israel of perpetrating “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate, and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.”

On May 30, 2010, a flotilla organized by the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish NGO IHH (described by the Carnegie Endowment’s Henri Barkey as an organization that “has been deeply involved with Hamas for some time”) was intercepted by Israeli naval commandoes. After being attacked by knives and clubs, the soldiers opened fire on the mob, killing nine passengers. The international community reacted angrily, with British Prime Minister David Cameron declaring, “Let me be clear: the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla was completely unacceptable.”

On May 15, 2011, annual “Nakba Day” protests reached a new intensity as Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon attempted to infiltrate Israel’s borders. In the Golan Heights, hundreds of protesters stormed the border fence and crossed into a Druze town. IDF fire killed four protesters and wounded many more.

It is easy to disparage Israel’s actions without appreciating the complexity of the unceasing challenges with which it must cope.

On the Lebanese border, similar scenes played out. Ten protesters were killed climbing the border fence, and Israel was blamed for the deaths. The IDF, however, maintained that most of the dead and wounded were hit by indiscriminate fire from the Lebanese Army (LAF). Maddeningly, the IDF decided not to release surveillance footage showing the LAF firing on the protesters, arguing that the LAF could not be coerced into preventing future protests if it was embarrassed by the released footage.

Palestinian protesters from Syria returned to the border on June 5, “Naksa Day,” commemorating the Arab defeat in the Six Day War. This time, IDF forces kept the protesters from infiltrating, though some were killed. The obviously suspect Syrian state media reported 23 dead, though Israel expressed serious skepticism, arguing that many of the casualties resulted from land mines on the Syrian side. Still, the IDF was shown in the media firing on mostly unarmed protesters, evoking comparisons, unfair as they may be, of the crackdowns in neighboring Arab regimes.

More Than Meets the Eye

Many wondered why Israel was repeatedly caught unprepared, and why its reactions repeatedly lead to PR disasters. With all of Israel’s resources, experience, and brainpower, could it really not come up with better solutions? But recent developments indicate Israel’s decisions, though criticized at the time, emerge from a coherent understanding of its security situation and from a plan, imperfect though it may be, for dealing with those challenges.

As time goes by, Israel’s strategic gains from the recent conflicts against them have looked more impressive.

On June 5, the date of the Naksa Day protests, the LAF did exactly what Israel hoped it would when the IDF decided not to release the surveillance footage. After the Lebanese Army declared the border a closed military zone, organizers of the march cancelled it altogether. Israel could not have hoped for a better LAF response. The decision not to release the tapes of the LAF firing on protesters, though damaging for short-term PR, had the effect Israel wanted. Thankfully, no more blood was spilled on the Lebanese border.

Though flotillas keep on coming, Israel seems to be in a much-improved situation following the May 31, 2010, incident. Subsequent flotillas, including the Malaysian Finch, were turned away with little effort or media attention.

The new flotilla organized by IHH, expected at the end of June, is feared to be a more aggressive version of the Mavi Marmara flotilla. However, quiet diplomatic efforts have begun to pay off for Israel. After repeatedly refusing to condemn the flotilla, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said last week that organizers should reconsider their plans, using the opening of the Egyptian-Gaza border as a pretext. Turkish newspapers also reported that the U.S. government was trying to convince Ankara to stop the flotilla in exchange for a Mideast peace conference in Turkey, a sign Israel’s diplomacy has convinced the Obama administration of the flotilla’s potential for violence.

Though often caught off-guard, the Israeli government and military learn quickly, understand the calculations of its enemies, and are able to minimize continued bloodshed by firm deterrent responses.

The threats posed by Hamas and Hezbollah are complex and ongoing, but as time goes by, Israel’s strategic gains from the recent conflicts against them have looked more impressive. As I’ve written in the American Enterprise Institute’s Center for Defense Studies blog, Israel’s approach to counter-insurgency (COIN) is based on deterrence, in which a few years of quiet is an important accomplishment. An expanded United Nations Interim Force in southern Lebanon, timid behavior from Hezbollah, and no response after the killing of Imad Mughniyeh is a significant strategic gain for Israel at the relatively modest cost of 122 military deaths. Before 2006, Hezbollah regularly fired rockets into Israel for a variety of reasons, but even at the height of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s campaign against Hamas in 2008-2009, it held its fire. There were certainly problems for Israel during the war, and both Lebanon and Cast Lead cost Israel PR points, but damaging terrorist organizations while deterring them for years is no mean feat.

Even the Palestinian plan to pursue UN recognition in September, hugely problematic for the Israelis, is beginning to fray. President Obama is firmly opposed to the plan, and other Western leaders, including Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, are publicly warning the Palestinians against making any unilateral moves. The AP is reporting that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas even wants to “climb down from the tree” and forgo the UN plan, but cannot because of public pressure. The impending September diplomatic tsunami may well turn out to be nothing but harmless ripples.

The Complexity of No Good Options

Evaluations of Israel’s actions must take into account the bewildering complexity of challenges it faces. Take the fight against Hamas, for example. Israel has tried the range of non-diplomatic and coercive means to discourage Hamas from targeting its citizens. It pulled every Israeli soldier and civilian out of the Gaza Strip, agreed to a series of cease-fires, and, with Egypt, blockaded Hamas’s territory. Still, Hamas launched Qassams, killed soldiers, and smuggled advanced weaponry. Israeli leaders faced a dilemma—continue the status quo and allow 1 million Israelis to live under Hamas attacks or move to a military option that will undoubtedly harm Palestinian civilians.

When Israel finally opted for a military operation, Hamas’s tactics forced the IDF to balance military necessity with its ethical restraints. Battling enemies who fire rockets from Palestinian schools and civilian areas as a matter of policy, the IDF compromised military effectiveness to protect enemy civilians, allowing Hamas more breathing room. In the words of British Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, “Many missions that could have taken out Hamas military capability were aborted to prevent civilian casualties. During the conflict, the IDF allowed huge amounts of humanitarian aid into Gaza. To deliver aid virtually into your enemy's hands is, to the military tactician, normally quite unthinkable. But the IDF took on those risks.”

Israel faces similar challenges across the spectrum—Iran’s nuclear program, Hezbollah and Hamas rockets, neighboring regimes falling, flotillas, protesters willing to die, international pressure, and terrorism, to name a few.  Outnumbered by hostile forces, both on the ground and in the international community, Israel is further restricted by an ethical code that limits its responses to enemies for whom all Israelis are legitimate targets. Somehow, Israel usually manages to find a balance, striking a blow to its adversaries while remaining within the bounds of military and Jewish ethics. This is no easy feat. Though its responses often seem haphazard and excessively violent, the long view indicates that Israel’s mix of diplomacy, deterrence, and force keeps its citizens safe and minimizes extended bloodshed.

In a reality in which there are often no good options, Israel just might know what it’s doing.

Lazar Berman is the American Enterprise Institute’s program manager for foreign and defense policy studies.

FURTHER READING: Berman also wrote “Black Tea.” His recent Enterprise Blog contributions include “SecDef at Notre Dame: ‘The Ultimate Guarantee against the Success of Aggressors, Dictators, and Terrorists…Is Hard Power’,” “Did Obama Side with the Palestinians or Israel?,” and “A Tale of Two Flotillas.” Related articles include “3 Things for Obama's Opponents to Do Now That Netanyahu Has Created a New Israeli-Palestinian Dynamic” by John Bolton and “Crisis Management” by Michael Rubin.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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