Israel’s Bid to Reestablish Deterrence Is Failing

Israel’s war against Lebanon is about reestablishing its conventional deterrence. That is the ultimate goal, even though a frequently stated purpose of that war is to disarm Hezbollah as a fighting force in Lebanon, or even to neutralize it. The most telling aspect of Israel’s confrontation with Hezbollah is that Hezbollah provoked the Jewish state by entering its territory, killing eight of its soldiers and kidnapping two. When Israel retaliated, Hezbollah fighters proved themselves a respectable force against the Middle East’s best-equipped forces. In the process, by firing scores of missiles on Israeli territory, Hezbollah managed to challenge the long-established conventional deterrence that Israel had established against Arab forces. In past wars, Israel managed to achieve spectacular victories over Arab forces. Today, the Israeli military appears to be struggling to establish ground supremacy over the Hezbollah forces. The question now is whether Israel can reestablish its conventional deterrence.

Israel’s founding fathers fully understood that real deterrence means relying on their own nuclear and conventional weapons as the ultimate source of security guarantee. Since Israel was established by carving out part of Palestine, its leaders were cognizant of the depth of animosity that reality had created in the hearts and minds of Arabs (both the leadership and populace). Thus, their conclusion was that they could guarantee Israel’s survival only by developing a militarily powerful state.

Israel’s military convincingly established its conventional deterrence force in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Egypt, Syria, and Jordan were provoking Israel for a military showdown. However, they apparently knew nothing about preemptive military actions, nor did they imagine that Israel could or would take such action against their forces.

While provoking Israel, they might have been thinking about a conventional war. However, Israel surprised them by taking debilitating military actions whose ultimate outcome was the loss of major territories by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. The 1967 war changed the equation of the entire Arab-Israeli conflict, once and for all. Arab states have remained pretty much on the defensive both politically and militarily ever since.

The 1973 war enabled Egypt to surprise Israel by being on the offensive, but only briefly. The chief purpose of that war, according to the late President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, was to recapture ample territory and then let the superpowers help negotiate between his country and Israel. Sadat succeeded in that objective, but only on a limited basis. That was when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger established the "magic" of his "shuttle diplomacy."

In 1981, the Israeli air force demonstrated its deterrence capabilities once again by a surprise attack on Iraq’s nuclear facilities in Osirak. That was when Israel established the doctrine of "nuclear denial." The aspects of this doctrine were two-pronged – disallowing any Arab state the capability to develop nuclear weapons and officially denying Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons. Soon after the attack, Israel announced, "Under no circumstances will we allow an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people." (Incidentally, only two weeks after the Osirak attack, Israel admitted that it had the technical capability to develop its own nuclear weapons.)

Both aspects of that doctrine served Israel very well, but only because of the sustained and vigorous implementation of the U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy toward the Arab states. The current fixation of the Bush administration on Iran’s uranium-enrichment program is an integral aspect of a long-established tradition stemming from its nuclear nonproliferation policy.

The U.S. policy of military assistance also has been aimed at establishing a permanent qualitative edge for the Israeli armed forces. That has been the cornerstone of American policy since the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. No U.S. president found it necessary to alter it. One can get an idea of the significance of this policy by looking at the following observation from the World Policy Institute:

"During the Bush administration, from 2001 to 2005, Israel has actually received more in U.S. military aid than it has in U.S. arms deliveries. Over this time period Israel received $10.5 billion in Foreign Military Financing – the Pentagon’s biggest military aid program – and $6.3 billion in U.S. arms deliveries. The aid figure is larger than the arms transfer figure because it includes financing for major arms agreements for which the equipment has yet to be fully delivered. The most prominent of these deals is a $4.5 billion sale of 102 Lockheed Martin F-16s to Israel."

While Israel does not have to worry about encountering military challenges from any Arab states, it has encountered increased Qassam rocket attacks from the occupied territories carried out by the military wing of Hamas. The same group kidnapped one Israeli soldier and demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange. Hezbollah’s provocation of crossing over into the Israeli territories and kidnapping two soldiers and killing eight more was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

For Israeli leaders, Hezbollah’s daring action is part and parcel of the mounting challenge to their conventional deterrence they have been encountering from the military wing of Hamas. This deterrent capability had, in their view, established the sustainability, if not legitimacy, of their country among the Arab states. The most intricate aspect of that challenge is how much power Israel had to unleash in order to reestablish that deterrence, especially on forces like Hezbollah, which has no territory to lose, and the military wing of Hamas, which is operating from the occupied territories.

Israel’s immediate response was to unleash "overwhelming force," something they have done in the past, and a pattern that they witnessed as a "standard response" of the American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, as U.S. leaders are finding out in Afghanistan and Iraq, overwhelming response is a tactic that is devoid of a strategy. The guiding question in each instance ought to be what is the general purpose of that tactic and how complementary is that tactic really for that general purpose.

What exactly does Israel wish to achieve in Lebanon? That is a question in constant search of an answer. The ideal solution for Israel is to wipe out Hezbollah as a military force. However, it cannot wipe out Hezbollah as a military force without wiping it out as a political entity. If the underlying strategy was to reduce the military power of Hezbollah, then the type of destruction that Israel has carried out in Lebanon was not only unnecessary, but it appears to be self-defeating. Now, Hezbollah not only has acquired a high degree of support among the Shia population of Lebanon, but it also enjoys an equal amount of support among other sectors of the population of that country, indeed, throughout the rest of the Arab world.

So Israel has to revise its strategy, which also means that it must curtail the scope of its tactics. The destruction must stop. Otherwise, international opposition would be of such magnitude that Israel would have no choice but to accept the considerably reduced objective of living with Hezbollah, while chaos in southern Lebanon escalates.

Israel should have known that even the lone superpower could not do whatever it wanted in Iraq. With a considerably smaller force and significantly limited economic capabilities at its disposal (compared to what the U.S. enjoys), Israel is destined to face enormous difficulties in Lebanon, which is fast becoming a failed state.

To the dismay of Israeli leaders, what is emerging now is the possibility that there will be a UN-sanctioned cease-fire, whereby international peacekeeping forces will be reintroduced into southern Lebanon and Hezbollah will be disarmed.

The dismaying part of this development is that, under such a scenario, the chances of Hezbollah’s reemergence as a fighting force remain very high. So Israel is right in calculating that such a development will not eliminate the possibility of the repeat of Hezbollah-Israel military confrontations. It will only postpone it for another decade or less.

An even more consternating aspect of the introduction of UN peacekeeping forces in southern Lebanon is that Israel, once again, has to count on a "foreign entity" to provide security in northern Israel. Even though Israel would take its own defensive measures to safeguard its northern territory, the very idea of relying on someone else for its security is alien to the strategic thinking of the Israeli leadership.

Israel’s chief dilemma, in the words of Barry Rubin, an observer of Middle Eastern affairs, is that, "what is to a large extent a defeat in practical and military terms also can be considered a political victory. The Arabs never ‘lose’ because they never surrender. Thus they do not formally give up anything." He adds, "Such a pattern is a formula for endless conflict and endless defeat."

The reestablishment of conventional deterrence, vis-à-vis Hezbollah and the militant wing of Hamas, might not be worth the bloodshed and destruction that are required. Even then, there is no guarantee that such deterrence would be reestablished.

Under these confusing realities, the best course available to Israel is to rely on political solutions to its long-standing conflict with the Palestinians, Syrians, and the Lebanese. In this particular aspect, it has to depend on U.S. leadership – that has been sorely absent thus far – to create ample stakes for all the parties on the Arab side to renew their efforts for an overall political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Syria appears eager to become part of that endeavor. Hamas can be persuaded to do the same by offering the right political compromises. Iran, though it is not a direct party to the Arab-Israeli conflict, has considerable influence with Hezbollah. As such, Iran also should be brought into a comprehensive dialogue. Iran has already expressed ample interest to negotiate with the United States on all issues of mutual concern.