We cannot go on as we are… to remain at peace when you should be going to war may be often very dangerous. The tyrant city… is a standing menace to all…. Let us attack and subdue her, that we may ourselves live safely for the future. – Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I, paragraph 124, 431 BCEIf you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly, you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with the all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival – W.S. Churchill, The Second World War (Vol. I – The Gathering Storm), 1949
The strategic wisdom encapsulated in these excerpts, straddling almost two-and-a-half millennia of human history, seems to have escaped both Israeli policy-makers and opinion makers alike.
Reasons for restraint or excuses for inaction?
True, the government’s arguments for avoiding escalation have a ring of plausible prudence. The lack of international legitimacy, the limited number of deployable Iron-Dome batteries, relations with Egypt are all weighty considerations militating in favor of restraint.
Those unburdened with responsibility for the fate of millions can make jingoistic demands for large offensive initiatives against Gaza with cavalier abandon. They will not be held accountable for the consequences of such decisions or the costs they entail.
However, as weighty as the caveats are for refraining from wider military action, in today’s realities they sound more like excuses than reasons.
The nation’s leaders should remember that history will judge them not only for what they do, but also for what they don’t. Indeed, the government’s position would more convincing if it showed credible signs of being aware of the unavoidable necessity for wide-scale IDF action but merely biding its time for a more judicious opportunity to present itself. However, its penchant for restraint appears to be a regrettable reflection of permanent mindset, described by one prominent scholar as “the fundamental reorientation from deterrence to appeasement that took place in 1993.”
As Yossi Beilin once said
Indeed, just how far the Israeli leadership has “reoriented” itself can be judged by remarks made immediately after the signature of the Oslo Agreement by none other than one its principal architects, Yossi Beilin: “The ultimate test of this agreement will be a test of blood. If it becomes clear that [the Palestinians] cannot overcome terror, this will be a temporary accord and… we will have no choice but abrogate it. And if there is no choice, the IDF will return to the places it is about to leave in the upcoming months. (Ma’ariv, November 26, 1993)
Sadly, neither Beilin – nor any other Israeli politician – has been held to fulfill this sensible prescription, which was also reflected in the long-forgotten pronouncement by Yitzhak Rabin that the Oslo process was “reversible” and if Israel’s security was threatened, the pre-Oslo status quo would be reinstated.
It is difficult to overstate the gravity of this “reorientation.”
It has stripped Israeli policy of credibility in the eyes of both friend and foe – undermining its value as a reliable ally on the one hand, and as a formidable adversary on the other.
It has taken a devastating toll on Israel’s deterrent capabilities – with far reaching operational repercussions, now rapidly beginning to unfold.
Of course, in the public discourse, there is near wall-to-wall endorsement of the need “to reestablish Israel’s deterrence.”
Sadly, such endorsements are invariably reduced to empty lip-service by the equally universal proviso calling for “proportionality” and “restraint” – the very reasons that deterrence was eroded in the first place and which virtually guarantee that it will never be reestablished.
An inconvenient truth
Deterrence must by definition be “disproportionate.” It entails instilling the belief in one’s adversary that he/she will suffer unacceptable costs if he/she undertakes certain undesirable actions. To be effective, the scale of the threatened retaliation cannot be “proportionate” – i.e. limited by the scale/nature of the undesirable initiatives – since this would allow one’s adversary to determine the scale of retaliation to be expected.
Thus as long as Israel’s adversaries expect retaliation to be limited to the “proportionate,” they need not fear the prospect of unacceptable (i.e. disproportionate) losses.
This is clearly a formula for a never-ending tit for- tat cycle of attacks and “proportionate” counterattacks, in which the aggressor can persist in unending attrition, secure in the knowledge that all he/she will face are losses he/she is prepared to absorb!
This inexorable logic too seems to have eluded mainstream pundits. The mundane mélange of their proposals for dealing with the emerging situation on our borders has already been tried – and failed. Surgical strikes, enlisting the US and/or the EU to applypolitical pressure on Hamas, urging the Egyptians and other Arab “moderates” to restrain the terror organizations have all proven – jointly and severally – ineffectual.
When confronted with this “inconvenient truth, the disdainful, almost Pavlovian-like retort is, “So what do you suggest? Retake Gaza?”
The question is invariably posed rhetorically because the dismissive tone clearly indicates that an affirmative answer is considered inconceivable.
And indeed, with a few commendable exceptions, even those allegedly representing more “rightwing” hawkish viewpoints, cringe and recoil from a positive response, usually hemming-and-hawing that “ways must be found that allow Israeli citizens to live normal lives.”
The dissipation of deterrence
But today Israel can no longer enable its citizens to “live normal lives” without retaking Gaza. Post- Oslowian “restraint” and “proportionality” have so degraded Israel’s deterrence that it is not longer able to dissuade its adversaries from attacking them almost at will.
Intermittent lulls in the North or the South should not deceive us. They do not reflect the efficacy of Israeli deterrence. Neither Hamas nor Hezbollah has been “deterred” in the sense that its will to fight has been broken. They have merely been forced to regroup – with manifest success. Unlike Germany and Japan after World War II, their appetite to engage remains undiminished. They are brazenly spoiling for a fight – albeit on their own terms, which Israeli pliancy invariably permits them.
Indeed, there is good reason for their buoyancy. Both Hamas and Hezbollah have emerged from protracted conflicts with the IDF able to plausibly claim victory.
Having withstood the might of one the world’s most potent military forces for weeks, both were clearly able to retain their operational capabilities, and despite taking heavy damage, prevented the IDF from imposing its will on them – the fundamental objective of any military action. Accordingly, in many respects they now enjoy greater political prestige and military capabilities than before the military engagements with Israel.
Expunging the concept of ‘victory’
Cowered by the tyranny of political-correctness, Israel has abandoned the pursuit of military imperatives. The dread of being bogged down in a “quagmire” of a land operation has ensnared it in the quicksand of impotence, leading to a string of strategic failures that have left its adversaries stronger than they were before Israeli action.
In effect, the post-Oslowian reorientation has expunged the notion of victory from Israeli strategic thinking, both as an admissible cognitive entity and as an attainable, even desirable, military goal.
This was aptly expressed by Daniel Pipes in his 2008 analysis of Israel’s strategic incompetence in Gaza. He laments that “…the worst news of all [is] that no one at the upper echelons of Israel’s political life articulates the imperative for victory.” Ominously, he concludes that “For this reason, I see Israel as a lost polity, one full of talent, energy… but lacking direction.”
Jewish blood will no longer be shed with impunity
Some might protest that the idea of victory over the Arab world is a dangerous, unattainable delusion. Perhaps – but imposing surrender on the enemy in specific theaters of military engagement is not. Surrender could have been imposed on Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006; it could have been imposed on Hamas in Gaza in 2008. It can and must be imposed on Hamas today.
Israel’s leadership must acknowledge that decades of concession and capitulation have created a situation in which it cannot dissuade the Palestinians to forgo aggression without comprehensive “kinetic” coercion. It cannot diminish the Palestinians’ will to attack by threats of punitive action. It can only protect its citizens by physically eliminating the Palestinian ability to attack. It can only defend its civilian population from Palestinian assaults by taking and keeping control of the territory from which they are launched.
Yes, such measures with create severe difficulties – international outrage, collateral civilian casualties, IDF losses. These are all daunting problems and how they are to be addressed – and what resultant political paradigms should be pursued – must await elaboration elsewhere. But however severe the challenges, they must be met by the Israeli leadership – not embraced as justification for further ineffectual retaliatory restraint. A clear message must be burned in the collective Arab consciousness. Jewish blood will no longer be shed with impunity.
White flag over Gaza
Hamas must be crushed by overwhelming force, from the land, sea and air. Its leaders must be seized or slain. It must be forced to admit defeat; it must be forced to hoist a white flag over Gaza as unambiguous acknowledgment of surrender.
Now is the time to vindicate Yitzhak Rabin’s claim that Oslo is “reversible”; now is the time to implement Yossi Beilin’s warning that “if the Palestinians cannot overcome terror, the IDF will return to the places it evacuated.”
Any delay will make it more difficult and more dangerous.