Israeli Deterrence: Now You See it / Now You Don’t / See it?
Israel has long prided herself on deterrence to keep the Arab states at bay and reduce their enthusiasm for challenging her on the battlefield. However, it seems that this deterrence factor has been slowly nibbled at and whittled down to the point at which many wonder if anything is left. And then, along comes something that makes us question whether or not eulogizing Israeli deterrence is premature.
Just before the first of our 2019-20 election trilogy, Blue&White candidate for prime minister Benny Gantz said:
The security agenda is unfortunately being set not by Israel but by Yihya Sinwar and the heads of Hamas. Israel must return the initiative to its hands, with tougher policies that will make Hamas want to restore complete quiet.
Before the Corona pandemic reared its head, we had had almost two years of such attacks, burning down thousands of dunams of forest and agricutural land. No deterrence in sight. While Corona seemed to have brought with it a period of respite from incendiary balloons and kites, we have recently seen a sudden return of attacks on Israel by means of children’s toys turned into firebombs. Why can the mighty Israel not bring an end to this and the less frequent and inaccurate but still dangerous missile attacks from Gaza?
The same question could be asked regarding terrorist attacks from Judea & Samaria (J&S). True deterrence would mean that Palestinian Arabs would desist from attacking Israelis. But they do not. The low frequency of attacks is actually a low frequency of successful attacks. A large number of planned violence against Israelis is foiled by intelligence regarding impending terrorist activities and the general population has no idea how many attacks were and are prevented.
Changes in Israel’s deterrence factor have been explored in the academic literature and not just by politicians and the mass media. In 1992, political scientists Efraim Inbar and Shmuel Sandler wrote an article entitled, The Diminishing Israeli Deterrent. Faced with Israeli’s military supremacy, her enemies sought for means to defeat Israel politically and diplomatically. At the same time, since 1973, Israel has shown hesitancy in carrying out military operations to a victorious endpoint, instead giving in to requests for ceasefire, one element in the erosion of deterrence.
According to the authors, Israel constantly has to find the balance between showing her ability to win wars (deterrence) while at the same time easing Arab fears of Israeli expansionism (and thus inflaming tensions). The restraint she exhibits is interpreted in Arab culture as weakness, inviting further tests of Israel’s willingness to sustain violence against her. They argue that Israel, as “a small and embattled state” does not “have the luxury of being able to choose fully coherent policies” and thus shows of strength must be seasoned with the “ocassional conciliatory steps”.
Can we say that Israel, under these conditions, maintains the previously high level of intimidation or has lost it?
A Different Kind of Disincentive?
When considering deterrence, we usually think of classical deterrence that was relevant in the case of the USA versus the former USSR and, perhaps today, in the case of Israel versus Iran. The USA made it abundantly clear that if the USSR used a nuclear bomb against them, the former would not hesitate in decimating the latter with their own bomb. Israel has similarly warned Iran.
On the other hand, what may be more relevant today is what Doron Almog called “cumulative deterrence”. This is defined by Almog as a strategy that:
… build[s] on victories achieved over the short, medium, and long terms that gradually wear down the enemy. It would involve a multilayered, highly orchestrated effort to inflict the greatest damage possible on the terrorists and their weapon systems, infrastructure, support networks, financial flows, and other means of support. It would demand excellent intelligence, … cutting-edge technology and highly trained military forces. The ultimate goal should always be 100 percent enemy inaction.
Following the news reports leads one to the conclusion that Israel is not consistent in applying these actions: for example, on the one hand, Israel passed a law ordering cessation of payments of tax revenues to be passed on to the Palestinian Authority (PA) equal in amount to those the PA gives as salaries/pensions in pay-for-slay “deals”; on the other hand, Israel allowed delivery of cash from Qatar to Gaza and J&S in October 2019 in spite of ongoing threats of terrorism.
And now this…
So how do we understand Arab understanding of Israel’s zigzagging and inconsistency in maintaining her deterrence? I think, perhaps, the new official relationship forged with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) gives us a hint.
Put very succinctly, Thomas Friedman writes, in The New York Times, that the UAE-Israel normalization arrangement flies:
… right in Iran’s face. The tacit message is: “We now have Israel on our side, so don’t mess with us.”
“We now have Israel on our side, so don’t mess with us.” That says it all, no?
Feature Image Credit: pixabay