Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Maybe Israel knows what it is doing

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.

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