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31 October 2023

The fatal flaw in Israeli deterrence

It has not been accompanied by a more positive political strategy.

By Lawrence Freedman

Israel bases its defence strategy on deterrence. Potential adversaries must be persuaded not to take aggressive action by the country showing them how well it can fight if they do.

The conceptual framework of deterrence developed around nuclear weapons. This is deterrence of a special kind, because of their absolute nature. We can see the caution this induces in the Russo-Ukraine War. Nato has not engaged directly on Ukraine’s behalf; Russia has not attacked Nato countries.

Israel also practices nuclear deterrence. It has its own arsenal, which it prefers not to talk about. It is one geared to deterring Arab governments, and now Iran, from starting wars intended to destroy the Jewish state. As with all nuclear deterrence, it does not require demonstrations of what the weapons can do or a readiness to use them. All that is required is that potentially hostile governments are aware of what could happen if an inter-state war escalates too far.

For lesser contingencies, including the threats posed by Hamas operating out of Gaza, and Hezbollah, operating out of Lebanon, deterrence looks quite different. It is not based on absolute weapons and nor does it offer constant relief from danger. There is no guarantee of success and when it fails, even if only slightly, it must be restored – more like a fence that easily breaks but can be mended than a solid brick wall. So, unlike nuclear deterrence, there can be no reliance on threats but a readiness to respond forcefully to any challenge to remind adversaries of the folly of attacking Israel.

It is this latter deterrence that failed on 7 October 2023 and which may never be restored. An enemy so irredeemably hostile that it will always be looking for ways to attack, whatever the severity of the likely response, appears to transcend the effects of deterrence. Instead of deterring Hamas, Israel now wants to eliminate it as a political and military force. But any relief achieved by this approach might also be only temporary.

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[See also: Fear and loathing in Israel]

Why deterrence?

Prior to becoming so dependent on the deterrence approach, Israel sought to control threats directly by maintaining a substantial presence in the territories of both Gaza and Lebanon. The costs of maintaining that presence were too high. In the case of Lebanon, Israel became fully engaged in the 1970s when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) took up residence there, after being kicked out of Jordan in 1970. Because Lebanese territory was being used to mount PLO raids into Israel, the latter occasionally went into Lebanon to push the guerrilla bases further away from its northern border. Then, in 1982, it entered in force, moving up the country, until it laid siege to Beirut. The aim was to push the PLO out (with which Israeli forces had some success) and also to install a government willing to make peace with Israel (where they failed completely). Hezbollah in its current form is a lasting consequence of those events.

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) eventually withdrew until they reached a strip of southern Lebanon, which they policed with a Christian militia. In 2000, after Israel’s prime minister Ehud Barak decided that the Israeli presence there was doing more harm than good, they withdrew unilaterally. Hezbollah concluded this was a result of its constant harassment and claimed it as a great victory.

Five years later Israel left Gaza, again unilaterally. Ariel Sharon, a hard-liner who had made his career by being tough on Arabs and was most responsible for the debacle in Lebanon, now as prime minister decided that the effort to hold on to Gaza was futile because Israel’s position could only be sustained at an inordinate cost. He ordered withdrawal. The IDF closed down the settlements, in the face of protests from their residents. (Sharon went into a coma following a stroke before he could reveal what he had in mind for the West Bank.)

The withdrawal was not negotiated with the Palestinians. No plans were made for what could follow. There were hopes that Gaza might turn a corner, replacing its seething resentment at occupation with economic development, but such hopes did not last long. Within two years Hamas was in control, first as a result of an election victory and then having won a short civil war with the Palestinian Authority.

With only rejectionist parties active in the territory, and no interest in coexistence with Israel, Hamas turned Gaza into its base for continuing the struggle, using all available resources, including those obtained from Iran, to manufacture rockets and build tunnels for smuggling and getting fighters into Israel.

[See also: On the responsibility of intellectuals]

Deterrence by denial or punishment

With two implacably hostile neighbours in positions to attack Israel at any time, and having abandoned the idea that they could be occupied, deterrence became the centrepiece of Israeli strategy. Conceptually, deterrence is usually described as taking one of two forms. The first is deterrence by denial, which basically means that, whatever the target’s aggressive intent, it is unable to act upon it because it will be thwarted if it tries. The other is deterrence by punishment. In this case the target can act on hostile intent and even do some real harm, but the punishment will be severe, and whatever the gains the costs suffered will be far higher. When an adversary is not deterred, and decides to attack, the costs must be sufficient to ensure that it does not try again. In this way deterrence can be restored.

Israel follows both forms. For denial it constructs large fences to prevent incursions into its territory. Against the rockets of both Hamas and Hezbollah the fences were useless. So Israel also developed an elaborate and advanced air defence system – the Iron Dome – to prevent rocket attacks doing too much damage. The population can also access air-raid shelters to protect them from those rockets that are not intercepted. The success rate of this system is impressive but not complete, and the attacks are cheaper to mount than to stop. Israel adds to the perpetrators’ costs with air raids against the places from where their rockets were launched. There is always an element of punishment.

The punishment comes in three forms. First, it attempts to assassinate those responsible, whether political or military. Israel has conducted many “targeted killings” over the years. These may have short-term effects in disrupting the enemy’s command structures and operations, but their long-term effects are at most marginal. Others step up to take the place of those killed, and there is no guarantee that these replacements will be less capable or effective.

Second, it targets the military assets that make this possible. Again, in the short term this can make a difference, but in the long term more rockets can be built, more tunnels dug and more fighters recruited.

Third, because these assets are to be found in the middle of urban areas, often deliberately close to schools and hospitals, civilians will suffer. Israel denies that it engages in collective punishment and the deliberate targeting of civilians. It is not a war crime to attack areas where civilians may be present if armed units are also there in the name of self-defence and military necessity. Hamas can be held responsible for fighting out of such populated areas and Israel urges civilians to move away from areas where fighting is likely to be intense.

But intense strikes against military targets, especially when this includes tunnels believed to be below occupied buildings, or against individuals hiding in residential areas, are going to involve many civilian casualties and wider suffering. For onlookers the distinction between collateral and deliberate damage is often one without much difference.

Another feature of deterrence is that it appears as all stick and no carrot. There is no reason in principle why negative threats cannot be combined with positive inducements, but it is not a requirement of the strategy. And if the threats are working there is less reason to find incentives to encourage a potential adversary to coexist peacefully.

[See also: Oil’s five decades as ruler of the world]

Does deterrence work?

In July 2006 Hezbollah conducted a raid into Israel, combining rockets being fired into border towns and an attack on an Israeli patrol which left three soldiers dead and two taken hostage into Lebanon. A failed rescue attempt led to three more deaths. Israel refused Hezbollah’s demand to swap Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails for the abducted soldiers. Instead it responded with air and artillery strikes, not only against Hezbollah military targets but also civilian targets including Beirut airport. It also launched a land attack into southern Lebanon, which turned out to be costly and difficult as Hezbollah had well-prepared positions.

Eventually the UN arranged a ceasefire. Much later the remains of the two soldiers were returned as part of a prisoner exchange. The operation was widely considered a failure in Israel, having exposed the country’s weaknesses to rocket attacks and a determined militia. Yet in an interview not long after the ceasefire, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged that the Israelis had killed up to 12 of his commanders. He went on to make an interesting comment about the initial operation: “If there was even a 1 per cent chance that the 11 July capturing operation would have led to a war like the one that happened, would you have done it? I would say no, absolutely not, for humanitarian, moral, social, security, military and political reasons.”

He then followed that up by saying that Israel was just waiting for an excuse for a planned attack, yet this admission, and the fact that there have been clashes since but nothing quite comparable, has been taken as evidence that perhaps deterrence can work.

But while Hezbollah is undoubtedly antagonistic towards Israel, it is not to the same degree as Hamas. One reason for this is that Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese political system. While the most substantial force in the country, it still has to be responsive to other factions and persuasions that are less interested in its feud with Israel, and present itself as serving Lebanese interests. With the country in an economic mess, aggravated by the huge blast at the Beirut port in 2020, and only a caretaker government, it is not in a position to cope well with a war with Israel. Nor is Israel angling for a war with Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s agenda is as much set by Iranian considerations as Lebanese. For example it sent its fighters into Syria during the civil war there, where they worked with Iranian and Russian forces to prop up the Bashar al-Assad regime, although they were not assessed to have performed particularly effectively. (It is perhaps worth noting that the Sunni Hamas did not support Assad.) It depends on Iran for its military assets, including its large number of missiles, which are much more capable than those of Hamas. This is therefore not straightforward Israeli deterrence. Hezbollah has no particular incentive to go to war with Israel other than as part of a larger Iranian project.

The Gaza experience has been different. Ever since Hamas took over the territory there have been few periods of calm on the border. The clashes have varied in intensity and frequency, with big ones every few years. In all cases, there was rocket fire from Hamas (and its junior partner Islamic Jihad), and air and artillery strikes from the Israelis; in all, the casualties were starkly asymmetric, with those on the Palestinian side far greater than those on the Israeli, especially civilians; in all, the suffering of Palestinians led to Israel being denounced by international organisations, governments and campaigning groups for acting disproportionately. Other than in 2021, when unrest spread even to Arab communities in Israel, there were always supporting protests in the West Bank and elsewhere, but not much more. In all, after weeks of fighting there was a ceasefire of some sort and nothing much changed once the fighting subsided.

[See also: Israel’s past approach to Hamas failed, says ambassador]

Given the regularity of the clashes, deterrence has worked poorly. Israel’s priority was to show it wasn’t rattled by any provocations and would respond strongly each time. These responses were described as “mowing the lawn” – which captured the idea of an indefinite conflict but one that could be contained through occasional forceful action.

Part of the shock of 7 October was that the Israeli government had convinced itself that this was working, to the extent that it was starting to ease the restrictions on Gaza. There was a problem with Islamic Jihad but Hamas did not seem too interested in any more violence. What happened then, in Israeli eyes, was not only a failure of intelligence but also of deterrence, and the extent of the failure means that restoring deterrence no longer seems an option. Israel’s response followed the same pattern as before, except with greater intensity – many individuals connected with the organisation and, in particular, the attacks of 7 October have been targeted and killed. Military infrastructure has been hit mercilessly, and the consequences of Hamas’s actions have been brought on the suffering population of Gaza far more ferociously than in past episodes, and with many more civilian casualties and general distress. This has led to international anger and demands for a ceasefire, despite the original provocation from Hamas.

We could ask whether deterrence was ever really the policy with Hamas, but it certainly is not now. Israel has no interest in persuading Hamas not to attack again. It wants to make sure that it can never do so again.

But it does need to deter Hezbollah, and in practise, Iran. The latter’s network, such as the Houthis in Yemen, has been busy making threats too. Much of this has so far been posturing with the aim of demonstrating what might happen if the war continues at its current pace. In this respect it might be argued from the Iran/Hezbollah perspective that deterrence has failed, because Israel has pressed on regardless with its ground war. They might still claim that they are tying down Israeli forces that might otherwise be used against Hamas.

If Hezbollah wanted to get involved it would have been more effective to do so early on. Israel is now geared up for a two-front war, including evacuating people from the border with Lebanon and restocking the Iron Dome. This does not mean that Hezbollah won’t get involved, especially if the accusations of letting Hamas down start to get to the leadership. The key decisions will be taken in Tehran, which will have to consider whether this is the issue on which to take on the US. A tweet from Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi suggests that no decision has yet been made: “Zionist regime’s crimes have crossed the red lines, which may force everyone to take action.”

The pressure will also grow on other Arab countries to do more than issue statements, especially those who have already, or were preparing to, “normalise” relations with Israel, such as Saudi Arabia. It is hard to assess how they will act, but if they look ahead, for reasons I come to below, they should see a significant role for themselves in shaping the new order that might yet emerge.

Next steps

Israel’s land invasion of Gaza, which in effect began on 27 October, was undertaken despite US misgivings and strong Saudi objections – one a country upon which it relies and another which it has been courting. Israel’s foreign ministry has insulted the numerous countries supporting the ceasefire resolution in the UN General Assembly, and refused to talk to António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, because he saw equivalence between the unprovoked attacks on its people and its ruthless response undertaken in the name of self-defence.

Israel can note that it is hardly the only state in the region that puts its security needs above humanitarian considerations. The past decade has seen extraordinary loss of life in the battles against Islamic State, and in the civil wars in Syria and Yemen (the last two with hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths). But the pressure on it to stop the invasion will only increase. Israel is used to treading a lonely path, and it may find its position gets lonelier. As with its previous wars it will resist pressure for a ceasefire until its objectives have been achieved.

Can its objectives be achieved? That is not yet a given. Information on what is going on in the battles in northern Gaza and towards Gaza City are sketchy so it is unwise to speculate. It is also unclear how much humanitarian assistance will be able to enter Gaza under these conditions, and whether countries like Qatar are still potential mediators, including in their efforts to get hostages released. In all of this, the biggest uncertainty away from the battlefield and the potential widening of the war is the future governance of Gaza.

Israel has been forced to look beyond deterrence. It has concluded that it is dealing with an entity that has never truly been deterred and can’t be deterred in the future. Wilder elements in Israel may fantasise about pushing all the Gazans out of the territory but that is not a serious option. This is where the other flaw in Israel’s past deterrence strategy becomes painfully evident. It has not been accompanied by a more positive political strategy. The only long-term vision Israel offers is a Gaza without Hamas. The chaos and instability that would result if Gaza was turned into an ungovernable space without anyone in charge would serve nobody’s interests. A way will have to be found to fill the space.

The way that Israel has defined its objectives, success for Hamas simply requires surviving in a commanding position in Gaza. Even if it is forced to evacuate its positions, Hamas will not disappear. It represents a strong political tradition in the Arab world and whatever happens to it over the coming weeks it will have the capacity to regenerate and return to power if there is no alternative government in place.

There is no evidence of great love for Hamas among Gazans, and at some point the group will reflect on the missed opportunities to develop the territory and the wisdom of constantly provoking Israel into attacks that it is unable to mitigate. Nor is there much respect for the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is generally considered to be inept and corrupt and unable to stand up at all to the Israelis. Though constitutionally the PA’s return to Gaza would seem the best option, this would be greeted suspiciously in the best of circumstances and even more so if it arrived behind Israeli tanks. Any government installed by Israel would lack legitimacy and would be a natural target for assassins.

If Israel can’t find a government for Gaza someone else will have to. The main initiative will have to come from the Arab world, probably in concert with the US. This seems to be many analysts’ conclusion about the aftermath of this war. It is possible, for example, to imagine a multilateral conference that includes the main Arab and Western players, with Israel on the side lines, to come up with a viable government for the Strip, and to manage the influx of aid necessary if the territory is to recover from the traumas of the past weeks, as well as look to future development. Such a conference would also need to consider both Gaza’s internal security and how to stop it causing trouble to its neighbours (Egypt as well as Israel) in the future.

In principle this could be confined to Gaza but Arab governments are unlikely to go along with this unless the future of the West Bank is also addressed. The trade Israel faces in return for insisting that Hamas plays no part in the territory’s government is that the “two-state solution” is put back on the agenda. Most Western governments have already been quite explicit on this matter.

Netanyahu has been around long enough to know not to dismiss the two-state solution out of hand, even though he has built his career on subverting the idea, which is why up to now he was content to leave the rejectionist Hamas in charge in Gaza as it made life difficult for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. The encroachment of Israeli settlements on the West Bank has made the prospect of a viable Palestinian state there seem even more remote. All one can say is that this war changes a lot. Up to now when the issue has come up, as it did for example in the pre-war talks with Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu has paid lip service to the idea while intending to do nothing to make it come about, pointing to the rivalry between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority as why progress is impossible.

But that excuse won’t work if a way can be found to get Hamas out of Gaza. Netanyahu is unlikely to be on the scene for much longer. After all this, Israel’s Western and Arab partners are not going to want to let the situation drift towards catastrophe again. In the end if there is to be any resolution of the current conflict, the starting point will be taking the fate of Gaza away from both Hamas and Israel.

[See also: The age of media anarchy must end]

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. A version on this piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

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