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Deterrence is no substitute for policy

Israel should use its military capabilities to promote diplomatic agreements with its neighbors, rather than preserve the status quo of regular conflict
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Erez Crossing on the Gazan border on January 15, 1997, to finalize and sign the Hebron agreement (Avi Ochayon/ GPO)
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Erez Crossing on the Gazan border on January 15, 1997, to finalize and sign the Hebron agreement (Avi Ochayon/ GPO)

The attack by Hamas in Gaza on Israelis living near the Gaza Strip on October 7, similar to the surprise attacks by Egyptian and Syrian forces on IDF troops in the Suez Canal and the Golan Heights on October 6, 1973, is a clear failure of Israeli deterrence.

The chilling resemblance of the early days of both wars and the profound pain in Israeli society for the heavy price paid, then in terms of IDF soldiers and now in the lives of civilians and soldiers, points to a deep and abiding failure in every aspect of the management of Israel’s security policy, and in particular, an over-reliance on deterrence strategy as a substitute for conflict resolution.

The deterrence strategy was first formulated by academics in the field of international relations after the first use of nuclear weapons. The basic idea is simple: the destructive power of nuclear weapons is so terrible that no war objective justifies the heavy cost of a nuclear war. The long-term success of the deterrence concept as a way to prevent wars in the nuclear context was quickly adopted by decision-makers in the conventional field, despite the immense differences between nuclear and conventional deterrence.

In the first two decades of its existence, Israel relied on conventional deterrence, and in the early 1970s, according to foreign sources, added undeclared nuclear deterrence. Israel’s broad reliance on deterrence as a central strategy for managing the conflict with Arab states turned wars and confrontations in the Middle East into a testing ground for various theories and issues in the study of the conventional deterrence strategy.

At first glance, nuclear and conventional deterrence share a common goal: preventing war and changing the status quo through military means. In practice, nuclear deterrence becomes relevant to both sides during a crisis only in the case of a clear nuclear or existential threat from the deterring state. Conventional deterrence is much more complex. It is based on the perceptions of both sides of the balance of power between them; intelligence assessments of the enemy’s intentions (‘conception’) which are often wrong (‘misconception’); internal political considerations of the deterring and deterred state; and complex cost-benefit calculations of the side considering going to war, and more.

The Israeli deterrence during David Ben-Gurion’s tenure as the state’s first prime minister was a success story. However, in May 1967, four years after his resignation, Israeli deterrence collapsed, as Egyptian forces entered the Sinai, leading to the outbreak of the Six Day War. Nonetheless, this war was not a result of a surprise attack. The Israeli victory in the June 1967 war, which totally transformed the face of the Middle East in many ways, did not prompt Israeli leaders to fundamentally reconsider their security policy, particularly concerning implications such as the strategic depth Israel achieved on its southern front or control over another people in the east, and to adjust the policy to the new circumstances.

The surprise attack by Egypt and Syria on Israel in October 1973 marked the first instance in which Israel paid a significantly heavy price in human lives and economic costs due to its overreliance on deterrence, instead of adopting a policy for conflict resolution. The intricate political circumstances that led to that war have been thoroughly researched and documented, and I won’t delve into them.

The second case, with even more severe circumstances and a higher cost in civilian and military lives, was the Hamas attack on October 7 on Simchat Torah. These two wars, with a 50-year gap between them, bring to the fore one of the recurring failures in Israel’s foreign and security policy, which is the excessive reliance by decision-makers on deterrence as a substitute for policy. The strong military capabilities that Israel has built over the years have enabled several prime ministers to avoid formulating a pro-active policy to resolve the regional conflict and to cling to the status quo as the default option.

Over the two decades following the October 1973 war, the focal point of conflict in the Middle East shifted from the interstate conflict between Israel and Arab states back to the internal conflict with the Palestinians. The First Lebanon War in 1982 was the first significant military confrontation between Israel and Palestinians, some of which were referred to as “intifadas.” Its climax – as of now – was the massive Hamas attack on the southern localities. Not surprisingly, Israel continued to adopt a deterrence strategy instead of pursuing conflict resolution in its dealings with the Palestinians.

It was only in the early 1990s that Yitzhak Rabin, as prime minister, came to the important realization that military strength and reliance on conventional (and nuclear) deterrence should ultimately serve a diplomatic purpose. Successful deterrence is a means to achieve peace agreements with Arab states and the Palestinians, not an end in itself to preserve territorial status quo.

Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin were the first prime ministers to sign peace agreements with Arab countries. Yitzhak Rabin also signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians and paid for it with his life. Ehud Barak engaged in negotiations for a final peace agreement with Syria and the Palestinians under Yasser Arafat’s leadership, but no agreements were reached in either case. Ariel Sharon entirely disregarded the Saudi-Arab peace initiative of 2002, adopted a problematic policy of unilateral disengagement from Gaza without a binding agreement, and Ehud Olmert engaged in negotiations with the Palestinians under Mahmoud Abbas’s leadership, but they did not result in an agreement. At the very least, they tried.

The current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has served in this position for more years than any of his predecessors, relies entirely on military deterrence as a substitute for a policy for finding a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The failure of October 7, 2023 is entirely a product of his 14 years in office. At the moment, political analysts are debating in depth the motivations behind his actions, and there’s no need to reiterate these points. I tend to accept the version that the main motivation in his decision-making isn’t the benefit of the country or its people, but rather his obsession to remain in office at any cost.

Netanyahu is well aware of Israel’s political history, and knows that many Israeli prime ministers lost their positions after unsuccessful wars/intifadas or failed negotiations to achieve a peace agreement. Against this background and due to internal political considerations he repeatedly clings to “restoring deterrence” in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and consistently avoids meeting with the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. His Bar-Ilan speech regarding his support of a two-state solution was one lie among many. He hasn’t even tried.

General deterrence is a central strategic tool that helps manage ongoing conflicts, but it is not a substitute for a policy to resolve conflicts between states or internal conflicts. The body of research on conventional deterrence shows that it is likely to fail if not accompanied by diplomatic steps to mitigate tensions and consider the difficulties of the deterred opponent. The heavy price paid by the people in this current war is related – apart from the ideology and extremism of Hamas – to the prolonged blockade of the Gaza Strip and the hardships endured by Gaza’s residents since the Israeli disengagement.

It must be stated clearly: the responsibility for the dire situation in Gaza since 2007 rests mainly with Hamas, which is a right-wing, extremist and fundamentalist movement, but to some extent also on Israel, which imposed a continuous siege on the Gaza Strip. It’s hard to imagine a murderous attack like this on the kibbutzim in the Gaza Perimeter if Gaza had been flourishing as the southern region of an independent Palestinian state living in peace with Israel and Egypt, with a modern port, an airport, revenue from the Gaza Marine natural gas field, tourism, and other characteristics of a modern society.

The way out of the defeat and terrible shock that has overtaken Israel since Simchat Torah and its recovery as a society and a country must go through five main stations.

  1. Limit the current ground campaign to ensure maximum protection of soldiers and innocent citizens without the full occupation of the Strip;
  2. Enter into accelerated negotiations with international mediation on a deal to release all the abducted civilians and soldiers at any price;
  3. Israel should ask President Biden and leaders of other Arab countries to initiate the establishment of an international force, including soldiers from Arab countries under UN auspices, which will take responsibility for controlling the Gaza Strip for an interim period and advance a plan for its rehabilitation;
  4. Oust the worst government in Israel’s political history and calling for elections as soon as possible;
  5. In the upcoming elections, all major parties should present in their platform their plan for a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

After the elections, it should be hoped that the elected government will act to conclude this malignant occupation of the Palestinian people. The true goal of Israel’s considerable military power, apart from preventing wars, is to enable peace negotiations to ensure a better future for generations to come.

About the Author
Dr. Dan Sagir is a research fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His book, "Weapons of Mass Deterrence: The Secret Behind Israel's Nuclear Power," was recently published (Amazon).
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