Who deters whom?

By Moshe Arens - June 5, 2007


In the early years of its existence Israel was unable to deter its enemies from launching attacks against it - they perceived it as too weak and consequently the state became the victim of successive Arab attacks. In their view, the balance of power between Israel and the Arab world made it appear possible that Arab strength was sufficient to decisively defeat Israel in a military confrontation and thereby put an end to its existence. They felt that if they were not successful the first time round, they had good reason to try again. This was still the case after Israel's dramatic victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, the third round of Arab-Israel military confrontation, which was followed by the three "nos" of the Arab League meeting in Khartoum and by the Egyptian war of attrition, launched shortly after the country was defeated by Israel.


It was only after its victory in the Yom Kippur War that Israel attained a substantial deterrent power. Having attacked Israel under seemingly optimal conditions, simultaneously from north and south, and catching it by surprise, the Arab states were surprised to find the Israel Defense Forces 101 kilometers from Cairo and within artillery range of Damascus after three weeks of fighting. This victory was proof enough that the Arab armies did not have the capability to defeat Israel on the battlefield. "Victory" celebrations, held in Egypt after the war, sufficed for public relations purposes, and even today visitors are still taken to Cairo's "victory museum." But the truth had impacted where it mattered the most - at the decision-making level. Israel's deterrent power, the result of the IDF's 1973 victory, lasted almost 35 years. It began to lose some of its effectiveness only after the Second Lebanon War, as demonstrated by the recent Syrian rhetoric - the type of which has not been heard since the end of the Yom Kippur War - concerning the possibility of war with Israel if peace is not achieved.


But during the last few years, far more than Israel's deterrent power against possible aggression by Arab armies has been called into question. Whereas Israel has never been able to deter terrorist organizations from attacking Israeli civilians, for the simple reason that terrorists, by their nature, cannot be deterred, during recent years, Israel itself has been deterred from acting, fearing the terrorist response to Israeli anti-terrorist moves. Have the tables been turned? Is Israel now the one being deterred from taking actions against its enemies in defense of its interests, and in particular, in defense of its civilian population, rather than succeeding in deterring its enemies, as was the case in the past?


Terrorists cannot be deterred. Their specific location is usually unknown, and punitive blows directed at the public that supports them tend to be counterproductive by creating additional support and sympathy for the terrorists throughout the world. Terrorists have to be fought. Contrary to the oft-repeated, inane slogan that terrorism cannot be defeated by force, in the period between 2002-2005, the IDF and Israel's security services illustrated that terrorists can be fought effectively and can even be defeated. As Israel's experience in Judea and Samaria has shown during those years, it requires the presence of forces on the ground - it cannot be accomplished by remote control.


The situation is exactly the reverse when the fight against the terrorists is conducted from a distance, as was the case with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon after the unilateral Israeli retreat from the security zone in 2000, and as is currently the case in the Gaza Strip after the disengagement. But worse yet, in the absence of forces on the ground, the terrorists are able to amass an arsenal of rockets capable of hitting civilian targets in Israel, while they themselves hunker down in bunkers and fortifications that are likely to make a return to these areas by the IDF both difficult and costly. In other words, the terrorists have now achieved a deterrent capability, and the anti-terrorist forces are wary of tangling with them. Thus, Israel was deterred from going after Hezbollah after the withdrawal from southern Lebanon, despite the dire warnings issued by Ehud Barak concerning the reprisals that would follow any Hezbollah provocations. In the same manner, Hamas now deters Israel from going after its fighters in Gaza, despite the daily rocketing of Sderot. A sovereign country cannot permit this kind of imbalance to maintain for any amount of time without suffering severe damage

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