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Israel's declining deterrence

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29 January 2009 12:32

In the aftermath of Israel's recent offensive in Gaza, Israeli politicians have been quick to claim that the success of the operation had restored Israeli deterrence. PM Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak all claimed this was a cathartic event for the Israeli military, whose reputation was dealt a blow as a result of the ill-fated 2006 war against Hizbullah. Notwithstanding that the Israeli Government had to act against the firing of rockets by Hamas militants, to claim that the operation restored Israel's deterrence is something of an exaggeration.

Israel has largely achieved deterrence against state actors through its undeclared possession of nuclear weapons, and its ability to sign peace agreements with two former enemies on its borders (Egypt and Jordan). Since 1973 Israel has not faced a land-based conventional threat from another state. While the early Egyptian successes in the 1973 Yom Kippur War dented the Israeli military's reputation for invincibility, the subsequent Israeli counterattack and encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army restored Israel's conventional deterrence.
 
It is against non-state actors that Israel has ceded its deterrence 'capability', and well before the 2006 war. The first Palestinian Intifada (1987-92) showed the difficulties faced by occupying military forces and the limits of military deterrence against non-state actors.

The rise of Hizbullah and its increasingly sophisticated military wing presented another challenge to Israel's military deterrence, and the Shi'a militia eventually forced the Israelis to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000 after nearly 20 years of occupation — dealing a further blow to the concept of Israeli military deterrence. Six years later, Israel's poorly executed 2006 war with Hizbullah further undermined its military deterrence capability, according to the Winograd Committee.
 
Deterrence against non-state actors is a remarkably difficult thing to achieve because their calculus of rationality differs markedly from that of state actors. While the military operation into Gaza appears to have been executed well, to claim that it has restored Israel's military deterrence is to ignore the successive failures of Israeli military deterrence against non-state actors over the past 20 years. Only political, rather than military solutions can achieve lasting deterrence.

Photo by Flickr user Ran Z, used under a Creative Commons license.