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The Decline of Israeli Deterrence

Aharon Levran
Policy Paper No. 113, 2001


Deterrence capability along with the effective capacity to win wars decisively has supreme importance in Israel's special circumstances. This stems first and foremost from the quantitative-physical and ethical asymmetry, which places Israel in the difficult strategic situation of "the Few versus the hostile Many". A second fundamental factor in Israel's national security is its rough strategic environment in which "might makes right" rules and weakness invites aggression. A third basic factor is the international circumstances which, to say the least, are not tilted in Israel's favor. All these require it to maintain a deterrent force, which can emerge victorious quickly. Israel needs its deterrence capability even after the start of the "peace process", which is far from being worthy of that name. Without this capability, there is no chance in the world that Israel's enemies will be willing to coexist with it in any manner. This capability is also required to ensure that any signed agreement be fulfilled.

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The IDF victory in 1967 was the most impressive and decisive in the history of Israel and the most outstanding manifestation of its deterrence capability. Since then, Israel has indeed won all of the all-out wars against the Arab countries, though, recently, with diminishing results. The War of Attrition, from late 1968 until August 1970, was waged with a clear IDF edge, certainly from July 1969 and January 1970 when the Israeli Air Force was activated at the Suez Canal and deep inside Egypt (respectively), but this war left a bitter aftertaste at its end (the downing of "Phantoms" by advanced anti-aircraft missiles [SAM] and the advancement of such Egyptian batteries in violation of the cease-fire agreement).

In the Yom Kippur War in l973, the IDF impressively turned the tables in the course of just three weeks from being surprised and suffering tactical defeats, to crossing the Suez Canal and advancing to a point approximately 100 kilometers from Cairo, and in the north, approximately 40 kilometers from Damascus. Yet despite the glorious tactical victory, the war ended unsuccessfully from the strategic perspective, i.e., Israel did not improve its position, and even suffered a setback. In this war, the Arabs evidenced for the first time that the IDF is not invincible and that war can pay them dividends. Consequently, that war can be seen as the beginning of the decline of Israeli deterrence, though not its total liquidation. After all, the Arab countries have not as yet launched a comprehensive war against Israel.

The Lebanon War in 1982 also ended with mixed results. On the one hand, the victory over the Syrian Air Force and its SAM batteries was extremely impressive. The Arabs, who relied on SAMs which "will bend the plane's tail", as was the case in l973, were astonished to discover that the IAF came up with an appropriate response. On the other hand, IDF ground maneuvers were clumsy, the expulsion of the Syrians and the PLO from Beirut and South Lebanon notwithstanding. Furthermore, the success of terrorism and guerilla warfare then against the IDF, which led to its withdrawal to the "security zone" in 1985, served as an inspiration to the Palestinians in Judea, Samaria and Gaza.

And indeed, in late 1987, they began the intifada which induced the Rabin government to sign the Oslo Agreements in September 1993. For the first time in the history of the Arab struggle against Israel, it was the Palestinians through an extremely primitive struggle who garnered success which the Arab countries never achieved in their wars against Israel they succeeded in "twisting Israel's arm" and proving that terrorism and violence pay them dividends. Once Israel surrendered to terrorism and violence, and it does not matter whether or not the prattle that "the solution to this struggle is political and not military" is true, the Palestinians unequivocally learned that this is the way to fulfill their national aspirations. In a situation like that, deterrence capability has almost no impact.

Israeli deterrence capability took another beating in the Gulf War (1991). For the first time, Israel did not defend itself and did not respond to the Iraqi aggression pouring ground-to-ground missiles against it. The residents of Israel suffered the degradation of covering themselves with plastic sheets and gas masks due to the groundless apprehension from chemical weapons. Even if the lack of response, due to American pressure, was somehow justified during most of the duration of the war Israel should have responded at the end of the war in order to preserve its deterrence.

A conspicuous failure of Israeli deterrence occurred in the struggle against the Hizbullah in Lebanon, especially in recent years. This failure reached its climax in the disgraceful withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, in the abandonment of the SLA (South Lebanese Army) and the pedantic, to the point of disdain, fulfillment of United Nations Resolution 425 from 1978. It is difficult to disassociate that withdrawal from the bloody clashes or mini-war, which the Palestinians initiated in Judea, Samaria and Gaza in late September 2000. In the "Al-Aksa intifada", which is ongoing still today (late January 2000), Israel has (almost) totally lost its deterrence capability over the Palestinians as well. Even the (hesitant) Israeli use of combat helicopters and tank fire did not cause them to flinch. They were aware that despite the use of these weapons in Lebanon, the Hizbullah emerged victorious. Their success in the first intifada was similarly not forgotten. With Israeli deterrence practically non-existent, there is no doubt that the Palestinians view terrorism as a useful instrument in the realization of their national goals.

Bottom line: Israeli deterrence against the Palestinians and the Hizbullah is non-existent. True, in "low intensity conflicts" it is difficult to maintain deterrence capability, though it is not impossible and there are examples to prove it. On the other hand, Israel still maintains its deterrence capability against an all-out war initiated by Arab countries, which as mentioned above, have not launched a war since 1973. Similarly, nuclear deterrence is preserved versus non-conventional weapons.

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The causes of the decline of the deterrence capability can be attributed to three factors: the IDF, Israeli leadership and society, and the Arab perspective.

First, the IDF victory curve is in an unfortunate decline, as we discussed. The IDF is no longer perceived as an invincible army and therefore, its capability to deter has also diminished. There are "objective" causes such as enhancement of Arab military, drawing conclusions of war, additional distant enemies and more, and also "subjective" causes, which are dependent on us alone.

Second, the IDF has lost its monopoly in the area of attacking the enemy's rear front with air strikes deep in their territory which display superiority, exact a steep price from the aggressor, abbreviate the duration of the war, minimize casualties and of course rehabilitate the deterrence which was terminated with the start of the war. Once the Arabs were supplied with ground-to-ground missiles capable of striking Israel's sensitive home front with relative ease, Israel no longer had the monopoly in this area (as seen in the 1991 Gulf War). Israel still maintains exclusivity in nuclear potential, but its use is limited, for obvious reasons, and is to some extent neutralized by chemical and biological weapons in the arsenals of the countries in the region. A new Israeli monopoly is in the deployment of the "Arrow" missiles, which could potentially neutralize the regional ground-to-ground missile threat. Perhaps then, the state of Israel's deterrence will immeasurably be enhanced.

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More than the declining IDF victory curve and the loss of the monopoly in weapons and mode of action, the aversion of Israeli leadership and society to wield its power for a long while now, "contributes" to the deterioration of deterrence. Among the leadership and "elite" in Israel, a significant lessening in the willingness to exert force even when appropriate and essential, and the determination with which it is used has taken effect. This phenomenon plays a significant role in the decline of Israeli deterrence, especially in low intensity conflicts. This was manifest in the Yom Kippur War (1973), in the opposition to the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor (1981), in the penetrating debate over the issue of "war by choice" (1982), in the Gulf War, and more. The aversion to use force was exacerbated by the advent of the "peace process". This process disrupted and even emasculated more than a few justified conventions in the Israeli security doctrine, including the areas of deterrence and achieving decisive victories.

No longer "conquering territory" as an axiomatic principle of war, because it is a "burden"; no longer "destruction of forces", because in the aftermath the enemy will just get stronger; no more "strategic depth", because Jordan plays that role for us now, and besides, "who needs territory in the era of ground-to-ground missiles; no more "strategic air strikes", because we will be subject to missile attacks, and more. One of the shallow slogans which suddenly started to reign was "peace is security" as if that were ever the case and experience in our region.

To the prophetic question, "Will we forever live by the sword?" the answer unfortunately is positive. The "sword" is still the most practical commodity in the Middle East. To the claim that "the solution is political ending in a peace treaty, not military" to the struggle with the Palestinians the answer is threefold: a. What value does an agreement with a chronic violator of agreements have?; b. Even if there is an agreement, much depends on the existing conditions and situation when it is reached and on who comes out ahead or behind; c. Indeed, "peace is made with enemies", but only after they have been vanquished or they have changed their nature and their ways.

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An additional central cause to the deterioration of deterrence, dependent on us, is the absence of suitable "staying power". It is reasonable to assert that were it not for Israel's superior military strength, supplemented by the intangible parameters of "staying power", like motivation, unity, quality and level of the people, devotion to high values and the like, it would have been defeated long ago. To our great chagrin, dangerous fissures have appeared in most of those parameters.

Israeli society is characterized today by mental fatigue from constant struggling, the undermining of the belief in the justice of our path and purpose, materialism, hedonism and the like. When self-fulfillment is more important than the nation and society, and when the values, the beliefs and the compass of the society are subverted, it is severely weakened. It is no wonder that it displays unwillingness and lack of resolve to fight. The chinks in the national strength reflect on the IDF and its fighting spirit. If the Arabs have not yet taken advantage of this situation, that is because they prefer harassing Israel in low intensity conflicts like in Lebanon and Judea, Samaria and Gaza than engaging in an all-out war.

Israel's deterrence capability was also diminished by its transforming of its only ally the United States, into a mediator in the conflict with the Arabs and the Palestinians. As an "honest broker", the United States is required to divide its favors equally among the rivals, which is inherently disadvantageous for Israel. The repeated prattle according to which: "Israel has the strongest army in the Middle East" is not only untrue due to the minimal relevance of its strength to low intensity conflicts, but also because there is no readiness to exert that strength even when appropriate and imperative. In addition, without the intangible parameters of "staying power", there is neither strength nor power.

A phenomenon which is commonly ignored though crucial to the understanding of the decline of deterrence, is the entrustment of our security responsibility on the Palestinians and others. In the past, something of this sort would not have even been considered, but with Israeli leadership and society lacking the will and the determination to fight, the phenomenon developed. It began when Rabin entrusted the war on terrorism to the Palestinian Authority so that they might accomplish it "without the High Court of Justice ("Bagatz") and without B'tselem". However, the transformation of our partner to a sub-contractor in the combat on terrorism has proven to be a flop and only added to the decline of deterrence.

This phenomenon has almost become an Israeli obsession, as in order to enable the withdrawal from Lebanon, our government pleaded with the United Nations to deploy its forces on the border, which soon turned farcical. The entreaty that the Lebanese Army deploy along the border was also pathetic. Recently we were told that with the advent of the "long-awaited" agreement marking "the end of the conflict", multi-national troops will be deployed along our border with the "Palestinian State". This was the case at the time regarding the Golan when Rabin suggested the deployment of an American force as "compensation" for the loss of the Golan Heights. Beyond the foolishness and the blow for deterrence, such steps and concepts are a pathological symptom of Diaspora thinking which still afflicts many among us.

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The Arab aspect is not insignificant in reckoning the state of Israeli deterrence. They are aware of the internal rift, our sensitivity to casualties, and the deterioration of our deterrence capability, especially in low intensity conflicts. The Sheiks, Yassin and Nasrallah, diagnosed this well. After the withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, Nasrallah said, among other things, "Israel is as weak as cobwebs." Yassin, while still incarcerated in Israel, said that "the Jews have lost their will to fight and therefore the Arab victory is near." The severity of these statements is twofold: a. They correctly analyze the nadir which Israeli deterrence has reached; b. This is the way that we are perceived in their eyes and in the eyes of many other Arabs; additionally, the Arabs are not very agitated by the (hollow) warnings issued occasionally by Israel's present leadership to Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that the dangers of the outbreak of an all-out war are minimal because that is not a vital interest of the central Arab countries Egypt and Syria. The same is true regarding the deterioration of the conflict with the Palestinians into all-out war. President Mubarak and King Abdallah both adamantly articulated more than once, that they are not interested in being dragged into an undesired war.

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The ramifications of the decline of deterrence are, first of all, in the danger of a comprehensive war, however, as stated, the risks of that happening are minimal, for the time being. This is not only because of Mubarak's statements, but also due to the balance of power which remains in Israel's favor, and due to international circumstances which, from the Arab perspective, are not suitable for war. The same is true regarding the threat of a "limited war". Despite this, the deterioration of Israeli deterrence could eventually degenerate into a situation where it will tempt the Arabs to change the non-military strategies which they adopted.

An additional ramification of the decline of deterrence is in the internal and external diminution of Israel's image. Its image as a punching bag with whom weaklings dare to start up is (to put it mildly) not a healthy situation in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Low national morale and a despondent image are dangerous as well. Externally too, especially in the United States, Israel more and more projects the image of a political and economic burden. An additional danger in the deterioration of deterrence is tied to Israeli Arabs: They incite riots and other menacing activities every time that their "brethren" in Judea, Samaria and Gaza initiate bloody clashes, and in doing so, endanger the fabric of coexistence in the State of Israel.

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It is incumbent on Israel to rehabilitate its deterrence capability and ability to win wars decisively vis-à-vis the Palestinians, Lebanon and Syria. A precondition to this is the awareness of the leadership and the public of this necessity. Only when this awareness exists is there a chance that they will be ready and willing to take the necessary steps to rehabilitate deterrence, despite the difficulties that are liable to be involved in the process. Israel's fate and its future depend on it. "If there is an IDF, (and a deterrence capability) let it appear immediately."

For the complete article (in English), click here.