Israel, deterrence, and self-referentialism

Israeli leaders and analysts have proclaimed that one of the main goals of the ghastly, extremely inhumane war on Gaza was to “restore the credibility of Israeli deterrence”– a credibility that had, they felt, been badly damaged by the outcome of the 33-Day War against Hizbullah in 2006.
But some influential Israelis, it now turns out, have a very weird and self-referential understanding of what “deterrence” is. It turns out that their version of deterrence has much more to do with their own machismo or testosterone level than it does with the attitudes or feelings of non-Israeli others who are or might become their opponents in war.
In traditional strategic thinking, deterrence is quintessentially a phenomenon that is interactive between two parties: I succeed in deterring you from attacking me if I am able to convince you that if you should do so, the retribution I would enact on you would make you far worse off than ever; and therefore, you decide not to attack me.
It is hard to absolutely prove the existence of successful deterrence, since government decisionmakers are understandably reluctant to admit openly either that they have been deterred in the past from taking actions that they might otherwise have taken or, more importantly, that they remain susceptible to such deterrent pressure in the present and the foreseeable future. (So yes, there is an element of machismo– or more simply, face-saving– involved in that reluctance of the deterree to admit to having been or still being deterred.)
But the reciprocal deterrence between the world’s two hyper-nuclear-armed ‘superpowers’ was the central strategic fact of the Cold War. During those decades it provided a degree of strategic stability to what otherwise would likely have been a chaotic, violent, and possibly speciescidal era. And luckily, as the decades of the Cold War progressed, strategic thinkers and national leaders in both the US and the USSR became increasingly able to think about, map, and even talk with each other about the– necessarily interactive— psychological dimensions of the whole phenomenon of strategic deterrence.
But now, inside Israeli society’s extremely self-referential little bubble of a political elite, a whole new understanding of ‘deterrence’ seems to have been incubating. I first got wind of this when I was reading a report from Israel in The Economist in London yesterday, in which the as-always-anonymous Economist reporter wrote this about the Gaza war:

    In the short term, the [Israeli] government claims already to have restored its deterrent power. Favourable sentiment in the southern towns under rocket fire and among the reservists massed along the border bears this out.

Excuse me? The attitudes of Israelis being used as evidence about the restoration of Israel’s deterrent power? Um, Economist-people, deterrence has to do with affecting the attitudes of those others who are or might be your adversaries, not with affecting your own attitudes…
Well, I thought maybe it was just that reporter (or her or his editors) getting sloppy on a fast-moving story. And yes, there certainly seems to have been editorial sloppiness or at least deep ignorance involved there. But perhaps the reporter was picking up something significant in the Israeli zeitgeist within which she or he moves. Because today, in the NYT, Steven Erlanger wrote this:

    While the details are debated and the dead are counted, a critical long-term issue is whether the Gaza operation restores Israel’s deterrent. Israel wants Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and the Arab world to view it as too strong and powerful to seriously threaten or attack. That motivation is one reason, Israeli officials say, for going into Gaza so hard, using such firepower, and fighting Hamas as an enemy army.
    The answer will not be known for many months, but the key to the Muslim world’s reaction is actually that of the Israeli public, said Yossi Klein Halevi, of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem. “The Arabs take their cue from Israeli responses,” he said. “Deterrence is about how Israelis feel, whether they feel they’ve won or lost.”
    Mr. Halevi cited the 1973 war — which Egyptians celebrate and Israelis mourn, though it ended with a spectacular Israel counterattack — and the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
    Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, apologized for the 2006 war on television, “but he quickly reversed himself to declare a wonderful victory when he saw the Israeli public declaring defeat,” Mr. Halevi said.

This quote is so revealing! According to Halevi, Arabs have little agency or cognitive capability of their own, but are completely reliant on “getting their cues” from Israel… So if they see Israelis feeling downhearted and defeated, Arabs will feel strong and undeterred, whereas if they see Israelis feeling strong and self-confident they will be fearful and deterred…
It is all about Israel! It is all about Israelis being able to feel machismo, strutting their stuff as they watch the smoldering ruins of Gaza schools and mosques and watch sad Gaza families counting their dead and tending their wounded.
I shan’t even dwell on the moral sickness of such attitudes. I’ll just point out that if Israelis really do believe that their deterrent capability is only a matter of how they themselves feel about the world, then they are are being sorely mislead.
This business about Nasrullah “apologizing for the 2006 war” that Halevi raises is another non-trivial canard that has drifted into the Israeli discourse in recent months.
First off, it’s important to note that Nasrullah was not for a moment apologizing to the Israelis for Hizbullah’s actions during the war as a whole. He was apologizing to the Lebanese people for the error of tactical judgment he made when, as he said, he and his advisers had not expected that their cross-border POW-capture operation of July 12, 2006 would spark such a truly disproportionate and damaging Israeli response. But at a broader operational/strategic level, Hizbullah proved itself quite able to respond to and withstand the Israeli blitzkrieg unleashed on July 12 and emerged with its core strategic goal of preserving the organizational integrity, independence, and counter-strike capability of the Hizbullah movement well realized.
As I wrote here shortly after that war, the war had been about two things: firstly, the desire of each side to “restore” the credibility of the deterrent it projected toward the other side, and secondly, the desire of the Israeli (Olmert) government to win a significant change in Hizbullah’s political and organizational standing inside Lebanon. In the first of those contests, both sides won— in that each was in fact able to reassert the credibility of the deterrent it projected toward the other. But in the second contest, Israel failed, since it had had the ‘transformational’ political goal in Lebanon, which it failed to realize.
The underlying durability of the mutual even though highly asymmetrical form of deterrence that was re-established between Israel and Hizbullah in 2006 is the explanation why the Israel-Lebanon front never heated up during this latest Gaza war. Both sides were presumably active and attentive, to make sure it didn’t. Both sides had something of value to lose in the event that it had opened up. The mutual deterrence relationship held.
So what, now, of Gaza?
Do Israelis feel jubilant and invulnerable? Maybe so.
But is that good for peace?
Do Gazans feel extremely sad and to some extent “defeated”? I am sure they feel very, very sad. But I doubt if they feel “defeated” in the way Halevi and many other Israelis would like them to feel. There is, after all, very little evidence that any of the following has happened:

    1. The Hamas leadership has been destroyed.
    2. The Hamas leadership has surrendered.
    3. Hamas’s rocketing capabilities– primitive though they are– or its capacity to build more rockets, have been destroyed.
    4. Gazans and other Palestinians have started to turn against Hamas

The latest news is that Hamas has announced that it will observe a one-week cessation in hostilities, in response to Israel’s announcement yesterday of a unilateral ceasefire, and with the expectation from the Hamas side that during this coming week all the IDF troops who reinvaded Gaza during the past three weeks will withdraw.
The situation on the ground has improved somewhat today after Israel and Hamas started holding their fire, and after at least some of the IDF troops in Gaza started withdrawing.
But the Gaza situation remains very tenuous indeed. The ceasefire has been essentially un-negotiated, and as I blogged yesterday important elements of it have yet to be agreed.
Today Condi Rice, most of whose previous actions regarding this war have been extremely unhelpful, finally made a statement that looks fairly constructive.
Here’s the report of what she said,

    “The goal remains a durable and fully respected ceasefire that will lead to stabilization and normalization in Gaza,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said after Israel called off its three-week offensive in the area.
    “The United States commends Egypt for its [mediating] efforts and remains deeply concerned by the suffering of innocent Palestinians,” she added. “We welcome calls for immediate coordinated international action to increase assistance flows and will contribute to such efforts.”

So now, let’s hope the ceasefire does get made a lot more durable over the days ahead– and that this can help pave the way not just to the “normalization” of the situation in Gaza but to the speedy securing of a final-status peace Israel and all its Arab neighbors.

4 thoughts on “Israel, deterrence, and self-referentialism

  1. guillaume l' epoux

    Another example of how meaningless a concept of deterrence based on how Israelis feel about their own power is the following:
    After the 1967 war, which the Israelis won hands down, they were full of self-confidence, waiting for the phone to ring, etc. Six years later, contrary to deterrence theory of all types, Egypt and Syria attacked. After the October 1973 war, Israelis were morose and gloomy after their less-than-stellar performance in the early phase of the war, but Egypt and Syria have never since attacked Israel. So maybe deterrence has something more to do with interests and strategy and calculations of gains and losses they with one’s own self image.

  2. Donald

    But the apology by Nasrallah is relevant in this sense–he apparently felt that Lebanese would blame him to some extent for launching a war that led to Israel’s attack on Lebanese civilians. And that seems to be what the Israelis (and Tom Friedman) are talking about. Cause enough pain to civilians and you may deter future attacks.
    Of course this argument depends on an immoral acceptance of Western terrorism, but many Westerners have an almost bottomless capacity for self-deception on this point. If Tom Friedman had written a column justifying Arab terrorism on the grounds that it “educated” Israelis, he’d be at the center of a firestorm of controversy, and his job as a NYT columnist might be in danger.

  3. Jack

    It now seems that Hamas has one-upped Israel in the struggle to win the PR war. Israel put the onus on Hamas by its unilateral ceasefire without considering any of Hamas’ conditions. Thus they could blame Hamas when it was “necessary” to resume the slaughter because Hammas would not honor the unilateral ceasefire. Now that Israel has declared that it has accomplished all its military objectives, and Hamas has chosen to honor the cease fire on condition that all Israeli troops withdraw within a week, Hamas has shifted the onus back to Israel. Having “achieved all its military objectives” – a play to the Israeli public for the upcoming elections – Israel cannot justify keeping its troops in Gaza. So if the ceasefire fails because Israel does not withdraw, Hamas wins. I believe that Israel will now try to finesse the issue by withdrawing some, but not all, troops within a week and thereby trying to shift the onus of the failed ceasefire back to Hamas in the eyes of the international community. The silly,childish games continue while real people stand to die.

  4. Jack

    It now seems that Hamas has one-upped Israel in the struggle to win the PR war. Israel put the onus on Hamas by its unilateral ceasefire without considering any of Hamas’ conditions. Thus they could blame Hamas when it was “necessary” to resume the slaughter because Hammas would not honor the unilateral ceasefire. Now that Israel has declared that it has accomplished all its military objectives, and Hamas has chosen to honor the cease fire on condition that all Israeli troops withdraw within a week, Hamas has shifted the onus back to Israel. Having “achieved all its military objectives” – a play to the Israeli public for the upcoming elections – Israel cannot justify keeping its troops in Gaza. So if the ceasefire fails because Israel does not withdraw, Hamas wins. I believe that Israel will now try to finesse the issue by withdrawing some, but not all, troops within a week and thereby trying to shift the onus of the failed ceasefire back to Hamas in the eyes of the international community. The silly,childish games continue while real people stand to die.

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