Analysis: Red lines and deterrence
By YAAKOV KATZ
Israel seems to be using same tactic in its efforts to prevent Hezbollah from getting its hands on Syria’s chemical weapons.
If Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had a
playbook, the strategy being used to prevent the proliferation of Syria’s
chemical weapons would be taken straight out of the chapter on Iran.
if Israel ultimately decides not to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, there is
no question that Jerusalem’s saber-rattling has played a critical role in
getting the international community to crack down on the Islamic Republic with
additional economic sanctions.
Israel seems to be using the same tactic
in its efforts to prevent Hezbollah from getting its hands on Syria’s chemical
weapons. By threatening to take military action, Israel hopes it ultimately will
not have to. The same has been the case with Iran.
This does not mean the
threats are not real, and it seems Israel is prepared to use force to prevent
Hezbollah from receiving advanced military capabilities. If this happens,
however, it would constitute a dramatic shift in Israeli strategic thinking and
in the metaphorical “red lines” that the country has abided by for 64
Until now, Israel has been willing to go to war either when it
anticipated that its enemies were on the verge of attacking – as in 1967 – or to
prevent them from obtaining a nuclear capability, as it did when it attacked the
reactors in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. In both of those cases, presumably
the defense establishment was prepared for the possibility that the strikes
would lead to a full-fledged war.
Thankfully, they did not.
basically means that until now, Israel has been willing to tolerate a military buildup by its enemies, with a nuclear capability
serving as the “red line.” However, with the threats coming out of Jerusalem and
Tel Aviv over the past week, it seems the line might be moving up to chemical
weapons or even to advanced and conventional missile systems that Syria could
transfer to Hezbollah.
Why would these systems make a difference for
Israel? With chemical weapons, the answer seems obvious – Israel fears that
Hezbollah, a terrorist group, would use these weapons of mass destruction
On the other hand, why did Israel not try to stop Syria, a
country that has always supported terrorism, from establishing the capability in
the 1970s the way it later stopped Damascus’s nuclear program? In this case, the
answer might be that Syria, a state, is a rationale actor, one that can be
deterred. The same, according to this line of thinking, would not apply to
Hezbollah – a rogue, non-state actor.
This argument, however, might be
flawed considering the past six years of quiet along Israel’s border with
Lebanon and the fact that senior IDF officers publicly declare that Hezbollah is
being deterred from acting against Israel today.
Therefore, it might be
the case that if Hezbollah obtains chemical weapons or advanced surface-to-air
missiles, the opposite will happen – Israel will be the one deterred from taking
action, losing the operational freedom it has today.
Take, for example,
the following scenario – a soldier is abducted along the border with Lebanon and
Israel wants to retaliate. Hezbollah warns that if the IDF invades it will
launch chemical weapons into Israel. This has been one of Israel’s traditional
arguments against allowing Iran to obtain a nuclear capability. It is not a
threat just because of the possibility that one day a long-range ballistic
missile with a nuclear warhead will be fired into downtown Tel Aviv, but due to
the nuclear arms race it will set off in the region and because it will impair
and undermine Israel’s operational freedom.
That argument is now being
used regarding Syria and Hezbollah.