Whether or not the IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz really issued a directive to the air force to bomb 10 multistory buildings in south Beirut for every salvo of rockets fired at Haifa, the question of the price Israel should be exacting from Hizbullah and Lebanon in retaliation for the bombardment of its civilian population and what is a proportionate response remains a potent one.
Former senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office and the IDF General Staff don't believe that there is indeed a "price system" whereby targets are chosen. Maj.-Gen (res.) Uzi Dayan, formerly the IDF deputy chief of General Staff and the head of the National Security Council, says, "Since one of Israel's objectives is that the Lebanese army or a multinational force will spread out in the South, we shouldn't be attacking infrastructure in Lebanon, except in order to cut off supply lines from Syria."
Dayan says, "We have to make a distinction between Lebanon and exacting a price from Hizbullah. But also with Hizbullah, the price is immaterial; they are willing to fight to the last Lebanese, especially if he's a Christian. Hizbullah will not be deterred and that's why the price we have to exact from them is denying them the strategic capability to fire medium- and long-range missiles at Israel."
Dayan believes that "only if we have lost any hope of Lebanon acting, will we have to end this conflict after exacting a price from them that will convince them never again to allow Hizbullah to act with impunity."
In Israel's history there have been cases when the strategy was to retaliate to the enemy's bombing with attacks designed to exact a heavy price as a deterrent. "In the War of Attrition with Egypt, we launched damaging operations deep inside their territory to pressure them," reminds Dayan.
Prof. Uzi Arad of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya also cites the Egyptian example. "Anwar Sadat said he was willing to sacrifice a million Egyptians to cross the Suez Canal. So if Israel had said that it would kill a hundred thousand to stop them crossing, it would have no effect. Not all your enemies can be intimidated; some of them aren't afraid of losses."
Arad, who was strategic adviser to prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and before that head of research in the Mossad, says, "Deterrence doesn't really work in a conventional situation. The question is how much pain you're prepared to sustain and the amount of damage you can inflict. Only when nuclear weapons are involved can you really say that it's an unbearable price, and that's why the superpowers had a policy of mutually assured destruction during the Cold War; that was classical deterrence."
Arad explains that from Israel's point of view, "deterrence mainly means denying the other side the capability to attack us. There are two stages: the first is convincing the enemy that if he tries to attack, he'll fail. The second is that even if he succeeds, he will be forced to pay such a high price that it won't be worthwhile."
In Arad's opinion, Israel has lost both layers of deterrence over the last six years, following the hurried withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and last year's disengagement from Gaza. "Hizbullah saw that they attacked us and we barely retaliated, and that was despite bombastic threats that if only one Katyusha or Kassam flew toward us, we would bomb the hell out of them."
Arad doesn't believe that Halutz actually gave the order to attack proportionally to the bombings on Israel. "It was probably just a figure of speech, but even using that kind of language is part of the same madness. Who says that the proportion is 10 to one? Perhaps it should be eight or four.
"We've got to get back to basics, to the time when the IDF's mission was to defend, attack and win the battle, without any talk of proportion. The missions should be drawn according to the objectives - that's the way it was from Clausewitz to Liddell Hart, all the way to Ariel Sharon in his younger military version."
Uri Elitzur, who was Netanyahu's chief of staff in 1998-9, says, "The security cabinet doesn't discuss things like putting a price tag on different attacks. Most of the operations carried out are contingency plans that were prepared a long time ago."
The decision-making process that's needed before an air force attack doesn't usually allow for considerations such as proportions. "It's a little-realized fact," says Elitzur, "but the prime minister has no real authority to order attacks himself. His authority comes from the vote of the majority of the government or the security cabinet. The cabinet can authorize the prime minister and defense minister to make quick decisions when the need arises, but any kind of major attack like this would necessitate a cabinet meeting.
"Of course, when there are hundreds of attacks like what's happening now, there is no possibility of having a cabinet decision for every attack and the guidelines will be much broader. But there is no question of the chief of General Staff deciding on proportionate attacks of his own accord, and I don't believe that the government would hold such a debate."