The falsehood of proportionate response

The phrase 'disproportionate response' will again rear its ugly head with the upcoming anniversary of the Second Lebanon War and the Gaza flotilla on the horizon. Instead of trying to answer accusations of disproportion, Israel needs to ask other world leaders what they would do.

PM Netanyahu with Russian PM Vladimir Putin 311 GPO (photo credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO)
PM Netanyahu with Russian PM Vladimir Putin 311 GPO
(photo credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO)
In theory, everyone recognizes that Israel has a right to act in self-defense. In practice, recognition of Israel’s inalienable right fades almost instantaneously with Israel’s first shot. Within moments of any given Israeli military action, foreign ministry spokesmen and human rights groups from around the world invariably begin condemning Israel for using “disproportionate force,” even as they pay lip service to that theoretical right of self-defense.
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When fired upon, no military in the world advises their leaders to be proportionate in response. Quite the opposite: being attacked is the true measure of deterrence failure. And the logic of deterrence requires that countries impose a disproportionate cost on their adversaries - not simply as retribution, but primarily in order to re-establish deterrence and avoid future conflict.
Or, as late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin once explained: “If the worst an Arab leader can perceive as happening as a result of a war he initiates is that he will not achieve his goal, then this is insufficient deterrence on Israel’s part. Rather,” Rabin argued, “an Arab leader… must constantly bear in mind that, should he initiate war, his armed forces will be badly clobbered, along with sensitive targets causing disruption to the local population, and in a way that will endanger his regime. Otherwise, our deterrence will be minimal.”
Case in point: Only three days after the Second Lebanon War began in 2006, Russia’s Prime Minister Vladamir Putin criticized Israel’s actions, saying, “we work under the assumption that the use of force should be balanced…. Escalation of violence, in our opinion, will not yield positive results.”
Only two years later, Georgians initiated a war to reassert control over one of their renegade provinces--a province which had become a Russian ally. When its own interests were threatened, Russia’s response betrayed an entirely different set of assumptions about the effectiveness of coercion. By harshly over-reacting and bulldozing straight for Georgia’s capital city, Russia made it clear that it would not tolerate future Georgian escapades. Indeed, in one fell swoop, all of Russia’s neighbors were swiftly put on notice. Three years later, Georgia’s borders remain quiet.
Besides the obvious hypocrisy, what is interesting is how often critics like Putin preach to Israel about the ineffectiveness of military force for resolving political problems. Yet, once one understands the core logic of deterrence, the irony of these calls for proportionate response should become evident: a truly proportionate response is actually more likely to lead to more bloodshed over time, not less.
Here it is critical to keep in mind that no one ever attacks his enemy without expecting some sort of response. So, for instance, when Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nassrallah approved the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers nearly five years ago, he thought Israel would respond the way it had to all previous kidnapping attempts: a “proportionate” round of artillery fire and air force strikes that would hit mostly unmanned positions and do very modest harm.
Nasrallah was quite willing to pay that particular price. He ordered numerous kidnapping attempts from 2000 onwards because he bet on a meek response. In 2006, however, the response was harsh and “disproportionate.” As Nasrallah himself famously admitted after the war was over: “We did not think, even one percent, that the capture would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, if I had known on July 11 ... that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.”
For all the IDF’s missteps in 2006, the simple fact is that since that war, the border has been quieter than any time since Israel’s Operation Litani in 1978.
The same holds true for the Gaza War in 2009. Following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, militants fired at Israel an average of roughly 1700 rockets and 1100 mortars a year. Since the Gaza War ended, those numbers are down to 170 and 215 respectively.
Why? Just like Nasrallah, Hamas leaders were jolted by Israel’s disproportionate response. As Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal reportedly told a closed forum of Arab leaders immediately following the war, Hamas had expected Israel’s response to have lasted no longer than 3 days, not 22.
Next month, we will mark the fifth anniversary of the Second Lebanon War. As we begin our retrospection of those events, two lessons should be clear. First, although it may be politically correct to repeat the mindless mantra about military force having no positive effect, history provides ample evidence to the contrary.
Second, Israel must not allow itself to be held to a double standard. Countries who dare preach to us must be reminded about how they have fought their previous wars. All Israel needs to do is simply re-direct the question to foreign leaders again and again until it yields an honest answer: if you were attacked as we were, how would you respond?
The writer is the former Deputy Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Herzliya.