The value of a credible threat

Washington’s cut-off of funding to UNESCO offers a valuable lesson for Israeli policy toward Gaza.

Palestinian UNESCO reps 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier)
Palestinian UNESCO reps 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier)
After the U.S. halted funding to UNESCO last week in response to the agency’s acceptance of “Palestine” as a full member, many pundits argued that Washington would thereby undermine its international influence. But Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), whose party strongly supports U.S. engagement with the UN, had a counterargument: Doing exactly what America had threatened to do would actually bolster its influence, he said, by showing that its views could not be ignored with impunity.
Nor did it take long for his prediction to come true: Last Thursday – just two days after the Palestinian Authority had announced plans to seek membership in 16 additional UN organizations – PA Foreign Minister Riyal al-Maliki announced that these plans had been shelved. Faced with the realization that Washington really would stop paying its 22% share of UN agencies’ budgets, it seems the same “international community” that overwhelmingly voted to accept “Palestine” into UNESCO began pressing the PA to not repeat the gambit.
Israel, however, has yet to grasp the deterrent value of a credible threat. Instead, it has virtually destroyed its deterrence by six years of empty threats over the nonstop rocket fire from Gaza. Last week, for instance, the entire south was shut down for days as terrorists fired some 40 rockets. On Sunday, a day after the barrage began, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the cabinet that Israel would defend its citizens “determinedly, aggressively and effectively,” and that if the rocket fire continued, the terrorist organizations would pay a “far higher” price than they had hitherto. He and Defense Minister Ehud Barak both warned the terrorists not to “test” Israel’s resolve and capabilities.
But when the terrorist organizations called their bluff by continuing the rocket fire, no harsh response ensued. Instead, the government agreed to continue doing nothing while Egypt sought to broker a truce – even as Jerusalem publicly insisted it doesn’t do truces with terrorist organizations.
On Tuesday, with rockets still raining down, an army official declared that the Israel Defense Forces had been authorized to take “all necessary steps” to halt the rocket fire, including a ground operation. But he promptly vitiated this threat by explaining that actually, the army wasn’t authorized to do whatever was needed to stop the attacks; it was only authorized to take steps commensurate with the attacks’ “severity.” In other words, it was authorized to make pinpoint strikes on launching-rocket crews, which would be every bit as ineffective at stopping the rocket fire as thousands of similar strikes over the last six years have been.
Needless to say, all these empty threats had the terrorist organizations quaking in their boots – so much so that they held their fire for all of two days before renewing it over the weekend. As Islamic Jihad spokesman Abu Ahmed scornfully said, the terrorists aren’t worried that Israel will launch a full-scale war, “because it does not have the courage and ability to do so and because its soldiers are afraid of being taken captive like Gilad Schalit.”
Abu Ahmed has good reasons for this confidence. In the three years after Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in September 2005, Israel suffered some 6,000 rocket strikes from the evacuated territory. Yet only in December 2008, thousands of empty threats later, did it launch its first major incursion into the Strip - and that war was pursued so half-heartedly that it ended not only with a terrorist group (Hamas) still firmly in control of Gaza, but with all the terrorist groups so undamaged that over the ensuing three years, they were able to dramatically increase the quantity and quality of their arsenals.
Nor did the war produce more than a brief interlude in the missile fire: From the start of 2010 through September 2011, Israel absorbed more than 900 rocket and mortar strikes from Gaza. Yet its response was confined to still more ineffective pinpoint strikes on smuggling tunnels and rocket-launching crews.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post earlier this year, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and avowed dove Dan Kurtzer explained the dire consequences of Israel’s restraint: The world had become “acclimated to the idea” that rocket fire on Israel is unexceptionable rather than unacceptable. That reality encouraged the terrorists to escalate, since they had no need to fear a painful Israeli response, while making the international community less understanding of even the limited military action Israel did take – a fact proven once again last week, when both the US and the EU issued responses that effectively blamed Israel and Islamic Jihad equally for the violence.
Hamas, which controls Gaza, is capable of stopping smaller groups like Islamic Jihad from launching rockets when it so chooses. In the lead-up to last month’s ransom deal for Gilad Schalit, for instance, it enforced a total clampdown to avoid disrupting the deal. If it thought the ongoing rocket fire risked an Israeli response that would threaten its rule, it would have made sure the fire stopped, even at the price of clashes with the smaller groups.
But after six years and thousands of empty threats from Israel, it has no so such fear, so why should it bother? Granted, there was one bright spot in last week’s gloomy picture: Two prominent supporters of the disengagement – Kadima MK Avi Dichter, who headed the Shin Bet security service under Sharon, and Uzi Dayan, who was Sharon’s national security advisor – publicly admitted that the rocket fire can only be stopped by reoccupying part or all of Gaza and therefore urged the government to do so. Unfortunately, neither has any influence in the current government, and Netanyahu appears to be just as wedded to empty threats as his predecessors were.
Israeli leaders talk constantly about the need to bolster Israel’s deterrence. But as Levin pithily explained last week, there’s only one way to actually do so: You need to prove that your threats are credible. The question is when, if ever, Israel’s leaders will finally grasp that this maxim also applies in Gaza.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.