On deterrence, diplomacy and military force

"When the quiet is violated in Gaza, Israel often responds militarily but in a limited way."

An IDF soldier stands atop a tank near the Lebanese border (photo credit: REUTERS)
An IDF soldier stands atop a tank near the Lebanese border
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Most Israelis don’t believe that the first government in the 20th Knesset will last very long due to its tiny parliamentary majority. It has little margin for faltering.
But nonetheless the new government will be dealing with serious challenges in the realms of security and diplomacy. The question being asked here is if such a government with so little popular support can meet the task in these realms.
The fourth Netanyahu government will have four major foreign affairs and defense policy objectives: mend relations with the Obama administration or at least prevent a further deterioration in ties; prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weaponry; maintain the status quo in the West Bank, both in terms of security and territorial sovereignty; maintain military deterrence opposite Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
To achieve these objectives Israel will be using a combination of the traditional tools: diplomacy, deterrence and military force when necessary. The government has one great advantage in the security realm as it faces no conventional military threat from the standing army of an Arab state. Egypt and Jordan have tacit alliances with Israel and Syria is in an advanced stage of disintegration into a situation of warring factions each claiming sovereignty over some part of the country.
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Israel at present fears what security officials here say is the 100,000 rocket and missile arsenal Hezbollah has in Lebanon.
More on this below.
Avigdor Liberman, the former foreign minister and now opposition Knesset member, has said more than once in the recent months that mending ties with Washington should be Israel’s prime objective. Besides the longstanding military and economic aid Jerusalem receives from the US there is also the matter of American political support at the UN and other international organizations including but not only the US veto of harsh anti-Israel resolutions, some of which could have caused serious harm to the Jewish state.
For example France may present a resolution to the UN Security Council calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders. If the US were to not veto this Israel might find itself in a very difficult political situation. This is not baseless speculation. Both senior US (Wendy Sherman) and Israeli (director-general of the Foreign Ministry) politicians recently warned that the US might not support Israel in the international arena if Jerusalem continues its policies regarding the Palestinians.
Netanyahu would certainly like to mend ties with Obama or at least prevent a further deterioration, which was accelerated by his controversial speech before the US Congress in March at the invitation of the Republicans.
The problem is that there at least four obstacles to this: the Israeli settlement policy; the uncertainty about Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution; the likelihood that Netanyahu will coordinate stances with the Republican-dominated Congress on the matter of Iran; and the possibility that Netanyahu will at least tacitly support the Republican candidate in the upcoming US presidential race.
Just recently, on May 9, the US State Department condemned as harmful to the peace process the Israeli decision to build 900 apartment units beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s declaration just prior to the elections negating the two-state solution aroused great anger in Washington and the fact he later retracted his remarks did not ease suspicions in the US administration.
Netanyahu will obviously continue coordination with the Republican-controlled Congress toward the deadline date of June 30 for an agreement with Iran. And Netanyahu may feel obligated to support the Republican presidential candidate as reward for House speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address the Congress. He doesn’t hide his affinity for the US Republicans. The upside of this tense situation is that the close military, strategic and security relations between the two countries continues and will continue.
This was stated by Obama to Netanyahu in his message of congratulations on the forming of a new government.
Netanyahu is determined to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weaponry. Not a few in Israel believe that he is fighting a rearguard battle and that it is only a matter of time before Iran has the bomb. Netanyahu says that the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 nations “endangers Israel” and has two options as the sides continue to negotiate toward a further agreement by the June 30 deadline. He can exert pressure on the US administration and Congress to work for an agreement favorable to Jerusalem or, should this fail, he can weigh a military option if Israel in fact does have one.
US Secretary of State John Kerry recently said that the “possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran can’t be ruled out.” And MK Ya’acov Peri, a former head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), said during the election campaign that even if an agreement with Iran is not good for Israel, Jerusalem still has “diplomatic and operational options.” Yossi Beilin, a former minister and long-time confidant of Shimon Peres recently said in a TV interview that if a war erupts between Israel and Iran, he “would rather be in Tel Aviv than in Tehran.”
Netanyahu’s main objective in the West Bank is to maintain the current calm. He intends on achieving this mainly by a continuation of what almost everyone admits is the close security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. PA leader Mahmoud Abbas isn’t doing Israel any favors by this cooperation but rather sees it as a necessary element in the survival of his rule and perhaps the survival of the PA.
Hamas and other Islamic groups seek to topple Abbas. This militant subversion by Palestinians against the PA is seen all the time by arrests made by Israel, in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The fact that Israel has a military presence in the West Bank facilitates activity in the security realm. A second factor in the maintaining of the security status quo is the element of deterrence. The West Bank Palestinians well remember the devastating results of Israeli military might during the second intifada. They also see the economic progress and prosperity that quiet has brought them since, and are reluctant to lose this by igniting a third intifada.
There is no chance that Netanyahu will try to annex the West Bank or even parts of it.
Besides probably not having a parliamentary majority for this he is well aware of the harsh international reaction which would follow such a move. The possibility of UN or European sanctions serves as a strong deterrent opposite Israel here. There is also no chance Netanyahu will yield more of the West Bank to the Palestinians in the absence of a permanent- status agreement between the two sides and the likelihood of this in the coming decades is virtually nil. The Israeli public is mostly sick of the peace process with the Palestinians and Netanyahu made no effort at all to insert moderates into the government.
There is no call in the guidelines of the new government for a renewal of the peace talks with the Palestinians.
Vis a vis Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza Netanyahu’s policy will be based on deterrence and the use of military force when necessary. Former Mossad head Efraim Halevy wrote on May 6 in Yediot Aharonot that for decades Israel’s concept in the event of war was based on a bringing the war to the territory of the enemy from the outset and an ability to achieve “decision” in the ensuing fighting. But because of the huge rocket and missile arsenal of Hezbollah and the rockets of Hamas Israel has replaced these two strategic concepts with the concept of deterrence. Hezbollah can reach any point in Israel with its weaponry.
Israel counts on the psychological effect of the devastation of the Second Lebanon War and of the recent operations in Gaza to deter Hezbollah and Hamas.
When the quiet is violated in Gaza, Israel often responds militarily but in a limited way.
Foreign reports say that Israel has attacked military targets in Syria and Lebanon. Israel doesn’t confirm or deny but Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon openly says that Israel will not allow weaponry to be transported to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The problem both in Gaza and Lebanon is that other elements operate in these places and can violate the quiet even if Hamas and Hezbollah are against this.
On May 6 Haaretz reported that Hamas is guarding its border with Israel to prevent attacks by other groups. And then of course there is always the danger of the fighting in Syria spilling over into Israel. There have already been a number of incidents on this border, which was quiet for many decades.
The author founded and edited the Israel Media Digest from 1990-2008.