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It is a sad element of Middle East reality that the more the international community has in common with Israel—at least from the perspective of security—the more it means they have failed to learn the lessons from Israel’s many battles with Islamic terrorism.
Almost every allied head of state has said it at one time or another: “Israel is on the front lines.” Here in the U.S., senators, congressmen, and even governors travel to Israel, stand near a playground, school, or police station in Sderot, and proclaim it.
But how often do Americans, let alone Europeans, truly attempt to understand what Israel is facing and the lessons to learn from its many successes and its smattering of failures?
It was this dynamic that led Daniel Byman, Brookings Institution fellow and professor at Georgetown University, to begin research for his new book, A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism, released this month. Byman and Lt. Gen. (ret.) Gabi Ashkenazi, former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, discussed the book’s conclusions and implications at the Brookings Institution June 22.
Byman began by noting the general progression of security challenges, such as airplane hijackings and suicide bombings: “These were seen as Israeli problems, and then they became global problems.”
“During the second intifada,” he added, “it was hard for Americans to understand the scale and the regularity of the violence.” He suggested the audience remember how disruptive the “Beltway Sniper” was to Washington, D.C.’s routine in 2002, yet at its height the intifada gave Israel an average of one successful suicide bombing per week.
Byman began studying Israel’s responses to the attacks, and learned some things he expected to find—such as the fact that “many of the most effective [counterterrorism measures] are also the most disruptive”—as well as some things he admitted he didn’t want to learn. The book itself is comprehensive, measured, thorough, and well worth a full read. But I’d like to concentrate on Byman’s remarks concerning the lessons he didn’t want to learn, and his recommendations based on those same lessons.
Byman’s prescriptions—and one suspects he knows this—do not match the evidence he provides for them. It’s a distant cousin of the battle over hearts and minds—the battle between heart and mind. It is the struggle to reconcile the facts with where you’d like them to lead you.
Peace, Byman said, is the most effective form of counterterrorism; a country’s external security mechanisms will never be as effective “as a country’s ability to protect itself.” That is why, he said, the occupation of the West Bank must end, and the Palestinians must be called on to police their own population. But he also said that “Gaza is better governed than it has been in its entire history.”
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