Treating Israelis Like Rational People, Not Pawns

The author of a new book on Israeli counter-terrorism learns something he didn't want to.

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.”

Then he offered the lessons he didn’t want to learn—what we might call inconvenient truths. The first of these is: “occupations can work.” It’s a corollary to the pronouncement that Gaza is quiet. But it rests on a statistic he offered in his opening remarks where he noted that only one suicide bombing was successfully carried out against Israel in 2008. In 2002 that number was 53. IDF antiterror operations in the West Bank, the construction of the system of early-warning chain link security fences, and the decision to maintain a ready IDF presence in the West Bank (what he might call in other circumstances an “occupying army”) enabled Israel to keep the peace.

Another lesson was that “deterrence can work.” And, as he told the audience, you cannot have both deterrence and proportionality.

Byman also played the “demographics pose an existential threat to Israel” card, and he said Israel may be strengthening Palestinian rejectionists and extremists with the lack of a deal. Eighteen years after Oslo, they may reasonably say, “Where are we?”

But while this question implies that Israel is at fault for the lack of progress, Byman needs also  to understand is that Israelis are asking the very same question—and it’s worth exploring further.

When an Israeli looks around and says “where are we?” what he sees, externally, are two kinds of states. The first is Egypt, which has effectively suspended its peace treaty with Israel now that the one defender of that treaty, Hosni Mubarak, has been expelled from power and is being replaced with an anti-Western figurehead catering to influential Islamist parties.

The second is Lebanon, a borderline failed state with a sovereign nonstate controlling its security and its legislature. It is a state no one would seek to create if it didn’t already exist.

Is either of these two states an attractive model for a “Palestine”?

And what do Israelis see when they look at the Palestinian territories? They see a quiet border with the West Bank and a relatively calm one with Gaza.  And while the border with Lebanon may be tense, Ashkenazi offered some guarded optimism: “I’ve known Hezbollah since 1982,” Ashkenazi said, recalling his days in the elite Golani Brigade.  “For the first time ever, the border is quiet… that is deterrence.”

The question that must be asked, although negotiators and dedicated peace processors will avoid it,  is this: Is Israel safer, purely from a security standpoint, than it would be by advancing the cause of Palestinian statehood?

In this current political climate, it is difficult to imagine Israelis trading relative peace and security for the opportunity to create another Egypt or Lebanon (or, in the case of Gaza, Iran) on its border. And that is something that Byman, try as he might to resist, seems to have accidentally understood. That’s what he means when he says he learned something he didn’t want to. It is the realization that Israel, imperfect but just, knows what she’s doing.

Seth Mandel is a writer specializing in Middle Eastern politics and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Horowitz Freedom Center.