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Israel's deputy chief of the general staff, Moshe Ya‘alon, recently argued that the so-called Aqsa intifada that began in September 2000 should be seen as direct resumption of Israel's War of Independence in 1948-49. Then, as now, he explained, Israel is fighting for its survival as an independent state, for the definition of its character, and its final borders.1 In expressing these views, he confirmed what many in Israel fear—that a conflagration has reached their very doorsteps. For the first time in years, they worry about both their personal and national security—indeed, about the very existence of their state. Ya‘alon's remarks thus mirrored the sentiments of the Israeli public, which have been swept up in feelings of depression and pessimism.

In contrast, most strategic specialists were more sanguine. Shai Feldman, director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, for example, notes that Israel has always had a problem translating its basic security deterrent into an ability to forestall current threats. This has been particularly difficult in Lebanon since the mid-1970s, "where no clear address existed for Israel's deterrent threats." Since that time, Israel has been quite able to prevent the Arab states from launching military strikes against it but quite unable to stop irregular forces in Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza. He concludes from this that "Israel's deterrent power is effective against conventional and strategic threats from sovereign countries and there is no indication that this deterrent power has been adversely affected, despite Israel's weakness in the struggle against terrorist organizations and popular movements."2 In other words, while Israel may have lost some of its tactical deterrence capability vis-à-vis the Palestinians and Hizbullah, its strategic deterrence capability vis-à-vis the Arab states remains very much in place and may even be stronger than in the past.

Which of these views is the correct one? Does Israel still deter its Arab neighbors, does it still project strength and cohesiveness, or is it perceived by the Arabs as a weak and divided state? If this is the case, are Israel and the Arab states indeed approaching an-all-out war?

Causes of Israel's Eroding Deterrence

Three factors have contributed to an erosion of Israel's strategic deterrence.

Israel's exhaustion. The new Palestinian violence has caused some important voices in the Israeli public to call for their government to accept, in essence, all of the Palestinians' demands (withdrawal to the June 1967 border line; the break-up of most, if not all, West Bank and Gaza settlements; the establishment of an independent Palestinian state; and a solution to the question of refugees acceptable to Palestinians).3 This readiness to accede to Palestinian demands has its roots in a physical and psychological exhaustion—weariness of the on-going conflict and a lack of conviction in the rightness of the Israeli position.

The former head of Israel's General Security Service, ‘Ami Ayalon, addressed the connection between the weariness that Israel projects and the erosion of its deterrence that followed the "Tunnel Affair" in September 1996. The incident began with the opening by the Netanyahu government of a new exit to the tunnel starting at the Western Wall plaza and running parallel to the Temple Mount. That action, in turn, sparked a violent Palestinian response organized by the Palestinian Authority (PA). This wave of violence led eventually to the signing of the Hebron accord between Israel and the PA, according to which Israeli forces withdraw from most parts of Hebron. Palestinians then realized that Israel acquiesces in the wake of violence against it and thereafter, according to Ayalon, the course of developments was clear and expected.4 Indeed, Ayalon has said, the lesson that the Arab world drew from the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the last few years, as well as from Hizbullah's struggle against Israel in south Lebanon, was that the Arabs can get what they want from Israel by using violence against it. This was true in the cases of Hizbullah and the Palestinians, but it seems that against this background some Arab leaders like Bashshar al-Asad of Syria are ready to take risks and promote violence, or at least ignore the violence of others.

Many military analysts make the error of relying too much on capabilities. They pit soldier against soldier, tank against tank, and pay too much attention to the qualitative and technological difference between Israel and the Arabs. While these quantitative and qualitative data are a component of military strength, they are not the sole consideration. One must also add such factors as attitudes toward the potential enemy, will and determination, commitment, national unity, readiness for sacrifice, and public consensus. Whatever Israel's advantage over the Arabs in hardware, it is clearly weaker in the area of software. 

The withdrawal from Lebanon. On May 24, 2000, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) completed its withdrawal from south Lebanon, bringing to an end Israel's prolonged involvement in that country. Although the withdrawal was defined by IDF commanders as "an achievement and even an extraordinary success,"5 for many in Israel it aroused feelings of discomfort or even defeat. The Israeli withdrawal was carried out in the shadow of, and possibly as the result of, painful blows that Israel had suffered at the hands of Hizbullah. In that respect, Hizbullah succeeded in achieving what no other Arab country had up to that time—the ouster of Israel from Arab territory without the Arab side's making any concessions. Thus, it is no wonder that the organization's spokesmen were quick to present Hizbullah's achievement as a victory and a historic turning point in the Arab-Israeli conflict.6

A growing balance of terror. Many in the Arab world today believe that time no longer favors the Israeli side, as it did as recently as the 1990s. Their reason is not merely Israel's lack of success in dealing with guerrilla warfare or the Palestinian and Hizbullah low-intensity conflicts launched against it. Their main reason is that, for the first time since the beginning of the Israel-Arab conflict, the Arab states have succeeded in creating a "balance of terror" with Israel thanks to their possession of non-conventional weaponry. These weapons include Syria's surface-to-surface missiles (which can reach most of Israel) and its chemical and biological weapons. Further off, Iraq and Iran are well on the way to arming themselves with nuclear weapons.7

This balance of terror makes it easier for the Arab side to wage a popular struggle against Israel, for the latter is more reluctant to reacting with all its force, fearing that this might deteriorate into a total war which would cost Israel heavily. After all, since Israel's economy is much bigger and more prosperous than all of the Arab economies and the Israeli standard of living is higher than that of the surrounding Arab countries, the Israelis have more to lose in an all-out confrontation than do the Arabs. The impact of this balance of terror is already clear.

For example, it goes far to explain the nonchalance in late 2000 of Bashshar al-Asad in responding to Israel's demand that he rein in Hizbullah violence along.8 In his speech to the Arab summit in October 2000, he said that the current strategic situation enables the Arabs to conclude peace from a position of strength, a peace that should be "the peace of the strong," rather then "the peace of the brave."9 Declarations like this demonstrate the erosion of Israel's strategic deterrence. This contributes to an increasing sense among many in the Arab world that there is nothing real behind Israel's claim to military superiority over the Arabs, or, if Israel does enjoy such superiority, it is a theoretical one and should not prevent the Arabs from challenging Israel. Violence, in short, has become once again a legitimate and effective tool to promote Arab interests.

Failed Efforts to Rebuild Deterrence

Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, head of the IDF's Administration for Research and Development of Arms and Technical Infrastructure, published a book in 1999, The Philosophy of Intelligence, in which he deals with the place of intelligence in the national decision-making process, as well as suggesting methods of analyzing and assessing intelligence in order to turn it into evaluations or to estimate so Israeli intelligence might overcome the difficulties involved in such processes and thus, avoid intelligence failures, like that of 1973.10

Yigal Can‘an of Ma‘ale Adumim, an Israeli settlement east of Jerusalem, attacked Ben-Israel for his approach. For to Can‘an it seemed an over-complex analysis of the basic problems facing Israel and a failure to understand that these basic problems cannot be answered by sophisticated intelligence approaches,
Ben Yisrael is one of the those responsible for the development of the "Nautilus" system, a powerful laser system designed to destroy Katyusha rockets, which will cost millions of dollars, and whose aim is to contest some determined Hizbullah kid operating a launcher costing less that 100 dollars. And there, too, only will power will win, not intellect and not money.11
Can‘an had zeroed in on the problem Israel is now facing along its border with Lebanon, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

Following the IDF's withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Israel has invested considerable effort in an attempt to rehabilitate the deterrent capability that had totally collapsed in the case of south Lebanon. This explains the unequivocal and unprecedented threats on the part of Israel—including explicit threats from former prime minister Ehud Barak and Chief of the General Staff Sha'ul Mofaz to attack Syrian targets in Lebanon12—in retaliation against any Hizbullah attacks. Significantly, these threats were directed not at the Lebanese government or at Hizbullah (as in the past) but at Syria. This points to the fact that once the tactical deterrent capability against irregular forces had fallen apart, Israel based its security in the north on its strategic deterrent capability against Damascus. However, the Israeli threats were not effective and did not deter Hizbullah from resuming its activities or the Syrians from supporting Hizbullah.13

A second part of the effort was an attempt to re-establish a broad public consensus concerning the manner in which Israel would conduct itself in the event of renewed violence along the Israeli-Lebanese border. Last, it sought technological solutions (the Nautilus system to intercept Katyusha rockets and a sophisticated border fence)14 that would limit future damage caused by Hizbullah, thus avoiding an escalation along its northern border. As for reliance on high-tech solutions, Israel has time and time again introduced sophisticated solutions against Hizbullah tactics (for example, setting up protective nets to prevent the penetration of anti-tank missiles into IDF positions) but Hizbullah has always found ways to foil them, proving it could not be defeated even on the technological front where Israel has a clear advantage.15

These deterrent measures were viewed by Arabs as a turning point in the fifty-year struggle for survival.16 And in one sense, they certainly were, for they were apparently viewed by Israel as being only for a "rainy day." Its policy on the ground was based first and foremost on garnering support and backing from the international community, and in practical terms—and in heretofore unprecedented thinking on the part of Israel— relying on the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and the Lebanese army to prevent Hizbullah attacks. The changes on the ground provided clear evidence of a collapse in Israel's traditional security concept, which had been based on deterrence and prevention.17

Moreover, even this security concept collapsed following the kidnapping of the three Israeli soldiers from the lower slopes of Mt. Hermon in early October 2000, and a series of attacks which followed. UNIFIL's presence proved to be no obstacle for Hizbullah.18 The collapse of the Israeli concept on which the withdrawal from south Lebanon was based aroused doubts correctly about the validity of the other components of the Israeli security concept formulated for the Lebanese border. 

The Implications of Israel's Failing Deterrence

Israel's loss of deterrent strength has had several consequences. 

A return of the Arab "street." The Arab "street"—meaning Arab public opinion, which in the past expressed itself, due to the lack of democratic mechanism in the Arab world, in demonstrations or even riots in the streets– had virtually disappeared for some decades but has now returned as an important player in the region's decision-making process. The comeback of the Arab street had nothing to do with Israel, but rather with the domestic, social-economic crisis and crisis of legitimacy, that most of the Arab countries and Arab regimes are facing today. Thus, the weakening of the Arab regimes allows the street to play a bigger role in the decision-making process of these regimes. In many cases, the Palestinian issue is used by opposition elements to raise the street against the Arab regimes. Ironically, this development has been facilitated by the process of globalization. For it is by means of satellite television that the Arab world has been exposed, as never before, to Hizbullah against Israel and the intifada.

In any case, this "street" sees Israel, despite its military superiority, as weak and divided and finding it difficult to withstand pressures from the outside. It feels the Arabs have a clear advantage. And this perception of weakness effectively neutralizes Israel's military superiority.

Arab state reactions to Hizbullah's struggle against Israel and to the Aqsa intifada show the street's power. Both King ‘Abdullah of Jordan and Bashshar al-Asad of Syria have had to deal with this revived force; even Husni Mubarak of Egypt, the most experienced of Arab leaders, had to accede to the dictates of Egyptian public opinion. Yes, Mubarak did try to halt the escalation of conflict with Israel at the Arab summit in Cairo in October 2000, an action much noted in Israel and the West;19 but it is no clear that the situation is under his control. Mubarak's decision to recall his ambassador from Tel-Aviv, which surprised many in Israel,20 illustrates that even he follow the dictates of his "street." Indeed, in an interview he gave in early February, the deputy chief of the general staff, Moshe Ya'alon, estimated that Mubarak and King ‘Abdallah might cut their diplomatic relations with Israel in the case of an escalation.21

"Lebanonization" of the Palestinians. The Fatah movement and Hamas alike have worked to imbue Palestinians with the Hizbullah ethos. This meant using sophisticated explosive charges such as those used in south Lebanon; ambushing both military and civilians targets; and the use of suicide bombers. The goal was to cause enough Israeli casualties so that IDF troops would be withdrawn from the territories, just as they had been pulled out of Lebanon.22 The British journalist Patrick Seale notes that on the Arab side,
Hizbullah's achievements in driving out the Israelis has struck a powerful blow against the Arab "culture of defeat." By uniting behind the resistance, Lebanese society provided an example for the Arabs everywhere. It looks as if the Palestinian youths facing Israeli bullets on the streets of the Occupied territories have found inspiration and courage from the Lebanese model.23
‘Ami Ayalon, former head of the Israeli General Security Service, concurred with Seale; in a public lecture, he noted that the Palestinians learned from Hizbullah that there is an alternative to negotiations as a way to gain political gains; and that Israel would make concessions only with a pistol held to its head.24

Israelis seem inclined to make the same mistakes with the Palestinians that they previously made with Hizbullah. They are implementing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip the very approaches that collapsed in the case of the northern border with Lebanon. To be precise, security is based on (1) international legitimization, (2) the good will of the enemy, (3) technology. and (4) a consensus within Israeli society to back the government in the event of a renewed confrontation. There is every reason to expect the concept that collapsed in southern Lebanon will also collapse in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Increased chances of war. While few in the Arab world really wants an all-out war, this may happen anyway. Even the radicals admit that they do not need a total war, having found out that a low-level conflict better promotes their interests. Many Arabs are confident that limited low-level struggle against Israel can be contained. But they may be wrong. Thirty-plus years ago, it was Israel's image as a weak and divided country that encouraged the adventuresome in the Arab world to enter into the events of June 1967. In 1967, the Syrians declared a "popular war of liberation" against Israel and sent Fatah activists into Israeli territory to carry out acts of terrorism.25 The impression among many in the Arab world that Israel had no answer to these terrorist activities, combined with the weakness on the home front that Israel was projecting at that time, led to an erosion of Israel's deterrent image. That, in turn, resulted in the Six-Day war, which no one predicted and no one wanted.26 This was true in the case of the Arab streets in Amman, Cairo, and Damascus, but this was true in the case of Nasser himself who came to the conclusion that Israel can be defeated, or in the case of King Husayn of Jordan who found he had no alternative but to join the war, although he was fully aware that he would be probably defeated. In these ways, the events of the intifada recall events over thirty years earlier.

The same weak image of Israel could well encourage radical forces in the Arab world again. Limited armed struggle and the use of violence and terror can lead to an escalation. Because the important point is that, right now, nobody expects the Arab countries to launch a war the way they did in 1973, but everybody is afraid of the possibility that terror and violence will lead to an escalation in which these Arab states, which right now prefer to ignore the dangerous consequences of terrorism and violence, might find themselves involved in.

What To Do

In sum, Israel at present has no answer to the immediate challenges presented to its security both in south Lebanon by the Hizbullah and in the territories by the Palestinians. This situation is the result of the loss, or even collapse, of Israel's tactical deterrence capability, and it could also lead to continuing erosion of the strategic deterrence Israel enjoyed, at least over the past decade against the Arab world.

Throughout the 1990s, the key to moving the peace process along was Israel's ability to project strength, combined with its readiness to maintain a dialogue and to reach agreements even if they involved painful concessions. Today, the sense of weakness that Israel is projecting is moving peace further away, encouraging instability, and may even be bringing the danger of war closer. The process of deterioration is not under anyone's control. But all sides can take steps to prevent things from getting out of control. 

Arab governments. Ironically, Israeli deterrence capabilities are one of the keys for the stability of Arab regimes; should war break out, they could well be jeopardized. Thus, Israel's image as a strong state helps the Arab regimes to convince Arab public opinion to adopt a moderate approach and to avoid an escalation or even a war, a war they themselves do not want or are even afraid of because it might jeopardize their regimes. Indeed, one of the arguments that was often used by Arab leaders to explain why they joined the peace process was to point to Israel's military superiority. Faruq as-Shar` in a speech in February 2000 in Damascus justified Syria's readiness to conclude peace with Israel by arguing that Israel is simply much more stronger then Syria.27 Shar`s conclusion was that it was in Syria's interest to make peace with Israel, although in conditions acceptable for the Syrians, rather then to stick to its traditional hostile policy towards the Jewish state which got Syria and the Arabs nowhere and brought them defeats and setbacks.

The U.S. government. Washington also has a major role in advancing regional stability, for it was the erosion of Washington's image as an effective and decisive actor that led, in a way, to the current crisis. To promote peace and stability in the region, Washington should support the moderate camp in the Arab world in its efforts to avoid escalation; should support Israel in its determination not to accept the use of violence as a legitimate move, and should send a clear message to the radical camp in the Arab world that those who try to destabilize the region, will find a firm American administration ready to consider them as its enemies and to treat them accordingly.

The Israeli government. Much must be done to return the Middle East to its right course. The Israeli authorities must project more firmness and decisiveness towards Hizbullah and the Palestinian Authority. The question is not necessarily how much force should be used by Israel, but rather what should be the general approach, i.e., violence and acts of terror must not be left without answer or retaliation; the use of violence by those considered Israel's partners in the peace process should not be accepted as a legitimate tool in negotiations; and finally, no concessions should be made as a response to pressure or violence. Against this course of action, three arguments might be heard. 

* Israel never achieved tactical deterrence against its Arab enemies. True, Israel found it difficult to prevent sporadic terrorist attacks but it did find an effective answer to organized terrorist campaigns sponsored by its enemies (Egypt in the 1950s or Syria in the 1960s, and even Jordan, which allowed terrorist activity against Israel in the late 1960s), significantly reducing those attacks. In contrast, Israel in recent years has accepted living with a situation in which a persistent organized terrorist campaign is being launched against its soldiers and citizens both along its northern border and in the Palestinian territories.

* Peace agreements are the best solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. True, Israel's deterrent capability did not prevent the 1973 war. And, of course, peace is the best way to deal with or even to prevent violence, but in the Middle East, a peace accord itself cannot ensure stability, and thus, should not be considered a magic solution. Peace talks and peace treaties are not enough; they must be followed or be based on security arrangements. Syrian sponsored Hizbullah attacked Israeli targets even as peace talks were taking place with Israel. The Palestinian Authority (PA) initiated the Aqsa intifada as if it were not engaged in peace talks with Israel. Many Israelis have come to the conclusion that perhaps the conflict cannot be resolved, and thus what Israel should do is to try to manage and control it. In any case,

* Israel should use restraint in its response to violence. Precisely because Israel possesses the ability to retaliate—locally and tactically—without fear of Palestinian escalation, it can go easy. But this is due to happenstance - the failure of the PA to follow the Lebanese model and create a balance of terror with Israel – that can change at any moment. The PA lacks Katyusha rockets that can hit Tel Aviv and could be used in response to such Israeli acts as the use of combat helicopters against Palestinian headquarters. Once the Palestinians have such weapons, they can probably force different rules of the game on Israel, just as Hizbullah did in southern Lebanon. The result might be a deterioration to all-out war.

What does the election of Ariel Sharon as Israel's prime minister mean? Does it signal a turning point in Israel's deterrence capabilities? It is too early to judge what he will do, but by electing Sharon by a huge majority, the Israeli people did send a clear message that they want a change – or what some Israeli newspapers called "the return of Israel to itself, to what it was for its citizens over the last fifty years, i.e., a strong and united state, confident of itself, which can and does deter its enemies." Indeed, the first reactions from the Arab world to Sharon's election show that Israel already regained some of the assets it lost during the last few years, in terms of its deterrent capability.28
Eyal Zisser, senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and head of Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University, is the author of several books on Syrian history and politics.
1 Ma'ariv, Nov. 10, 2000; Ya`alon's interview to Ma`ariv, according to which, Israel might face in the coming future existential threat to its existence.Ma'ariv, Feb. 15, 2001.

2 Shai Feldman, "Israel Deterrent Power after Its Withdrawal from Lebanon," Strategic Assessment, vol. 3, no. 1 (Tel Aviv University: Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, June 2000), pp. 1-4.

3 Yosi Beilin, Israeli justice minister, "After Oslo," Ha'aretz, Nov. 7, 2000; Alof Ben, "Exchange of Territories as a Compensation for the Refugees," Ha'aretz, Jan. 14, 2001; interview with Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-‘Ami, Israeli Channel 2, Jan. 14, 2001.

4 Ha'aretz, Dec. 22, 2000; Ayalon interview, Israeli Channel 2, Dec. 9, 2000.

5 Ha'aretz, July 28, 2000.

6 Al-Jazira television, May 27, 2000.

7 Ha'aretz, Dec. 31, 2000; Jan. 8, 2001.

8 Los Angles Times, Oct. 11, 2000; Ha'aretz, Jan. 11, 2001.

9 Speech at the Arab leaders' summit in Cairo in Oct. 2000, Syrian television, Oct. 21, 2000; Tishrin (Damascus), Oct. 22, 2000.

10 Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, Ha-Filosofya shel ha-Modi`in (Tel Aviv: Ma 'arachot, 1999).

11 Ha'aretz, June 5; July 7; Aug. 16, 2000.

12 Israeli Channel 1, May 25, 2000; Yedi‘ot Aharonot, May 26, 2000.

13 Ha'aretz, Jan. 11, 2001.

14 Ibid., May 26, 2000, July 14, 2000.

15 Ibid., May 19, 2000.

16 Al-Jazira television, May 27, 2000.

17 Israel Tal, Bitachon Le'umi, Me‘atim mol Rabim (Tel Aviv: Dvir Publishers, 1996), pp. 13-116; Avner Yaniv, Politika we-Estrategya be-Yisrael (Tel Aviv: Hapo'alim, 1994), pp. 9-136.

18 Ha'aretz, July 14, 2000, Jan. 11, 2001.

19 Ibid., Oct. 23, 2000.

20 Yedi'ot Aharonot, Nov. 26, 2000; Al-Hayat (London), Nov. 26, 2000.

21 Ma'ariv, Feb. 15, 2001.

22 Ha'aretz, Nov. 10, 2000.

23 Patrick Seale, "The Turning of the Tide," Middle East International, Oct. 13, 2000, pp. 21-22.

24 Ha'aretz, Dec. 22, 2000; Israeli Channel 2, Dec. 9, 2000.

25 Fred H. Lawson, Why Syria Goes to War: Thirty Years of Confrontation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), pp. 20-51.

26 Richard Parker, ed., The Six-Day War (Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 1996), pp. 13-73.

27 As-Safir (Beirut), Feb. 12, 2000.

28 Ma'ariv, Feb. 9, 2001.