By: Roger Hurwitz
Cambridge, MA

The killings and capture of its soldiers, first by Hamas and then by Hezbollah, gave Israel the need to respond, but left it the choice of how. Israel leaders took each case as an opportunity to destroy, dismantle or, at least, permanently cripple an enemy. On this view, the question is not whether Israel chose disproportionate force to coerce the return of its soldiers. Rather, can Israel achieve its larger ambitions and how much will civilians on all sides suffer for its attempts?

The Israel strategy is relatively simple: Degrade and deter the enemy through assassinations and bombing; make life hell for the other inhabitants, so they will turn on the enemy. In the meantime, no negotiations with anyone, but encouragement for people on the other side to start civil wars. In terms of a purely self-interested calculus, the first problem is that this strategy seldom works and sometimes backfires.


So far, the attacks on Hamas have not destroyed its capacity to launch its low grade, homemade rockets against Israel’s Negev. The attacks have sometimes missed their targets and instead wiped out innocent Palestinians. Such tragedies and their increased miseries have rallied almost all the Palestinians in Gaza to Hamas. Support has vanished for the more accommodating Abu Mazan, ironically confirming the Israelis’ earlier dismissal of him as politically impotent.

The present situation in Lebanon recalls the 1970s, when Israel repeatedly bombed that country to coerce its government to dismantle the “state within a state” that the Palestinians had created in southern Lebanon. From there the Palestinians launched attacks on Israel. The bombings, however, created several hundred thousand refugees, who poured into Beirut. The refugee problem overwhelmed the weak, laissez-faire government, undermined the shaky political system and aggravated other processes that were leading the country to civil war. When the war came, Israel hoped in vain for a victory by the Christian forces that would lead to the expulsion of Palestinians from Lebanon. Instead, in 1982 then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon saw a need for Israel to intervene in the war and do the job directly. Although Israel succeeded in expelling the Palestinian leadership and dismantling the Palestinian base, it found itself in a quagmire of low intensity conflict with Hezbollah. It took Israel eighteen years, several hundred dead soldiers and countless dollars to get out of Lebanon. By then Hezbollah had build its own state within a state and was ready to join the Lebanese political system.

Earlier outcomes like these prompted Levi Eshkol, an Israel Prime Minister of the 1960s, with a profound sense of irony, to call his country a “hapless Samson.” I think, however, they also reveal two fundamental flaws in Israel’s strategy: First, to coerce the other side to curb your enemy, someone there has to have the capability or will to act. Today, as before, Israel wants a weak Lebanese government to take strong action against Hezbollah, but it has neither accepted the weakness of that government or done anything to strengthen it. On the contrary, Israel’s bombings of civilians and Lebanese infrastructure can only further weaken that government. Similarly, Israel while wanting strong action from Abu Mazan, dismissed him as weak and offered him no payoff for such action. Second, to be deterred by threats, people must have something of value to lose. Unfortunately, Israel has not cared whether the Palestinians in the territories or the people of southern Lebanon have a quality of life they would want to protect by acting according to Israel’s wishes when Israel threatened it.

These lessons about the mixed motives and social relations of conflict, which Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling taught nearly fifty years ago, seem particularly lost on the present Israel government. Claiming the legacy of former Prime Minister Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz were already committed to unilateral courses of action, as if decisions about the future of Gaza and the West Bank can be made by Israel alone. As an editorial in The Forward just remarked, it seems for them war is the continuation of unilateral diplomacy by other means.

This is not to deny legitimacy in Israel’s use of force – even disproportionate force. By some objective standards and certainly in the eyes of most Israelis, the withdrawals from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip removed almost all the grounds for grievance of people there toward Israel. What right then do the sub-national groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, have to attack Israeli civilians and soldiers? Why did the governing authorities not stop them? How can the governing authorities deny responsibility if these groups are part of the governing authorities?

Yet in the Middle East legitimacy has helped nations less in getting what they wanted then have the intelligent use of force, some restraint and a little help from friends. In the past, the rapid escalations, like those we see today, did not entirely destroy the ongoing game. Before they spiraled into regional conflagration, they were capped with incremental gains and losses, by the intervention of the superpowers. Because the United States and the Soviet Union feared being dragged into direct confrontation by their clients, they set limits on what each client could lose or expect to gain. The situation is scarier today. There is only one superpower; its decision makers are distracted by the misadventure in Iraq and deluded by the idea that regional and global politics are zero-sum games. Linking everything to monolithic terrorism, George Bush looks forward to Israel putting Hezbollah out of the game and hopes to give it enough time. That would put Syria, Iran and more generally Islamic fundamentalism on notice.

Given the green light, Olmert and Peretz have lost no time in responding appropriately in word, as well as deed. In the Knesset today, Olmert identified Tehran, Damascus, Hezbollah and Hamas as an axis of evil. But what about the mid and long range effects of their decisions? Will they lead Israel to reoccupy the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon, when that has already proved unbearably costly for Israel? Will decapitation and destabilization of the other sides assure there is no one to talk with, when the United States finally says “enough.” Will there be no Israeli solution for Gaza and southern Lebanon other than emptying them of inhabitants and sowing the earth with salt?

Roger Hurwitz
rhhu@csail.mit.edu