What it means for Israel to lose its ‘deterrence’
When Israel launched a war against the Gaza Strip in August 2022, it declared that its target was the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group only. Indeed, neither Hamas nor the other Gaza-based groups engaged directly in the fighting. The war raised more questions than answers.
Israel rarely distinguishes between Palestinian groups. For Tel Aviv, any kind of Palestinian resistance is a form of terrorism or, at best, incitement. Targeting one group and excluding other supposedly “terrorist” organizations exposes a degree of Israeli fear in fighting all Palestinian factions in Gaza at once.
For Israel, wars in Gaza have become progressively harder with time. For example, Israel’s so-called Operation Protective Edge in 2014 was very costly in terms of loss of life among the invading troops. The May 2021 flare-up was an even bigger flop. That war unified the Palestinians and served as a strategic blow to Israel, without considerably advancing Israeli military interests.
Though other Gazan groups provided Palestinian Islamic Jihad with logistical support in August 2022, they refrained from directly engaging in the fight. For some Palestinians, this was unexpected and was interpreted by some as indicative of weakness, disunity and even political opportunism.
Less than a year later, another war loomed following the release of harrowing footage of Israeli police senselessly beating up peaceful Palestinian worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque on Ramadan 14. Like in May 2021, Palestinians rose up in unison. This time, it was resistance groups in Gaza and, eventually, Lebanon and Syria that fired rockets at Israel. Though Israel hit back at various targets, it was obvious that Tel Aviv was disinterested in a multifront war with Palestinians in order to avoid a repeat of the 2021 fiasco.
The violent and repeated Israeli military raids at Al-Aqsa — and limited, though deadly, attacks on Jenin, Nablus and other parts of the West Bank — were meant to achieve political capital for the embattled government of Benjamin Netanyahu. But this strategy could only succeed if Israel managed to keep the violence confined to specific, isolated regions.
Large-scale and protracted military operations have proven useless for Israel in recent years. It has repeatedly failed in Gaza, as it did before in South Lebanon. The unavoidable change of strategy was also costly from the Israeli viewpoint, as it empowered the Palestinian resistance and denied Israel its so-called deterrence capabilities.
The political discourse emanating from Israel recently is quite unprecedented. Following a security briefing with Netanyahu on April 9, opposition leader Yair Lapid left with ominous words. “I arrived worried and I left even more worried,” he said. “What our enemies see in front of them, in all arenas, is an incompetent government.” He added that Israel is losing US support and its deterrence capabilities.
Though Israeli politics is inherently divisive, the country’s politicians have always managed to unify around the subject of security. During wars, Israelis often exhibit unity and ideological divides seem largely irrelevant. The fact that Lapid would publicly expose Israel’s weaknesses for political gain further highlights the deterioration of Tel Aviv’s political front.
But more dangerous for Israel is the loss of deterrence.
In an article published in The Jerusalem Post on April 11, Yonah Jeremy Bob highlighted another truth: “Israel no longer decides when wars are fought.” He wrote: “One could have concluded this from the 2014 and May 2021 Gaza wars that Israel stumbled into and which Hamas used to score various public relations points ... but now Hamas learned in a more systematic way ... how to instigate its own ring of fire around Jerusalem.”
The writer’s hyped language aside, he is not wrong. The battle between Israel and Palestinian resistance groups has been largely centered on timing. Though Israel did not “stumble” into a war between 2014 and 2021, it has not been able to control the duration or the political discourse around these wars. Though thousands of Palestinians were killed in what seemed like one-sided Israeli military campaigns, these conflicts almost always resulted in a public relations disaster for Tel Aviv abroad and further destabilized an already shaky home front.
This explains, at least in part, why Palestinians were keen not to expand the August 2022 war, which was entirely initiated by Israel, while this month taking the initiative by firing rockets at Israel, starting on April 5. The latest Palestinian action forced Israel to engage militarily on several fronts — Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and, arguably, the West Bank.
Throughout its 75 years of military conflict with Palestinians and Arabs, Israel’s success on the battlefield has been largely predicated on unhindered military, logistical and financial support from its Western allies, along with the disunity of its Arab enemies. This has allowed Israel to win wars on multiple fronts in the past, with the 1967 war serving as the main, and possibly last, example.
Large-scale and protracted military operations have proven useless for Israel in recent years.
Since then, especially following the considerable Arab resistance in the 1973 war, Israel has shifted to different types of military conflicts — strengthening its occupation in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, while launching massive wars on singular fronts, such as Lebanon in 1982.
The Israeli retreat from Lebanon in 2000 — and the utter failure to reinvade parts of the country in 2006 — brought Israel’s military ambitions in Lebanon to a complete halt. Then, Israel turned to Gaza, launching one devastating war after another, starting in 2008, only to discover that its military options in the besieged Strip are now as limited as in Lebanon.
For Lapid and other Israelis, the future of Israel’s deterrence is now facing an unprecedented challenge. If the Israeli military is unable to operate at ease and at the time of its choosing, Tel Aviv would lose its “military edge” — a vulnerability that it has rarely faced before.
While Israeli politicians and military strategists are openly fighting over who has cost Israel its precious deterrence, very few seem willing to consider that the country’s best chance of survival is peacefully coexisting with Palestinians according to the international principles of justice and equality. This obvious fact continues to elude Israel despite its violent birth and decades of troubled existence.
- Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. Twitter: @RamzyBaroud