Restore Israeli Deterrence Now
JNS.org – Alongside the joy over the progress made in procuring a coronavirus vaccine, we must not neglect threats that in the long run could prove more destructive than the pandemic. We must learn the lessons of the past — whether it be the Cuban missile crisis or the 1967 Six-Day War — and implement them as soon as possible. Although it may be difficult to talk about security responsibilities with the coronavirus crisis in the background, that’s what leadership is for.
On January 20, a new US president, Democrat Joe Biden, will be sworn into office, and in Israel, a debate on whether we have taken full advantage of the past four years under the previous administration will commence. While it is true that we have seen historical gestures made in Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and Judea and Samaria, might we also have received President Donald Trump’s administration’s unreserved support for the removal of strategic threats to the state, including those along our borders?
The Trump administration was willing to grant us, without hesitation, the three types of assistance vital in times of war: the provision of ammunition, diplomatic and legal defense at the United Nations and other international institutions, and economic and diplomatic support the day after. It is doubtful we will be able to get all three types of assistance from the incoming administration, or that what we do get will be received to the same extent. It is clear that our enemies also recognize this fact and are capable of reaching their own conclusions based upon it. That is why we must act openly and with determination to prove to them that they cannot profit from this situation, and are liable to pay a high price for any attempt to take advantage of it.
Israel’s power of deterrence has been harmed in recent years despite widespread Israeli military activity in Syria and even reported covert operations in Iran. In 2019, an attack tunnel dug by Hezbollah under the northern border was discovered, something that would have justified the launching of a war, yet Israel did nothing in response. Hamas fired missiles at millions of Israel’s residents in the south, and Israel responded in a purely symbolic manner. At the last United Nations General Assembly, Israel presented conclusive evidence Hezbollah was manufacturing precision-guided long-range missiles in underground factories in the heart of Beirut. It seems Israel has hung its hopes on UN involvement in the matter because we seem to not be doing anything else about it. The message that has been sent is not one of power but of weakness.
At the same time, Israel is coming to terms with the presence of 150,000 missiles in southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. In 1962, then-US President John F. Kennedy expressed a willingness to launch a nuclear war to prevent the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Five years later, Israel embarked on a preventive war to maintain deterrence. Then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, together with IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, came to the conclusion that if Israel did not fend off the forces coming together around it, Arab leaders would interpret this as Israel being scared and vulnerable. The result was an absolute victory for Israel and for the strategic alliance between it and the United States, which was deeply impressed by the result of the war.
Obviously, the use of military force is not the solution to every problem or the correct response to every threat. It also certainly entails a price to be paid by Israeli citizens and soldiers. There is a place for diplomacy and negotiation in instances where these means can be effective, but in situations where there is no room for negotiation, we must not create the impression of hesitation. A country that hesitates to defend itself only invites greater aggression.
Before a new US administration enters the White House, Israel must immediately take four steps to bolster its security and establish its defense: First, it must adopt a “no rocket, no tunnel” policy and commit to responding with massive force every time there is a violation of this principle. Second, it must issue an ultimatum to Lebanon that if it does not act to close these missile factories, Israel will do it for them. Third, Israel should publicly declare its refusal to accept that tens of thousands of missiles are aimed at its cities and villages. Fourth, it should embark on an international diplomatic campaign to explain that because Iran and its satellite states use civilian populations as human shields, they will bear sole responsibility for any harm to these populations as a result of Israel’s need to defend itself.
Michael Oren is a former Israeli ambassador to the United States.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.