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Israel's goals in the present conflict

Israel must show its military strength in order to deter terror attacks.

By Nadav Morag / July 20, 2006



LOS ANGELES

The Israeli wars with Hizbullah in Lebanon and with the Palestinians in Gaza must be seen in the context of the pressing Israeli need to reestablish some semblance of a deterrent capacity.

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Israel's national security policy has historically been based on the understanding that true security could only be obtained once its neighbors agreed to accept it as a legitimate state. But since its founding in 1948, Israel has never been able to achieve this overarching goal – despite important advances, such as the peace treaties with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994.

In the absence of true peace, Israel's goal has been the maintenance of overwhelming strength that could effectively dissuade attacks of any kind – whether through conventional warfare, supporting terrorism directed at Israel, or, more recently, threatening to strike Israel with missiles carrying conventional or nonconventional payloads.

Following a policy based on deterrence is "high maintenance" and requires the periodic reinforcement of that message lest the enemy come to a conclusion that one is no longer capable of maintaining a posture of overwhelming strength or, no less important, the commitment to use that military power when necessary.

Israel has had to use its military muscle during six Arab-Israeli wars as well as countless raids in response to terrorist attacks. This deterrence policy had succeeded in achieving periods of relative quiet for Israel during which the country was able to develop economically and socially. However, Israel's deterrence capabilities have become increasingly eroded, primarily as a result of the changing nature of warfare.

It should be made clear that at no time in its history, has Israel ever been safer from the threat of a full-scale conventional Arab-Israeli war. Egypt and Jordan are at peace with Israel and, while Israel's ties with those countries is far from ideal, it does not appear that military force will factor into those relationships in the future.

Iraq is clearly not going to be a military threat to Israel for a considerable period of time, if ever. Iran's policies are of great concern to Israel, but purely within the sphere of ballistic missiles as the Iranian Army lacks the capacity to launch a conventional attack against distant Israel. Syria is still an implacable and dangerous enemy, but its conventional military threat to Israel is limited. Of more concern is Syria's large arsenal of missiles, which could cause considerable devastation.

At the same time, Israel's deterrence capability is presently extremely low. This is largely because of Israel's inability over the past three decades to decisively defeat terrorist and guerrilla threats, whether emanating from the Palestinian territories or Lebanon. As Americans well know from experience in Iraq, defeating an organized state with a conventional military force is one thing, and defeating ragtag forces of terrorists and guerrillas with minimal infrastructures and no territory to defend is quite another.

Moreover, on two separate occasions, in the spring of 2000 when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon and in the summer of 2005 when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, Israel has evacuated territory under what was perceived by the Arab world and Iran to be military pressure exerted upon it. While one might argue as to whether Israel was truly "withdrawing under fire," the important point is that, in politics and policymaking, people act on perceptions, and the Israeli withdrawals were universally perceived in the Middle East as acts of weakness.

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