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.
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.
Israel's adversaries consequently moved to exploit Israel's perceived weakness and achieve their long sought-after goal of destroying the Jewish state. Yasser Arafat, then the Palestinian leader, made it clear in launching the Al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000 that Israel was in decline and one final push was all that was needed to achieve total victory over it.
Mr. Arafat, of course, was proved wrong (at great cost to Israelis and even greater cost to Palestinians), but Israel's inability to stamp out terrorism from the West Bank or prevent rocket attacks from the newly evacuated Gaza Strip has continued to erode its ability to deter its enemies.
Both current military clashes with Hizbullah and the Palestinians are destructive to civilians in Lebanon and Gaza because the fighting is taking place inside urban areas. But that's because the Palestinian groups and Hizbullah routinely use these areas as bases from which to launch attacks and to store weapons.
The targeting of roads and bridges in Lebanon and Gaza is also designed to deny the enemy mobility. At the same time, the targeting of roads and bridges, power plants, and, in the case of Lebanon, ports and airports, as well as the cutting off of Gaza and Lebanon from the outside world, is also designed to illustrate Israel's overwhelming military might. It must convince not only Hizbullah and the Palestinian groups that they should abandon their attacks on Israel, but also send a broader regional message that proxy wars against Israel executed by Iran and Syria will no longer be tolerated.
In order for Israel to achieve its goal of deterrence capacity in Lebanon and Gaza, it must achieve two immediate objectives.
First, Israel must continue both military campaigns to the point that neither Hizbullah nor the Palestinians in Gaza are able to launch rockets and missiles at Israel. This requires that the international community give Israel time in Lebanon, so that it can severely damage Hizbullah's ability to launch rockets and missiles against Israel and cripple the organization's ability to rule southern Lebanon.
Similarly, Israel must continue its ongoing operations in Gaza until the Palestinian militants' ability to operate is so severely disrupted, and their personnel so denuded through Israeli arrests and assassinations, that they agree to cease launching attacks against Israel.
Second, the present crisis on both fronts cannot be brought to a close without Syria and Iran paying some price for their continued arming, funding, and training of Hizbullah and Palestinian terror groups.
Keeping the international community at bay in order to accomplish the first goal, while actively engaging with it in order to accomplish the second goal will require some impressive juggling on the part of Israel's leaders.
• Nadav Morag is chair of the department of political science at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and lectures at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. He previously served as a senior director at the Israeli National Security Council for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.