Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 01:10 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 01:10 | SYDNEY

Deter, deterred, deterring


Anthony Bubalo

3 February 2009 11:40

Let me respectfully disagree with my two colleagues Rodger and Hugh on Israeli deterrence after Gaza — kind of.

Like Hugh, I do not think Rodger’s characterisation of Hamas and Hizbullah as non-state actors is exactly accurate. For all intents and purposes both control territory and have a significant voice in the running of the country/territory in which they live and both have a popular constituency they must consider (to some degree at least) in making decisions.

In this respect their decisions are decidedly rational and against that background Israel in Lebanon in 2006 and more recently in Gaza achieved a (different) degree of deterrence against both.

The irony is that in 2006, in the military campaign in Lebanon that most Israelis still see as a failure, Israel arguably achieved a higher degree of deterrence than they did in the recent Gaza campaign, which most Israelis saw as a military success.

The best evidence of this is the failure of Hizbullah to open a second front in the recent Gaza war (notwithstanding a few stray rockets that may or may not have been fired by Hizbullah). At a time when Hizbullah were verbally lambasting Arab governments, particularly Egypt, for not doing anything to help Gazans, their own lack of military activity was noteworthy.

(I concede, however, that my theory might be about to get sorely tested if, as some fear, Hizbullah launches an attack against a foreign Israeli target in retaliation for the assassination of leading Hizbullah operative Imad Mughniyyah a year ago).

Indeed it is worth remembering that in 2006 Hizbullah’s original justification for kidnapping Israeli soldiers, triggering the 2006 war, was support of Palestinians in Gaza. Of course, Hizbullah’s rhetoric quickly changed once it became clear that the Lebanese people were not prepared to suffer massive Israeli retaliation for the sake of Gazans.

It may be the case, as some reports suggest, that Hizbullah held fire this time because Israel sent a message to Syria that it would be held responsible for any rocket fire by Hizbullah. But even if this was the case, it was still part of Hizbullah’s rational calculation that the high cost of taking on Israel meant the justification and the benefit needed to be pretty bloody good.

But here I also partly disagree with Hugh. Rodger underestimates the degree of deterrence Israel has achieved against Hamas. I think Hamas did calculate that by firing rockets it could achieve a change to the terms of the previous ceasefire because it felt Israel had lost the stomach for major military action in Gaza. (This is also illustrated, if the reports are true, by recriminations between Hamas' Damascus and Gaza leadership over the war). But I also think that Hugh overestimates the extent of deterrence that might have been achieved.

Again it comes down to a rational calculation. Deterrence has been a bit more durable against Hizbullah because it has something to lose by launching attacks against Israel. Against Hamas it is at best short-term and tactical because over time — and probably a short period of time — Hamas will calculate it has nothing to gain by staying quiet, as any Palestinian anger at it for bringing on the Israeli assault starts to dissipate.

That the Israelis also understand this is illustrated by new efforts to put in place another longer term ceasefire, through Egyptian mediation.

This underlines three things about deterrence in a conventional context: first, it is obviously a much more dynamic calculation, constantly being reassessed by both the deterree and the deterred. In a nuclear context you pretty much know, constantly, that you will die if you launch against your enemy. In a conventional context the balance and pros and cons are in a much greater state of flux.

In this respect Rodger is right, in fact, when he points to Israel’s failure to achieve deterrence against a series of non-state actors over 20 years. But, respectfully, he is wrong, in analysis, as to why. Israel has failed to achieve constant deterrence over 20 years because at different times each of these actors have reassessed the benefits or costs for military action, with Israeli retaliation just one part of the calculation. Conventional deterrence, whether it be against state or non-state actors is always much less stable.

Second, the military success or otherwise of a particular mission to restore deterrence is almost always beside the point. In the cruel logic of the Middle East it is always the level of destruction that counts.

Finally, what Rodger refers to in the last line of his post about a political solution is not about deterrence but a calculus of means. Namely it is the estimation that you can achieve more by political negotiation than you can by violence (though sometimes you can use one to support the other). In fact, rather than political solutions providing deterrence, as Rodger argues, it is usually the other way round. One part of a calculation in terms of your willingness to negotiate is that you are deterred from taking a military course. Of course, the other part of that equation is that the benefits of taking a political course are there as well.