Deterrence is as old as fear, Thomas Rid notes, but it only became systematically recognized in the twentieth century — with its new basis in three key assumptions:
The first common assumption is theoretical: that the role of deterrence is to avoid all adversarial offensive action, and that once force is used, deterrence has failed.
The second widespread assumption is historical: that the origins of the modern theory of deterrence go back to the rise of airpower in the 1930s and then evolved and matured during the nuclear stand-off in the Cold War.
The third orthodoxy is operational: that deterrence is largely limited to nuclear confrontations and, in a more limited way, to symmetric conventional military powers between armies, while terrorism and political violence are most difficult to deter.
The Israeli experience runs counter to all three assumptions:
This article has found that Israel’s use of military force, increasingly, is not just one act of force to compel one actor to fulfil one specific political goal at one given time; deterrence connects a series of acts of force to create and maintain general norms of behaviour for many militant actors over an extended period of time. This observation requires an adaptation of deterrence as a strategic concept. Israel’s conventional view of deterrence can be restated along the following lines: battle victories were the singular events, or dots; deterrence was the line to connect these dots into a larger, grand strategic picture. This line of Israeli strategic thought implicitly rearranges offence and defence under the umbrella of deterrence. Offenses may be swift, limited and strategic, in the sense that such offensives against well-established opponents redefine new (or old) rules of the game in one intensive spike of violence. But such an outburst of force may be embedded in a larger defensive strategy: deterrence, which is designed to maintain these rules and avoid the opponent ‘eroding’ them. Deterrence, in other words, connects rule-setting battle victory and rule-maintaining acts of retaliation, designed to be swift, certain but measured. It is more general than specific. Quotidian deterrence, therefore, is stretched out over time, open-ended and marked by the absence of victory. It is more restrictive than absolute. This understanding of deterrence can give what may appear as tactical tit-for-tat deeper strategic meaning. It equips a singular military response with exemplary character, in effect keeping intact a norm of behaviour, the so-called ‘rules of the game’. Such rules make future Israeli responses, so the theory goes, more predictable, thus enabling adversaries to make moderating cost-benefit calculations.
Several limiting characteristics of Israel’s approach stand out. The first limiting feature is the strategy’s imperfection. Deterrence would hardly prevent armed confrontation at all times. Aggression and retaliation were seen as necessary evils that should be kept on as low a level as possible, but that could not be pushed down to zero. Error, misunderstanding and probing are hard-wired into this arrangement. Israel’s adversaries are highly ideological and may be driven by religious motivations with a different notion of rational behaviour. Militant groups, depending on their strength, may also have limited control of other groups operating in the same area, and even if one political group is a de facto sovereign, such as Hamas in Gaza after 2007, it may have difficulty dissuading competing extremist groups such as Islamic Jihad from launching attacks. Once norms and rules of the game are effectively established, offenders are also likely to try finding loopholes, to attack in a way that makes a counter-value attack problematic or impossible. An example was a series of cross-border intrusions into southern Israel from Sinai on 18 August 2011, stated by the Gaza-based Popular Resistance Committee, a militant group. And eventually politics may interfere on either side, pushing hard-liners to take action for internal political reasons. For those reasons and more, strategic planners have to assume that violence will never cease entirely. Success does not mean no violence; success means less violence.
Second is the assumption of continuity. Israeli deterrence had long assumed a continuity of adversity, which might never turn into a genuinely friendly relationship. It assumed a continuity of a threat, perhaps even an existential one, which ultimately could not be eliminated. Even the successful establishment of a Palestinian state would not end Israel’s problem with political violence. In this sense the Jewish state’s defensive doctrine reflected thousands of years of Jewish history, an experience too often marred by violence and near-extermination. But the traditional notion of Israeli state-on-state deterrence still assumed decision, that is victory, although those victories against Arab states always assumed a temporary character. The idea of ‘cumulative deterrence’ expresses this perhaps resigned rationale. Decisive battle victory and, in order to assure it, a sophisticated early warning capability as well as self-reliance, were staples of Israel’s security doctrine for a long time. But as the non-state threat came to the fore, the strategic goal of each operation, of each battle, shifted. It was not clear-cut victory any more, but teaching the enemy a lesson: that the use of force would not bring victory and glory, but shame and pain. Paradoxically it is the measured operational success of the IDF’s energetic deterrence posture that enables a persistent political passivity in Jerusalem that may come to cost the democratic Jewish state dearly.
A third challenge is proving that deterrence shows the desired effects. How can one know if deterrence works or not? Deterrence is often credited with successfully avoiding a nuclear exchange during the Cold War. That nothing happened shows that deterrence worked. But such reasoning is highly problematic. In the Israeli case, on closer inspection, what is known as the ‘evidential problem’ in the philosophy of law is less intricate. Something actually happened and demonstrates that deterrence works – there were fewer attacks than before. But such a measurable change is only masking an epistemological problem which, ultimately, seems insurmountable. When asked for the evidence that deterrence in a particular situation actually works, Itai Brun, a brigadier general and head of the Dado Center, the IDF’s strategic think tank, points to one overarching criterion that in most other trials would stand for the absence of evidence: sheket, he said in Hebrew: Quiet.
A final insight pushes the argument into philosophical territory. The analysis is not free from contradictions, and the Israeli strategy is not free from contradictions, because ultimately reality is not free from contradictions. It may be in the genuine interest of a militant group to strike Israeli territory in a given situation, for instance to show that the Palestinian resistance continues, or to provoke an Israeli counterstrike in order to politically exploit the ‘Zionist aggression’, but at the same time escalation may be against the same group’s interest because it damages international support and because IDF strikes could damage sensitive installations or kill critical personnel. Conversely, for Israel, responding to aggression may bring positive and negative consequences at the same time, even when only the narrow impact on one militant group is considered. Another example is the desired predictability of Israeli retaliation. Strategic thinkers in Tel Aviv assume that it is in their country’s interests to be perceived as both predictable and unreasonable at the same time.96 A sophisticated strategy, and sophisticated strategic theory, should be able to accommodate such contradictions, not ban them and keep the analysis artificially clean.
This unusual insight leads to an unusual conclusion. The recent Israeli experience with deterrence, as unlikely as it may seem at first glance, appears quintessentially postmodern. Cold War deterrence theory bears modernist traces. The Soviet-American superpower confrontation was characterized by a mutual belief in a general theory, in quantification, in structure, in clear lines between peace and war, in victory followed by an end of enmity. There was a towering belief in universal progress, in short, as illustrated by the widespread euphoria of the early 1990s. Israel’s experience offers the starkest of contrasts. It is diverse, not unified; it is case-specific and particular, not universalistic; the IDF’s approach vis-à-vis its various non-state enemies at various borders is fragmented, not holistic; Israeli strategists assume that reality itself is contradictory and shape-shifting, and that not even the most orderly minds can bring it into neat agreement and steadiness; the IDF now takes into account granular cultural and emotional considerations when assessing potential actions of its adversaries, quite unlike positivists and realists; leaders rely equally on tacit and explicit knowledge, not just on quantitative analysis and formal doctrine; and if necessary, Israeli operators are more pragmatic than principled. Yet this overall inclination seems to extend to the dark side of the postmodern condition. The Jewish state’s political and military strategy is resigned, even cynical, without the genuine optimism and captivating vision that marked the Zionist dream, once an archetypically modernist phenomenon itself. Today Israeli grand strategy seemingly embraces an imperfect and unending state of gridlock, and has parted with the West’s quintessentially modern idea of continuous improvement and progress. But this probing line of thought runs into one problem. If the Israeli experience with deterrence appears postmodern and disillusioned, the more vital question is whether Israel had ever fully and unequivocally embraced the West’s fanciful modern condition in the first place. Has the future arrived late in Jerusalem, or perhaps early?