Lebanese Army Soldier with UN Peacekeeper

Restraint or deterrence

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A recent editorial in Haaretz reprimanded the IDF for cutting down a tree inside Israeli territory near the Lebanese border on the absurd grounds that the authorities should have been more restrained and sensitive to the political tension in Lebanon.

If this approach were adopted by our government, it would result in a total collapse of Israel’s deterrence. Rather than discouraging our enemies from conducting acts of aggression and terror out of fear of reprisal, we ourselves would become reluctant to take any defensive measures out of concern that they could be construed as aggressive acts or provocations by our hostile neighbors. In such a bizarre climate, we would be failing to carry out the minimal steps required to maintain the security of our borders and the welfare of our citizens.

A FEW days before the unprovoked attack by the Lebanese army, a grad rocket had been launched from the Gaza Strip which could easily have led to major loss of life in the heart of Ashkelon. Subsequently, missiles were launched on Eilat, again fortunately not resulting in Israeli casualties but killing an innocent Jordanian.

These terrorist attacks took place shortly after we agreed, under enormous pressure from the Obama administration, to participate in a UN investigation of May 31’s flotilla incident when Turkish Islamic extremists sought to break our legitimate naval blockade of Gaza.

Ironically, that took place simultaneously with widespread media coverage of classified documents released by WikiLeaks about the inadvertent killing of civilians by US and allied forces in Afghanistan.

Needless to say, there were no calls from UN Secretary General Ban Ki- Moon for an inquiry or any suggestion that the death of these innocent civilians were war crimes.

On the other hand, when the Lebanese army deliberately killed an Israeli officer after the IDF had obtained advance UNIFIL approval to clear trees in what was indisputably acknowledged to be within the Israeli border, the UN’s meek response was limited to a call for restraint.

Our indefatigable ally, the US, has been arming the Lebanese army at an alarming level, despite its awareness that Hizbullah and Syria are the dominant forces in Lebanon, and despite the fact that these weapons would almost certainly be turned on us in the event of a conflict orchestrated by the Iranians.

Yet even under these circumstances, the initial US State Department response to the border killing paralleled the mealymouthed UN call for restraint, and failed to condemn the perpetrator. It was only after Israel protested bitterly that the US finally criticized Lebanon.

OVERALL, IT would seem that we have still not internalized the lessons of the past. We live in a region of scorpions, in which compromise and goodwill extended in the face of aggression has time and again encouraged our enemies to intensify their acts of terror until a full-scale war erupts.

We should surely have absorbed the lessons of the Kassams. Those who belittled their impact and derisively referred to them as primitive “Kassam Shmassams,” failed to appreciate that our failure to respond vigorously allowed the world to view such attacks as part of the Middle East routine.

Had we responded initially with vigor, the attacks would not have escalated and we may well have avoided the Gaza war.

One need only remember Ehud Barak’s undertaking when we withdrew from Lebanon. “If they so much as cross the border, we will smite them with all our might.”

Ariel Sharon said the same after the Gaza withdrawal. And after the Second Lebanon War, Ehud Olmert also made empty threats but failed to respond to Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza until the south was literally being inundated .

When Binyamin Netanyahu was elected, he pledged to respond promptly and vigorously to all terror attacks. Indeed until recently, we had relative quiet. Now under Iranian direction, Hizbullah and Hamas are once again testing us in order to gauge how far they can go.

They are confident that the Americans will exert maximum pressure on Netanyahu to display restraint so as to avoid provoking a war which would divert attention from Ahmadinejad’s nuclear ambitions and destroy prospects for direct negotiations with the Palestinians.

But the reality is that we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. If we are again persuaded to act with restraint in the face of aggression, we will merely empower the terrorists. If we seek to retain our deterrence, our response to such acts of hostility must be immediate and forceful and not wait until Israeli blood has been shed.

If we respond swiftly and demonstrate that Hamas and Hizbullah will pay a major price if they attack us, we will almost certainly incur the wrath of the UN, Europe and regrettably, probably also the US. Yet the lessons of the past decade demonstrate that Hamas and Hizbullah are afraid of being held responsible by the people they rule for any suffering inflicted on them as a result of unprovoked aggression against Israel. This is a brutal area in which alas, paradoxically, might and swift reprisal against terror attacks are far more likely to avert a full-blown war than vacuous dialogue and restraint.

Our deterrent policy should be spelled out.

Netanyahu must avoid repeating the hollow threats of reprisals that transformed us into loudmouthed bluffers and a regional laughing stock over the past decade. He must proclaim that we will respond vigorously to any threats against our civilian population and, unlike his predecessors, commit himself to implementing such a policy.

We no longer have any illusions. The world does not accept our right to defend ourselves, but we cannot afford to await intervention or retribution from third parties when our civilians are endangered. It will represent a continuation of former government follies if we stand by with folded arms and fail to immediately respond to acts of terror. On the other hand, if we convey a strong message to our foes that if they deliberately spill Israeli blood there is a major price to pay, we may in fact avert the worst scenario of another brutal all-out war.

ileibler@netvision.net.il

This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post

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