Israel's fierce response to rocket attacks and kidnappings by Hamas and Hezbollah is a consequence of the Jewish state's strategy for achieving peace with its neighbors. Diplomatic efforts to end the fighting need to take this Israeli strategy into account to have a serious chance of success.
Waging war and killing innocent civilians along with terrorists seems a strange way to give peace a chance. But Israel's leaders apparently see no alternative, because they believe their withdrawal from Gaza last year — like their pullout from Lebanon in 2000 — has been interpreted in the Muslim world as a sign of weakness and consequently led directly to the new wave of attacks.
Israel has accepted the existence of a Palestinian state, and is committed to exiting the occupied territories for the most basic reason — demographics. Polls show Israelis realize they cannot protect their security by occupying a population with a non-Jewish majority. Israelis would prefer a negotiated path to peace, but it takes two sides to make peace. Unfortunately, there is no prospect of meaningful talks for a comprehensive agreement between Israel and a Hamas government that refuses to renounce terrorism and recognize Israel's right to exist.
Lacking a negotiating partner, Israel has for some time regarded unilateral withdrawal from the Palestinian territories as the only way forward. But for Israel to proceed with plans to withdraw from the West Bank, it is convinced the "withdrawal equals weakness" mindset must be changed. Hence its decision to carry out powerful retaliation for Hamas and Hezbollah attacks to demonstrate both its capability, and more importantly its resolve, to strike back at its attackers.
For a time, it looked like the Israeli pullout from Gaza might reduce tensions. Hamas declared a so-called "hudna" or unilateral cease-fire. But over the last few months it had become a sham as Hamas militants in Gaza fired scores of rockets into Israel, even causing a village to be evacuated.
At first, Israel exercised restraint at the Hamas provocations and then began limited counterattacks. Once Hezbollah and Hamas decided to kill and capture soldiers inside Israel and send more rockets into Israeli towns and cities, Israel shifted to the more muscular response we have seen on our TV screens. This escalating cycle of violence dramatically demonstrates the danger of even relatively small incidents.
While Israel may feel confident it can protect its security without occupying Arab territories, this does not mean it is prepared to live with constant attacks from Gaza, the West Bank or Lebanon. Nor is it willing to accept the idea it should tolerate terrorism merely because governments where terrorists are based claim to have no connection with, or control over, the perpetrators. The U.S. did not buy this excuse from the Taliban and invaded Afghanistan to attack al Qaeda.
Apparently, Hamas and Hezbollah calculated Israel would not dare undertake a major response if civilians would be harmed. They also relied on international public opinion to deter a strong Israeli counterattack. Israeli's current military operations are aimed at demonstrating Israel will strike back hard — despite the tragic costs of innocent lives — when attacked.
To many, such a strategy seems morally questionable, yet it is important to recall this was the essence of U.S. Cold War strategy — massive retaliation. This was considered justified because the United States confronted an existential threat from the Soviet Union. Israel believes it faces a threat to its existence from Syria and Iran via proxies in Hamas and Hezbollah and believes credible deterrence is just as essential to its strategic doctrine.
The price paid by innocent civilians on both sides for the reckless adventurism of Hamas and Hezbollah is tragic. Israel believes many more lives would be saved if its retaliation would convince its enemies to make and keep peace tomorrow. The question Israel needs to consider now is whether it has made its point.
David Aaron is director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization. Paul Miller is a member of the Center's advisory board.
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This commentary originally appeared in Washington Times on July 30, 2006.