Can Israel Think Before Shooting?

Much of what takes place between Israel and the Hizballah in Lebanon is an outgrowth of Israel's follies and strategic errors since its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Israeli troubles with the Palestinians exhibit the same pattern.

Without belittling the Hizballah and the Palestinians' responsibility to the present clashes, Israel reaps the fruit of a series of entrapments that have taken place over the last two decades. Unfortunately, the military and political leadership in Israel are in a state of continued denial. If Israelis do not realize the futility of the overwhelming emphasis on military force in the current conflict, they will pay the price not only in the next few days, but in the years to come.

The Hizballah, one of Israel's most bitter enemies, is an unwanted child of Israel's invasion of Lebanon, a reaction of Lebanese Shiites to the megalomaniac plan of Menahem Begin and Ariel Sharon to impose upon the Lebanese people a Christian-dominated state. Hassan Nasrallah, the extremist leader of the Hizballah replaced the more moderate Abbas Mussawi, who was assassinated by Israel in February 1992.

The Israeli military had kidnapped a number of Hizballah operators and spiritual leaders such as Mustafa Dirani and Sheikh Ubeid, imprisoning them for a long time without trial. This induced the Hizballah to kidnap Israelis in order to bring about a prisoners' exchange. And it had worked. In 2004 Israel released 400 prisoners (including Dirani and Ubeid) in exchange for an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers that had been held by Hizballah. The Israeli government refused, however, to include in the deal, Samir Kuntar a Palestinian terrorist who had been responsible for the murder of an Israeli family in Nahariya in 1978. Kuntar is now on top of the current Hizballah list of prisoners it demands in exchange for the two Israeli soldiers abducted last week.

Both in Gaza and in Lebanon, Israel -- as if it has been cast into an infinite programming loop -- repeats the policies that had failed so many times in the past, by using disproportionate force against weak governments or political authorities that lack the capacity to impose order on their constituents. Israel carried out massive area bombardments in Lebanon in the past (operations Accountability in 1993 and Grapes of Wrath in 1996). Beyond the suffering they inflicted on the Lebanese people and on Israeli residents of its northern border, these operations yielded no tangible results, except for the hurried Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000. Operation Defensive Shields in the West Bank in 2002 did not end the Palestinian Intifada. Suicide bombings and attacks on Israeli military forces and civilians continue to the present day.

Israeli resort to disproportionate force is predicated on a conception of "escalation dominance," a flawed notion that the massive force can reduce the motivation of its adversaries to attack Israeli targets. Israelis still subscribe to the notion that if a problem cannot be solved by force, it would be solved by applying greater force. The current conflict demonstrates again that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) lost its capacity to stage surgical operations. It is covering for its incompetence in managing low-intensity warfare by applying massive area bombardments of questionable strategic value, and of unquestionably huge diplomatic damage. Israeli politicians are willing participants in this self-deception.

But all these problems of military strategy pale in comparison to the fundamental weakness of Israel's foreign policy. Israel may have a well-established military policy, but it does not have a peace policy. This is why Israel so often shoots before it thinks, and why Israeli leaders so often succumb to the military establishment each time a crisis arises. If the current conflict escalates to a confrontation with Syria and Iran, it will be largely because of Israel's tendency to substitute military strategy for diplomacy.

Instead of searching for a policy that explores ways to stabilize the Middle East and offer concrete peace proposals to its enemies, Israeli leaders are busy preparing military plans for every conceivable contingency. These plans are the first to be pulled out of the drawer whenever a crisis erupts, and are often applied without proper political consideration. A military policy cannot be a permanent substitute for diplomacy. The continued subjugation of diplomacy to security considerations and the domination of the Israeli security establishment on matters of foreign policy are bound to result in the failure of both military policy and of foreign policy.

What can be done? First, it is essential that Israelis open their eyes to reality and conduct a fair and unbiased assessment of the effects of their own past and present policies on their current problems. It is easy -- and perhaps politically expedient -- to place the blame on the other side, but if history has something to teach Israelis, it is that this practice does not advance Israeli interests or improve its situation. Second, Israelis must change the order of their crisis-management techniques: Political and diplomatic options should precede military ones. Force must be seen as the servant of diplomacy, not vice versa. Third, Israeli political leaders must once and for all place the military and security establishment in its proper place, as serving policymaking, not replacing it. Finally, it is high time Israel started developing a proactive peace policy and offer creative options to advance peace and stability. It has little to lose and much to gain in doing so.

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