Daniel Byman examines the strengths and weaknesses of Israel’s counter-terror policies and institutions.
By Aaron Mannes
Daniel Byman, A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism (Oxford University Press, 2011), 496pp. $34.95.
Israel's fight against terrorism began even before the establishment of the state itself, with Arab raids against Jewish communities in Turkish and Mandatory Palestine. After independence, but well before the establishment of the PLO, Egypt and Jordan supported cross-border fedayeen raids. Israeli responses are also familiar, including reprisal raids and targeted killings. Byman discusses Israeli counter-terror innovations in response to the rise of Fatah and international terrorism, how Israel kept its Arab populations and later the West Bank and Gaza relatively peaceful through systematic intelligence operations and rewarding supporters, and how counter-terrorism policy evolved in the wake of Oslo and during the Second Intifada. There are also extensive descriptions of Israel's involvement in Lebanon, and its efforts against Jewish terrorism.
This solid overview, a balanced assessment of Israeli successes and failures, sets the stage for the final quarter of the book, a discussion of lessons learned from Israel’s counter-terror experience that focuses on interrogation, targeted killings, and Israel’s defensive measures, along with a survey of Israel’s national security institutions. In brief, Israel has been tactically successful and even brilliant, but strategically shortsighted. But Byman explains why this situation prevails in terms of institutional arrangements, political realities, and frequently a lack of better options.
Israel's targeted killings policy epitomizes this situation. Tactically, Israel has developed impressive intelligence and strike capabilities, along with careful frameworks for evaluating targets and opportunities. While some mistakes have been made, Israel has gone to great lengths to avoid accidentally killing the wrong person or killing civilians. Unfortunately, in the political arena, when these mistakes occur—as they inevitably do—civilian casualties overshadow these efforts. Nonetheless, the United States has modeled its own legal justifications on those of Israel, and the decreasing lethality of Palestinian terrorist organizations is a testament to the effectiveness of that model.
However, Byman argues, on the political and strategic level targeted killings at times are are counter-productive—particularly when they are unsuccessful. In 1997, for example, Israel orchestrated an elaborate effort to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Mishal in Jordan using poison. But the attempt failed, and Israel was forced to supply an antidote, release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners (including Hamas founder Sheikh Yassin) in exchange for its agents, and relations with both Jordan (Israel's closest Arab ally) and Canada (Israeli agents were traveling under Canadian passports), as well as Israel’s reputation writ large, were damaged. Rather than decapitating Hamas, the targeted killing’s failure re-invigorated it. There were strong arguments for attempting this operation, but a more careful view of the potential political consequences would have been warranted.
More broadly, Byman cites critics who argue that Israeli policies don't take Palestinian politics into account. Targeted killings have frequently been seen as undermining fragile truces with the Palestinians. But Byman also notes, correctly, that Palestinian leaders rarely take Israeli politics into account either, and that the depth of the connections between the PA and Hamas raise serious questions about whether there was ever a reliable Palestinian peace partner in the first place.
Byman examines many other Israeli practices in this vein. West Bank checkpoints complicate Palestinian lives, cutting towns off from one another and hampering travel and commerce. They also work; terrorists have far more difficulty infiltrating targets and about 30 percent of Israeli arrests are conducted at checkpoints. The IDF responded to criticism of the checkpoints by constructing better checkpoint facilities, professionalizing checkpoint personnel and standardizing procedures. Still, these barriers turn trips that should take minutes into hours, so it is no surprise that Palestinians resent them. Yet the threat is very real. Ambulances have been used to ferry explosives, so that time-consuming Israeli searches of Palestinian ambulances are not merely Israeli caprice. While the number of ambulances used this way is a tiny percentage of the total, an Israeli soldier has every incentive err on the side of caution.
Similar arguments apply to Israel's defensive barrier on the West Bank, to targeted killings, and to Israel's interrogation and detention policies. There is little question that Israeli tactics work. Terrorism has been reduced. Time and again since the founding of the Jewish state, new terrorist tactics have been countered and neutralized. But, Byman notes, Israel has not effectively embraced the COIN paradigm in which “hearts and minds” are the crucial battlefield. It is an open question whether or not Arab hearts and minds could ever have been won over, but it is fair to say that Israel never really tried. Byman’s discussion of Israel’s institutions provides confirmation of the Israeli preference for “kinetic” rather than “smart” counter-terror policies.
The reasons are practical. The conflicts between the Departments of State and Defense that characterize the U.S. national security process have no equivalent in Israel. Israel’s National Security Council is a mere shell, not an effective coordination mechanism. There are no political institutions to rival the influence or capabilities of the IDF. Thus, when policy options are presented, only the IDF provides comprehensive, well-fleshed-out options. And unsurprisingly, those are frequently military in nature. This is not to say that military options are not essential. However, Israeli policymakers need other options and a broader understanding of the political consequences.
Byman is correct when he states that Israel's political system hampers decision-making and more on this topic would be welcome. Byman focuses on Israel's proportional representation system as being responsible for Israel fragmented politics. This is a widely held belief, but in fact is inaccurate. Many other countries use a form of proportional representation. Where Israel is unique is that the entire country is a single district represented by the entire 120-member Knesset. One of the important consequences is that this creates enormous incentives for political entrepreneurs to leave a major party and establish their own party where they can wield disproportionate influence as coalition-makers. To govern, Israeli prime ministers need to assemble complex coalitions, giving key posts to leaders of other parties. One experienced Israeli foreign policy hand told Byman, “the prime minister must strike a deal with the minister of defense every morning.”
Israel's impossible political system is not completely at fault, however. The situation itself is impossible. Israel's foundation was rooted in the Holocaust. Israelis are motivated by the principle that never again will Jews be slaughtered without fighting back. Only rarely have Israeli politicians have suffered electoral backlash for pressing for retaliation or tough tactics. Still, Byman may overemphasize this argument. Israel's national ethos only reinforces human nature. It is difficult to imagine a country facing a comparable threat and not reacting similarly.
The look at Israeli institutions is not all negative. One area where Israel can offer lessons to the world is in institutional adaptability. No country can anticipate every threat, but Israeli security shifts gears in the face of new threats remarkably quickly. After being humbled by a 1968 hijacking by the PFLP, Israel developed a range of responses including armed sky marshals and improved security that neutralized this danger; Israeli jets haven't been hijacked since.
The Shin Bet is a particular example of this kind of organizational flexibility, first and foremost because it is an elite organization that prides itself on specialization and deep knowledge. Pre-Oslo, when Israel had direct control of the West Bank and Gaza, case officers and interrogators were key players. After the Accords were signed in 1993, as the Shin Bet lost its easy access to Palestinian agents and had to rely more on signals intelligence, analysts went from an auxiliary role to a primary one. Of course, American intelligences agencies are much larger and have to operate on an international rather then regional basis. Nonetheless, Israel’s experiences with organizational reform could be useful to U.S. policymakers. This institutional adaptability shows that if Israel sought to undertake real national security process reform and embrace a broader set of options, it could almost certainly do so and bring the same spirit of innovation to them. As the United States and the rest of the world struggle to counter radical Islam, creative ideas and energy would be welcome.
Byman’s overall conclusion is sobering. Effective counter-terror tactics buy time, and the IDF and Israel’s other security agencies have done an admirable job in buying Israel time. Now Israel and the West must start using this time effectively, to formulate a larger strategy against terrorism. A decade after 9/11, it is counsel worth heeding.
Aaron Mannes, the author of Profiles in Terror: The Guide to Middle East Terrorist Organizations (Rowman & Littlefield-JINSA 2004) and TheTerrorWonk Plus (www.terrorwonk.com), is a researcher at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics and a PhD student at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.