In theory, deterrence is a clear concept. It is a posture intended to dissuade an adversary from taking a hostile action through the threat, usually explicit, that should the adversary take such action his gains would be considerably outweighed by the retaliatory costs that the deterring party will be inflicting onto him.
Deterrence by punishment is indeed the most authentic form of deterrence. In practice however, deterrence is often elusive and problematic. This being so, since it unfolds in the opponent’s mind and is completely dependent on his comprehension, capacity to calculate costs and benefits, value system, propensity to risk-taking and miscalculating.
Therefore, and given other alternative options, a defensive posture – let alone an offensive one – should be preferable to a deterrent posture, if such a choice presents itself.
Israel had a choice
In 2000, Israel had a choice – to remain in control of the security zone in South Lebanon.
By deciding to withdraw unilaterally, Israel undertook an additional deterrent burden upon itself having to warn Hizbullah, the Palestinians in Lebanon, and the governments of Lebanon and Syria that should they take advantage of fact of Israel’s greater exposure and attack it, its retaliatory response would be considerable and harsh.
That threat was put to test within a few months – with Israel failing to live up to it. Ever since, Hizbullah came to attack Israel on several occasions, with Israel’s response falling short of its initial threat. That pattern of Israel’s responses must have instilled with the Hizbullah a perception that there is a considerable gap between Israel’s threats and its deeds.
That deterrence deficit led to Nassrallah’s recent miscalculation, as he publicly conceded, that he did not suspect that Israel’s response for the July 12 attack would be any different that to which he was habituated.
Therefore, Israel did well in acting to correct this perception and lending a heavy blow to the Hizbullah. In one single act, the deterrence deficit was seemingly closed, although Israel’s inability to attain a decisive military victory on the ground did diminish its reputation of invincibility.
Furthermore, new cracks in Israel’s deterrent image appeared as it refrained from taking action against Syria, while the involvement of the latter was evident. Given these mixed results, it is too early to assess the overall effect of the recent military campaign on Israel’s general deterrent image.
In face of the Iranian threat
The principal deterrence deficit to have been accumulated, however, is not at all in the Lebanese/Syria theatre. It is vis-à-vis Iran that it has evolved and it portends grave potential risks for Israel.
In face of repeated Iranian threats to destroy Israel, there have been no Israeli counter-threats. It might be that Israel is expecting the international community to block Iran’s drive to nuclear weapons – and without such weapons – Iranian threats would remain hollow; it could also be the case that the Israeli government believes that its deterrent image is sufficient and does not require being reinforced by the kind of declaratory policy that deterrence requires.
But even if the cause for Israel’s loud silence is quite understandable, one cannot overlook the high price it might incur.
The deterrence deficit vis-à-vis Iran came to be noticed as early as 2001 when Rafsanjani referred to an alleged Israeli vulnerability to nuclear strikes, compared to Iran’s. Such mindset, should it take hold in Iran, might lead to a similar miscalculation as Nasrallah’s. But in the Iranian case, Israel cannot allow such miscalculation.
Interestingly, it was Shimon Peres who broke the Israeli silence when he noted several months ago, that Iran too could be destroyed.
He did not clarify and said no more, but his words must have carried special weight if only because of his work for peace, on one hand, and his contribution to Israel’s national power, on the other. But Peres’ ambiguous veiled threat stands alone and there is no evidence that it registered with the Iranian leadership. It seems then, that Israel’s declaratory deterrence deficit vis-à-vis Iran remained in effect.
One should hope therefore, that the Israeli review of its defense policies in the aftermath of the Lebanese campaign will also consider lowering the burden on Israel’s deterrence by shifting its reliance, where possible, to defensive and offensive capabilities.
Yet, insofar as there will always be security threats that cannot be met but by deterrence, Israel will have to seek ways to close the deterrence deficit accumulated so far. It should reinforce the necessary capabilities upon which deterrence rests, and adopt strategic behavior that is more consistent with the principles and requirements of deterrence.
Prof. Uzi Arad is the Founding Head of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya