An Assessment of Israeli Deterrence against Asymmetric Threats

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Israel today continues to face a complicated threat environment but since the devastating wars of 1967 and 1973, an Arab recognition of the difficulties in meeting Israeli conventional capacity head-on has pushed threats down the conflict spectrum. The probability of a regional neighbor instigating conventional intra-state war has declined precipitously in the past few decades while low-intensity wars of attrition perpetrated by powerful non-state actors, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, have become the predominant mode of opposition for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Regional actors, particularly Syria and Iran have shifted their attentions to covert support for these groups, seeing them as low-cost and low-risk mechanisms to continue their resistance against Israel without engendering a direct response. To combat these threats, deterrence has risen to the forefront of Israeli security policy with the intention of preventing asymmetric actors from initiating attacks that would require a large-scale IDF response. An examination of IDF deterrence capacity in the wake of military campaigns against Hamas and Hezbollah reveals a mixed record where tactical successes have not translated into strategic victories.

While deterrence in a non-nuclear context is a developing field in International Relations theory, its basic tenets have been utilized since the dawn of mankind. Used on an everyday level in parent-child, business and international relationships, deterrence at its simplest level is the “generation of fear”  to attempt to manipulate future behavior. As such it requires both capacity and credibility; i.e. a proven capability to harm and a credible belief by an adversary of the willingness to use this capability. By wielding both these attributes skillfully, an actor is able to manipulate his adversary’s cost-benefit calculus, persuading him to forswear certain behaviors for fear of debilitating consequences. However in a conventional, and particularly asymmetric context, deterrence strategy gains considerable complexity relative to its Cold War predecessor. Whereas nuclear deterrence focused on the inevitability of mutually assured destruction, asymmetric deterrence, with a limited arsenal of conventional means, requires a much more nuanced articulation of scope and utility.

The bedrock of IDF deterrence strategy today is predicated on managing militancy within certain acceptable thresholds to avoid escalation of asymmetric threats to levels that require a large-scale response. Particularly in an entrenched conflict such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, where an ongoing asymmetric attrition campaign by resistance groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah is an enduring norm, such a policy is sensible and adequate. The ability for deterrence to completely dissuade all forms of violence is an impossible standard. Quite simply put Israel cannot initiate a large-scale conventional punitive campaign in response to every rocket attack or every shooting. Furthermore it is arguably impossible for many adversaries in Israel’s threat environment to fully constrain all violence given inadequate internal control mechanisms. Codifying such an impossible deterrence policy is in fact counterproductive, eroding its credibility to the point of ineffectiveness.

Examining the success of Israeli deterrent strategies against asymmetric actors, namely Hamas and Hezbollah, will require distinguishing between Israel’s successes at tactical deterrent measures and its failures in creating strategic deterrence. Loosely defined, tactical deterrents include the building up of capacity to forestall and respond to militancy, reducing expected probabilities of success and thereby deterring attacks. Strategic deterrence on the other hand is significantly more elusive, yet more important. Strategic deterrent measures involve sapping an enemy’s will to engage in hostilities by reducing the chances of successes in achieving its most fundamental goals.  Towards achieving both, the IDF has attempted to synergize ‘deterrence by denial’ and ‘deterrence by punishment’ strategies. Deterrence by denial entails largely defensive measures fortifying to demonstrate the futility of an adversary’s ultimate goal while deterrence by punishment as its name suggests, involves meting out disproportionate response to dissuade future transgressions. 

A successful deterrent strategy also requires the evaluation of various intangible factors such as religion, culture, emotion and historical interactions to tailor a deterrence regime suitable for a specific adversary. A deterrent regime that works against Hezbollah might be inherently unsuitable for other adversaries. Furthermore, particularly in the Israeli context of operations against elusive non-state adversaries, future deterrent capacity is constantly refreshed by battlefield performance. Poor performance erodes deterrence just as surely as good performance creates it.

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