There is no avoiding war; it can only be postponed to the advantage of others. – Niccolo Machiavelli
It’s been reported that indirect negotiations are underway with Hamas for the release of two Israelis and the bodies of two soldiers that they are holding. Germany and Egypt are said to be involved in the negotiations. Needless to add, part of the price for their release will be the freeing of murderers associated with Hamas who are now in Israeli jails.
Some say that one reason the IDF is not taking stronger action (read: any action at all) against the terrorists that are launching incendiary devices that have burned thousands of acres in southern Israel is the sensitivity of these negotiations. Another reason is that officials are worried about tension of the northern borders and would prefer to avoid a two-front war. And the IDF also wants to finish the enormously expensive anti-tunnel barrier they are building along the frontier.
I understand the arguments for this policy. But it is wrong in every way.
Deterrence is created by conditioning the enemy to expect a painful response to aggressive behavior. If we train them to expect a minimal or no response, then they escalate their aggression, and it becomes the status quo. Today it has become normal that Hamas is burning our land. It has become normal for them to hold on to any Israeli, dead or alive, that they can get their hands on.
We have things backwards. We are the stronger power, and thus Hamas should be the ones begging for negotiations. Instead of using our power to force them to release hostages and stop setting fires, we deliberately restrain ourselves and thus allow them to control our behavior.
We are not deterring them. They are deterring us.
I can imagine the anguish of the families involved, both those of the soldiers whose bodies are in the hands of the ghouls of Hamas, and those whose apparently mentally disturbed family members wandered across the border. But Israel is full of families who will never stop feeling the pain of their loss, including some, like the families of Ron Arad, Zechariah Baumel, Tzvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz, and Guy Hever, who will never even have the (small) comfort of knowing where their sons are buried or even the certainty that they are dead.
I wonder how many prisoners Hamas wants in return for our four. The Gilad Shalit affair set a precedent of roughly 1000 to 1. I wonder what else they are demanding.
In the north, the situation in Lebanon is a direct result of our restraint. Hezbollah built up its strike force over a period of 12 years, from 2006. What were we doing during those 12 years? Did we notice what was happening? Of course we did. But we allowed the buildup to become normal. Even our “right-wing” Prime Minister from 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has both military experience and an understanding of history superior to most of his contemporaries, didn’t appear to worry about it – until, it seems, one day he woke up and realized that in the event of war Hezbollah could fire thousands of rockets and longer range missiles every day at almost every point in Israel (to his credit, Netanyahu seems determined not to allow the same situation to take hold in Syria).
There are external forces that always work to prevent us from taking action. The UN, the EU, and the US prefer restraint to action. During the Obama years, enormous pressure was put on us to prevent Israel from striking Iran’s atomic bomb project, until Obama got his nuclear deal to lock us down. So now, if we have to use force in any event, Iran’s facilities are more hardened and better dispersed and defended.
There is another lockdown on the horizon. Details about the so-called “deal of the century” of the Trump Administration are beginning to surface. It seems that it will involve Israel accepting a hudna (a temporary truce) with Hamas, while international aid is used to rehabilitate Gaza, including building port facilities in Cyprus. There are many problems, starting with the fact that Hamas will not be required to disarm. Once the deal is in place, there will be no more “mowing the grass,” as our periodic conflicts in Gaza have been called, and a massive buildup like Hezbollah’s in Lebanon will become a possibility. Perhaps pressure from the US to not upset the nascent deal is already one of the factors preventing us from responding to Hamas’ provocations.
Restraint as a policy is seductive. Nobody wants war, and there is always the risk that responding to aggression will bring about escalation, which will lead to all-out war. Calculations are made: we can become better at putting out fires, and we can afford to let some land burn, we can develop more effective ways to intercept firebombs. Better than dealing with a massive rocket attack on our towns, we think. Restraint, in the short term, is cheaper and more comfortable than maintaining deterrence.
But in addition to the obvious problems, like the military buildup of Hezbollah and Hamas or the progress of Iranian nuclear and missile programs, there are the psychological effects, both on us and our enemies. Every new rocket launcher and every burned field, every unbalanced prisoner exchange, encourages our enemies to believe that with perseverance they will achieve victory. From our point of view, every successful act of terrorism reduces our confidence that our leadership is capable of protecting us.
The policy of restraint does not send a message of strength, but rather of weakness. It buys a degree of peace and comfort in the short term for the price of insecurity and possibly war in the long term. It weakens deterrence and provides openings for “lockdowns” which can make it impossible to respond when provocations become intolerable. It invites conflict rather than deterring it. It is often an excuse for politicians to “kick the can down the road” rather than dealing with aggression.
Restraint is portrayed as the wiser, more mature policy than confrontation. It has a better reputation than its sister, appeasement, but in the end the result is the same: more violence, not less.