Israel’s defensive strategy in recent years has been primarily passive. Passive defense does not target an enemy, but puts obstacles in his path. Our passive defenses include security barriers on our borders, with a billion-dollar one under and above the ground next to Gaza. We have built a technological marvel of a layered anti-missile defense system. Such means can – sometimes and to some extent – mitigate the damage that an enemy can do, and are an important part of a country’s defensive strategy. But even when they are successful, they do not deter or weaken the enemy. Indeed, they encourage him to improve his technology and his tactics and try again.
In the early days of the State of Israel, there were no Iron Domes or sensor-laden fences. We responded to terrorist attacks by vicious retaliation – for example, by the famous Unit 101, commanded by Ariel Sharon. That is active defense. Active defenses also have a flaw, especially for a country with little strategic depth, which is that an enemy can do a great deal of damage by a surprise attack before a response can be mounted. But an active defense has deterrent power that passive means do not. And, most importantly: a passive defense alone never won a war. The RAF won the Battle of Britain, but it took land invasions from the east and west to defeat the Nazis.
Over-reliance on passive defense can be dangerous. The Maginot and Bar-Lev lines were circumvented, and the Gaza fence penetrated. Iron Dome can be overwhelmed by mass launches of rockets, and is economically unsustainable. Hamas’ success in its murderous attack on southern Israel was made possible in large measure by our overemphasis, over a period of years, on passive tactics. With each round of fighting, Hamas improved its ability to get rockets through the Iron Dome. Because we haven’t seriously tried to destroy its infrastructure, Hamas was able to build and improve the tunnel system that we are now paying in Israeli lives to destroy. And because of our arrogance and overconfidence, the astronomically expensive security barrier proved almost worthless.
And there is another aspect that must be considered: the psychological effect, not just in Israel, but throughout the world. It has become generally accepted that Israel is a target, in way that Russia, for example, could never be. It became understandable that “frustrated” Palestinians could launch thousands of rockets at us while we bombed empty buildings in return, or Houthis in Yemen could launch Iranian missiles at our cities from 2000 km. away. Why not? We didn’t retaliate seriously.
Passive defense is more popular with the international community than active retaliation. You don’t often read in the NY Times or the Guardian about the suffering of the Qassam missiles that are blown to bits by Iron Dome. The world has gotten used to Israel responding in the most measured way to attacks that would cause other nations to strike out viciously, as the US did after 9/11. Although Israel’s record of fighting in populated areas while minimizing civilian casualties is much better than that of any other country, including the US, we receive daily warnings from President Biden to try harder in that respect. The unstated subtext is he can pull the plug on us at any moment.
I do not want to say that our unbalanced defensive posture is anyone’s fault but our own. But it appears to fit American policy, which since 1973 has been that Israel should never be permitted to win a decisive victory, and must return to her pre-1967 size. And the US uses the very powerful lever of military aid to encourage this. It’s easy to get funding for Iron Dome interceptors, but hard or impossible to get bunker busters or tanker aircraft for midair refueling. At this moment, the US Secretary of State is on his way here again to keep a tight rein on us, and an American general is sitting with our Chief of Staff to “help” us manage the war with Hamas.
Our dependence on American military aid and overemphasis on passive defense has gotten us into a very dangerous situation. Not that we can’t defeat Hamas, even though it will be significantly more costly than it would have been in January of 2009 (when Obama’s people told us to get the IDF out of Gaza before the inauguration). The real danger is in the end game, where the US State Department and administration believe they will finally be able to implement their long-sought goal of a unified sovereign Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria, the Jordan Valley, and Gaza, under the control of the PLO.
I won’t speculate today about whether they understand that this would be a major step toward the end of the Jewish state, but that is in fact the case. Israel must do whatever she can to prevent the imposition of this “solution.” The best way to remove the threat from Gaza, to prevent a Palestinian terror state from coming into existence, and to send a message to all of our enemies that we will no longer be a passive target would be to destroy Hamas, to force a large part of the population of the Gaza strip to emigrate, and to establish Israeli control over it.
Can Israel stand up against the US – or at least against powerful circles in the American government? We’d better. Our survival depends on it.