Israel’s recent decision to negotiate and exchange prisoners with Hezbollah, one of its fiercest enemies, is a massive strategic blunder. By capitulating to the demands of a terrorist group that openly calls for the annihilation of the Jewish state, Israel has rewarded terror and further decreased the chances of achieving a cessation of hostilities in the Middle East.
Israel’s security rests on the doctrine of deterrence. Deterrence can be roughly defined as defeating your enemy before he attacks by promising an overwhelming counterattack that would cost him more than he would gain from his aggression. When Israel negotiates with terrorists–even in the framework of a prisoner exchange–it appears weak and sends the message that it can be blackmailed into making concessions, thus eroding its deterrent power.
To be sure, lopsided prisoner exchanges are not new to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Following the Sinai campaign of 1956, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) exchanged 5,500 Egyptian soldiers for the lives of the four Israeli soldiers captured in the fighting. In the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel returned over 8,000 Egyptians in exchange for 240 IDF soldiers. The disparity is startling.
However these episodes are different from the recent deal with Hezbollah because they were conducted with nations, not terrorist groups, and only in the aftermath of decisive Israeli victories on the battlefield. Despite Cairo’s rhetoric to the contrary, the Egyptians walked away from both of these conflicts vanquished, humiliated and in awe of Israel’s military might. After four wars in 30 years, it was clear that Egypt could not defeat Israel even with a surprise attack under the most favorable conditions. It was this recognition that led Anwar Sadat to begin the path towards reconciliation with Israel. In contrast, the prisoner exchange with Hezbollah in 2004 is viewed in the Arab world as a victory over Israel, and sends the message that terror can pay off.
In three years of low-intensity conflict with the Palestinians, Israel has succeeded in preventing another full-scale Arab-Israeli war, particularly with Syria. Despite Damascus’ continuing sponsorship of terrorism, Israel has deterred Syria from escalating into an outright attack. The standoff on the Golan Heights does not come from the meager United Nations peacekeeping force that is stationed there–which would likely be evacuated at the first sign of danger–but rather from the fact that Syria rightly knows that an Israeli reprisal would go all the way to Damascus.
Instead, Syria supports terrorist groups like Hezbollah, with the hope that they will cause Israel pain and suffering without leaving an address at which Israel can strike. Israel sent Syria the correct message in October 2003 when it sent its air force inside Syrian territory to destroy training camps belonging to the Islamic Jihad, which was responsible for a suicide bombing the day before that killed 19 Israelis. Israel’s decision to negotiate with Hezbollah, however, has the exact opposite effect.
Terrorism is inherently more difficult to deter because, ultimately, terrorists do not value life. Terrorist groups do not have fixed assets or other targets of value, and their demands are uncompromising. Furthermore, terrorists seek to cripple the nations they fight against by exploiting the better angels of democratic societies. These include sensitivity to casualties and vulnerability to public opinion.
Tactically, the war on terror is more elusive and opaque than a conventional conflict. But the strategic aim is the same for both the terrorists and the nations who stand against them: to bring the adversary to his knees and render him incapable or unwilling to continue the fight.
Any attempt to placate Hezbollah through negotiation is an exercise in folly. The group’s spiritual leader Mohammed Fadllalah declared to his supporters: “Our struggle will end only when this entity [Israel] is obliterated. We recognize no treaty with it, no cease fire, and no peace agreements, whether separate or consolidated.”
According to Israel’s chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, Hezbollah subscribes to what is known as the “spider web theory.” In an interview with Haaretz in August 2002, Yaalon explained that this theory
Holds that Israel is a military power, but that its civil society is a pampered consumer society that is no longer willing to fight and struggle. The Israeli army is strong, Israel has technological superiority and is said to have strategic capabilities, but its citizens are unwilling any longer to sacrifice lives in order to defend their national interests and national goals. Therefore, Israel is a spider-web society: it looks strong from the outside, but touch it and it will fall apart.
Terrorists believe they have found the Israeli–or American–Achilles heel in the high value that these societies place on individual life. Their strategy is to counter an overwhelming conventional military advantage with unconventional methods of attack.
Osama bin Laden drew the same conclusions when he saw that killing 18 American soldiers sapped the political and moral will behind the United States’ mission to Somalia in 1993. America was thought to be a paper tiger. Reports circulated after September 11, 2001 that the al Qaeda leadership genuinely believed that United States would not retaliate after the attacks on New York and Washington. Fortunately, many of al Qaeda’s leaders have become victims of their own delusion.
Yet it is possible to deter and defeat terrorism. The Washington Post recently reported that American intelligence officials estimate that 75 percent of al Qaeda’s leadership has been captured or killed since 9/11. Furthermore, the group’s failure to carry out a “spectacular attack” against the United States in more than two years must be recorded as an American victory.
As the “National Security Strategy of the United States” points out, terrorist groups depend largely on state sponsorship and international financial networks, both of which can be targeted, disrupted and destroyed. Above all, in order to persevere, democratic societies under assault must project power, maintain resolve and refrain from showing signs of erosion or collapse.
Israel’s decision to proceed with the prisoner exchange made no sense from a moral, practical or strategic point of view. In return for freeing 430 Palestinians and Lebanese prisoners, including two terrorist masterminds and scores of their foot soldiers, Israel received three dead bodies and one live citizen, Elhanan Tannenbaum. The circumstances surrounding Tannenbaum’s capture are dubious: by his own admission he traveled to the United Arab Emirates, where he was captured, in pursuit of personal profit. He claims that he was also seeking information on Israel’s missing navigator, Ron Arad, who if alive is thought to be held by Hezbollah or Iran. Israeli authorities have not confirmed this claim.
Hezbollah’s cruelty reached new heights in the period since the three soldiers, Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham and Omar Souad were abducted in October 2000. A year after the kidnapping, reports circulated in Israel that the soldiers had died in the ambush. Yet Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, knowing Israel’s sensitivity to casualties, repeatedly indicated that the soldiers were still alive, in order to prolong the anguish in Israel and increase the ransom Sharon’s government would pay.
Whatever the final judgment on Tannenbaum, few Israelis would consider his life to be worth that of the Israeli soldiers and civilians that are likely to die in future terrorist attacks now that Hezbollah has been emboldened. Hezbollah is revered in the Arab world for having bested Israel a second time. Terror masterminds in Gaza and Ramallah are likely to emulate their mentors in Beirut.
According to a report published in Jerusalem’s Al Hayat al-Jedidah the day after the exchange, the military branch of Fatah issued a manifesto that “emphasized the necessity to follow in the footsteps of the act of Hezbollah, so that all prisoners and detainees will be released.” The next day, Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin told reporters in Gaza that there was “no solution for the issue of prisoners except capturing soldiers of the enemy and exchanging them for ours.”
The Israeli government has an obligation to assure its soldiers that if they are killed in battle they will be brought to rest in Israel. But a responsible government’s first priority must be to protect the living.
For the Palestinians, terrorism has become politics by other means, and they will cease their onslaught against Israel not because they will be convinced that it is morally wrong, but only when they sincerely believe that they are more likely to achieve their objectives through negotiation than violence.
Previous experience should have taught Israel the danger of capitulating to its adversaries. Eager to reach a final settlement at the Camp David Summit, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak conceded to nearly all of Yasser Arafat’s demands, including the return of 97 percent of the West Bank and the partition of Jerusalem, which was considered a sacred cow among Israelis. Barak’s far-reaching concessions, viewed by many in the West as heroic, were taken as a sign of weakness by the Palestinians. The Palestinians interpreted Barak’s willingness to compromise as evidence that Israel’s will was eroding, and that more gains would be attained by the sword rather than the pen.
The Palestinians had learned an important lesson from Israel’s haphazard evacuation from Southern Lebanon in May 2000: a protracted war of attrition with rising casualties could eventually bring Israel to its knees. It is not a coincidence that four months after the Israeli army pulled out of Lebanon, the Intifada broke out in Gaza and the West Bank.
Middle East analysts agree that the road to Hezbollah’s address in Beirut runs through Damascus, and also through Tehran. Dealing with rogue states like Syria and Iran is proving a difficult task, and will likely remain such in the months and years ahead. Fortunately, the Bush administration has made confronting these regimes among its top priorities in the war on terror. Jane’s Intelligence Digest has reported that the U.S. Department of Defense is considering expanding the war on terror to Hezbollah’s bases in Southern Lebanon. This bold move would be consistent with the doctrine of bringing enemies to justice or justice to enemies, and recognizes that force, not negotiation, is the only way to effectively deal with terrorism.
Until the United States moves against Hezbollah or gives Israel the green light to do so, Israel must restore credibility to its doctrine of deterrence. Though fanatical and uncompromising, Hezbollah and Hamas are not irrational. Only once they cease to believe that there will be a reward for terror will they be forced to change their tactics. Concession in the face of naked aggression such as this prisoner exchange only invites further attack.
–Eric Leskly lives in Washington D.C.