Israel Report

February 2002         

Reality Has Finally Sunk In

Comment By Gerald M. Steinberg - February 22, 2002
It took 17 months and hundreds of Israeli deaths before reality finally sunk in, but as Prime Minister Sharon emphasized in his address to the nation last night, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are engaged in a long and costly war of attrition.

Neither the limited buffer zones that Sharon discussed in his speech nor Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's temporary and tactical retreats will change the basic elements of this confrontation.

For Arafat, the escalating terrorist attacks are the core of the Palestinian "war of independence," in which all Israelis are targets and in which the human toll on Palestinian society is irrelevant.

The Palestinian leadership has even stopped repeating the myth of a popular uprising, although the term "intifada" will continue to be used to give a romantic air to suicide bombings and other forms of senseless murder.

For Israel, in contrast, this is another battle in the war of survival. However, as a result of the "accomplishments" of the Oslo process, this war is led by Palestinian armed forces and terrorist gangs (not quite the gendarmarie that was portrayed), rather than the armies of surrounding Arab states.

As a result, the military and diplomatic challenges are fundamentally different, requiring rapid adjustment in tactics and strategy.

These challenges were illustrated by deadly Palestinian assaults on poorly defended checkpoints and the use of a sophisticated shaped charge to destroy a Merkava tank in the Gaza Strip. In addition, the suicide bombing in unfenced Karnei Shomron again highlighted the vulnerability of Israeli settlements, despite months of terrorism that should have led to a fundamental redesign of security conceptions.

While these attacks are seen as a major accomplishment for the Palestinians, the victory celebrations are premature - their war is far from over. By the same token, the cries of despair from some Israelis are also unjustified. As painful as the losses have been, they obscure and confuse the overall strategic picture and fundamental long-term factors.

The current situation is reminiscent of the opening stages of the 1973 Yom Kippur, when the political leaders and the IDF were taken by surprise after they had dismissed the evidence of an impending attack. The cost of this misconception was horrendous, but once the counterattacks began, they reversed the course of the war. Similarly, the US failed to respond to bin Laden's early attacks, and was caught off-guard on September 11.

However, once the attention of America was focused, the full weight of US military power became engaged and the results were quick to follow. In the same way, many Israelis who were reluctant to give up the dreams of peace have finally woken up.

The Palestinian successes are also the result of exploitation of their strengths in this kind of terrorist campaign and guerrilla war. In the other Arab-Israeli wars, the IDF was able to attack major targets in the cities and military structures of opposing states. The application of "excessive force" against Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon raised the ante, eventually forcing these regimes to end support for terrorism. In 1973, when Ariel Sharon's armored column came within artillery range of Cairo, that war was brought to a rapid end. The Palestinian war, in which Arafat issues daily calls for a million suicide bombers, requires entirely different tactics.

To give the IDF some credit, many of the commanders did a good job of foreseeing at least some of the tactics and challenges that they have been facing. Clearly, the death toll of both civilians and soldiers would have been much higher if they had not spent the past five years preparing for guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks. In the past week alone, alongside the painful failures, numerous suicide bombings were foiled.

Slowly, and often invisibly, the combination of very detailed intelligence and precise attacks on the terrorist leadership and infrastructure is grinding down the Palestinian ability to attack. The pressure resulting from Arafat's isolation in Ramallah is also beginning to pay off.

At the same time, there are far too many failures, and in this case, as in 1973, the army and the political leadership were locked into a conception that grossly underestimated the threat. Israeli cities, roads, settlements, and checkpoints are open and generally unprotected, providing the Palestinians with a plethora of soft and vulnerable targets. The IDF has far more power than has been displayed to date, as Sharon noted in his speech, but in terms of manpower, it is also over-extended, and there are far too many soft targets to defend effectively. In response, the decision to deploy heavy battle tanks and other weapons, designed for use in totally different kinds of warfare, was ill-considered.

To reverse the chain of Palestinian successes, the short-term tactical responses of the IDF and government need to be replaced by a long-term strategy. In terms of defense, priorities need to be set, headed by Israeli population centers and including all settlements and military positions. Limited unilateral withdrawal in some form is belatedly on the agenda, although, in contrast to the botched exit from Lebanon, it will have to be accompanied by a very visible increase in the display of Israeli military strength.

In addition, Israel's doctrine based on deterrence and preemption needs to be adapted for warfare against Palestinian terrorist groups and militias.

By greatly expanding the number of small and highly mobile groups operating in the Palestinian areas to destroy key targets, the IDF will force Arafat and his forces to divert far more resources to defense, while highlighting their vulnerability to attack. Evidence of deep divisions in Palestinian society is mounting, and without effective leadership and basic economic resources, they will eventually collapse. In contrast, and despite the exaggerated media images that confuse democratic debate with civil strife, the Israeli consensus remains solid.

After Arafat and the Palestinians had eight years of a false peace process to acquire weapons and prepare for this war, Israel was faced with a very difficult situation at the outset of this war. While the counterattacks have begun, lingering misconceptions and ideological blinders still slow the political and military changes that are necessary.

It is impossible to know how long this war will last, or how far it will escalate, but ultimately, as in the past wars, the strength of Israeli society and the drive for national survival will determine the outcome.

(The writer is director of the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation at Bar-Ilan University.)

©2002 - Jerusalem Post

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