Limits of Deterrence

by Re'uven Pedatzur
28 Mar 95 p B1

[FBIS Translated Text] The Israeli involvement in the peace process has presented national defense policymakers with a challenge that has been seldom discussed and that has been overlooked in the intense preoccupation with the political components of the anticipated agreements. I am referring to the erosion of Israeli deterrent power. The issue involves more than the anticipated surrender of territorial assets, which in itself hurts one of the most prominent assets of deterrence -- strategic depth. It is more than a contradiction between the need to present a moderate, conciliatory image at the peace negotiations and the need to present a menacing image, as befitting a country seeking a credible military deterrence.

At the crux of the issue are the other developments which have caused erosion of the IDF's [Israel Defense Forces] deterrent power, and which are liable to lead to a fundamental shift in Israel's deterrence doctrine. Paradoxically, a situation may arise in which the rate of progress in the political process will be matched by a growing need to abandon the conventional deterrence doctrine and embrace nonconventional deterrence.

Israeli deterrence is greatly dependent on the IDF's capability to inflict great and painful damage to the enemy -- "deterrence through punishment." This strategic concept is based on the assumption that if deterrence fails and war breaks out, Israel will regain its deterrent capability by winning the battle while making the enemy pay a high price.

The credibility of Israeli deterrence was based mainly on the obvious superiority of its warfare materiel, which its enemies lacked. That materiel permitted the IDF to exact a heavy toll from the enemy without fearing a similar blow. One such instance was the Israel Air Force's capability to raid targets deep in enemy territory. The Israeli success in deterring Arab countries from initiating new wars in the past few decades is believed to be due to their acknowledgement of the Israeli superiority and their fear of the IDF's deterrent power. Yet this Israeli superiority is gradually eroding as Arab countries are procuring a large arsenal which neutralizes the Israeli capability. This development is chiefly reflected in the various Middle East armies' growing capability to hit Israeli civilian population centers with ballistic missiles. Although Arab countries had ballistic missiles even two decades ago, the rules of the game changed only during the Gulf War. Perhaps for the Arabs, the taboo of attacking a civilian population was broken in 1991. In the future, they may find it easier to make this decision.

In addition, new players have joined the game of deterrence. Countries with no common borders with Israel, such as Iran, have been acquiring a capability to hurt the Israeli home front. This capability challenges the credibility of Israel's conventional deterrence. Can leaders of remote countries, such as Iran or Iraq, be deterred with the military means used to deter Syria and Egypt? Since it is also possible that these remote countries will procure nuclear weapons, we have to conclude that very soon Israel will be unable to "stretch" the credibility of its deterrent power without moving on to the nonconventional plateau.

Any plan of winning wars against remote countries with conventional means is almost pointless, because in the Israeli strategic thinking, the deterrent power is based on rapidly moving the war over to enemy territory, destroying as much as possible of its army and a major part of its weapons arsenal, taking territory, and calling up the strategic threat. None of these can be achieved if a war is waged against Iraq, Iran, or Libya.

The prime minister seems to be fully aware of the required policy change. It should be said in Yitzhaq Rabin's defense that of all the people, he has been the most vocal in publicly announcing the strategic line mandated by the advent of the new era. Although he has left many areas vague and ambiguous, his statements imply that he is closer than others to embracing a nonconventional deterrence doctrine.

"As defense minister, I believed it was our duty to state that any attempt to dispatch ballistic missiles at Tel Aviv would provoke a reaction one hundred times worse against Damascus and other Syrian cities...", Rabin said at a lecture after the Gulf War. "The only way to deter the use of ballistic missiles is to announce that threefold devastation will be inflicted on Damascus than they had on Tel Aviv -- by retaliation means that need not be specified."

Later, when he became prime minister and defense minister, Rabin again referred to this issue. In an interview in HA'ARETZ, he reiterated that "for every attack against the Israeli home front, the IDF will retaliate with a massive attack on the attacking country's cities."

In the absence of comprehensive peace in the Middle East, deterrence will remain the chief component in Israel's national defense doctrine. In the wake of the change in the nature of the anticipated future threats and in the identity of the threatening parties, the emergence of political agreements in the Middle East is accompanied -- as implied by Rabin -- by the gradual termination of the era of conventional deterrence. The prospects of maintaining peace arrangements under the aegis of nonconventional deterrence will be explored in the next decade.