Middle East: The Limits of Escalation

As conflict in Gaza is superseded by Israeli-Lebanese violence, there is a growing international fear of dangerous escalation. But the Israeli military strategy is, in fact, one of escalation. This strategy has worked against states and military targets, but it is doubtful that it will have the same effect against nonstate militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

Nearly from the outset of its existence, Israel has preferred to respond to Arab attacks that hurt, limited as these may have been, by escalating to the next level, certain in the end that its military superiority would increase the cost to its enemies and deter future attacks.

The classic case of this is Egypt’s war of attrition against Israeli forces in the occupied Sinai in 1969 and 1970. The Israelis responded by escalating the conflict with a demonstrable ability to hit inside Egypt, without a comparable Egyptian capability. This escalation weighed heavily in Egypt’s decision to change course.

But applying this strategy to Gaza and Lebanon has its limits. In Gaza, it has no chance of working at the same time that it also inflicts significant pain on an innocent civilian population. And with Hezbollah, the logic of escalation inevitably will lead beyond Lebanon.

The problem: Escalation is always in part a projection of vulnerability and loss of confidence in the status quo. Small as a provocative attack may be, the message sent is that it hurts a great deal, that there is fear it can hurt more. This message is usually outweighed by the consequence of escalation – that the display of superior power acts as a deterrent to discourage future attacks. But if the deterrent does not work, what’s left is more bloodshed, plus a sense of weakness.

Put aside for a moment the important moral issues of inflicting civilian casualties, the logic of the ends justifying the means, and the question of blame for the two crises.

In Gaza, Hamas is certainly not an innocent bystander, and Israel faced a challenge in the rocket attacks and in the seizing of its soldier to which any state would have to find a way to respond. In the Lebanese case, Israel had even more reason to be concerned, as Hezbollah’s attack against its soldiers occurred on Israeli territory, apparently without provocation.

But a heavy-handed response in Gaza, especially against the civilian population, sent the message that any small group with homemade weapons or daring attacks can rattle the Jewish state and be regarded as a potential strategic threat. The lesson for any militant will be the same: If you want to invite war, if you want to shake Israeli confidence, all you must do is be daring enough.

Israel never has been in a better strategic position. Aside from its overwhelming military superiority, it has nearly full support from the United States, has managed to limit European objections and, with the rise of Hamas to power, has many Arab governments limiting their support for the Palestinians – even as Arab public sympathy for the Palestinians has remained high. Some prominent Arab columnists have, unusually, pinned the blame for the crisis on Hamas.

The Palestinians, even Hamas supporters, never have been more divided. In Lebanon, the Israelis have far more understanding in the international arena, having withdrawn their forces from that country in 2000, and Hezbollah has Lebanese critics who worry that the group’s action jeopardizes Lebanon’s path to economic and political recovery.

Yet the logic of the Israeli response – the establishment of Israeli deterrence to limit future attacks – reasonable as it seems in principle, pretends that this is a normal strategic relationship of deterrence among states. In the case of Gaza, who are the Palestinians who are being deterred? Presumably Hamas.

But the Israeli policy has been to prevent Hamas from effectively controlling the Palestinian Authority, if not to bring its government down completely. What incentive does Hamas have if, in fact, it believes that the strategy is to bring it down anyway? How will it succeed in maintaining a full cease-fire, even if it tried, without having effective control in Gaza? What would happen to Israeli deterrence if the PA were to collapse and Hamas were to revert to being only a militant group with no stake in central authority? A weak central government is the hardest to deter, even for a powerful state.

In contrast, consider Syria, where central authority is strong. Damascus has far more effective missiles than the Palestinians are likely to have, but none has been launched across the Israeli border despite the continued Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights. The reason is obvious: Israeli deterrence works, and the Syrian government has too much to lose if it attacks.

Can escalation work against Hezbollah? The Israeli bet is that by holding Lebanon responsible (and, by international law, it is responsible), the government will bring more weight to bear on Hezbollah.

Many Lebanese want to bring Hezbollah under government control, but many others don’t. And when there are many civilian casualties, more people blame Israel than Hezbollah. But the bigger problem is that Lebanon has no teeth to control Hezbollah even if it wanted to. Thus the logic of escalation inevitably could lead to Syria, which, ironically, acceded to international pressure and withdrew its forces from Lebanon, diminishing its influence there.

If there was any illusion that unilateral withdrawals can bring security, these have been laid to rest in the events of the past two weeks. Military superiority helps in limiting casualties on one side and inflicting more on the other side, but in the end, it cannot end the conflict.

In the case of Hamas, one cannot be sure whether it can change enough to make a lasting peace, but to be a powerful and confident state is to be able to afford taking calculated risks, to have the capacity to be patient enough to give Hamas some space to be tested or fail on its own, to allow Palestinian politics to play their course.

In the Lebanon case, Syria remains important, and one wonders if a strictly coercive strategy could ever work without offering serious diplomatic incentives.