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Israel’s Lessons for Fighting Terrorists and Their Implications for the United States

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Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States began its war against terrorism. Suddenly, U.S. policymakers had to confront a daunting and often controversial array of counterterrorism issues. These ranged from the types of defense needed to protect the U.S. homeland from terrorist attacks to the use and scope of targeted killings of terrorist leaders abroad. Many aspects of U.S. counterterrorism policy have attracted strong criticism. Some have challenged the effectiveness of U.S. policy. Other critics have blasted the Bush Administration for failing to protect civil liberties.

Fighting against terrorists, whose form of warfare targets civilians and so rejects basic moral and legal norms, has always been inherently difficult for liberal democracies. Many of the issues in front of U.S. policymakers today have previously been faced by other liberal democratic states, in particular Israel, a country that has always been under terrorist attack. U.S. policymakers and analysts have much to learn from Israel as they grapple with the inherent difficulties of counterterrorism. Fighting terrorism has been a primary concern for Israel since its foundation. After September 11, the battle against terrorism assumed a similar strategic priority for the United States. Although the specifics of the terrorist threats facing the United States and Israel vary considerably, there are many relevant similarities from which U.S. officials and analysts can learn. These lessons relate directly to U.S. counterterrorism strategy and to how the United States deals with its counterterrorism partner governments abroad. There are three key areas which this paper explores where Israel’s experiences are directly relevant and offer specific lessons for the United States: coercing governments that are reluctant to crack down on terrorism to take effective counterterrorism measures; broader defensive measures; and techniques for striking at the leadership of terrorist groups.

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