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A High PriceByman, Daniel. A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 496 pp.

Think of Israeli counter-terrorism and you are likely to conjure up an image that rivals any Hollywood blockbuster action film. The tiny Middle Eastern country is admired and looked up to by security professionals the world over from India to the United States for its grit, boldness, and methodical approach to counter-terrorism. Israel’s intelligence elite have maintained and even encouraged this myth for its psychological effect. The reality of this David and Goliath story, however, is closer to A Bridge Too Far than Raid on Entebbe. In his extensive study, A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Counterterrorism, Daniel Byman details the unending challenges, grinding successes, and mixed impact of Israeli counter-terrorism operations on its security and the national psyche.

Byman, a professor at Georgetown University, takes Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that war is a continuation of politics by other means seriously and looks at the political fallout of Israel’s counter-terrorism strategies rather than a tactical or operational analysis. Israel’s foes have also been varied over the years – some terrorist groups have been disciplined and methodical, others were rag-tag militia; some are state-backed, others independent. Some terrorist groups are militant branches of a larger social movement while others are small radical cells. The Jewish community has faced virtually every type of terrorist that has been imagined.

It is not surprising then, that most counter-terror tactics have also been pioneered in Israel and have been implemented by other law enforcement forces around the world. Although some analysts scoff at Israel’s record, claiming that its methods have not solved the terrorist plague even after decades of conflict and thousands dead, Byman’s research indicates that the world has much to learn from even the imperfect solutions.

A High Price starts in the pre-independence era when the Yishuv were threatened by Arab terrorism in the aftermath of the Balfour Declaration. Byman argues that Israeli counter-terrorism strategy is broadly based on the experience of British administration in Mandatory Palestine. The legacy of one pro-Zionist officer in particular, Charles Orde Wingate, is visible in Israeli security doctrine to this day.

Israeli strategy has essentially three components. One aspect is deterrence: the belief that Israel’s enemies would cease and desist from hostile operations against it out of fear of retribution. Another component is offensive operations: Israel’s small size means that it cannot risk fighting wars on its own soil. Furthermore, fighting on Israeli soil would mean damage to infrastructure and civilian casualties. Therefore, the conflict must be taken to the enemy. The third feature of Israeli security thinking is preemption and speed: like Napoleon Bonaparte preferred, strike first, strike fast, and maintain the element of surprise; keep the enemy off-balance until he capitulates.

Israeli politicians often felt restricted and cornered in their response to Arab violence. Besides national morale, Israeli leaders found it difficult to advocate restraint to people who had just escaped the Holocaust. Their new country was founded specifically on the premise that it would defend Jewish lives at all costs and it was not possible to appear to renege on that promise. Their only hope was to bludgeon their neighbours into inaction.

Ironically, Israeli actions also put Arab leaders in a corner: their retaliatory operations against the Israeli military humiliated the very militaries on which their power depended, and it outraged the Arab people. Arab capitals were very quick to embrace the idea of asymmetric warfare.

For their part, Israeli leaders – military and political alike – understood the Arab hatred towards them. “Can we argue with their intense hatred for us?” Moshe Dayan asked, “before their eyes we are turning the land and the villages in which they and their forefathers lived into our inheritance.” Similar warnings had been uttered by Ze’ev Jabotinsky and other luminaries of Zionism decades before Israel became a reality. The harsh choice was, according to Dayan and these others, “to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, otherwise the sword will fall from our hands and our lives will be obliterated.” As Golda Meir would say later, Israel’s secret weapon against the Arabs was that they had nowhere else to go.

Byman explains how the nature of warfare that Israel faced shifted rapidly from inter-state to non-state agents. This altered the rules of the game dramatically. Suddenly, the media became immensely important and the military could not use indiscriminate force in civilian-populated areas. Terrorists also improved over the years – from the early fedayeen who were essentially unskilled, angry, displaced Palestinians crossing back into Israel to retrieve as much of their belongings as possible to cool and zealous individuals who had received professional training from Arab and Communist armies or other terrorist groups. While Israel was able to deter the Arab states, particularly Egypt and Jordan, from supporting cross-border terrorist raids, non-state actors proved much harder to deter.

Of most value to readers should be the attention A High Price pays to the self-goals Israeli security services have scored in their war on terror. As Washington and its partners are learning now after their invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, military victory does not matter if you lose the battle over public perception. Israel has experienced this bitter lesson first-hand several times and years earlier as its leaders bought into the false dichotomy of physical security and perception. Wingate’s methods gave psychological satisfaction but did not always produce satisfactory results. David Ben-Gurion had realised this even in the 1940s and used it against the British but countries – not just Israel – seem doomed to repeat this error.

Byman argues that the Knesset has often ignored the political consequences of their counter-terrorism. The assassination of terrorist leaders, Raed Karmi for example, have sometimes unleashed cycles of violence that resulted in the loss of several lives. Some operations, such as the attempted assassination of Khaled Mashal in Amman, jeopardised important alliances. The IDF’s success in demolishing a group has usually been only temporary – in some cases, several splinter groups emerge in the place of one or space is made for more radical (Islamist) terrorists.

Israel is also guilty of underestimating the importance of the media and public narrative. Its opponents, be they state on non-state actors, have excelled at manipulating domestic, regional, and international fora, think tanks, and news organisations to portray an image of the conflict that is slanted, incomplete, exaggerated, and, at times, blatantly false. Israeli engagements in Lebanon, for example, were overwhelmingly successful militarily if losses of men and materiel were to be tallied. However, the perception of victory and defiance holds more water than the reality. What have often been successful Israeli operations are sometimes perceived as failures even by Israeli citizens.

Byman also notes that while Israel excels at the tactical and operational levels, a long-term strategy for the region is sorely lacking. Israelis are still debating whether they have temporarily occupied the territory that in the end belonged to Arabs or liberating historic land that really belonged to the Jews. A banal, vacuous, and unconsidered desire for peace is a sufficient strategy only if you are building a graveyard. Many of Israel’s problems arise from predictable long-term consequences of its ad hoc decisions. The invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to root out the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, for example, turned into a gruelling occupation that gave birth to a far more dangerous threat in the Hezbollah. Eventually, it led to the collapse of the very state that Israel was trying to pressure into curtailing the PLO. Similarly, some of Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza, though they may have succeeded in stemming the tide of terrorist attacks, have altered the situation on the ground so much that peace talks have become difficult; both sides claim to a different stunde null as the basis of negotiations.

One of the astute observations in A High Price is that there is a growing expectation in the media and its poorly uninformed subscribers of proportionality in military operations against terrorists. The very nature of deterrence, however, is the threat of disproportionate force against the enemy. While this doctrine may work well against the militaries of Israel’s neighbours, it does less so against terrorists who hide in civilian areas with the expectation that either propriety will spare them or an opportunity for propaganda will present itself.

As Byman contends, with no considered policy in place, day-to-day counter-terrorism is sometimes not conducive towards achieving the broader goal. However, he is also quick to admit that most often, the choice before the IDF or Knesset is between different shades of bad. Israeli security officials have been fully aware of this but see no escape. Collective punishment, for example, was not justified or moral but effective, admitted Dayan. The IDF’s organisational ethos gives commanders tremendous autonomy with the understanding that there could be occasional mistakes. “I prefer initiative and excessive action, even if they’re accompanied by the occasional mistake, over passivity”, Dayan is supposed to have said.

It is also true that the IDF’s harsh measures have the support of the Israeli people. House demolitions, cross-border strikes, targeted assassinations, and the refusal to recognise the PLO have many supporters. Each time there was a terrorist attack or peace talks broke down, the uncompromising Israeli Right gained supporters. Continuing talks under terrorist activity was unacceptable to Israelis for whom the very purpose of talks was to end terrorism. Additionally, the assassination of senior operatives did hurt terrorist groups in that they lost valuable experience in bomb-making, logistics, money laundering, arms acquisition networks, and other aspects of the terrorist’s craft. The number of warm bodies that Hamas or Hezbollah can throw up is not nearly as much a concern as the skills some of these bodies may possess.

Byman walks a fine line between the Israelis and the Palestinians and presents an objective study of Arab terrorism against Israel. He does not shirk from calling out the IDF’s excessive policies even if he admits they may bring immediate gains while at the same time pointing out that there is much that the Palestinians have done to hurt their own cause. The civil war between Fatah and Hamas in 2006 is but one example. It also goes unacknowledged that in the first five years after the Six-Day War, Israeli assistance in terms of fertiliser, irrigation, and farming techniques tripled the agricultural production of the West Bank. Yet although violence diminished, support for violence did not.

It is disconcerting to note that over the years, support for talks has reduced and both Israelis and Palestinians appear more unwilling to compromise, readier to shed blood, and accepting of atrocities against the other. Decades of living in terror has, as many psychologists have suggested, caused a nationwide post-traumatic stress disorder in Israel. This does not bode well for the peacemakers, for their efforts will be viewed with suspicion and the bar of acceptability has inched that much higher.

A High Price is an indispensable read for anyone interested in counter-terrorism and its pitfalls. Furthermore, there can be no no better case study than Israel where citizens have lived experience first as conscripts in the IDF and then as civilians or politicians. A High Price is chronologically packed with events as well as interviews with senior officials that gives readers a view from the cockpit, so to speak. Byman’s ability to present facts and arguments dispassionately is an incredible achievement for a topic that is not known for calm and rational discussion. In the Age of Terror that we live in, I do not see how A High Price is a book that can be skipped.

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