A Long Road

Mackubin T. Owens

April 1, 2002

Approximately 3,000 Americans died in the terrorist attacks of September 11. In response, the United States took steps not only to protect its homeland, but also to attack the sanctuaries of the terrorist group responsible for the attacks. Accordingly, U.S. forces have carried out sustained attacks against al Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan, and are contemplating the expansion of the conflict.

What would the United States have done if, rather than four coordinated attacks killing some 3000 Americans, it had sustained more than 70 attacks over an 18-month period that killed 20,000 Americans? Would the world expect the United States to show “restraint”?

This, of course, is what Israel has suffered proportionately since the new intifada began a year and a half ago after Yasser Arafat rejected the Barak plan that would have given the Palestinians 97 percent of the West Bank and control of East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. The Israeli response to the suicide bombings, so vociferously condemned by many in Europe, is really no different than the American response to Sept. 11—an attempt to disrupt or destroy the terrorist infrastructure that has grown up within Palestinian sanctuary.

There is one big difference. While Sept. 11 wounded the United States, America remains a fairly secure place, although our perceptions of security may have changed. On the other hand, Israel’s very existence is at stake. Since a peace agreement that does not ensure its security is no improvement on what it faces today, Israel has little incentive to end its incursion into the West Bank until it has extirpated the terrorist threat.

Critics of Israel argue that claims it is threatened with extinction are overwrought. They contend that it has the most powerful army in the Middle East. By some counts, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) can field 19 army divisions to defend itself against attack. In contrast, the United States has 13—10 Army and three Marine—that have worldwide responsibilities. Because they have a large pool of seasoned pilots, the Israelis actually can generate more air sorties per day than the United States. IDF fighter pilots fly modified versions of the U.S.-built F-15 and F-16 fighters. The IDF possesses some 4,000 main battle tanks. As four previous wars have proven, Arab armies are no match for the IDF in a conventional war.

But the intifada is an example of “asymmetric warfare,” designed to avoid an adversary’s strength. Just as the conventional military force of the United States was unable to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks, the IDF has been unable to prevent the terrorist attacks that have wracked Israel over the last year and a half. But as U.S. operations in Afghanistan illustrate, conventional forces can deny sanctuary to terrorist enemies. That is what the IDF is attempting to do in the West Bank towns of Jenin, Ramallah, Nablus, and Bethlehem.

The IDF has accomplished many but not all of its objectives in the West Bank. It has reduced the main centers of Palestinian terrorist activity in Jenin. The last holdouts there have now surrendered to the IDF. The IDF has arrested some 4,815 Palestinians, according to the Israeli daily, Haaretz, about half of whom were seized during the attack on Jenin on April 10.

Detainees include Sheikh Ali Sfouri, an important leader of Islamic Jihad believed to be behind many terrorist attacks in Israel, and Jamel Huweil, regional leader of Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade. The IDF also apparently has killed Qais Odwan, a senior Hamas leader believed to have engineered the Natanya suicide bombing on Passover eve that killed 26 Israelis, and perhaps Mohammed Tualba, another Islamic Jihad leader.

While the IDF has pulled back from some 24 West Bank towns, it continues to lock down what it believes to be the most dangerous cities and seal the borders. No doubt the detainees will provide useful intelligence to the Israelis. But there are limits to the military solution. While suicide bombings in Israel apparently had been stopped by the incursion into the West Bank, one took place within the last two days.

Israel’s security problem is illustrated by the fact that as it proceeds against the Palestinian terrorist network in the West Bank, it may face a second front in the north from Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon. When Israel ended its 22-year occupation of a southern Lebanon buffer zone in May 2000, general conflict with Hezbollah ended, except for periodic fighting around the disputed Shebaa Farms, where Lebanon, Israel, and the Golan Heights come together.

But as the Israeli incursion into the West Bank has continued, Hezbollah has escalated its military activity against Israel. Four Katyusha rockets hit Kiryat Shemona near the Lebanese border early on April 10. And recently, six Israeli civilians were killed in cross-border attacks. Hezbollah possesses Katyushas in abundance—at least 8,000 according to Israel. While the Katyushas have a range of 13 to 25 miles, Iran is believed to have supplied Hezbollah with the mobile Fajr-5 rocket that has a range of 50 miles, making it capable of reaching Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city.

Ultimately, the dilemma Israel faces is that a ceasefire and a peace agreement will not necessarily improve its security situation. Even with control of the West Bank and the Golan Heights, Israel currently lacks strategic depth. A peace agreement undoubtedly would require Israel to permit the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and to return the Golan Heights to Syria. A Palestinian state in the West Bank would remove what little strategic depth Israel currently has, placing its enemies within nine miles of the sea along much of the length of the Jewish state. And once again, Syrian gunners would look down from the Golan on Israeli towns beyond Galilee. Both circumstances would imperil the security of Israel and make lasting peace unlikely, because it is probable that terrorists would continue to operate out of southern Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza. This Israel cannot permit.

As all honest observers recognize, the problem facing Israel is simply that the PLO does not want coexistence with the Jewish state. The objective of the Palestinians is not the creation of a state so much as it is the extermination of Israel. Arabs have proven this again and again since 1948, when they first rejected the U.N. two-state partition of the British Palestinian Mandate. And as former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned, political solutions to terrorism lead to more terrorism because they create the incentive to demand more concessions.

So what is the solution? Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu apparently have concluded that the terrorists must be destroyed militarily. Such a belief doesn’t seem all that different from the position that the United States has taken regarding al Qaeda. We haven’t heard much about the need to negotiate with Osama bin Laden or to make concessions to al Qaeda. We are hunting the terrorists down with the intention of killing or capturing them and destroying their network.

But as recent events have illustrated, such an approach is fraught with political danger for the Israelis. They already face a backlash in Europe and as Americans are fed a constant stream of images portraying carnage and destruction on the West Bank, the same thing could happen here. Perhaps the best the Israelis can hope for is to make as much military progress against the Palestinian terrorists as possible before the United States threatens to withdraw support.

What then? The most likely outcome is another two-state solution, despite the fact that the Palestinians have always rejected this approach. But for this approach to work, the united States would have to guarantee the existence of Israel—not act as a neutral mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, but as unequivocal defenders of Israel’s right to exist. If we are not willing to go this far, we will be forcing the Israelis to swallow a solution that will degrade their security.

As Golda Meier famously said, there will be no peace in the Middle East until the Arabs love their children more than they hate the Jews. The fact that the Palestinians are now sending their children out to immolate themselves in order to kill Israelis makes it clear that peace is not exactly at hand.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.