What can we learn from Israel about fighting terrorism? Seemingly, a great deal. Ever since its founding in 1948, Israel has been contending with attacks that have exacted an awful human toll. They have come in almost every conceivable form: snipers, suicide bombers, cross-border raids, rockets, airplane bombings, hijackings. Long before the U.S. began to develop its counterterrorism measures, Israel had a full repertoire: targeted killings, hostage rescues, retaliatory raids, rigorous airport security measures and incursions into countries harboring terrorists. Israel also has extensive experience with the dilemmas that arise with incarceration and interrogation, including that most vexing of all categories: captives who are believed to know about impending plots.
In A High Price, Daniel Byman, a Georgetown University professor, surveys Israel’s record and tries to extract lessons. A carnage-covered checkerboard is what emerges from his meticulously researched historical narrative. On one side are the daring exploits that won Israel the admiration of the world, as in the miraculous 1976 commando raid on the airport at Entebbe, Uganda, that freed Israelis and Jews taken hostage in an airline hijacking. On the other side is a long record of failure, as shown by the sheer number of successful terrorist attacks. Most of these atrocities demonstrate the inherent difficulty of Israel’s security challenge, but in some instances, Mr. Byman says, the terrorists have benefited from Israel’s “political maneuvering, ignorance, and outright hubris.”
His central argument here is that Israel pursues “schizophrenic” policies, its military and intelligence arms working at cross purposes with its political leadership. The political effects of counterterrorism are thus slighted, leading Israel to embrace measures that backfire, radicalizing adversaries, courting condemnation and jeopardizing alliances. This combination of “brilliance” and “bungling,” Mr. Byman argues, has given rise to competing myths about Israel that obscure a complex reality. It is not Entebbe-style derring-do but “routine, grind-it-out intelligence-gathering efforts, solid defense, and the constant disruption of terrorist communications” that have safeguarded Israel’s security.
Much of A High Price, as with any war story, is a tale of measure met by countermeasure. Beginning in 1968, airline hijacking came into vogue. In July of that year, three members of a radical Palestinian group sauntered through the unlocked door of an El Al airliner’s flight deck, pointed guns at the head of the pilot and diverted the flight to Algeria. More incidents, some of them bloody, induced Israel to put in place the security measures that make its national airline the safest in the world.
Yet terrorists are just as capable of innovation as those who seek to thwart them. In the early part of this decade, Palestinian terrorists perfected the art of suicide bombing, targeting restaurants, hotels, and especially buses, taking nearly a thousand lives and badly rattling the entire country. Israel responded with a variety of approaches, but none was more effective than the security barrier erected along the West Bank line beginning in 2001. Amazingly, it brought the rate of successful suicide bombings to zero. Noting the inevitable trade-offs that every counterterrorism step carries, Mr. Byman says that the barrier “complicates peace efforts.” That may be true, but frequent murderous blasts in Israel’s major cities did not exactly foster loving dialogue either.
In any event, Israel now faces another threat: rockets lobbed indiscriminately from the Gaza Strip and from Lebanon into civilian areas. As the range of Palestinian weapons increases, so does the vulnerability of Israel’s tiny heartland. A technological solution, in the form of the new Iron Dome antirocket system, may provide a partial answer. But if past is prologue, then some unbidden new danger lies around the corner.
Israel’s largest problem, according to Mr. Byman, has been harmonizing tactics and strategy. Israel has excelled, he writes, in some tactical skills, like gathering human intelligence in preparation for targeted killings. He offers a fascinating account of Israel’s techniques for recruiting informants in hostile territory and its evolving efforts to make its interrogation practices conform to the strictures of international law. But these achievements notwithstanding, he writes, “Israel often blunders from crisis to crisis without a long-term plan for how to solve the problem once and for all.”
But here Mr. Byman’s judgment from the sidelines is both unduly harsh and contradictory. Throughout the decades of its existence, Israel has faced enemies determined to wipe it out and willing to use the most brutal attacks on civilians to accomplish that end. If Israel has not devised a strategy to solve its terrorist problem “once and for all,” that fact owes far more to the incorrigible character of its neighborhood than to the lack of a “long-term plan.”
In fact, the pursuit of just such a once-and-for-all long-term plan led to one of Israel’s worst strategic debacles: its invitation to Yasser Arafat, under the Oslo Accords, to take power in the West Bank in 1994. Instead of getting peace, Israel found itself embroiled with a neighbor waging a double game of talking and killing.
Mr. Byman may not have intended to, but the most powerful lesson he offers with A High Price is that there is no silver counterterrorism bullet. The very quest for a single solution, by diverting attention and energy away from more modest and difficult and tiresome measures, can have terrible consequences.