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  • A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism
  • Chuck Freilich (bio)
A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism, by Daniel Byman. Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 496 pages. $34.95.

Daniel Byman's A High Price; The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism — much more than a book about terrorism — is a history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which terrorism has played such a central role. Byman's fundamental argument is straightforward: Israel is an international laboratory for terrorism and counterterrorism (CT), and both its successes and failures can provide an invaluable guide to all countries confronting the issue today. As he notes, virtually every CT tactic employed by the US in recent years was invented and tried first by Israel.

The book highlights a number of important truths and dilemmas. Arab terrorism predates Israeli independence and reflects a fundamental hostility to its existence, not just, or even primarily, a reaction to the occupation of 1967 and settlements — the justification typically proffered by Palestinians. Palestinian terrorists, including suicide bombers, are not necessarily poor, uneducated misfits, or religious fanatics, but often the opposite, and it is hatred, rather than deprivation, that drives them. Israel's successes in the battle against terrorism have stemmed not from the occasional spectacular exploit, such as the Entebbe operation in 1976, so much as from the cumulative effect of painstaking intelligence gathering and a ceaseless stream of small, low profile, interdiction and disruption operations carried out over years.

Conversely, as Byman stresses, some of Israel's CT efforts have failed and even been counter-productive. Its successful expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Lebanon in 1982 had the unintended consequence of creating a vacuum in which a far more intractable and lethal enemy, Hizbullah, arose. Israel's heavy response to the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000 may have increased the overall ensuing level of violence. The unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005 strengthened Hizbullah and Hamas, respectively, by ostensibly "proving" that terrorism had succeeded in driving Israel out, whereas the negotiated approach favored by moderates had failed to produce the desired outcomes. Counterterrorism deterrence requires a disproportionate response, but Israel's enemies have a higher threshold for pain than it does, so it often fails. Israel has often gone to great lengths to minimize civilian losses during CT operations, including the 2008 Cast Lead Operation [End Page 176] in Gaza, but has repeatedly lost the "PR war," with severe consequences for its international standing. In a changing international environment, terrorists "win" when the civilian populations in which they shelter suffer losses.

Above all, Byman stresses the absence of a coherent overall strategy guiding Israel's CT operations, i.e. the nearly exclusive focus on CT, as opposed to a comprehensive politico-military insurgency policy, and the lack of sufficient integration — at times even conflict — between these operations and Israel's broader national security objectives. While right on both accounts, this raises two crucial points: The dubious success of the much vaunted American counter-insurgency policy in Iraq and Afghanistan and conversely the fact that Israel has won two major battles against terrorism, resoundingly defeating the second Intifada and keeping terrorism generally to a level which has not prevented it from thriving as a nation. In so doing, it has certainly raised questions regarding the "common wisdom" whereby conventional militaries cannot defeat terrorism.

The final chapter on the lessons from the Israeli experience makes a number of interesting observations, but does not do justice to this otherwise outstanding study. Partly this may be because the book, having described the history of Israel's CT efforts in minute detail, does not tie it all together in an overall conceptual depiction of Israel's CT strategy. The absence thereof reflects reality, in the sense that Israel has apparently not formulated a formal and written CT doctrine, much as it has not done so in other areas of national security, but Byman has all of the elements in place and turning them into a conceptual whole would serve as a "blueprint" for other countries engaged in CT.

Byman is even...


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pp. 176-177
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