Israel has long defended itself through a "doctrine of retaliatory action," which President Eisenhower angrily characterized in 1955 -- after savage Israeli reprisal raids into Gaza and Jordan -- as "more like a head for an eye than an eye for an eye." The doctrine has not worked since Israel's 2006 invasion of Lebanon, which, in common with Gaza today, was launched to punish missile attacks (from Hezbollah country) and force the release of two Israeli soldiers seized by Lebanese guerrillas and carried back across the border. Today, Israel is blockading and intermittently pummeling Gaza (about 1,200 Palestinians were killed in the January 2009 "Gaza War") to secure the release of Sergeant Gilad Shalit, who was abducted in 2006, and to stop the sputter of missile attacks from Hamas country.
Although Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to extol the efficacy of coercion and reprisal, he is straining Tel Aviv's relationship with Washington, and leading Israel toward failure and international isolation.
Historically, the Israelis have used carefully timed wars to secure and even expand their borders. In the 1956 Suez War, for example, they joined a British and French attack on Egypt (to recover the Suez Canal from Nasser's nationalization) and used the conflict to seize the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. What followed gave a fascinating glimpse into the evolving Israeli strategy of "escalation dominance." Before the 1956 war, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had warned Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett that "the safety and continued existence of the free world" depended upon major Israeli concessions on territory, good behavior (no more reprisal raids), the opening of Jerusalem, and the repatriation or cash compensation of the Palestinian refugees. After the war, with Israel briefly in possession of the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, those two tracts were traded for U.S. acceptance of Israel's 1949 borders (far bigger than those conceded by the UN in 1947) and U.S. indifference to the plight of the refugees. Until the Israeli invasion, Washington had been focused on the refugee issue. After the invasion, Washington focused on getting the Israelis out of Egyptian territory. Although the Israelis complained that they were "cheated" of the spoils of war in 1956, they actually traded them for Ike's weary acceptance of Israel's broader frontiers -- all of the land that had been given the Jews in 1947 as well as the best part of the Palestinian grant -- as well as Ike's weary acceptance that nothing would be done for the Palestinians after all.
In the years that followed, the Israelis recognized that short, sharp military actions would be used to ignite crises that would distract international attention from Israeli stonewalling, or permit a steady outward creep of Israel's frontiers. Moshe Dayan admitted as much. Coveting the Golan Heights before they were actually seized in the 1967 Six-Day War, Dayan noted that "we'd send a tractor to plow some place in the demilitarized zone... and we knew ahead of time that the Syrians would shoot. If they didn't shoot, we'd tell the tractor to move deeper, until the Syrians fired on it. And then we'd activate artillery and the air force. We thought, 'we can change the armistice lines by a series of operations that are less than war.'" Always claiming to be a "status quo state," Israel was actually an expansionist one.
President Kennedy recognized this, and vowed to uphold a U.S. embargo on the sale of major weapons systems to all Middle Eastern countries, including Israel. He would send, as he put it, "tractors, not tanks; bread, not bombs." But Kennedy was the president who sparked Israel's breakthrough to military predominance; he bowed to congressional pressure and became the first U.S. president to sell Israel cutting-edge weaponry, early warning radars, and then, stunningly, in 1962, Hawk anti-aircraft missiles (the cream of the NATO arsenal), which the Israelis tactlessly installed around their Dimona nuclear weapons facility. Kennedy had been trying to close Dimona in the interests of nonproliferation, and certainly resented the chutzpah. President Johnson was even more obliging than Kennedy; flush with U.S. foreign aid, the Israelis spent increasing amounts on defense - 9.5 percent of GDP in 1965, 10.4 percent in 1966, 17.7 percent in 1967 and 26.3 percent in 1971. LBJ's ambassador in Tel Aviv, Wally Barbour, warned in 1965 that the effect of American-subsidized Israeli defense spending was destabilizing, leading as it did to "Arab fury and intractability." It made Israel feel invulnerable, and unwilling to make any concessions. It also made it easy for Israel to contemplate further offensives, which Barbour urged Washington to prohibit and punish with "total economic sanctions." Secretary of State Rusk agreed, deploring the Israeli tendency to "take the law into their own hands."
In 1967, Israel went on the attack again. Nasser's bombast was used by the Israelis to justify a preemptive attack on Egypt, Jordan and Syria. By escalating a minor threat -- Nasser's announced but never implemented blockade of the Gulf of Eilat -- the Israelis delivered a knock-out blow to three neighboring militaries and raked in the massive annexations that we today call the "occupied territories": Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Instead of compelling Israel to obey the November 1967 UN resolution demanding an Israeli withdrawal from the conquered territory and a political settlement, LBJ stunningly endorsed the "good beating" the Israelis had administered. A senior State Department official resigned to protest that "basic change in the attitude of the U.S. government ... from one of balance and fairness to one of total support for the development through force of an Israeli empire."
Publicly committed to negotiations with the Palestinians and Israel's neighbors, Israel has made little effort to crown those negotiations with success for the simple reason that permanent tension is useful; it is the weather in which Israel flourishes. As long as the region is in flux, the Israelis can eternally postpone concessions and final settlements. They can continue building settlements and military roads in the occupied territories in the name of "security." They can cling to their controversial nuclear weapons as the only salvation against "wild" neighbors.
But, as events in Gaza now demonstrate, escalation dominance no longer works, and Netanyahu is exposed as having no new usable doctrine to replace it. The first cracks appeared in the Lebanon War of 2006. When Hezbollah paramilitaries fired Katyusha rockets into northern Israel and seized two Israeli sergeants from a Humvee patrolling the border, Israel reflexively demanded "a head for an eye." "If the soldiers are not released," the IDF chief of staff growled, "we will turn Lebanon's clock back twenty years." He wasn't kidding. Israeli airstrikes took out bridges, roads, airports, harbors, water and sewage treatment plants, power grids, schools, hospitals, shops and homes. At least 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed in the campaign, several hundred Hezbollah fighters, and 121 Israeli troops and 43 Israeli civilians. The attempt at escalation dominance -- ratcheting the rocket attacks and kidnappings into a knock-out blow against Hezbollah -- failed. The two kidnapped soldiers were returned -- in a prisoner exchange -- but they were dead. Hezbollah lived on, and has been rearmed. Israel was condemned for its disproportionate use of force everywhere but the Bush White House. Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in December 2008-January 2009 repeated the methods of Lebanon. More than a thousand Palestinians were killed -- including hundreds of civilians -- and factories, workshops, mosques, homes and water treatment plants were destroyed.
Despite tactical successes in Lebanon and Gaza, Israel earned international condemnation, which has intensified in this latest effort to enforce the blockade of the Gaza Strip. When Israel escalates and takes a "head for an eye," it no longer enjoys the respect or connivance of the international community. Certainly a final settlement of the Palestinian question will not appear final to diehards in Hamas or Hezbollah, or to their Iranian minders, but it will prick Hamas' bubble in Gaza and create the conditions for a determined assault on extremism and violence. If Israel embarks seriously on peace negotiations, to include the cession of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the removal of settlements, then it will rally more support for its efforts to defend itself. If Israel hastens the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, it will steal votes from Hamas and gain legitimacy in what is sure to be a long and bitter struggle against the region's "rejectionists." By casting himself as a rejectionist, Netanyahu is doing Israel (and the United States) no favors. When Eisenhower scolded the Israelis fifty-five years ago for their "merciless severity," then Prime Minister Ben-Gurion reacted Netanyahu-like: "Our future depends not on what the goyim say, but on what the Jews do." "Yes," his foreign minister shot back, "but it is also important what the goyim say."
Dr. Geoffrey Wawro is the General Olinto Mark Barsanti Professor of Military History and Director of the Military History Center at the University of North Texas. He is the author of Quicksand: America's Pursuit of Power in the Middle East (Penguin Press, 2010.)