This weekend’s Israeli strike on Syrian targets is being given lots of attention by Western media and other analysts. As was the case with the January election, the tendency is to make assumptions and use Western prisms to explain Israeli behavior and from there assume many things about possible American behavior. This is normal to some extent, and the lack of complete information and Israel’s (relative) silence on the matter do make it necessary to guess. But a better sense of the history and decision-making processes behind Israel’s actions would lead to a more accurate explanation of the strikes.
First and foremost, the Israeli strikes on Syria are about preventing Hezbollah from obtaining “game-changing” weapons. In the most recent attack, this meant stopping Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missiles sent by Iran. Israel’s ability to maintain a decisive qualitative edge in military technology, resources, and ability to control the timing of any fight over its enemies is its own red line. If the Syrian civil war endangers this ability, then Israel will become “involved,” but it will remain a limited and specific involvement.
To the extent that there are always messages inherent in the foreign and security policies of states, yes, this was a message to Iran that Israel takes its red lines seriously and will act to reinforce them. But Israel has a long standing security posture that is very aggressive, relies on prevention and carrying the fight to others’ territory, and requires limited actions and reprisals designed to avoid escalation (though that certainly has happened at times). The strikes on Syria are only part of this historical pattern.
That pattern was seriously debated among Israel leaders at the beginning of the state. David Ben-Gurion, the towering figure of early Israeli politics (though he was physically short in stature) represented the more militarist position, arguing that military attacks on enemy targets were simply important tools of statecraft and even necessary. Moshe Sharett, the professorial-looking counterpart to Ben-Gurion, argued for a policy of moderation, contending that even limited strikes would lead to escalation and condemn Israel to years of fighting and undermine prospects for peace.
Ben-Gurion did not just defeat Sharett in that debate, but he succeeded in inserting his preference for limited attacks and counter-attacks into Israel’s security doctrine. The aim, he argued, was to degrade the enemies’ ability to attack Israel and let them know Israel would act to defend itself. It was also, in the form of larger assaults (1956, 1967), about getting the jump on its enemies before they would be able to harm Israel. With a small territory and population, Jerusalem’s believed that Israel simply could not withstand an invasion or an extended war.
In the first years of Israel’s existence, this military doctrine was represented by limited on-the-ground incursions into neighboring states. Ariel Sharon’s Unit 101 was created in 1953 for this very purpose, to strike swiftly at military targets and then slip back into Israel. Unit 101’s horrific attack on the Palestinian village of Qibya, in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank, in which many civilians were killed, let to its disbandment and incorporation into other special forces units. (This is also demonstrates some of the problems with even limited military actions.) Later, air strikes supplemented this strategy.
The growing threat of non-conventional weapons and the advances on weapons technology, particularly missiles and air defenses, has prompted Israel to modify this security posture to include a variety of other tactics, including a more active presence in other countries and hitting supply and transit routes and targets. But these, too, are mostly updated version of older policies.
Even more necessary is to avoid the temptation to use the Israeli strikes as the basis for arguing for American military intervention in Syria, whether by imposing a no-fly zone, ground troops to secure Syria’s chemical weapons, or some other action. This was especially the buzz on Twitter Saturday night when word of the attack came out.
But Israel’s abilities, goals, and responsibilities are very different from America’s. Israel has the ability to conduct limited and concise attacks on specific targets, and to engage in a brief war; but it doesn’t have the capability—and it’s doubtful it has the popular or political will anymore—to sustain a drawn-out presence in a neighboring country. Its goal is to prevent weapons and technology from reaching its primary enemy in this specific arena, namely, Hezbollah (the Syrian military is no match for Israel). It doesn’t see itself as responsible for everything else, including interfering in the succession process being played out so violently, protecting civilians from the horrific atrocities being committed against them, and influencing the outcome of the civil war and, from there, the region. All this is reserved for later consideration or others to deal with. Jerusalem defines its responsibilities, rather, as its immediate security needs and the near-term future effects of its actions.
Washington’s abilities are much greater, its goals are much broader, and its responsibilities are much bigger. Comparing Israel to the US under these conditions isn’t helpful for understanding America’s actions thus far or its capabilities for doing more. Adam Elkus tweeted a series of important ways that Washington can learn from the Israeli experience, but it’s about thinking in specifics, rather than too-general policy ideas.
Any analysis, then, that assumes Israel was acting to send a message to Iran, or that the strikes demonstrated the foolishness of the American position on imposing a no fly zone or other form of military engagement are flawed because they ignore the bases for Israeli policy.