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on June 6, 2011
Despite the narrow scope implied by the subtitle ("The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism"), Daniel Byman's "A High Price" defines a new benchmark in terms of presenting a lucid, objective, comprehensive, brilliantly analytical exposition of the terror and counter-terror campaign waged in the Middle East involving the State of Israel. Byman's history is organized in 4 sections: "The Early Years", "From Oslo Through the Second Intifada", "The Lebanese Hizballah", "Jewish Terrorism" and, "Findings and Conclusions". In my estimation, it is the best book on the subject amongst the dozens I've read, including the previous reference-standard, "Israel's Secret Wars: A History of Israel's Intelligence Services" by Ian Black and Benny Morris (1991). Any supporter or critic of Israel, its adversaries and, indeed of U.S. actions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and now Libya (some of which mimic Israeli initiatives) would be well advised to read Byman's far-reaching analysis before rendering judgment.
Byman's recurring theme is that the components of the Israeli Intelligence Community, (Aman, the military intelligence of the IDF; Mossad, responsible for overseas intelligence work; Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service) are superb practitioners of tactics, but that overall strategy, as set by the Israeli Government, is essentially non-existent. In Byman's words, "In over sixty years of fighting terrorism Israel has at times empowered radicals at the expense of moderates, tarnished its diplomatic image, allowed terrorists to use propaganda to turn defeat into victory and otherwise failed at a strategic level. Such failures are in part due to the difficulty of the challenge Israel has faced and continues to face. But many of these mistakes must be laid at the door of the country's poor national security decision-making system. Israel's national decision making is as disastrous as the military and intelligence services are impressive. Indeed Israel's decision-making process makes America's boisterous democracy and cumbersome bureaucracies appear collegial, high-minded and efficient." Further, Byman contends, "Civilian control over Israel's military, always weak, broke down almost completely in the early days of the Intifada."
Israeli adversaries, ranging from various states to organized non-state groups (Fatah, Hizballah, Hamas, etc) are diverse in their orientations, their goals and their competence. In general, and as already well recognized, the military and diplomatic skills of the Arab states is, at best, marginal. Arafat's PLO, rife with corruption, unable to govern, fractious and factional, was minimally better, whereas the Islamist organizations (Hizballah, in particular) are formidable adversaries; both politically savvy and militarily sophisticated, contentions abundantly illustrated in this book. The candid assessments provided in statements given by principals in the conflict provide many worthwhile insights, unvarnished as they are by the conventional diplomatic circumlocutions, ellipses and dissimulation. For example, General Colin Powell remarked to President Bill Clinton on Arafat, "Don't you ever trust that son of a bitch. He lied to me and he'll lie to you". Similarly, Elliott Abrams (George W. Bush's Middle East adviser) said Arafat was "a political criminal". Unabashed praise, however, was garnered for the performance of Hassam Nasrallah, a master of political propaganda, a canny politician and a committed opponent by his Israeli adversaries and by Byman, himself.
The various Israeli counter-terror methods are each presented in detail and their benefits and deficits analyzed. In the process, many myths and lies accruing to these activities are logically and factually demolished. For instance and acknowledging international anti-Israel bias, Byman reports in detail on the Jenin refugee camp battle. By banning journalists, Israel set the scene for bloated casualty figures, misrepresentation of IDF comportment and, in the process, lost the propaganda war. Palestinians and their sympathizers claimed a "massacre" occurred, while subsequent reports from (for instance) the UN indicated: "The widespread perception of Israeli brutality in Jenin is particularly ironic as the total number of casualties on all sides was far less than was expected and initially feared. The United Nations later found that 23 Israeli soldiers and 52 Palestinians, up to half civilians, die in the fighting...The story of the Israeli campaigning in Jenin is bound up on general beliefs about the nature of the Israeli military...Yet regardless of the reality of the operation, the 'Jenin Massacre' is now part of the Palestinians' narrative of suffering and brutality at the hands of the Israelis." Intelligence gathered in Jenin proved that collusion between Arafat (the putative "peace partner" at the time) with Palestine Islamic Jihad, and Hamas disabused many Israelis of the notion that serious negotiations could be undertaken. Yet, these facts and their implications for the future of the Middle East were ignored. Erroneously concluding that the solution to the propaganda problem was unfettered access by journalists, Israel undermined the 2006 Lebanon War effort by providing journalists with uncensored, minute-by-minute intelligence on military actions, Israeli casualties and other data, all of which was used by Hizballah and in other unfriendly quarters to the detriment of Israel; another propaganda and political disaster.
Terrorist groups (or national liberation movements, for that matter) cannot exist without the material support and physical sanctuary given by sympathetic states, as the US learned (but seemingly forgot) in Viet Nam. Hizballah, for example, enjoys a relatively secure sanctuary in Lebanon and is supported with armaments from Syria and Iran (of increasing destructive power and sophistication)and by money: "...Iran gave Hizballah perhaps 5 to 10 million dollars a month...and [perhaps] twice that...Tehran gave ...a billion dollars to Hizballah to help it rebuild after its 2006 war with Israel." Byman quotes Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a specialist on the topic who contends that, "Even by Hibu'llah's reckoning, it would have taken an additional 50 years for the movement to score the same achievements in the absence of Iranian backing."
Jewish terrorism is admittedly a much smaller and largely fringe phenomenon attributable, at least in part, to fanatic immigrant elements from the US according to the author. While it has occasionally been vigorously condemned by the Israeli establishment (Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stating, "As a Jew, I am ashamed"), little has been done to suppress it by Israeli authorities and culprits (when apprehended), are often given ludicrously lenient terms. More alarming, highly religious and nationalistic elements now constitute up to 30% of the Israeli officer corps, previously a bastion of secular, sophisticated, pragmatic men and women.
There are two additional points worthy of note: First, Byman demonstrates that targeted killings are generally worthwhile, as they eliminate highly skilled personnel, disrupting organizational ability, eliminating strategic and tactical planners, removing technicians and charismatic leaders, all of whom are hard to replace. An Israeli court ruling suggested "guidelines" for these actions which would be acceptable to a liberal, Western-style democracy: "...killings were legal under the following conditions: the target is a combatant, the target cannot be arrested, teh operation is approved by senior civilian officials, efforts are taken to reduce civilian casualties and the operation occurs in areas Israel does not control. Perhaps most important, the target has to be a future threat, not just someone who committed crimes in the past." Byman acidly notes that, "In 2010 the Obama administration issued vaguer but related legal justifications for the aggressive targeted killing campaign it is conducting against al-Qa'ida in Pakistan. Second, the "separation fence" or "apartheid wall" (depending on your bias) has been tactically effective but strategically of only dubious benefit. Interestingly, Byman reports that only "30 kilometers" of the wall is made of concrete barriers. The rest is actually a fence. Of course, its meandering path straddles land beyond the 1948 Armistice borders (the "Green Line", which constitutes the de facto international border) and vastly complicates Palestinian lives, as do the road-blocks, check points, blockade of Gaza and the interference with the pragmatic approaches to statehood undertaken by current Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad.
The book ends on a dismal note. Aside from the pernicious impact of proxy forces (Hamas and Hizballah executing policy for Iran); aside from the absolutist, revanchist Islamist convictions of some groups; aside from the corruption; and the mutually self-destructive and interminable nature of the conflict, hope lingers on for a negotiated solution. Byman generally dismisses this possibility, at least in the foreseeable future. There are too many motives by too many actors for a solution to be practical. Additionally, violence has become an end in itself for many: the so-called, "Culture of martyrdom". In short, exactly how, when and if this will end is unclear, but a good place to begin digesting the byzantine complexity of the conflict is this book.