Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at the University of Haifa. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1967 Israel defeated the combined armies of the Arab world in six days. We will soon be approaching a month’s worth of fighting between Israel and an Islamic militia without a clear Israeli victory in sight. And the main reason for this has been Israel’s belief that air strikes alone can decide a battle and a war.
They cannot. Air strikes on targets largely consisting of empty buildings do almost nothing. Sure, they are swift and clean and allow ground troops to stay safely out of the fighting. But had the Allies attempted to defeat Germany by relying on air strikes, World War II might still be raging.
Israel’s current military commander-in-chief, Dan Halutz, got his job after serving for many years as head of the air force. From the beginning of this war with Hizbullah, it was the air force that led the assault, which, other than producing videotapes of explosions meant to comfort Israelis trapped under the barrage of Hizbullah missiles, has failed to accomplish what Israeli strategists had hoped for.
Meanwhile, the element of surprise was completely lost. Suppose that instead of the air force launching air strikes, Israeli paratroopers had seized the bridges over the Litani on the first day of battle, followed by a rapid tank movement designed to cut off southern Lebanon.
Suppose this had been followed by mopping-up operations of Hizbullah bunkers and cells. It is certain that the Katyushas would have stopped falling on Haifa, Safed and Nahariya within the first few days of fighting. Moreover, there was no international pressure on Israel against conducting precisely such an operation. It was not carried out only because Israel’s government was afraid to conduct it.
Instead, the Halutz strategy was to let the air force blow up buildings, which always makes for nice sound bites on the evening news. Israeli audiences could watch the reassuring explosions, a bit like Americans did in the early days of the liberation of Iraq. Except that in Iraq, the tanks and marines entered almost at the same instant as the cruise missiles. Israelis huddling in their bomb shelters could watch the explosions in Beirut and Tyre, but the Katyushas continued to fall on them.
When Israel’s leaders finally realized the bombings were achieving nothing, they ordered ground troops in, but in a half-hearted, hesitant manner. The ground fighting resembled that old song from bar mitzvah parties, “Hokey Pokey.” The Israeli version has gone something like this: “You put your ground troops in, you take your ground troops out, you put your ground troops in, and you move them all about.That’s what it’s all about.”
The ground troops were moved into Lebanon and out again as more of Israel’s long term strategy to defeat terrorism by means of useless empty “signaling.” They were ordered to remain close to the Israeli border and in limited numbers, which is why they were completely ineffective against the Katyushas.
For many years now, Israel’s leaders have attempted to defeat the enemy by “signaling” – i.e., issuing half-hearted warnings issued in numerous forms, from sonic booms over terrorist encampments to brief incursions into the Gaza Strip, Nablus or Lebanon. The problem with “signaling” is that an empty signal not backed up by real force achieves nothing. Indeed, it does great damage by conveying to the enemy that Israel does not have the stomach for a real battle.
Let us be clear. The Israeli army that defeated the Arab military machine in 1967 in six days could have cleared southern Lebanon of Hizbullah in a very short time. But it was shackled by Israeli politicians convinced that symbols and signals are all that’s needed.
Sending into Lebanon troops in small numbers and then ordering them to return to base is an empty threat. Declaring over and over that ground troops will not be sent deep into Lebanon is equivalent to declaring that Hizbullah has nothing to fear from Israel. “Over-flying” Latakia in Syria without dropping a single bomb tells Syria that it has nothing to fear from Israel either, other than more empty signals.
And dropping leaflets on Lebanese cities calling on the Lebanese to expel Hizbullah shows that Israeli leaders still think they can destroy terrorism by making terrorists laugh themselves to death.
Empty signaling is indeed effective, but not in the sense that Israel’s leaders believe. Reliance on signaling rather than the serious use of the military merely convinces the enemy that Israel is on the run and is too frightened of international pressure or of sustaining military casualties to do what is required.
In other words, it is a shot of adrenaline in the arm of Hizbullah. It proves to the terrorists that Israel is afraid of a real fight. It signals that the one strategy Israel will not attempt against terrorism is military victory.
Empty threats do indeed signal. They signal weakness and defeatism.