The first lesson to be learned (or relearned) from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that the absence of deterrence can be fatal for any nation. The bravery and determination displayed by the leaders and citizens of Ukraine are impressive, but have not prevented Putin’s onslaught. In the West—mainly the United States and NATO—good intentions and strong words of support notwithstanding, the lack of a credible deterrent to dissuade Putin was clearly evident, including to the Kremlin.
Deterrence of a powerful and determined opponent is inherently complex and uncertain. During the Cold War, strategists agonized over the best means of preventing Moscow from challenging and weakening American power and the NATO alliance, including MAD—mutual assured destruction. But when the Soviet state collapsed, and the end of history was declared, deterrence was largely forgotten, allowing Putin to build up his forces without interference. By the time the United States and NATO woke up to the threat, Russia had full control.
For Israel, the events in Ukraine are an important reality check. Israelis recognize that no outside power, not even the United States, can be relied on to guarantee survival in the face of a powerful threat. In 1948, after defeating the combined Arab attack at great cost, David Ben-Gurion understood the need for the tiny Jewish state to be capable of defending itself against future threats, as was demonstrated in 1967. Later, having America as an ally added to Israeli security, but did not replace the centrality of self-reliance.
As a result, for 74 years, Ben-Gurion, his successors and Israel’s security establishment have continued to prioritize strategic deterrence. The best means of preventing an attack is by convincing enemies that the response will be swift and intolerable, and that in threatening Israel’s survival, their own existence would be at stake.
However, in recent years, lapses in deterrence are cause for concern and require strengthening and reinforcement. Specifically, in the face of ongoing threats from the Iranian regime and its proxies, and against Hamas in Gaza, Israeli responses fall short. Against threats to wipe “the Zionist entity” of the map, a series of pinpoint and anonymous attacks attributed to the Mossad have not stopped Tehran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. And in Lebanon, under the eyes of the United Nations and the so-called international community, Hezbollah acquired and deployed tens of thousands of rockets and missiles stored in civilian areas, and aimed at the Israeli population. This force is the forward arm of the Iranian threat.
Sixteen years ago, in 2006, the IDF did a good job of restoring deterrence, after Hezbollah killed a number of soldiers and snatched two bodies to hold for ransom. The IDF launched what was termed as a “disproportionate” response that lasted for five weeks, and including intense bombing of the Hezbollah stronghold under the streets of Beirut, but ended without a decisive knock-out. But since then, Israel has allowed the terror proxy to rebuild and expand its arsenal of deadly missiles, resulting in an unstable situation of mutual deterrence, at best, which the leaders of Iran and Hezbollah could decide to disrupt at any time. And if Iran crosses the nuclear finish line, it will be even more difficult for Israel to neutralize this deadly force.
Similarly in Gaza, Israel has allowed Hamas to produce and smuggle in thousands of rockets. The wars of 2008/9, 2014 and 2021 damaged the terror infrastructure significantly, while trying to avoid killing the civilian “human shields” used to protect these weapons and their operators. But the terror groups quickly produced more rockets and repaired the kilometers of tunnels though which they are transported and controlled.
A major reason that Israel has stopped short in deterring or preventing Hezbollah and Hamas from recovering quickly is the fear of international condemnation. In the United Nations and via powerful non-governmental organizations (NGOs) claiming human rights and international law agendas, Israelis were boycotted, labeled as “war criminals” and threatened with investigations by the International Criminal Court. During the Gaza wars, the IDF assigned lawyers to monitor combat operations, and limited counterattacks, hoping to persuade the ICC prosecutor to drop politically motivated actions. This effort failed, and more importantly, also weakened deterrence.
Both of these situations demonstrate the difficulties of deterring terror organizations in contrast to established states with institutions and assets that the leaders do not want to lose. But this does make deterrence any less necessary. U.N. condemnations, campus boycotts and pseudo-investigations, although psychologically painful, are far less costly than the death and destruction from shooting wars. In this important dimension, the events in Ukraine are an important wake-up call.
Gerald M. Steinberg is a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and president of the Institute for NGO Research.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.