Israel, Gaza and ‘Strategic Proportionalism’

7 August 2022

Israel, Gaza and ‘Strategic Proportionalism’
By Gwynne Dyer

There may be a truce in the latest lopsided war in Gaza by the time you read this, but it looks a lot like the previous ones in 2008, 2014 and 2021: the Israelis arrest or kill some leaders of the Palestinian resistance movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad; the latter reply with showers of home-made rockets on Israel; and the Israeli Defence Forces go to work.

Among themselves, the IDF refer to this process as ‘mowing the grass’, a process that takes between a few days and a week or two. Air strikes and artillery kill lots of Palestinians, and Palestinian rockets kill about one-tenth as many Israelis. Then it’s all over until next time.

But there are a few differences this time. One is that the average time between major lawn-mowing episodes is seven years; this time it has only been one year. Somebody is in a hurry.

Another difference is that only Islamic Jihad, the Iranian-backed militia, has been targeted. Hamas, the larger group, which runs the Gaza Strip’s government, has launched no rockets at Israel, and the Israelis are leaving it alone. There is probably a sub-text here too.

Two other factors may also be influencing Israel’s current strategy. One is that “Iran can break out to a nuclear weapon within a very short time,” as Kamal Harazi, president of the Iran’s Strategic Council for Foreign Relations, said last month.

Donald Trump’s trashing of the 2015 treaty limiting Iran’s nuclear research has had the predicted result. Iran may still not intend to build actual nuclear weapons, but it has achieved a ‘threshold capability’ that lets it do so quickly if seriously threatened.

Blend in Israel’s new policy of attacking Iranian territory directly in response to attacks by Iranian proxies elsewhere, and you have a recipe for disaster.

The new policy is called ‘strategic proportionalism’. Former prime minister Naftali Bennett called it the ‘Octopus’ doctrine’: “We no longer play with the tentacles, with Iran’s proxies: we’ve created a new equation by going for the head.”

It’s easy to see why this new approach appeals to Israelis frustrated by the existing policy, under which Iran-backed attacks by Islamic militants in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon or Syria are met only by IDF attacks on those places, not on Iran itself. Even in the midst of a fiercely contested election campaign, it has cross-party approval.

“We have told the world we are not willing to take it anymore,” caretaker prime minister Yair Lapid said last month. “If the Iranians are bringing war to our doorstep, then they’re going to find war at theirs.”

What are we to make of all this? Start with the fact that Israel, by killing Islamic Jihad leader Khaled Mansour, chose this moment to start another round of tit-for-tat escalation. Killing such leaders accomplishes very little – they are instantly replaced by others who are equally dedicated – but it does guarantee retaliation. Presumably Israel wanted retaliation.

What’s next? Some Islamic Jihad rockets and mortars land on Israel, and Israel ‘retaliates’ back – and at this point, if Israel wants, it can roll out its new policy and send the retaliatory strikes directly to Iran as well. That’s ‘proportional’ retaliation, which probably sounds quite reasonable and measured to the ears of Israeli decision-makers.

I don’t know if this is a trial run of the new strategy, designed to put Iran on notice even before it gets any nuclear weapons, or just some over-enthusiastic mowing of the grass.

I do know that any Israeli strikes on Iranian territory would be seen in Tehran as a precedent-setting move, and that there would almost certainly be missiles (without nuclear warheads) fired directly from Iran to Israel in response.

That’s as far as the escalation could go in the current confrontation. Israel will not use or threaten to use its nuclear weapons against Iran, and Iran does not have any nuclear weapons (yet). The problem is the precedents.

Israel and Iran have been sworn enemies since the ‘Islamic’ Revolution in Iran more than forty years ago, but in all that time no missile has flown between the two countries in either direction. If a mutual exchange of missile fire gets normalised, how will anybody know that the next one isn’t carrying a nuclear warhead?

Israelis would get considerable satisfaction from seeing some of their missiles fall on Iran for a change, but in the long run they and the Iranians would both have to act on the assumption that any incoming missile could be nuclear. Shoot down every one, or risk casualties in the hundred of thousands, maybe even extinction.

This is a suicidally stupid strategy. Let’s hope it’s just the Israelis mowing the grass again.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 15. (“Donald…threatened”; and “That’s…precedents”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘The Shortest History of War’.