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What Israel Should Learn from Ukraine’s War

Israelis recognize that no outside power, not even the U.S., can be relied on to guarantee survival in the face of a powerful threat.
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March 3, 2022
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On Thursday, February 24, 2022, the Russian army launched its invasion of Ukraine, accompanied by a barrage of missile and air attacks, and the world suddenly changed. Pictures of columns of tanks rolling into cities, bombs exploding in offices and apartment buildings, and masses of refugees desperate to flee were until recently, associated exclusively with the world’s fringes in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Vladimir Putin was known to be a ruthless autocrat who crushed all opposition in Russia, and gave support to separatists in the former Soviet empire including Ukraine. But among European elites and many Americans, he was also viewed as a reliable partner who valued international stability — until a few months ago, when warnings that he might be ready to upset the entire international order emerged. The potential of having created the capability for a full-scale war with NATO had little effect in stopping his momentum. And as happened many times in the past, by the time Russian forces started to prepare to attack Ukraine, it was too late to prevent it.

With this as background, the first lesson to be learned (or relearned) from these events 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 did not prevent Putin’s onslaught. In the West — mainly the U.S. and NATO, good intentions and strong words of support notwithstanding — the lack of a credible deterrent to dissuade Putin was clearly evident, including from the Kremlin.

The best means of preventing an attack is by convincing enemies that the response will be swift, intolerable and unbearable, and in threatening Israel’s survival, their own existence would be at stake.

Deterrence against 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 so-called “end of history” was declared, deterrence was largely forgotten, allowing Putin to reorganize and modernize the Russian army without interference. By the time the U.S. and NATO woke up to the threat, Russia had full control.

The key question now is whether the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine will trigger a wake-up call for Western democracies. Will the images of horror and destruction from the first large-scale war in or at least on the edge of Europe and a direct threat to NATO in more than a generation force a fundamental rethinking of core issues of war and peace?

The View from Jerusalem

This question is also central for Israel, where the events in Ukraine serve as an important reality check. Israelis recognize that no outside power, not even the U.S., can be relied on to guarantee survival in the face of a major threat. In 1948, after defeating the combined Arab attack at great cost, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion understood the need for the tiny Jewish state to be capable of defending itself against future threats, as was demonstrated in the Six Day War of 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, intolerable and unbearable, and in threatening Israel’s survival, their own existence would be at stake.

The difficulties of maintaining the strong and credible capability required for deterrence should not be underestimated. Displays of force must be carefully calculated to demonstrate determination and strength. Deterrence is a matter of perceptions, and when responses to threats are weaker than expected, whether because of fear of pictures of destruction and international criticism or other reasons, the weakness can invite escalation.

In addition, the population must be prepared and able to absorb counterattacks and the possibility of triggering a full-scale war, as the other side tries to show its own resolution and retaliatory strength. As the years pass, Israelis have become more comfortable, particularly economically, and also pay more attention to being ostracized, shunned and boycotted by outsiders.

Against calls to wipe “the Zionist entity off the map,” a series of pinpoint and anonymous attacks attributed to the Mossad have not stopped Tehran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

For these and other reasons, 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, including Hamas in Gaza, Israeli responses fall short. Against calls to wipe “the Zionist entity off 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 UN 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 included 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, at best, in an unstable situation of mutual deterrence 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 2008-2009, 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 costs to the leaders of the terror groups were not enough. As soon as the ceasefires were declared, they moved quickly to resume the manufacture of rockets (using money and materials stolen from humanitarian aid) and repaired the kilometers of tunnels through 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 (ICC). During the Gaza wars, the IDF assigned lawyers to monitor combat operations and also limited counterattacks, hoping to persuade the ICC prosecutor to drop politically motivated actions. This effort failed and, more importantly, also weakened deterrence.

Demonstrators rally in support of Ukraine on February 27, 2022 in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

These examples highlight the difficulties of deterring terror organizations, in contrast to established states with institutions and assets that the leaders want to protect against destruction. The Taliban, Al Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah and other groups deliberately use densely populated civilian areas to store and launch attacks, making it very difficult for defenders to initiate counter-attacks or pre-emptive strikes without hurting innocent people. This raises difficult moral questions about when and how to use force in preventing costly terrorist attacks.

UN condemnations, campus boycotts and pseudo-investigations, although psychologically painful, are far less costly than the death and destruction from shooting wars.

But this does not make deterrence any less necessary. UN condemnations, campus boycotts and pseudo-investigations, although psychologically painful, are far less costly than the death and destruction from shooting wars.

Human Rights with Realism

For the democratic world, including Israel, these questions will be in the background, and might be addressed directly during the quarterly session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which began in Geneva last week and is scheduled to last until April 1. Over the past 20 years, instead of promoting human rights and investigating actual war crimes and other violations, this body and the associated NGO network, led by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have become major sources of propaganda directed at Israel. These campaigns reflect what critics have called “the cult of international law,” in which deterrence and the use of force have been banished (except for privileged victims, particularly Palestinians), and have attracted progressive politicians, journalists, academics and diplomats. This is also the opposite of political realism, based on the inescapable impact of power and interests and the necessity of defending those interests, starting with national independence, as the invasion of Ukraine blatantly illustrates.

The documents and agenda prepared for the current HRC session include numerous attacks on Israel under different headings, in which allegations of “war crimes” and “apartheid” are to take center stage, building on Amnesty International’s latest campaign. The objective, as always, is to delegitimize Israel, including through the International Criminal Court, under the facade of war crimes, while 74 years of Palestinian rejectionism and terror are erased.

However, last week, a few hours after the invasion began, the Ukrainian government asked the Council to hold an “urgent debate on Russian aggression.” If accepted, this would focus at least some of the attention and resources away from the attacks on Israel, and return human rights and international law to a wider context. Although the anti-Israel machine in the UN and the NGOs will continue to go through the motions, the moral and legal distinction between aggressor and defender, and the fundamental differences regarding the legitimacy of the use of force, might even get some attention in the shadow of the war against Ukraine.

Although Russia is a member of the HRC (as is China and many other prominent human rights violators), Moscow does not have a veto here, in contrast to the UN Security Council. Moreover, the U.S. recently rejoined the 47-member Council (elected by region), and at the time, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken pledged to work for reform, particularly regarding the absurd attacks on Israel under the facade of international law. If the U.S. and European members get a majority, which is problematic (close to half of the members are dictatorships who use their positions to prevent being the subject of investigations and condemnations), Ukraine will be on the agenda. And if they fail and criticism of Russia is silenced, perhaps the obsessive bias and general irrelevance of the Council and the NGO network will become clearer.

The world embraces victims, and Israel is too strong and too successful to be able to return to the pre-1967 image of ourselves as the plucky David, using force to defeat or deter a powerful Goliath.

Even if some rethinking about the UN and the human-rights establishment occurs, Western opinion leaders will have a hard time seeing Israel as another threatened nation, like Ukraine, only better prepared to defend our freedom. The world embraces victims, and Israel is too strong and too successful to be able to return to the pre-1967 image of ourselves as the plucky David, using force to defeat or deter a powerful Goliath. The most optimistic scenario is that the highly exaggerated images of Israel as a serial perpetrator of war crimes, apartheid and other accusations, and having no justification for using military power, will gradually fade into irrelevance.

The more important audience for these debates is internal. Israel cannot afford to formulate security policies involving the lives of its citizens according to the biases of the human rights network. In reality, Israel remains a small country under constant threat, with an ongoing need for strong deterrence and defense capabilities to protect itself. And while every resort to the use of force to prevent attacks from Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas needs to be weighed carefully, including the possibility that innocent civilians might be inadvertently killed, failure to act in a timely manner has a much greater cost. As we have been reminded in Ukraine, the West’s complacency in the face of Russian threats has led to disaster.


Gerald Steinberg is emeritus professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, where he founded and led the Program on Negotiation and Diplomacy, and heads the Institute for NGO Research in Jerusalem.

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