Monday, March 12, 2012

Is Israel A Rational Actor?

In a seminal 2004 article in Philosophy and Public Affairs, David Luban argued that a state can justifiably launch a preventive war against a rogue state, provided that there is a high probability  for that state being attacked by the rogue state. This was a departure from classical just war theory, which only justifies preemptive war, that is, war to preempt an attack that is not only probable but imminent.

What constitutes a ‘rogue state’?

For purposes of preventive war doctrine, the most important characteristics are militarism, an ideology favoring violence, a track-record of violence to back it up, and a buildup in capacity to pose a genuine threat.

One could argue that, if Prof. Luban is correct,  Iran would be justified in launching a preventive war against Israel, since the latter is considered by many to be a militaristic society, refuses to engage with Iran in even indirect diplomacy, and has threatened repeatedly to attack Iran if it achieves nuclear weapons break-out capacity. It certainly has a track-record of unilateral violence to back up its threats. And Israel cooperates with the inspectors of the IAEE even less than does Iran.

Note that Prof. Luban does not allow preventive (or, for that matter, preemptive) war when a state merely feels threatened; on the contrary, he requires that the threat is probable (preventive war) or imminent (preemptive). Since Iran has never threatened to launch an unprovoked war against Israel, nor is it clear that it would take steps to act aggressively against Israel (If you don’t believe me, read here), I see no grounds for a preventive war against Iran. Moreover, it doesn’t fit the above definition of a rogue state. (For the record,  I hope that Iran won’t launch a preventive war against Israel.)

Is it so outlandish to consider Israel a rogue state, according to the above definition? Consider the recent Gaza violence. It began when Israel broke the cease-fire by assassinating Zuhair al-Qaissi, the commander of the armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committee. Israel alleged that al-Qaissi was planning a strike against civilians; but given the IDF’s track record of telling the truth, you will pardon my skepticism. Or to put it another way – if Israel saw the opportunity to kill al-Qaissi as revenge for, say, the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, wouldn’t it make better sense for the IDF to lie about its motives. After all, it all boil downs to whether you accept the IDF at its word. And, from Israel’s perspective, why shouldn’t it take revenge for the sake of deterrence and be disingenuous about the motive?

Now, I ask you: Is Israel a rational actor? After all, it knowingly plunged the southern half of the country into chaos, disrupted and risked the lives of hundreds of thousands of Israelis, sent many of them into bomb shelters, spent millions of shekels, etc., engaged in a “pissing match” with an armed group of insurgents – and for what? Not to stop a cell of terrorists on the way to carry out an attack, which would have been a preemptive strike, but to take out a military leader who may or may not have been “plotting” an attack.

Is this rational? Under some scenarios, it would be.

First, suppose that the real motive of the Israelis was not to stop the planning of a terrorist mission, but to test the effectiveness of the Iron Dome missile defense. What better way to gauge the success of that defense than to provoke rocket retaliations? What better way to judge the military capability of the insurgent groups? What better way to draw Hamas into a cycle of violence, so it could point fingers at Hamas? (Unfortunately, the Israelis failed; Hamas didn’t take up the bait.)

Under this scenario, the Israelis did not continue the drone attacks as reprisals for the missiles but, on the contrary, in order to provoke more missile attacks to test the strengths and weaknesses of the system. After all, Israel knows that its drone attacks inevitably will call forth retaliation, just as drone attacks against Tel-Avivans would also call forth retaliations. Assuming Israel is a rational actor, one has to ask what would Israel stand to gain by placing so many of its citizens in harm wa? The only answer I can think of is that it was vital for them to test and to improve the Iron Dome. The “unintended consequences” were the death of over two dozen Palestinians, from the very young to the very old, But while I am sure Israel will say that it sincerely regrets the loss of life, is it not justified to prolong the fighting in order to make a thorough test of the strengths and weaknesses of the lives its missile system certainly saved? Given the value of Gazan life for the Israelis, doesn’t it make sense that they are used as guinea pigs for such testing?

Of course, it may just be that Israel is not a rational actor.

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