In his takedown of the UN report on Israel’s handling of a mass infiltration attempt from Lebanon on Nakba Day (May 15), Max correctly argued that Israel’s priority should be reestablishing deterrence. But in that regard, Israel’s handling of this incident marked a milestone – not only in the narrow sense of being effective (the Lebanese border stayed quiet on Naksa Day three weeks later), but in a far more important sense: For the first time in years, Israel openly declared its willingness to defend its borders.
Under two successive prime ministers in the last decade,Israel effectively gave up on defending its borders. First came Ehud Barak’s refusal to respond to Hezbollah’s cross-border kidnapping of three soldiers in October 2000, just five months afterIsrael’s UN-certified unilateral withdrawal from every inch of Lebanon. Granted, the second intifada had erupted a week earlier, so the army had its hands full. Nevertheless, this sent a dangerous message: Israelwas either so scared of Hezbollah, or so tired of war, that having left Lebanon with its tail between its legs, it now wouldn’t even defend the internationally recognized border to which it had withdrawn.
Far worse, however, was Ariel Sharon’s repeat of this behavior following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from every inch of Gaza in 2005. By then, the intifada was largely under control, so military action was certainly feasible. Thus as Dan Kurtzer, then America’s ambassador to Israel, told the Jerusalem Post last month, he expected “a very serious Israeli response to the first act of violence” from Gaza and told Washington to “be ready to support it,” since the pullout had removed the justification for cross-border violence. Yet Sharon never responded to the ensuing rocket fire from Gaza, and Kurtzer, despite being a vocal dove, was “very surprised” – because this sent a dangerous message:
“All of a sudden people got acclimated to the idea that there can be rocket fire,” he said. “From there it was just a matter of degree: from one rocket a week, to one a day; from one a day, to one and hour – so it escalated.”
Once again, Israel had effectively proclaimed that it was so scared of Hamas, or so tired of war, that it wouldn’t even defend the internationally recognized border to which it had withdrawn.
Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, finally started reversing this trend: He responded to a cross-border raid in 2006 by launching the Second Lebanon War. But even then, as Britain’s Rabbi Jonathan Sacks perceptively noted last month, Israel’s PR focused on the three soldiers Hezbollah had kidnapped rather than “the battle for the country’s existence” – i.e. the need to defend the internationally recognized border to which it had withdrawn. Israel still felt uncomfortable asserting its right to defend its borders.
But on Nakba Day, Israel finally said openly it was ready to defend its borders by force – and proceeded to do so. And it thereby took an important step on the road to restoring its deterrence.