Daniel Byman believes Israel must defend itself from terrorism, but it must also learn from its mistakes.
And there have been mistakes.
“I believe terrorism is horrible — not just wrong, but horrible. And I believe Israel has not only a right but an obligation to fight back,” Byman, an expert in counterterrorism, said in a Chronicle interview. “But that doesn’t mean Israel always does the right thing.
“Israel is a government. Like any other government, it is subject to political pressure; it is human beings making mistakes. Israeli intelligence is superb … but it’s fallible as well,” he continued. “Israel, I think, is actually often not so good on the strategic level. It’s very good in making day-to-day decisions but often some of its long-term decisions have backfired.”
A professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Byman is out with his new book, “A High Price: The Triumphs & Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism.” In it, he tracks the evolution of terrorism in the Arab-Israeli conflict since the British mandate, with an emphasis on the 1990s to the present. He analyzes what has worked and what hasn’t.
He spoke here last week as a guest of the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.
In his book, Byman prefers to address day-to-day acts of terrorism, such as bombings and rocket attacks, and the counter-measures employed by Israel. These types of terrorism are harder for Israel to deal with than the high-profile hijackings and hostage takings of the 1970s, he said. They also have a more profound effect on life in Israel.
According to Byman, there have been few dramatic acts of terrorism since the Second Intifada.
“It was a slow but steady grind that in the end was exceptionally successful from the Israeli point of view,” he said. “By 2005, Israel had decimated various terrorist organizations. Israel had a superb intelligence gathering apparatus; the number of attacks was way down and Israel had done this without making political concessions. In 2005 the Palestinian groups largely called it quits because they had been overwhelmed.
“But at the same time there were some heavy costs for Israel as well,” he continued, “and I felt most of the discussion about Israel, most of the discussion about counterterrorism, missed most of this.”
The 2005 withdrawal from Gaza was one such cost. Done unilaterally by Israel, Byman said, it should have been done, at least ostensibly, in conjunction with the Palestinian Authority to give the P.A. government a way to claim credit for it. Instead, the government appeared weak and Hamas took control of the Strip in 2007.
Another example was Lebanon, which Israel invaded in 1982 and successfully drove out the PLO. But the IDF got bogged down in a protracted guerilla war there, and the experience paved the way for the rise of Hezbollah.
There have been some not-so-well known acts of cooperation as well.
For instance, Israel gets Palestinian cooperation to stop terrorist attacks.
“When I talk to Israeli security officials now they say on the West Bank Palestinian security forces are doing the overwhelming majority of the day-to-day [work] in stopping things like suicide bombings, but terrorist groups adapt and rockets are a great example.”
He equated the rocket attacks from Gaza to the Fedayin border raids of the 1950s — not as deadly as suicide bombings, but a sign that terrorist groups are adapting to Israel’s ability to stop suicide bombers. And Israeli counterintelligence must adapt as well.
“By some estimates Israel was arresting 90 percent of the suicide bombers at their doorstep as they were leaving the house — really truly pinpoint in intelligence.”
In his book, Byman equates Israel to a laboratory, in which new types of counterterrorism measures are experimented with, and other countries — namely, the United States — can learn from them.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)