Israel Should Have Drawn Its Red Line With Hamas Far Sooner

Israel's best strategy should Hamas renew the violence is not escalation but responding in equal measure, for only tit-for-tat creates a power symmetry that induces cooperation.

Steve Klein
Steven Klein
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The Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) meeting during the Cuban Missile Crisis. October 29, 1962.
The Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) meeting during the Cuban Missile Crisis. October 29, 1962.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Steve Klein
Steven Klein

The end of Operation Protective Edge leaves some Israelis hopeful for a long-term cease-fire and others fearful that the clock has begun ticking toward the next crisis.

But when will we recognize that the next crisis has begun? What constitutes a crisis anyway? These questions are important because of the way Israel mismanaged the run-up to this conflict.

A crisis is an event that causes one side to draw a red line, forcing the other side either to escalate toward war or back down and return to the status quo ante. A crisis only begins when one side decides it has begun. Timely recognition of a crisis can lead to paying lower costs, be they military, human or economic.

The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is a prime example. The United States decided there was a crisis after its spy planes identified construction of ballistic missile facilities on Cuban soil. The U.S., after considering several options, then imposed a naval blockade, threatening to fire on any Soviet ship trying to run it.

The longer the U.S. would have waited, the higher a price it would have ended up paying. Once the missiles were in place, the United States likely would have had to offer the Soviets a more substantial concession or would have had to live with a new reality of hostile nuclear missiles in its backyard.

Back in Israel, the Netanyahu government decided there was a crisis with Hamas on June 12, in the wake of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. Israel launched a three-week operation to weaken Hamas in the West Bank. Hamas escalated with rockets. Then, Israel tried to end the crisis by offering quiet-for-quiet, but offered no concessions to provide Hamas a way out. Hamas again escalated, using attack tunnels, and provoked Israel into launching a ground invasion to eliminate what Israel saw as a strategic threat.

If tunnels were the real problem, Israel should have declared a crisis much sooner, at least after discovering an attack tunnel near Nahal Oz in January 2013 and no later than March this year, when it discovered the longest attack tunnel to date.

More than a year ago, these tunnels indicated a threat to Israeli security no less vital than the ones revealed last month. At that point Israel could have drawn a red line, giving Hamas a time limit to disclose all tunnels in exchange for lifting the blockade on Gaza or face Israel going in and dismantling the tunnel system unilaterally.

An important aspect of crisis solving is that the aggrieved side has to offer a short-term stick to make the other side reconsider its position and a long-term carrot to give the aggressor a way out.

With Cuba, the Americans and Soviets settled for the solution envisioned by former UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson at the onset of the crisis: The U.S. gave the USSR a way out by pulling its own outdated nuclear missiles out of Turkey - a primary Soviet objective prior to the crisis - in exchange for Soviet withdrawal from Cuba.

Similarly, the Israel-Hamas crisis ended with Israel giving Hamas a way out. Several commentators and experts said before Operation Protective Edge that Hamas's main motivation for firing rockets was getting money to meet its payroll and opening the border to construction material. But Israel's tardiness in recognizing the crisis cost it dearly – 73 dead citizens and soldiers, displaced families, traumatized children, the drafting of thousands of reservists, acute economic damage and a perceived loss of deterrence. Moreover, it was forced effectively to recognize the Palestinian unity/reconciliation government it had so clearly eschewed before the war.

Speaking of deterrence, a comparison with the Cuban Missile Crisis should also teach Israel the fallacy of non-nuclear deterrence. True deterrence is only effective when two powers threaten each other with mutually assured destruction; it is a balanced, tit-for-tat strategy. It is the reason Khrushchev did not test the American blockade and why the U.S. navy was never going to fire on Soviet ships. It is why India and Pakistan no longer go to war with each other.

But deterrence does not apply to superpowers that invade their non-superpower neighbors - just look at Putin and Ukraine - or power-hungry militants. Netanyahu boasted in November 2013 that deterrence against Hamas was working and analysts in early July surmised that Hamas did not want an escalation after last year’s Operation Pillar of Defense. Hamas shot these concepts out of the sky.

Aware that escalation doesn't work, Israel's best strategy should Hamas renew the violence is responding in equal measure, for only tit-for-tat creates a power symmetry that induces cooperation. In the meantime, Israel must offer Hamas a way out by making concessions on the blockade when negotiations commence. If not, the next crisis may come sooner than Israel expects, and then we all will end up paying an even heavier price.

Dr. Steven Klein is an adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University's International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation, and is a senior editor at Haaretz.

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