Tag Archives: National Security

Before the next war: Israel and the US should articulate a policy on proportionality

How can a democratic nation fight and defeat asymmetric enemies in the 21st century?

Previously published in the Jerusalem Report.

by Dr. Eric R. Mandel

The recent International Criminal Court decision to investigate Israel for “war crimes” in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) highlights not only the hypocrisy of the international community’s anti-Israel bias but the difficulty of militarily responding to terrorists who play by no rules.

Can America and Israel ever receive a fair hearing in analyzing the complexity and legality of their military actions against asymmetric actors? Especially when international bodies like the UN Human Rights Council are dominated by some of the worst human rights abusers in the world. These anti-American and anti-Zionist organizations have become weaponized political instruments in a war of lawfare against the US and the Jewish nation.

Israel faces asymmetric threats from Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iranian-controlled militias in Syria and Iraq. America has at least a 40-year history of fighting non-state actors in the Middle East – from the Iranian-orchestrated bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut to one of the worst asymmetric actors, Islamic State.

Israel’s dilemma is that what the US did to ISIS, with civilians embedded within its terrorist network, would not be tolerated by a world with double standards for the Jewish state. Israel will continually be delegitimized
for its response to attacks from civilian areas, where its enemy cynically uses civilians as human shields.

Proportional responses are a matter of ongoing debate in this murky environment. Let’s be clear: “Proportionate” does not mean that if Hezbollah or Hamas sends 100 missiles indiscriminately into Israeli civilian communities, Israel should be expected to send 100 missiles into Palestinian or Lebanese communities. That is immoral and would never even be considered by any democracy, especially Israel or the US.

Articulating a policy on what constitutes a proportional response in asymmetric warfare is both in American and Israeli interests. This past February, the US struck Iranian-controlled weapons depots in Syria in retaliation for an attack on American soldiers at a US base near the Erbil international airport. One American soldier was injured, but 22 Iranian militiamen of the terrorist organizations Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada were killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Is that proportionate or disproportionate?

According to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, “The strikes were necessary to address the threat and proportionate to the prior attacks.”

What is not acknowledged by critics is that it is well within the bounds of international law to retaliate even if the number of casual ties turns out to be more than were incurred, especially if the enemy deliberately uses civilians’ lives for propaganda purposes.

When civilians are inadvertently killed in homes where missiles are stored or whose living room is used as an entrance for an attack tunnel, is it still legal to attack those homes as long as you try to minimize civilian casualties? How do you cope when your intelligence finds kindergartens or hospitals used by terrorist organizations to store weapons or mount operations against your civilians? Israel has called off many operations, walking the fine line between a nation’s obligation to protect its civilians and its moral responsibility to minimize danger to the enemy’s non-combatants.

What is a proportionate response? It behooves Israel, the US and all Western nations not to wait until after civilians are killed in confronting an enemy, but to clearly state what proportionality is, and in a very public way.

Proportionality is wholly misunderstood by democratic governments, the press and the public. It is not the number of causalities that determines proportionality but the necessity of the military action balanced against the potential civilian loss.

Source: Alma Research and Education Center

As Victor Davis Hanson said, “Every Hamas unguided rocket is launched in hopes of hitting an Israeli home and killing men, women, and children. Every guided Israeli air-launched missile is targeted at Hamas operatives, who deliberately work in the closest vicinity to women and children.”

According to Human Rights Watch, no fan of Israel, for a specific attack on a military objective to be lawful, it must discriminate between combatants and civilians. The expected loss of civilian life or property cannot be disproportionate to the attack’s anticipated military gain.

Does Israel take care to avoid civilian casualties, even when they are purposely placed in harm’s way?

Asa Kasher, the co-author of the first IDF Code of Ethics, said, “We can’t separate the terrorist from his neighbors. The terrorists have erased the difference between combatants and non-combatants. They operate from within residential areas. They attack civilians. The world doesn’t have a clue what proportionality is. Proportionality is not about numbers.”

According to international law, the question of proportionality is whether the military benefit justifies the collateral damage. As for B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, all have double standards. For them, there is the poor, pitiful side and the strong side. Testimony that comes from the pitiful side is taken at face value. They think it is immoral to give priority to the defense of the citizens of your state over the protection of the lives of the neighbors of the terrorists.”

The number of casualties, civilian or combatant, is not a determinate for proportionality. War crimes and proportionality are for those who target civilians, are indiscriminate in their attacks, or cause disproportionate civilian loss. Israel does not target civilians, but you would not know that from reading European newspapers or reports from so-called human rights organizations in which body counts determine proportionality.

Jeffery Goldberg, writing in 2014, hit the nail on the head in describing terrorist actors. “Hamas is trying to get Israel to kill as many Palestinians as possible. Dead Palestinians represent a crucial propaganda victory for the nihilists of Hamas. It is perverse but true. It is also the best possible explanation for Hamas’s behavior because Hamas has no other plausible strategic goal here.” This is the strategy of Hamas, Iran, Hezbollah and ISIS.

As Middle East analyst, British Col. (ret) Richard Kemp said, “Of course innocent civilians are killed in every war; war is chaotic and confusing, and mistakes are frequent, but mistakes are not war crimes.”

The problem is that the international community judges a disproportionate response by a body count. A democracy like Israel will always lose because its asymmetric enemy uses its citizens as human shields, hoping to
demonize Israel and deter legitimate use of force.

A few years ago, I spoke to the international medical director for Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, who told me that in the 300 villages he had visited in southern Lebanon, there was not one where missiles were not placed in civilian homes. This man was no Zionist.

All of this came to the fore in February when the ICC ruled that it is under its jurisdiction to investigate Israel for war crimes for its past military activity in the Gaza Strip. Also, it wants to determine if settlements in Judea and Samaria also constitute war crimes against the Palestinians.

The ICC is also supposedly looking into the potential war crimes of Hamas. Yet, it seems morally perverse to equate Hamas, a designated terrorist entity that indiscriminately targets Israeli civilians while using human shields to induce Israeli retaliation, with a democratic nation that tries as much as any other military on earth to minimize enemy civilian causalities. I have witnessed this firsthand along the Gaza border.

The three-judge panel ruling in favor of investigating Israel in 2021 is a far cry from former chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who said in 2006 that the ICC’s Rome Statute “permits belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks against military objectives, even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur.”

The goal of Hamas and Hezbollah is to induce Israel to kill their civilians for political and diplomatic gain. Knowing international arbiters act only as bean counters plays right into their hands.

Whether from the north or south, Israel’s next war will again feature the use of human shields. This time it will be on a massive scale, with the inevitable international condemnation. Lt.-Col. Sarit Zehavi’s ALMA think tank, with the best expertise on Israel’s northern border, has documented many precision-guided missile factories purposely placed in civilian neighborhoods, next to schools, gas companies, and recreational facilities. It takes a herculean effort to fight UN officials and progressive media outlets who don’t hide their bias against Israel, choosing civilian body counts as their weapon to delegitimize Israel, knowing full well that Israel goes to extraordinary lengths to minimize civilians’ causalities.

Since the term “disproportionate” has been politicized and misused, it is appropriate to ask if an overwhelming response can be legal and justified if it acts as a deterrent to further attacks against your civilian population? What if it is the only effective deterrent against an asymmetric enemy that doesn’t play by international conflict rules, strategizing that it will not be on the receiving end of more missiles than it sends?

Can a case be made for a disproportionate response? Yes, it is called the Powell Doctrine and, in the long run, can decrease casualties by deterring the enemy. According to the late Charles Krauthammer’s interpretation of the
doctrine: “The key to success in a military conflict is the use of overwhelming force. For decades the US had followed a policy of proportionality: restraint because of fear of escalation. If you respond proportionately, you allow the enemy to set the parameters… you grant him the initiative.”

In 2006’s Second Lebanon War, Israel’s alleged use of disproportionate force deterred Hezbollah for nearly 16 years. Yet just two year later, the international community ganged up on Israel after Operation Cast Lead in 2008, alleging excessive force constituting war crimes that culminated in the infamous but now discredited and retracted Goldstone Report. The current ICC investigation against Israel for war crimes in 2014 is a continuation of the diplomatic war to discredit Israel and undermine its right to exist like every other nation in the world.

So what can US President Joe Biden’s administration do? It is in America’s interest to protect Israel and itself, so it shouldn’t wait until missiles fly in the next inevitable war. Being proactive before the next war, articulating an American policy on proportionality, would protect both your ally and yourself.

Sooner or later, the US will also be on the docket of the ICC for war crimes. In any war, bad things happen, and yes, war crimes occur. The difference is that for America and Israel, they are far and few between, are legitimately investigated, and punishment is meted out when warranted. Just ask the soldiers in Israeli or American military prisons.

The international community’s goal is to redefine proportionality and tar Israel and America by isolated incidents for political gain. Don’t be misled. Both nations follow the rule of law that is guided by their democratic values.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for “The Jerusalem Post” and a contributor to i24TV, “The Hill,” JTA and “The Forward.”

Is Jewish Unity an Israeli National Security Issue?

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

For the foreseeable future America is indispensable for Israel’s national security interests, and Israel is indispensable for American defense interests.

Now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has temporarily mollified the America Jewish community by kicking the can down the road on the controversial conversion legislation, leaving the Western Wall issue unresolved, this is a good time to think about the relationship between American Jews and Israel.

1.  Is American Jewish support of Israel essential for the survival of the Jewish state?

2.  Does the Israeli government understand how much America’s support of Israel might be weakened by the alienation of ardently Zionist but not so religious Jews who make up much of the core of groups like AIPAC, AJC and StandWithUs, and pour their lives into defending the Jewish state?

3.  Do secular and religiously liberal American Jews now calling for boycotts of Israel because of disagreements on religious pluralism realize how much damage this might create for both US and Israeli national security interests?

During the years of contention when the Obama and Netanyahu administrations overlapped, I repeatedly tried to tell members of the Israeli coalition governments that there was a dangerous and growing divide between large segments of American and Israeli Jewry.

Addressing this problem should be considered an Israeli national defense priority, as Israel needs American Jewish support to defend itself in the court of world opinion, in Congress, fighting boycotts worldwide and to resist journalistic and organizational attacks that aim to delegitimize its very existence.

There is nothing inevitable about American support for Israel. Suppose a large part of the American Jewish community becomes estranged from the Jewish state, vocally denouncing it either because of bickering among Jews about issues of religion, or Diaspora Jews back-seat driving Israel’s painful search for workable ways of dealing with neighbors whose determination to kill them or drive them out of their homes seems implacable.

Might their vocal demands that Israel be punished succeed in undermining Israel’s national defense, which is a keystone uniquely positioned to defend their American national security interests? Too many in the Israeli government remain tone deaf to the gravity of a loss of cohesion between the Diaspora and Israeli Jewish communities, and how it can directly affect their core security concerns.

At the same time, American Jews must in the name of diversity and pluralism make the effort to respect and understand the complex realities of Israel’s multi-party democracy, where the majority of today’s citizenry are Sephardi or Mizrahi, not European Ashkenazi, who view religious issues differently.

American and Israeli Jews need to learn to respect each other’s understanding of how they define their Jewish identity, which is overlapping but different. As Jonathan Tobin wrote in Haaretz, “ Secular Israelis think of religion as only one aspect of Jewish identity that many see as optional… but to be a Jew in the Diaspora is inextricably tied with religion,” even if you are not ritually observant and Tikkun Olam (“repairing the world”) is your primary attachment to your Jewish identity.

So is the relationship between the two largest Jewish communities in the world vital for their survival? Jewish-Americans do not have to put their children in harm’s way, and far too many have a distorted historical understanding of the disputed territories, with a naively sanguine view of Palestinian leadership.

To most Israeli voters, issues relating to the Western Wall and religious pluralism, which might be vehemently discussed in the US, are issues secondary to economics and security.

Israeli leaders need to understand how important these issues are in the minds of many American Jews, who may think more about who gets to pray at the Western Wall and conversions and less about rockets from Gaza, Israeli army service, Iranian nuclear weapons, and shekels.

The issues are complex, but American Jews, who passionately care about Israel’s welfare, feel disrespected as Jews by the ultra-Orthodox. They are perplexed as they see the ultra-Orthodox (not to be confused with religious Zionists) as non-Zionists who do not serve in the army, don’t seem grateful for American financial support of Israeli institutions and extort money for religious schools that don’t teach secular skills for self-sufficiency in the modern world.

Likud-led governments are not the only ones that have capitulated to ultra-Orthodox demands in forming coalition governments. American liberal religious groups would be blind to ignore the very real possibility that Zionist Union (Labor) would accept the ultra-Orthodox into their coalition if that were needed to attain power. Perhaps only Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid might resist that temptation.

Israel would also be incredibly shortsighted if it sees its pivot toward relationships with India, China and other nations supplanting the American-Israeli relationship in the short term.

For the foreseeable future America is indispensable for Israel’s national security interests, and Israel is indispensable for American defense interests.

An important side benefit of a compromise on conversion would be for Israeli-Russian citizens. Non-coercive and easier conversions that would satisfy the more tolerant Orthodox streams within Israeli Jewry, especially those led by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Benny Ish-Shalom, would show great compassion to the hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews who fight for their country, consider themselves Jews but technically need a conversion for their patrilineal descent.

The Reform movement’s acceptance of patrilineal descent yields at this time an unbridgeable divide within halachic movements, although Judaism has always come up with legal fictions through the ages to preserve the Jewish People, and more compassionate conversions would be a good first step.

Haredim need to be respected but would do well to remember the words and actions of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who loved all Jews and considered the performance of any mitzvot by a non-observant Jew as worthwhile.

American Jews need to be more sensitive to Israeli political realities and not overreact with calls to boycotts, giving succor to the BDS movement.

And Israeli politicians should remember not to take American Jewry’s support for granted, that disparaging American Jewry is not just a religious or moral issue, but is an Israeli national security interest too.

The author is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. He regularly briefs members of Congress and think tanks on the Middle East and is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.

Who Is in Charge of American Foreign Policy, State or the President?

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Regarding Qatar and Kurdistan, it is time for America to choose the right side.

Qatar, a small Sunni Gulf state with a long history of Islamist associations, has emerged as the epicenter of the Middle East conflict. On one side are Iran, Turkey, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood aligned with Qatar, and on the other side the Saudis, UAE, Kuwait and Egypt.

For American national security interests, management of this divide is crucial to stabilize the region. Despite Qatar’s anti-American, antisemitic and pro-Iranian views, it hosts an important but not indispensable American air base that targets Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Yet Qatar has been playing a deceitful double game for years, supporting the worst Islamists on the Sunni side while simultaneously acting as ally and banker for the theocratic Iranian regime.
Who said the Middle East is easy to decipher?

So as America tries to navigate the five-dimensional chessboards of conflicting interests in the Middle East, a serious divide in messaging and leadership has emerged between the president and his state and defense departments.

Washington Post headline read: “State Department distances itself from Trump, creating an alternate U.S. foreign policy.”

So who actually is in charge of American foreign policy?

According to Josh Rogin in the Washington Post, the new State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert “fell back on a prepared line, quoting [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson saying that the State Department would just not weigh in on what Trump is saying about U.S. foreign policy… the State Department’s plan is to push forward with its own policies and pretend they don’t contradict Trump.”

Regardless of your political affiliation, any American citizen should be profoundly troubled if our State Department has its own independent foreign policy, as it is an unelected institution unresponsive to the American electorate.

Isn’t the State Department supposed to follow the elected president’s Middle East foreign policy?

This is a recipe for a disastrous US Middle East foreign policy, undermining the interests and trust of American allies, in particular Israel.

This is especially true after the last American administration steered the US away from its traditional allies Israel, Egypt and the Sunni Gulf states toward closer relations with Iran, Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey, while creating vacuums filled by American enemies.

While the president accurately tweeted an accusation that Qatar funds terrorist groups with radical ideologies, Defense Department spokesman Jeff Davis said he was not qualified to answer a question about whether Qatar supported terrorism.

For context on Qatar’s nefarious funding, some of the groups that have benefited from Qatari support include: Islamic State; the Muslim Brotherhood; Hamas; the Khorasan Group; al Nusra Front; al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula; al-Shabaab; the Taliban; and Lashkar-e-Taiba, to name a few.

Qatari-controlled Al Jazeera influences tens of millions of Muslims in the Middle East and Europe with a profoundly anti-American message, undermining US interests at least since 9/11, and often gives voice to known Islamist terrorists.

A fuller picture of Qatar, which portrays itself as a pro-democracy forum supporting the Arab Spring, is Freedom House’s analysis of Qatar as a place where “Women face legal discrimination that pervades every aspect of life.” Sharia law is the source of the Qatari Constitution, with flogging and stoning advocated.

So much for democracy.

The executive branch’s contradictory and confused messaging extends to northern Iraq and the upcoming vote for Kurdish independence. The Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan have announced a referendum on Kurdish independence for September.

The State Department is still married to the discredited idea that Iraq needs to be reconstituted, as if it had existed from time immemorial and was not an artificial nation created by Western powers after World War I.

The Iraqi Kurds have been America’s true friend and ally in the region, while the Shi’ite Iraqi central government is controlled by Iran with an Iranian-controlled Shi’ite army of over 100,000 foot soldiers called the Popular Mobilization Front. Their mission is to create two Iranian corridors from Tehran to the Mediterranean, directly undermining American interests.

During the American presidential campaign President Trump’s Middle East adviser Walid Phares said that a Trump administration would not stand in the way of Kurdish independence.

But now State says the US has more urgent priorities in defeating ISIS, so while it acknowledged the “legitimate aspirations” of the Kurds, it supports a “unified, federal, stable and democratic Iraq.”

So the question to ask is, is this President Trump’s policy on Kurdish independence, or is it the State Department acting on its own?

Will America abandon the Kurdish people, who truly deserve and need a state of their own?

One would think that Secretary of State Tillerson would be more sympathetic to the Kurdish interest as he ignored the Iraqi Shi’ite government in the past, selling Kurdish oil without Iraq’s permission when he was the head of Exxon.

So where do he, the president and the State Department stand on Kurdish independence?

“Iran’s principal position is to support the territorial integrity of Iraq” according to Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi.

When America’s foreign policy aligns with Iran, on Iraq and Kurdistan, nine times out of 10 you are on the wrong side of history.

To advance American interests I suggest the Trump administration follow its most clear-headed diplomat, Ambassador Nicki Haley, to guide American foreign policy. Her words at Yad Vashem should be a guiding principle for American foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond: “Leadership is not about power. Leadership is the acknowledgment and value of human dignity. We must always choose a side.”

Regarding Qatar and Kurdistan, it is time for America to choose the right side.

The author is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. He regularly briefs members of Congress and think tanks on the Middle East. He is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.