Defusing Israel’s ‘detonator’ strategy

Moshe Dayan, the one-eyed general who led Israel to military victories in the 1956 Suez war and the Six-Day War of 1967, believed in what he called a “detonator” strategy for the Jewish state.

“When someone wishes to force on us things which are detrimental to our existence, there will be an explosion which will shake up wide areas, and realizing this, such elements in the international system will do their utmost to prevent damage to us.”

Speaking to Israel’s military elite after the Suez campaign, Dayan acknowledged that his was not a “constructive thesis.”

“It is a thesis advocating that we should be a kind of biting beast, capable of developing a crisis beyond our borders. If anyone tries to harm us, the explosion will do damage to others too.”


In trying to assess whether Israel will launch a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear complex, possibly triggering a broad Middle Eastern war and a new shock to the global economy, Western leaders need to take into account Israel’s capacity for playing the role of “detonator” in the Middle East, a strategy that can be seen in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand for “red lines” that, if crossed, would serve as a trigger for war.

For six years and through two presidencies, Israel has warned that if the international community does not interrupt Iran’s nuclear development — and its attendant threat of a nuclear-armed Iran — Israel will send its air force to bomb Iran, consequences come what may.

But there is also a counterweight in Israeli domestic politics to that kind of bellicosity. Though Netanyahu and his like-minded defense minister, Ehud Barak, came up from the army (Barak was its most decorated officer and Netanyahu served in a commando unit Barak headed), Israel’s military and intelligence chiefs have gone to great lengths to make it clear that there is broad opposition within the officer corps to an attack on Iran.

Netanyahu remembers better than anyone how forcefully the military hierarchy turned against him in 1999, when more than 100 generals joined political parties to drive Netanyahu out of the prime minister’s office. He is working to prevent a repeat by seeking a strong majority, if not unanimity, within his security Cabinet for a war strategy against Iran.

From my discussions with Israeli military and political leaders, I believe that despite the drumbeat in the news media, the chances of an Israeli attack remain remote. Every study of the military problem Israel faces in mounting airstrikes far from its home territory reveals the tremendous risks the Jewish state would take for palpably insignificant gains in setting back the long-term Iranian ambition to develop a national nuclear industry. Netanyahu, in my view, will not risk the catastrophe of war. But the danger of miscalculation is grave.

The West can and must continue to oppose a decision by Iran’s leaders to enter the military realm of nuclear development, but the United States and other nations will have little credibility if the net effect of their actions is a “red line” inhibiting the technological development of another state. Young Iranians who risked their lives for reform and who admire Western democracy are also fiercely nationalistic in defending Iran’s right to develop technologically.

President Obama has shown the wisdom of President Eisenhower in resisting war strategies in the Middle East. Eisenhower believed that the modern struggle of the great powers in that region would be for the “hearts and minds” of people seeking a new beginning of freedom, justice and prosperity after a long run of colonialism. The “Arab Spring” movement and Iran’s youth movements reflect this powerful current, which is far more potent than religious extremism.

Yet however the Iran crisis turns out this fall, it is not as important as the profound problem the West, and especially the U.S., faces in dealing with a potential “detonator” strategy emanating from Israel over the long term; a number of states in the region could soon be at the threshold of nuclear development.

Over six decades and through as many wars, the U.S. has escalated its commitment to Israel’s security, but it has neglected a corresponding insistence that Israel develop the institutions of diplomacy, negotiation and compromise necessary to fully engage the Arabs during a crucial period of Arab awakening. Every president since Eisenhower has pressed Israel to make the kind of concessions that are necessary for peace.

President Nixon said he would give Israel the “hardware” of weapons if Golda Meir would supply the “software” of diplomatic flexibility.

“The philosophical underpinning of U.S. policy toward Israel,” President Ford said, “had been our conviction — and certainly my own — that if we gave Israel an ample supply of economic aid and weapons, she would feel strong and confident, more flexible and more willing to discuss a lasting peace.” But after serial wars and a strong aversion within the ruling elite to compromise, Ford lamented, “I began to question the rationale for our policy.”

Israel deserves our attention and protection. But 60 years after its founding, it remains in the thrall of an original martial

impulse, the depth of which has given rise to succeeding generations of leaders who seem ever on the hair trigger in dealing with their rivals, and whose contingency planners embrace only worst-case scenarios in a process that magnifies the sense of national peril, encourages military preemption and covert subversion, and undermines any chance for a more engaging diplomacy based on compromise and accommodation.

Israel’s second prime minister, Moshe Sharett, a lifelong diplomat whose political career was destroyed by the circle of strong militaristic figures who coalesced around David Ben-Gurion in the 1950s, admonished his countrymen that “the question of peace must not be lost sight of for one single moment.” Yet Israel in the modern era has lost sight of peace. A new generation of generals sees war planning and the acquisition of new weaponry as the only effective national strategy.

The West must face the prospect that Israel may not be able to rebuild a strategic consensus for peace like the one that the late Yitzhak Rabin imposed on the military establishment in 1992, an act of courage for which he paid with his life.

As the Jewish state and its military establishment become more hard line, more religious and more prone to propagate a vision of constant threat and peril, America will have to lead the world with an act of courage as great as Rabin’s in rebuilding the strategic consensus for peace — in Israel, in Congress and among the Jewish and fundamentalist Christian communities that so assiduously, and often blindly, advocate Israeli militarism.

That will require presidents, and presidential candidates, to put the security of Israel into a new category of bipartisanship, and to resist the “detonator” theory by building a broad and engaging peace strategy.

The Muslim world and Israel are pulling away from each other. Imagine a region where they were pulling together.

Journalist Patrick Tyler is the author, most recently, of “Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country — and Why They Can’t Make Peace.”