Nonfiction: Learning From Israel’s Political Assassination Program

Americans now have a terrific new introduction to that story with the publication of Ronen Bergman’s “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.” It’s easy to understand why Bergman’s book is already a best seller. It moves at a torrid pace and tells stories that would make Jason Bourne sit up and say “Wow!” It is smart, thoughtful and balanced, and the English translation is superb. It deserves all of the plaudits it has already received.

A word of warning: Bergman is properly focused on the narrow story of Israel’s targeted killings. Other aspects of its lifelong counterterrorism struggle are largely absent. For instance, Israel’s “security barriers” against the West Bank and Gaza, highly controversial and highly successful, are not even mentioned. For those looking for a more comprehensive account, try Daniel Byman’s outstanding “A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism,” or Ami Pedahzur’s older but still insightful “The Israeli Secret Services and the Struggle Against Terrorism.”

Yet the biggest thing (almost) left out of Bergman’s book is that targeted killing offers no end to the terrorism. Targeted killings are a tactic, not a strategy. Only at the very end of “Rise and Kill First” is this problem confronted, and only because Bergman himself puts it squarely on the table before finishing his narrative. That’s a compliment, not a criticism of Bergman, because it reflects the inability of Israel’s own national security community to solve this problem, and too often even to acknowledge it.

Nonfiction: Learning From Israel’s Political Assassination Program
Nonfiction: Learning From Israel’s Political Assassination Program

What Bergman demonstrates is that targeted killing can be a highly effective tactic to neutralize terrorist cells and can be part of a powerful operational approach to cripple terror groups. Israel’s internal security agency, known as Shin Bet, believes that every successful killing of a suicide bomber saves 16 to 20 Israeli lives.

But it does not offer a strategic answer to the problem of terrorism because it cannot defeat the broader movements that breed and feed the terrorist groups. Like some modern-day hydra, no matter how many heads Israel chops off, the beast always grows new ones — sometimes more dangerous than before.


Credit Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times

Terrorism is a form of insurgency, and the way that nations have learned to defeat it is by applying what we now call counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. The core of a COIN strategy is to suppress the groups’ military operations while addressing the underlying grievances that inspire the movement behind them. It is ultimately what is meant by the worn phrase “winning hearts and minds.”

Israel has a big problem here. Targeted killings, barriers and other security activities can suppress terror attacks, but it is not at all clear that Israel can ever win the hearts and minds of the Palestinians, the crucial foundation for Palestinian terrorist groups. It had the same problem with the Shiites of Lebanon and their support for Hezbollah. That’s because the Israeli occupation is a central grievance of the Palestinians, as it was for Lebanon’s Shiites.

Israeli military officers have devoured the vast literature on COIN warfare, eagerly adapting its tactics and operational methods. However, ask an Israeli soldier or general about the strategic aspects of COIN and they almost invariably insist that it’s wrong. They will claim that they tried to win hearts and minds in Gaza and the West Bank and it just didn’t work because it just doesn’t work.

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Only a few will acknowledge that the problem is not with COIN strategy, but with Israel’s ability to execute the strategy without doing something that is politically … hard. The deepest truth is that Israel so far has not tried the one thing that could address the underlying grievances that give life to its terrorist enemies, trading land for peace. Some of Israel’s brightest counterterror minds know this. It is why the senior leadership of its defense and intelligence establishments are typically so committed to the peace process, as revealed by the 2012 Israeli documentary “The Gatekeepers.”

Today many Israelis are justifiably skeptical that they have a partner for peace. Many Palestinians are justifiably skeptical that Israel is a partner for peace.

Regardless of whether you believe one side, the other, or both, it still means that the most obvious approach Israel might try to find a strategic end to the problem of terrorism is off the table. Israel’s political right has insisted that there are one-state solutions that could address Palestinian grievances, but the plans they have presented so far seem fanciful, and the Israeli government has shown no inclination to try them.

Some in the current Israeli government seem to believe that its new covert alliances with Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Iran will furnish a strategic path out — that the Arab states will persuade the Palestinians to give up and reconcile themselves to Israeli suzerainty. One can’t be certain it won’t work, but you shouldn’t bet money that it will.

Since Israel cannot or will not employ the core strategic approach of COIN, it is left with nothing but tactics, targeted killings high among them. It consigns Israel to endless repression, endless assassinations, endless criticism and endless racking internal debate like that which Bergman diligently recounts.

All of this holds inevitable lessons for the United States. The most successful counterterror campaigns in American history rested on strategic efforts to undermine the popular movements behind the terrorist groups. In 2006-8, in Iraq, George W. Bush’s surge strategy crippled the Sunni Arab terrorist groups by helping Sunni Arabs defend themselves, granting them economic benefits and political power, and shutting down the ethnic cleansing campaigns of the Shiite militias. It was a virtuoso effort that eliminated the grievances of the Sunni community, at least until the United States and Nuri al-Maliki let them come roaring back after 2010.

Yet when it comes to fighting terrorism in places like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Niger and Libya, the tactics — starting with targeted killing by drone — are all we seem willing to employ. It consigns us to the same kind of endless war that the Israelis seem ready to bear. Yet how sure are we that America’s people and political system are as inured to the forever war as Israel’s claim to be?

By the end of Bergman’s book, targeted killing feels almost like a drug that Israel uses to treat the worst symptom (terrorism) of a terrible disease (Palestinian anger). It is a very effective drug, but it treats only the symptom and so offers no cure. It is also a very addictive one, in part because it is so effective at suppressing the symptoms.

I fear that we are all becoming targeted-killing junkies, unable to kick the habit and unwilling to treat the disease that got us hooked in the first place.

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