Long before the Shalit deal or immediately following it, Israel should have declared any of the following: the Israeli military will respond immediately and overwhelmingly to any future kidnapping; Israel will not supply any food, electricity, medical supplies or other essential items to Gaza in the event of a future kidnapping emanating from there; any future prisoner swaps will be on an equal basis – one for one.
The fact that Israel doesn’t make such declarations is indicative of a much larger problem plaguing Israel, namely it has no red lines. For instance, once upon a time Israel’s leaders proudly declared that Israel does not negotiate with terrorists. Then over the course of years this was modified to “Israel does not release prisoners with blood on their hands”. Needless to say, the Shalit deal proved that this last red line was just as hollow as its predecessors.
The problem however is not limited to negotiating with kidnappers. For example, before the beginning of the Oslo process eighteen years ago, nearly every political and military leader agreed that the Golan Heights was not negotiable because of its strategic importance to Israel. Nevertheless, once the Oslo process was launched, the alleged strategic necessity of maintaining the Golan Heights faded away as many of the same leaders began saying that Israel can survive without the Golan. Thus, the purported Israeli red line that there was nothing to discuss regarding an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights simply vanished into thin air.
Similar reversals since the start of the Oslo process were also witnessed in Israel’s position vis-à-vis the sensitive issues of a united Jerusalem and control of the Temple Mount as both of these one-time untouchables were opened to negotiations by former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert.
Perhaps even more alarming, Israel’s red line of how much Arab hostility it is willing to absorb before responding with due force has changed dramatically over the last eighteen years. For instance, there was the somewhat astonishing Ariel Sharon policy of “restraint is strength” that was initiated following the deadly terrorist attack on the Dolphinarium in 2001 which left 21 teenagers dead. Moreover, it was only after hundreds more were killed in numerous terrorist attacks that Israel finally embarked on Operation Defensive Shield in March 2002 in order to destroy the terrorist infrastructure in Judea and Samaria. Similarly, it was only after thousands of missiles were fired at Jewish communities close to the Gaza border that Israel finally reentered Gaza at the end of 2008 as part of Operation Cast Lead.
In the face of all these crumbling red lines it should be clear that any Israeli threat to the Arabs that is not acted upon is interpreted by the Arabs as yet another sign that Israel is growing progressively weaker, a perception which in turn further deteriorates Israel’s deterrence capability. In this light one can fully appreciate the damage done by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak when he failed to act upon his promise to respond with might to any act of aggression by Hezbollah following our pullout from Lebanon in 2000. Not only did the aggression happen, as Hezbollah dashed across the border kidnapping and eventually killing three Israeli soldiers, but our minimal response most likely emboldened Arafat and the Palestinians to raise the level of terror to another level during the bloody Second Intifada.
These are just a few of the many examples of Israeli red lines that have been falling apart in recent years. Moreover, it is most likely an Arab understanding of this which allows them to remain obstinate on nearly all their positions, confident that Israel will eventually cave in. Witness both the current government’s ongoing insistence that Abbas’s recognition of Israel as a Jewish state be a precondition for entering into negotiations and Abbas’s continued refusal to concede on this one point. Sure enough, Abbas’s gamble that Israel would eventually abandon yet another red line proved correct as Israel recently agreed to the Quartet’s request to begin negotiations without any preconditions.
The result of all this is that the Jewish people find themselves in a position where the leaders of Israel either avoid stating any clear red lines since they know they’ll never live up to them or worse they declare red lines and then simply disregard them. However, unlike other countries such as the United States where a lack of red lines is not a cause for alarm, in this neck of the woods a lack of firm red lines can lead to one’s undoing.