A High Price: The Triumphs & Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism by Daniel Byman (Oxford University Press: 2011) pp. 464. By Judith Gosewisch

Written by admin on March 1st, 2015

A High Price relates the story of Israeli counterterrorism policies and practice, and the balance between tactics and strategy from the early years of the Israeli state to the first decade of the 21st century. The author, Daniel Byman, is a professor in the Security Studies programme at Georgetown University and Senior Fellow and Director of Research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institute. In an interview on SOAS radio , Byman confers how the idea for this book first came to life whilst he was doing research in the Middle East in 2002. Ruminating about potential strategies for US counterterrorism in the wake of 9/11, Byman turned to Israel. For almost seventy years, Israel has been fighting terrorist attacks and through trial and error, has managed to stand up against terrorism. In Byman’s words (p.3) “…Virtually every counterterror instrument that Americans debate today was pioneered by Israelis in their desperate attempt to find some answer to their own terrorism conundrum.”

A High Price strives to explore and analyse the lessons we can learn from Israel’s successes and failures. The book is divided into an introduction and five sections, each of which reflect upon different periods of Israeli counterterrorism based upon the nature of the adversary and Israel’s response. The thread connecting the various sections in this book concerns the dilemma of choosing measures that hopefully guarantee the safety of the state on a daily basis whilst working towards long term peace.

A High Price explores Israel’s use of targeted killings, interrogations and efforts to improve Israel’s defences –most notably the security barrier separating Israel from the Palestinian territories. Byman has shown how the implementation of counterterrorism measures –or lack thereof- generally resulted in good immediate tactical results, but created a ripple effect with more hate and continued-if not increased- violence in the long run. Targeted killings proved effective in temporarily crippling an organisation, but did not stop the socio-political movement behind it. Nor did it prevent organisations from regaining momentum. The separation barrier kept out the suicide bombers, but increased animosity between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples and caused an international outcry.
The book might have benefited from a stronger theoretical framework. Although A High Price analyses asymmetrical warfare, it fails to fully reflect on the implications of this in its findings and conclusions. Byman presents an either/or choice between a strategy of continually combating terrorism through deterrence to temporarily secure the state or implementing non-violent measures aimed at establishing long term peace. He suggests a dual-approach is necessary, but does not analyse how these approaches can complement rather than undermine each other. Byman offers an orthodox approach trying to understand terrorism; readers seeking a more nuanced and complex understanding of the subject offered by the School of (Critical) Terrorism Studies will not find it here.

Perhaps too entangled with the War on Terror narrative, the book is encumbered with a static view on how the nature of the state- and non-state group’s goals and policies may change over time and fails to explore how this influences the way in which the game is played. For example, leading up to the peace negotiations of the 1990s, the PLF hijacked the Achille Lauro. This act could be considered as an attempt of this PLO member-group to fortify its position at the negotiation table with Israel, with the latter also being a hesitant partner for peace. Nevertheless, Byman’s sole comment on the matter is how, “while Fatah moved toward negotiations other PLO groups proved less amenable” (p. 75). Byman ignores how the course state-actors and “terrorist” organisations take is affected by the other party’s actions and prescribes one interpretation of the events.

Contributing to this conceptual stagnation is Byman’s definition of terrorism (p. 7) as “a non-state actor’s use of or threat of violence against non-combatants for political reasons to produce a broader psychological effect.” This definition excludes the possibility that a state can use violence one might interpret as terror, legitimise its use, and refuses to acknowledge that state violence itself may be part of the cycle of violence. The definition precludes any discussion that the causes of terrorism arise from varied and vexing social inequities and injustices. Furthermore, this definition fails to recognise the fluidity of the terrorist label. For example, Byman recognizes that organisations such as Hamas, Hizballah or Fatah, are not solely or always aiming to terrorise but also undertake charitable and political endeavours. But he insists on labelling them primarily as terrorist organisations, arguing (p.7) that to ‘not use the term terrorist would miss an important aspect of these groups’. It is difficult to believe that anyone would overlook or forget Hamas’s or Hizballah’s use of violent tactics. But Byman’s failure to contextualise such organizations results in few suggestions on how terrorists may be incentivised to further their interests through non-violent means.

Byman’s traditional analytical approach of viewing terrorists first and foremost as perpetrators of violence hinders the possibility to (re-)humanise the subject and actually understand what motivates them. This, in turn, is vital in preventing individuals from engaging in acts of terrorism in the first place. By emphasising their terrorist nature, Byman fails to fully contextualise organisations such as Hamas, Hizballah or Fatah. As a result, A High Price offers few and limited suggestions on how terrorists may be incentivised to further their interests through non-violent means.

A High Price is caught in the dilemma of being unable to choose either in favour of short term tactics or long-term strategy. Byman advocates a political solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict which ends – not surprisingly – on a cautious, dispirited note. He instructs (p. 381) how “counterterrorism, even at its most impressive, comes with trade-offs, and most of the time effectiveness simply means fewer attacks or less deadly ones rather than a complete end to violence” and rightfully states that there are ‘no easy answers’ to the question on how to combat terrorism.

     All in all, the book contains a detailed analysis of asymmetrical warfare by one of the foremost experts on counterterrorism and the Middle East. It is based on a wealth of data accumulated through, amongst others, interviews with authoritative figures on both the Israeli and Arab side and as such, is a valuable contribution to the literature on the subject. A High Price guarantees an interesting read for any student of counterterrorism and the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular, despite its equivocal conclusions on how best to end terrorism.

Judith Gosewisch received a Master’s degree in Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding from the Durham Global Security Institute at Durham University, U.K. and currently is doing research and writing in the field of (Critical) Terrorism Studies.


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