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

Sunday, 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.


The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival by Hirsh Goodman (Public Affairs, 2011). 256 pages.

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Hirsh Goodman started his career as the Jerusalem Post’s astute defense correspondent; 30 years later, he is now an associate at the influential Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. With such mainstream credentials, his schizophrenia-like assessment of Iran’s threat to the Jewish state and blurry vision of a two-state solution was wholly unexpected.

In the opening pages, Goodman invokes all the trash-talk typically associated with Iran: “maniacally dedicated to Israel’s destruction,” a threat unmatched “since Hitler,” “dream[s]” of hitting Israel with nuclear weapons, and immune to traditional deterrence theory. Yet 15 pages later, he’s suggesting that deterrence does work, explaining that if attacked by Iran, a nuclear armed Israel would inflict a “devastating” retaliatory blow. He cautions against a preemptive Israeli attack, warning that it would not fully destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities and only trigger a “vast and enduring” cycle of retaliation between the two countries. An “Iranian attack on Israel or an Israeli attack on Iran,” concludes Goodman, “is strategically nonsensical.”

Shortly after the book’s publication, Goodman had a change of heart. He now advocates attacking Iran, even hinting that tactical nuclear weapons should be used. Why the predicted cycle of violence between the Israel and Iran would be tolerable has not been explained.

Israel’s survival, Goodman argues, is not in question. The Jewish State’s superior armed forces thwart any serious military challenge from any Middle Eastern state. But issues will continue to plague Israel’s future stability and shape its character. One will be ceaseless attacks from Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations Goodman judges are wholly owned subsidiaries of the Islamic Republic. Such attacks will be painful and will elicit Israel’s retaliation but are something Israel can live with.

The more serious threat to Israel’s well-being is Palestinian nationalism and Israel’s West Bank settlements. Goodman is sympathetic to the Palestinians’ suffering and views the settlements as a political and moral disaster for Israel. He fears that if left unresolved, the occupation could intensify fractionalization between Israeli Arabs, national religious Zionists, and secular Jews and twist Israel into a “de facto theocracy.” He predicts that only when the “Palestinian issue is off the table” will Israel’s economy and culture flourish and its relations with the Arab world normalize.

But Goodman is willing to accommodate Palestinian nationalism only on Israeli terms. He opposes uprooting the larger settlements because of the violent upheaval it would cause in Israel. “Israel cannot be expected,” Goodman instructs, “to tear itself to pieces for the sake of peace.” The improbable alternative scenario he offers is for Israeli settlers to “live as good neighbors and control their violent and fanatic elements.” It’s not clear how this stance squares with his advise that Israel reconsider the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative offering Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdraw from the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Goodman’s final word is that if necessary, Israel should unilaterally impose a settlement of its own design.

Goodman’s favoritism toward Israel is expected; what is harder to accept is his refusal to recognize any legitimacy in the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (BDS). He refuses to consider that after 60 years of occupation the international community may have a moral duty to pressure Israel to withdraw from the territories. He instead insists that BDS is nothing less than an insidious strategy to delegitimize Israel and undermine its right to exist. Goodman uncritically defends Israel’s 2008 war on Gaza, its 2010 attack on the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla”, and equates “unions in Norway” with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Jihad. This political myopia shuts down the meaningful political debate Goodman purportedly seeks and confirms his assessment that “how Israel will look in the future is as unpredictable as a flip of a coin.”

Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East by Jubin M. Goodarzi (I.B. Tauris London, 2009) Reviewed by Mateen Rokhsefat

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Jubin Goodarzi’s dense book is full of detailed historical events mapping the thirty year long Syrian-Iranian alliance. Goodarzi effectively reiterates his main points throughout the book. He maintains that with careful research and analysis he has detailed the origins and development of the Syrian-Iranian alliance, a feat different from other scholars who only provide a general overview of the formative years. He points to several key reasons for the alliance to have remained resilient and united for the past thirty years: regime survival in view of their authoritarian nature; a defensive alliance against Iraqi, Israeli and American encroachment in the Middle East; maintaining national security and the territorial integrity and independence of each country; their different areas of concern (Gulf for Iran and Levant for Syria) does not interfere with each other.

In his first chapter, Goodarzi explains that inter-Arab politics and revolutionary Iran’s foreign policy orientation and ideology were critical factors for this alliance. In late 1970s, the relation between Syria and Pahlavi Iran was severely damaged due to Iran’s close ties with Israel which prompted Syria to welcome the new Iranian government. Another deciding factor was the contentious relationship of both countries with Iraq. Iraq’s invasion of Iran brought Syria and Iran closer together, with Syria providing valuable diplomatic and military aid. Many expected Syria to join other Arab countries in backing Saddam against non-Arab Iran. However, Syria supported Iran and played a key role in preventing a united Arab front against Iran which strengthened the Syrian-Iranian rapprochement and transformed it into a formal alliance. Syria saw in Iran a powerful non-Arab ally that would increase the ability of the Arab states to undermine Israeli and Western power in the region and provide leverage against Syria’s Arab rivals.

Chapter two examines the period between 1982 and 1985 with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and engaging Syria in the fifth Arab-Israeli war. Iran having pushed the war inside Iraq reciprocated Syria’s help and lent support by mobilizing Lebanon’s Shiites to drive out Israeli and Western forces.  These events created a period of even closer cooperation between Syria and Iran against their common enemies. However, by 1984 Iraq became the stronger partly due to rapprochement with Washington and Moscow and played a main role in “the Reagan administration’s overall approach to safeguard Western interests against states such as Iran and Syria.”

The third chapter covers the 1985-1988 phase which was the most critical and tumultuous time in the alliance when the two allies developed conflicting agendas. Areas of contention included Iran’s support of Hezbollah who was at odds with Syria-supported Amal. In addition, Arab states and the USSR were pressuring Syria to abandon Iran and there were signs of rapprochement with previously staunch enemies: Jordan and Iraq.  However, by late 1980s, their partnership had solidified and they had overcome difficulties by handling the extremely turbulent crises in Lebanese and Gulf politics. Goodarzi explains that Syria and Iran: “saw a unique role for themselves in the region and utility in preserving the alliance to pursue an independent foreign policy to shape events in the Middle East in a desirable manner in the long term, and to minimize foreign influence and penetration of the region.”

The very concise final chapter explains why the alliance lasted beyond the 1980s and into the 21st century. The Kuwait crisis changed the entire political equation in the Middle East overnight and gave Syria and Iran opportunities to capitalize on the new situation and recoup their positions. Furthermore, Iraq’s attack on another Arab country and the subsequent division in the Arab world provided an opportunity for both Iran and Syria to reconcile with Arab and Western governments and to break out of their regional and international isolation. Goodarzi states that the United States was a main reason for the fortification of Syrian-Iranian alliance in the late 1990s and specifically after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “Overall, Washington’s pro-Israeli stance in the Arab-Israeli negotiations, its support for the emergence of a Turkish-Israeli alliance after 1996 to isolate Iran and cow Syria into submission, and its willingness to exploit Iran-Gulf Arab differences to justify military presence and huge arms sales to its regional allies reinvigorated Syrian-Iranian cooperation in the period after the cold war.”  Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and increased US domination and presence in the Middle East, Syria and Iran have become more resolved in reinforcing their alliance.


Mateen Rokhsefat is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Affairs at the University of Toronto

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