Book Reviews

"A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism," by Daniel Byman

By Book Review Editor
Wednesday, September 14, 2011, 12:32 PM

Published by Oxford University Press (2011) 

Reviewed by Alice Diana Beauheim

Daniel Byman’s recent book, A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorismhas two main goals: to tell the story of Israel’s counterterrorism forces and strategy, and to draw out lessons from the Israeli experience that can be applied to other countries’ counterterrorism efforts.  In general, it succeeds better on the first point than the second.  Drawing on a wealth of primarily Israeli sources, Byman has crafted a readable and lively account of the Israeli counterterrorism response to the Palestinian conflict, Hezbollah, and, to a lesser extent, Jewish right-wing terrorism in Israel.

When it comes to lessons learned, however, specific recommendations are in short supply.  By now the reader is not ignorant of the parallels between—and sometimes-conflicting tactics of—counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, and similarly the importance of the media and propaganda to counterterrorism hardly counts as revelatory.  Still, despite its prominent place in the introduction, the lessons learned section occupies only a few pages, and should not distract from Byman’s excellent history.

He begins in the 1930s, with the establishment of the first Jewish intelligence unit in what was then Palestine, and traces the development of Israel’s counterterrorism tactics, and to a lesser extent strategy—for one of Byman’s main arguments is that Israel lacks a coordinated strategy—to early 2011.  The first fifty years of this history are treated somewhat superficially: the author presents acts of terrorism and response without offering much of the political situation surrounding these actions.  Without this broader context, the reader occasionally struggles to tell the various Palestinian groups apart, awash as the era was with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and others.  This profusion of groups sometimes gives the sense of a conflict scripted by the Pythons, an impression heightened by a deftly drawn scene of a young Ehud Barak out on an assassination mission dressed as a woman with grenades stashed in his bra and, one hopes, an Uzi tucked in his handbag.

The book comes into its own with a thorough discussion of the terrorism and counterterrorism aspects of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict from 1993 on, as well as a complementary investigation of Israel’s efforts against Hezbollah.  Byman gives these sections the atmosphere and context that the earlier portion lacked, drawing out several themes.  With a few cogent examples, especially the recruitment and use of informants and the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) use of bulldozers, Byman illustrates the tension between good tactical counterterrorism and a good counterinsurgency, the latter of which, he argues, would offer Israelis a better chance for a long-term solution.  Instead, Byman paints a picture of a tactically proficient Israeli counterterrorism effort, one that delegates control over a considerable array of often-brutal measures to junior commanders on the ground to use as they see fit.  This is coupled with a counterterrorism strategy often driven by domestic political concerns and divorced from the peace process.  Byman argues convincingly that the combination is a singularly unfortunate one, causing a dissonance between strategy and tactics that very nearly undoes most of Israel’s counterterrorism successes.

Another point could use more elaboration, or perhaps simply a more forward-looking approach.  Byman notes, and one would be hard-pressed to disagree, that Israel has consistently lost the propaganda war, ceding the high ground in world opinion to the Palestinians at almost every opportunity.  This serves to illustrate one of the other principal lessons Byman seeks to draw from the conflict, but he provides few ideas about how to win the media war apart from the admonition that one must.  This is a topic that would have benefited from a more substantial discussion—what exactly could Israel have done to counter the Palestinians’ propaganda efforts and win sympathy?—especially when Byman offers examples from the last five years, such as the IDF’s use of youtube and Twitter during the Cast Lead operation of 2006.  The reference to social networking raises unanswered questions about how the Israelis have adapted and should adapt their strategy to the new media climate, and, more broadly, about the extent to which it is still possible to control the narrative in counterterrorism.

Issues such as these, focused on the conflict between Israelis and Arabs, make up the meat of the book, and probably would have been sufficient on their own.  Subsequent short chapters on right-wing Jewish terrorism and counterterrorism-related issues like detention and targeted killing feel like attempts at balance and relevance respectively.

Finally, as mentioned above the chapter on lessons from the Israeli approach offers little enlightenment to students of other countries’ counterterrorism efforts.  To a certain extent one might wonder about the applicability of the Israeli example, given that the nature of the threat Israel faces has no close equivalent in Europe or the United States, and perhaps it is the uniqueness of the Israeli situation that prevents the author from teasing out concrete and specific recommendations based on the Israeli experience.

These shortcomings notwithstanding, Byman has produced a detailed and well-constructed account of a tricky subject, and his book will doubtless provide a valuable overview for those who seek a judicious account of Israeli counterterrorism efforts.

Alice Diana Beauheim works for the US government.