Why Iron Dome might be bad for Israel

November 21, 2012

One of Israel's "Iron Dome" missile defense systems fires at an inbound rocket. (Ariel Schalit/file/AP)

Israel's U.S.-funded missile defense system has been, by every appearance, a remarkable success in shooting down rockets fired by Gaza-based Hamas. The expensive system was initially the subject of some skepticism; each Israeli missile costs $50,000 or more, just to shoot down an $800 rocket. Since fighting with Hamas began last week, though, "the naysayers now are few," as the New York Times put it. Israeli officials say it has a success rate of "80 to 90 percent" and has shot down 300 of the unguided projectiles. South Korea is reportedly interested in an arms deal.

But optimism never lasts long in the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg passes along this case, from an unnamed Middle East watcher, for why Iron Dome's effectiveness could actually hurt Israeli interests.

The argument starts with the idea that current Israeli policies toward Gaza are effective in the short term but counterproductive in the long term; that Israel should be pursuing a mutually agreeable peace with Gaza, which is not served by periodic fighting. In this thinking, Iron Dome will make it easier for Israeli leaders and voters to ignore the problem, making continued conflict safer for Israelis but also more likely to persist.

Here's the case:

Obviously, any weapons system that reduces civilian Israeli fatalities is a good thing. Let's get that out of the way first and foremost: we are right to hail this marvelous new technology. But ideally, the Iron Dome would allow Israeli civilian leaders the space to make hard choices about what, exactly, they are to do with Gaza. I had the same hope for the Wall/Fence in the West Bank. Leaving aside for a moment the tricky issue of where the Wall/Fence was constructed, it nonetheless effected a stunning drop in suicide attacks in Israel proper. This, again, is a good thing. But instead of giving Israeli civilian leaders the space to make hard decisions about what to do in the West Bank, the Wall/Fence instead allowed most Israelis to forget about the West Bank and the Palestinians altogether. The Palestinians, out of sight, drifted out of mind as well.
 
But the problem of what to do with the people and the land Israel conquered in 1967 isn't going away. In the near term, I very much hope Israel is able to stop the rocket attacks from Gaza. But in the long term, I hope the solution to Gaza will not be to simply build bigger and better walls -- both on the ground and in the sky -- while continuing to put off hard political decisions.

Here's why you might disagree: if you think that Israel's only real option on Gaza is to fight these periodic battles with Hamas, if you think that a permanent peace deal will never happen, or if you have tremendous faith in the long-term strategic thinking of Israel's leaders and/or its voters. If you're not sure you hold any of those views, then you might find  something to this argument. Still, it is extremely difficult to argue against anything that saves human lives, as Iron Dome appears to be doing, so don't look for anyone to advocate for shutting the systems off.

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Max Fisher | November 21, 2012