The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The missiles keeping Israel safe may do more long-term harm than good

A supermoon, is seen behind Israelis sitting and standing on a hill at the Israeli town of Sderot, overlooking the Gaza Strip, as they wait to watch Israeli forces’ bombardment and missiles fired by Palestinian militants from inside Gaza towards Israel. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

TEL AVIV — By now, it is a ritual. Nearly every morning for the past few days, and just about every evening, rockets fired from Gaza have rained down on this city and its suburbs, activating wailing sirens and sending frightened people scattering for cover. As in Kafka’s short story about the leopards that invade the temple so consistently that they eventually become a permanent part of the religious ceremony, these unnerving rocket attacks quickly become part of the quotidian experience for millions of Israelis.

The subdued public reaction I see from my apartment window is so characteristically Israeli: rather than panic, most of them move with ironic detachment toward the bomb shelters or duck and cover along the highways. They wear a mixture of fatalistic apathy and a self-assurance that no harm will come to them. Asked by the press, time and again, why they are not scared, most Israelis living in the metropolitan Tel Aviv area have supplied the same response: Iron Dome.

While this latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas is far from over, Israelis have already hurried to proclaim a winner. The groundbreaking missile defense system, developed a few years ago by the Israeli defense industry (with generous U.S. funding), has been hailed by commentators in Israel and around the world as the main “victor” in this recent clash. And for good reason. It has performed majestically: nearly all of the rockets fired towards Tel Aviv and other major population centers have been intercepted by the Iron Dome giving it, according to the Israeli Army, a 90 percent success rate. Thank the defense system for the lack of fatalities and the relatively low casualty rate among Israeli civilians. For now, it is both a physical and a psychological solace that enables Israelis to go about their business.

But, over time, Iron Dome may do them more harm than good. What looks like a tactical miracle may, accidentally, help engender a grave strategic blunder. Technology can mislead us by providing a false sense of security. But it cannot – and must not – become a substitute for effective diplomacy. And Iron Dome’s ability to protect Israelis from periodic rocket attacks so far will never remove the strife and discontent that has produced the motivation to ruthlessly fire them in the first place.

Iron Dome was originally engineered to defend Israelis from rockets launched in Lebanon and Gaza. But what was once a tactical defense mechanism to temporarily protect the civilian population has become a strategy unto itself. In that way, it may actually undermine Israel’s long-term security. By temporarily minimizing the dangers posed by Hamas and Hezbollah, it distracts us from seeking a broader regional political solution that could finally incapacitate these terror networks and make systems such as Iron Dome moot.

The Netanyahu government is not exactly brimming with creative ideas to reignite the peace process with the Palestinians. And with Iron Dome, why would it? As long as the Israeli public believes it is safe, for now, under the soothing embrace of technology, it will not demand that its political leaders wage diplomacy to end violence that mandated Iron Dome in the first place. Since Iron Dome has transformed a grim reality into a rather bearable ordeal, Israelis have lost the sense of urgency and outrage that might have pushed their government to make painful if necessary concessions in exchange for peace.

There is an apt American analogy. When President Reagan pursued the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”) in the early 1980’s, he wanted to end nuclear deterrence—the fear of Mutually Assured Destruction—by neutralizing the Soviet missiles. But SDI was a means, not an end: It was always supposed to be one more way to pressure the already struggling Soviet leadership toward the negotiating table. Although historians are still conflicted about the extent to which it helped end the cold war, there is little doubt that SDI enhanced America’s bargaining power and contributed to the important arms-reduction treaties that eased tensions between the superpowers and eventually helped unravel the Iron Curtain.

Israelis are in danger of overlooking this important historical lesson. If they confuse the short-term military advantage provided by Iron Dome with the long term need for an original and comprehensive political solution, then that would not be ironic. It would be a tragedy.