A slender, silver, 9-foot-long rocket careened across the sky from the Gaza Strip, a faint smoky arc on its path toward a southern Israeli city. In midair, the Grad missile collided with the Iron Dome’s first-ever intercepting missile, exploding and shooting sparks across the sky. Israeli onlookers cheered. “It’s Independence Day here in Ashkelon,” said one Israeli filming with a handheld camera.
Israel’s new short-range rocket- and missile-defense system appears to be nearly perfect. Over four days starting April 7, it intercepted eight missiles out of a reported nine fired in the Gaza Strip. While the Israeli military cautions that Iron Dome is not yet a hermetic solution to the problem that has long bedeviled the Jewish state—short-range rockets supplied by Iran and fired in Gaza or Lebanon—the initial results are extremely promising.
For years, rockets launched into southern Israel have battered the nation’s psyche and ramped up pressure for strong retaliation in Gaza. Iron Dome’s potential to thwart—and perhaps deter—short-range rocket attacks could give hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu relief from domestic pressure to launch attacks against Palestinians. What’s more, by allowing Israel essentially to ignore Hamas, it could also let him shut down the stalled peace negotiations.
Tests last summer by the Iron Dome’s manufacturer were 100 percent successful against mortars, artillery shells, Qassam rockets, and Katyusha missiles, even during a barrage of rocket fire, according to an official from Rafael Advanced Defense Systems who asked not to be named. Israel deployed two batteries near Ashkelon and Be’er Sheva in Israel’s south to test the system in real conditions after Hamas stepped up its missile attacks from Gaza. The early success has prompted Israeli and U.S. analysts to hail the system as a game-changer for Israeli missile defense.
It’s “an insurance policy,” said retired Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom, director of the Israel-Palestinian relations program at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies and former chief of the military’s Strategic Planning Division. “One thing pushing Israeli prime ministers to be engaged in the negotiation process is the concern that, if they won’t be engaged, their citizens will face the threat of rockets.” But Netanyahu may not want to reach a peace agreement. “If you feel that you have a kind of immunity to this threat, then this motivation for being engaged in the negotiations is weakened,” Brom said.
Historically, most breakthroughs in the Arab-Israeli peace process came at “moments of great vulnerability” for Israel, said Aaron David Miller, who served as an adviser on the peace effort to six U.S. secretaries of State. Israel’s impetus to reach a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, for instance, “flowed from the fact that the military status quo was no longer tolerable,” he said. The 1991 “breakthrough” at the Madrid Conference came at a time when the stability of the region was very “uncertain,” Miller added.
At the height of the second intifada in 2002, when suicide bombs were regular occurrences, Israel began building the controversial separation barrier, halting the entrance of suicide bombers from the West Bank. Israeli leaders have long argued that without security, they can’t ink a peace deal with the Palestinians. A decade later, after the construction of more than 400 miles of fences and concrete walls, security is much improved, but there’s still no peace agreement. Iron Dome will further protect Israel and give the leadership even less incentive to move forward with peace talks.
“It’s hard for me to see this government, which is ambivalent and very tough-minded, making decisions on the peace process,” Miller said. The security barrier hasn’t done anything to enhance the negotiations “other than [to] create a border that can be readjusted between 2 and 8 percent.”
Peace negotiations have been stalled since December, when the Obama administration gave up on persuading the Israelis to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank. The Palestinians refuse to resume talks unless a new settlement freeze is in place. But Netanyahu’s right-wing government would likely fall if he agreed to a comprehensive deal. Facing increasingly dire prospects for negotiation, the Palestinians have launched a unilateral campaign for the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders.
Iron Dome’s success has not meant that the Israelis have stopped retaliating. Over the same four days in April that the new system was downing rockets, the Israeli military killed 19 Palestinians and wounded dozens in response to 120 missiles fired by Hamas into Israel, according to the Associated Press. (Iron Dome intercepts only those headed for populated areas.) “Just because a missile has been intercepted doesn’t necessarily negate the need for a response,” said Jeremy Issacharoff, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s deputy director-general for strategic affairs. The flare-up was the most intense fighting between Israel and Gaza militants in more than two years.
At best, Iron Dome is only a temporary solution to a mutating problem: Israel’s concrete barrier may effectively prevent suicide bombings, but that threat gave way to rocket fire. The developing protective umbrella over southern Israel—even if it succeeds in neutralizing the threat of short-range air attacks—doesn’t solve the problem of longer-range or more-sophisticated rockets, or the construction of a network of tunnels. And it’s unlikely to furnish the long-term security of a final-status agreement.
This article appears in the April 23, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.