Israel America Academic Exchange (IAAE) is a new organization that sponsors educational missions to Israel for American scholars in the fields of political science, international relations, international law, international economic development, modern history, and Middle East studies. By special arrangement, participants in the inaugural mission (June 22-29) have been invited to guest-post their impressions and assessments. Bruce Jentleson is professor of public policy and political science at Duke University. He is also a member of MESH.
From Bruce Jentleson
Central to our discussions was the debate over force and diplomacy as Israeli strategies, so I’ll focus on that for this post.
Is it the case that the lessons of the last 10-15 years are that force has worked, both as compellence and deterrence, and diplomacy has not? This was the dominant argument we heard from Israeli speakers. While the speaker selection was short of representative, I know from other interactions and reading that this perspective has become more prevalent. It also is a view our American group debated among ourselves.
Four main parts to the argument:
- The Gaza war was intended to impose substantial costs on Hamas and to deter further attacks on Israel. It achieved both; e.g., attacks from Gaza are down since the war.
- The same regarding Hezbollah and the 2006 Lebanon war: Look at the northern front and how quiet Hezbollah has been, and how weakened the recent elections showed it to be in Lebanese politics.
- Oslo didn’t work; Camp David 2000 was another instance of the Palestinians never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity; unilateral withdrawals, both Barak in Lebanon and Sharon in Gaza, gave land but didn’t bring pace; plus the recent stories swirling about Olmert ostensibly offering even concessions on Jerusalem. Arafat was an essentialist; his successors may have more will but lack capacity; Hamas is ideological.
- The status quo is not great for Israel, but it’s tolerable. Risk aversion, both security and politics, says keep relying on military power. Be sufficiently willing to negotiate to check off that box for the United States and the international community but not much more. Don’t antagonize the political coalition on which your power (read Netanyahu’s) depends.
An alternative analysis:
- Gaza: The evidence is more mixed and uncertain than claimed. On the one hand we were told of how few rockets had been launched, on the other of how there’d been a recent uptick. At minimum, six months is hardly enough of an empirical base on which to attribute durable deterrence success. The criteria for durability is not some out-there notion of the long-term, but it also can’t be so short term as to need to be “serviced” again with anything close to a comparable operation in the next year or two. Moreover, gains made need to be part of a net assessment that also takes into account costs incurred and gains made by the other side. One can see a strategic logic for Hamas by which the price it paid had value as (a) diversionary war, detracting attention from problems of its governance and re-igniting the enemy on which to increase its appeal (so lowering a negative source and increasing a positive one), and (b) playing into Israeli politics in ways that strengthen the Right, which in turn makes for strained relations w/the United States. The net assessment may still come out positive, but less dichotomously.
- 2006 Lebanon War: We do have three years of data, and it is a fact that the northern border has been quieter than in many years. That goes in the plus column, as does the demonstrated capacity to impose costs. But in the negative column: the Israeli military’s failure to prevail in this nonconventional warfare as a deterrence-weakening message; the failure to bring captured soldiers home alive; the political disarray that helped doom the Olmert government; and the further loss of international legitimacy as an instrumental and not just normative matter. Moreover, the causal link to Hezbollah’s June 2009 election performance is questionable. Hezbollah came out of the war strengthened. But it then overplayed its hand by unleashing its militias into Lebanese politics in 2007-08. Then as intervening variables in the run-up to the election, Saudi money for the coalition and, I’d at least postulate, the Obama effect made it more politically legitimate to at least not be anti-American.
- Lessons of Oslo, other diplomacy: George Kennan made the distinction between flaws of execution and flaws in the concept. The former means that the policy could have worked but was done poorly; the latter that it was inherently flawed. Oslo, et al., did have elements of the latter, but also plenty of the former, and on all sides (United States, Israel, Palestinians, others). It didn’t work—but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have worked. What would have happened if Rabin was not assassinated, given his domestic credibility and that he was having at least a degree of success in dealing with Arafat? And if the 1996 election, which Netanyahu won by less than 1 percent amidst the spoilers who got going on both sides, had come out differently? If the Clinton administration had been less accommodating and firmer against both sides playing both sides of the street? In the end, Arafat was the major problem, a Gromyko-like Mr. Nyet. He was never going to be a Mandela, but the essentialist analysis is too straight-line and dismissive of decision points and interactive dynamics along the way. As to Hamas, while it’s shown plenty of essentialism, it’s not clear that even this is fixed; see, e.g., the analysis of Khaled Meshal’s recent speech by Brig. Gen. (ret) Shlomo Brom.
- Deteriorating status quo: The domestic opportunity costs to Israel from the status quo were more graphic to me than ever before. See the economic analysis by Professor Dan Ben-David, Tel Aviv University and head of the Taub Center for Social Policy Research. Walk around and see and feel the rising societal power of the ultra-Orthodox, abetted by continuation of the Palestinian conflict both directly through the political utility of the enemy and indirectly as a distraction from the nation focusing on the threats to its balance of secularism and Jewish identity.
- Shifting regional strategic dynamics? While much is too soon to tell, there are signs that the strategic dynamics in the region may be shifting. Anti-fundamentalism is pushing back on many fronts in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The U.S.-Syria relationship has some traction. Perhaps Iran will come out of the current crisis more flexible. The Saudis and Arab League may be ready to make their peace initiative more than a piece of paper. Don’t know for sure, but the alignment of forces may potentially be more favorable than in a long time.
- Palestinians as a credible peace partner and viable state: This may not be the world’s hardest case for state-building, but it’s up there. Among the many challenges their leadership faces is better synching their maximalist positions on terms of a peace and their more limited capacities as yet to function as a viable state. This is tricky politically as well as in substantive policy terms. It likely will require various roles for various third parties. Plenty of work to be done here: the PA-Hamas talks being run by Egypt, security forces, the economy, lawlessness, spoilers. Not to be underestimated.
I’m still not ready to bet the next mortgage payment (non-subprime) on peace and security in the Middle East. But nothing we saw or heard has been sufficient to counter the Churchillian sense of a peace process still being the worst strategy except for all the others.
Comments are limited to MESH members and invitees.
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