JISS - The Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies

How the wise use of force facilitates diplomatic processes in the Israel-Egypt-Hamas and Israel-Russia-Syria triangles

The measured and effective use of military force does not run counter to diplomacy; on the contrary, it facilitates diplomacy. Recent events in Syria and the confrontation with Hamas in Gaza have involved three-cornered diplomacy, in which the use of a small fraction of Israel’s military power is what enabled the mediators—Russia and Egypt—to “explain” what is at stake to their interlocuters.

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Public discourse about the escalating events in Gaza demonstrates again that for many Israelis, from both ends of the political and ideological spectrum, diplomacy and the use of force are mutually exclusive, a case of “either or.” Some feel that only diplomatic moves accompanied by major gestures of goodwill can prevent an additional slide towards a military solution. On the other hand, there are many who view any efforts to arrive at a settlement to be a sign of cowardly denial of the need for an unambiguous military victory. The long-running political discourse in Israeli society has hindered the effort to have it both ways – to use military power in order to convey a political message and at the same time to manage diplomatic efforts in a way that will not tie Israel’s hands in its use of force.

In fact, there have been indications in recent years—which became even more pronounced in the last few weeks in Gaza, and prior to that, in relation to Syria—of a more coherent pattern of behavior than is generally attributed to Israel’s highest echelon of leaders, namely the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense and the Chief of the General Staff. This pattern of behavior is characterized by the combination of a measured use of force against Israel’s enemies (with whom there will be no dialogue as long as they are committed to our destruction—namely Iran and Hezbollah in Syria; Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza) with intensive diplomatic dialogue through a third party that has a direct interest in preventing escalation, namely Russia in the north and Egypt in the south.

This is not the traditional role of an honest broker who mediates between Israel and the Arabs, which has been filled by US administrations out of idealistic, political and economic motives. Rather, in this case, we are seeing the leveraging of the military and diplomatic influence of a powerful external player. That player must be made to understand that if it does not act to achieve moderation, its essential interests are liable to be affected and will certainly suffer if Israel decides to use all the force at its disposal. For this message to be convincing, it must be demonstrated to both the Russians and the Egyptians that this is a real threat, even if at first Israel prefers to act with limited force.

The diplomatic activity—at the highest level with Russia and through the traditional military and other channels with Egypt— has been intensive and, as mentioned, has been backed up by the use of force. Nonetheless, one must be realistic about the objectives that Israel can achieve. Russia will not force Assad into removing the Iranians from all the territory Assad controls, because in exchange he would demand the direct intervention of ground forces, which the Russians have no intention of offering.

Nonetheless, the Russian fear of an all-out confrontation between Israel and the Assad regime can be exploited to ensure that the Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah do not get a foothold in the areas bordering on Israel and, no less important, the areas bordering on Jordan.

In the case of Gaza, total demilitarization has always been a non-starter. A more realistic objective, namely a kind of long-term truce (tahdiya), is apparently achievable. This requires the correct mix of determined Egyptian messages, a big Israeli stick, and small economic carrots from regional and international players. (A more aggressive plan—a Marshall Plan for Gaza—would not succeed because Yahya Sanwar is not Konrad Adenauer and it would only further reduce the status of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah).

This strategy constitutes a complex challenge. During Operation Pillar of Defense, things were relatively simple. It was important for the (short-lived) regime of the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi to end the fighting quickly to prevent the entry of IDF ground forces into Gaza. This would have created a dilemma for the Muslim Brotherhood – between ideological commitment and its national interests. Since then, the political reality has changed entirely. Egypt’s relations with Hamas under Sisi are restrained. Contact is not maintained through diplomatic channels, which would imply mutual recognition and legitimacy, but rather through intelligence channels, a situation that provides plausible deniability.

The Hamas movement, though it has recently downplayed the relationship, is closely allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, the sworn enemy of the current Egyptian regime. As a result, it was difficult to create effective Egyptian leverage in 2014. Nonetheless, Israel did not back down and refused to accept the pro-Hamas mediation of Turkey and Qatar, even at the price of lengthening the conflict. Since then, a more delicate balance has emerged and among the organizations controlling Gaza, namely Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and there is now a clearer understanding that Egypt holds the keys to their future, even though their ideological and “Jihadi” allegiance is to Iran. In any case, it will take time for Egypt to become motivated to get effectively involved, and a sense that things have reached boiling point and that the IDF is preparing for a major operation.

There is indeed a price to be paid for Israel’s three-cornered military/diplomatic strategy (by way of a third party). It requires a measure of restraint in the opening moves and precision in choosing the degree of escalation. The IDF’s actions must be sufficiently determined to broadcast a willingness to “go all the way” (which the Egyptians know how to communicate in blunt terms to their interlocuters) and yet sufficiently restrained to leave room for mediation. This is not an easy task and even harder to explain to the public, whose patience is wearing thin—and justifiably so—in view of the prolonged period of provocations, the material damage and the damage to nature in the Gaza periphery. But for those who do not want to see a reoccupation of Gaza and a renewal of Jewish settlement there, an agreement achieved with Egyptian mediation—which restores deterrence, even temporarily—is still preferable to a military victory and a long-term occupation.

As mentioned, it is also important to maintain a delicate balance with respect to the economic elements of the process to achieve a settlement. Qatar, a main benefactor of Hamas, is deeply involved in a dispute with its neighbors in the Persian Gulf and even with Egypt, which is cooperating with the Saudi blockade against Qatar. Again, the use of intelligence channels makes it possible to bypass the problems and to recruit Qatari capital for humanitarian purposes (particularly after the UNRWA budget cuts), without being dragged into a situation in which there is an interest to both maintain the economic gap in favor of the Palestinian Authority and prevent a public relations victory for the Muslim Brotherhood camp, which is supported by Qatar and Turkey.

The characteristics of Israeli diplomacy in the Syrian arena are very different. The Russians are not enemies of Iran or Hezbollah. On the contrary, they have fought together to rescue Assad’s regime and help him in restoring control of most parts of the country. Russia has made it clear again and again that it does not view the Iranian presence in Syria as lacking legitimacy, even if it understands the need to limit its deployment. At the same time, all of Putin’s moves with respect to Israel so far (and perhaps also in the dialogue that is expected to develop with the Trump administration) indicate that Moscow recognizes a line that Syria should not cross with respect to Iranian use of its territory for purposes that Israel cannot tolerate. There is therefore a real chance of achieving less ambitious though more critical objectives, such as distancing the direct threat from Israel’s border and that of Jordan.

Despite the differences between the two situations, there is a basic similarity. The goal of Israeli diplomacy is to exploit a strategic player in order to influence the rules of the game, in a situation where direct diplomatic dialogue is not expected to develop. Also common between the two arenas is the critical role played by the use of force in creating conditions for effective mediation. What convinces the mediators in both cases is the fear of deterioration in the situation, in which Israel will use increasing levels of force. This understanding makes it necessary to demonstrate from time to time—on both fronts—that the IDF, with the backing of a solid homefront, is able and willing to maintain escalation dominance.


JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.


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