JISS - The Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies

Amidst violent events, it is easy to be tempted to seek decisive “solutions” to the Palestinian problem(s) – in both the PA areas and in Gaza – through drastic military action, or through equally dramatic concessions. But given the lessons of recent history, as well as the unpredictable nature of regional events, it makes sense to adhere to “conflict management” and piecemeal arrangements. This is not as a cowardly choice by hapless political and military leaders, but as a rational choice in irrational circumstances; even more so when the Iranian challenge looms larger than ever on Israel’s immediate horizons. Patience has its own merits.

The urge to “do something”, to devise a proper and permanent answer (– for a reason, we all shun the term “final solution”) to Israel’s Palestinian predicaments, is well rooted in our own culture. It flows from a Western tradition, and in recent centuries, a particularly pragmatic American notion, of problem solving. When bad things happen – a ghastly act of murder in Barkan, a rocket falling on Beersheba – the urge becomes yet stronger, as does the chorus of voices from right and left alike berating the present leadership and high command for their lack of strategic vision and of grand plans for bringing the conflict to an end.

In some quarters, the preferred design would involve the use of overwhelming force to destroy Hamas’ hold on Gaza. In parallel, they and others would seek an unequivocal victory over the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and they counsel the government to dismantle the accords altogether and return to pre-Oslo verities.

From others, across the political aisle, the call goes out either for a resumption of negotiations on Palestinian terms, i.e. with extensive concessions to the Palestinian nationalist agenda being offered in advance; or for a non-negotiated unilateral withdrawal from significant parts of Judea and Samaria that would reassure the Palestinians, and the world, that the prospect of a Palestinian state has been rendered irreversible. (How this would induce them to negotiate in the future, for something they have already been assured of, remains unclear).

Here and there, alternative plans – as yet vague or unworkable – for a third way, an “outside-in” agreement with the moderate Sunni states (or just with Jordan and with Egypt) are put forward by fertile and creative minds. All belong to the broad category of “conflict resolution” strategies.

The argument needs to be brought forward that perhaps the urge is misguided, and under present circumstances in the region (and the world) sober policies aimed at conflict management are a more rational and even moral choice; and not just the cowardly cop-out of spineless politicians and cautious soldiers. The case needs to be made, and can be made, even in such troubled times, and despite the ongoing pain and fears of those under direct threat – in communities in Judea and Samaria, or in the Gaza periphery. It has to do with both the lessons of our recent history and the acutely unpredictable nature of the current strategic landscape.

There have been, indeed, points in history when the bid to “solve” profound and painful problems actually led to tragically dangerous results. This is in line with what the late great American journalist and writer Theodor White called the “law of unexpected consequences.” Israelis have had a measure of this in previous decades.

From Sharon’s adventure in Lebanon in 1982, trying to use overwhelming force and a brutal ally to turn a neighboring country into a peace partner; to the Oslo adventure in 1993, which sought to generate a peaceful outcome by legitimizing and empowering Yasser ‘Arafat, a terror leader for whom double-dealing was a second nature – grand transformative designs have turned out to have deadly flaws hidden in their inner mechanisms.

The same can also be said of the sad consequences of the American intervention in Iraq in 2003, undertaken with a profound transformative agenda – the bid to rid the region of tyranny – in mind. These are just the most salient cases among many, in our region and beyond it.

The detailed aspects of what went wrong in all three cases are largely beyond the scope of this discussion. The point is simply that things did go wrong, and in ways not fully or even dimly anticipated by the grand strategy designers. One well-placed assassination was enough to derail one project; the nature of the partner wrecked the other; whereas in Iraq, it was insufficient design for “the day after” which proved to be the undoing of what the soldiers were successfully sent to achieve.

In all these and other cases, there will always be an “if only” voice arguing – perhaps cogently – that the flawed outcome was not inevitable, and wiser or more unified counsels would have led to better results. But this, too, is beside the point.

Divided administrations, poor predictions, wily and ruthless spoilers (in the reverse order of events) – all these and others will always be there. Grand designs should therefore be measured against their resilience to such built-in risks of failure; even more so when dealing with a region as volatile and unpredictable as the Middle East.

It is enough to reflect upon the havoc played just now upon American (and even Israeli) current policies in the region by one act of Saudi folly. Iran, Turkey, Islamists terrorists are all seeking to change the status quo and gain the upper hand. Several countries have been reduced to a state of non-statehood, in which the imperatives of “raison d’etat” count for nothing.

Israel’s immediate Palestinian neighbors, under two “governments” which lustily hate each other, are locked into the familiar pattern of caring more about our ruin than about their future. When this is the landscape to be navigated, our captains should not be faulted for being cautious before they sail into the storm.

Conflict management does not come without a cost. It can be read by some in the region as a sign of weakness (and therefore requires occasional and resounding proof that this is not the case). It angers many in Israel, who pin on the government and/or on the IDF high command the blame for not hitting the Palestinians harder. It brings anguish to others, who want to see their millennial hopes for peace translated into action.

It may at times hang by a thread, as happened when the quick and brave response of a young mother in Beersheba saved her children from a death that would have forced the government’s hand. It requires a careful balance between doing too much and doing too little.

It took a highly professional cohort of senior commanders, schooled when they were younger in the battles of “Yasser Arafat’s War” (the so-called “second intifada, which was not an uprising at all but a terror campaign directed from above) and of the inconclusive clash with Hizbullah in 2006, to practice this delicate art effectively over time. But the results are telling.

The experiences of daily life in PA-controlled areas, and in area C (not to mention Arab neighborhoods under Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem) are far from ideal. But they are also far better than they were when a failed attempt to “solve” the conflict in one blow, at Camp David in 2000, led to a bloody explosion. The infamous checkpoints have been reduced by some 95% to a bare minimum. New projects have come to fruition, like the city of Rawabi. Cooperation exists, and not only between the security forces.

The level of violence, as Robert Satloff recently pointed out, is lower than that of most American cities. Even in Gaza, despite the recent drive by Hamas to breach the fences, the potential is there for a “conflict management” bargain that would make life better – if Mahmoud Abbas’ negative tactics could be overcome. The alternatives – various options for “forcing the issue” by major new initiatives or military action – could turn out to be very costly for both sides.

The urge for a “solution” is understandable. But sometimes, the humorously inverted dictum – “don’t just do something, stand there” – may turn out to make more sense than setting in motion a chain of unpredictable consequences. This is especially true when Israel faces a very real prospect of escalation in the north and of having to take action – in this case, a wise precaution – to prevent the establishment of a strategic Iranian presence in Syria.

None of this should be read as an endorsement of the present situation in perpetuity. All it means is that at this specific junction in Israel’s history and in the region, overwhelming question marks pile up against any major transformative project. Wisdom may well require a policy of gaining time; awaiting the possible emergence of more conducive circumstances for policy initiatives down the road.


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


photo: Bigstock

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