Military Means for Political Ends in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Monday, September 1, 2014
Poster Collection, US 8132, Hoover Institution Archives.

There are many military solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the problem is that none of them are particularly good outcomes. In fact, they are so draconian as to admit the proposition that there is no practical or sustainable solution that is solely military. That, however, is the case for most wars. Any war that stops short of killing every single member of the opposing society accepts a political solution.

Wars are contests of political will, and military force is just one tool of many at societies’ disposal for affecting the enemy and one’s own public. Rare is the military contest in which strictly military options can produce durable political outcomes. Rome’s destruction of Carthage even relied on the political economy of salting its fields to impoverish an enemy across a generation that it may not rebuild its strength.

As on so many other subjects, British Parliamentarian Edmund Burke cuts to the point: “The use of force alone is but temporary; it may subdue for a moment but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again. And a nation is not to be governed that must perpetually be conquered.” It ought to add poignancy for Americans that he was speaking in 1775 of British policy toward the thirteen rebellious colonies.

Military action can foreclose some options political leaders and communities may have been holding out hope for. Syria’s assassination of Rafik Hariri eliminated the one politician of this generation with demonstrated ability to unite Lebanon’s quarrelsome factions. The dropping of the second atomic bomb signaled American willingness to impose unlimited casualties on Japan’s civilian population unless the Japanese government capitulated. Shakespeare’s Henry V credibly conveyed a similar determination during the Agincourt campaign, saying “France being ours, we’ll bend it to our awe, / Or break it all to pieces.”

But politics is what makes for the end of conflict. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there existed an obvious political solution, once supported by the majority of Israelis until 2005: trading land for peace. Israel would withdraw its military forces and civilian settlements from mutually-agreed areas, leaving Palestinians to govern and control themselves.

The fundamental loss of confidence in that basic bargain stems from Palestinian reaction to Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza: rocket attacks into Israel. The violence wreaked from the areas under Palestinian governance shattered the prospects for progress. The revolving door warfare that has continued between Palestinians and Israelis since feeds embittered reactions on both sides of the conflict, narrowing the political trade space.

One can be sympathetic to the grievances of Palestinians while still allowing their choices to be self-defeating. By indulging revenge fantasies, Hamas collapsed belief among Israelis that trading land would produce peace. By seemingly supporting Hamas’ attacks and voting Hamas into elected office in the West Bank and Gaza in 2006, Palestinians stoked Israeli fears that no peace offering would produce peace. It may seem perverse that the strong power, Israel, is the one that needs reassuring by the weak power; still, that is the current dynamic of producing peace in Palestine. Israelis chose peace, while Palestinians chose war. Political solutions that do not address the underlying public support for violence by Palestinians will not be adopted by Israelis after their experience since 2005.

There are military actions that can abet peace between Israel and Palestine. One was on impressive display during the recent military campaign: missile defenses that blunt the effect of Palestinian rockets. The cost-exchange ratio is dramatically skewed in favor of Palestine, their missiles being relatively inexpensive, but Israel’s economic advantages probably level out the scales. Precision in intelligence and communication that reduce civilian casualties among Palestinians are also helpful in highlighting the moral difference between the military tactics of Israel and those of Palestinians. Technologies that can identify tunneling will also reduce Israel’s physical vulnerability. Cooperation with Egypt—the government of which has done more than any other to bear down on Hamas in intelligence and military fields—is surely occurring, but could probably be expanded.

More broadly, Peter Berkowitz has suggested the tantalizing proposition for military forces of Arab governments to become a buffer and interface between Israel and Palestine in Gaza.1 Arab governments have long said the lack of progress on peace between Israel and Palestine is a cause of extremism in their own societies and an impediment to cooperation with the United States. They have contributed enormous sums to Palestine and been major donors of medical and government facilities. Israel has common cause with several Arab governments in preventing the advance of Islamist political parties; the ejection from power of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad; reducing Iranian infiltration and terrorism in Lebanon, Syria, and beyond; and preventing terrorism by Arabs against Arabs.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, at a minimum, could contribute small contingents of security forces to staff border checkpoints and conduct patrols with Israeli and Palestinian security forces. Jordan may not have the military capacity to contribute, given the pressures on it from the Syrian and Iraqi wars and preventing the Islamic State making inroads, but it would be a valuable contributor and perhaps mediator. Turkey’s antipathy toward Israel probably rules it out of what might otherwise be a useful leadership opportunity to cooperate with Arab states.

Creating a multinational Arab force to police Gaza would separate the necessities of security from the fraught political issues of Israeli dominance. It would also give greater political weight to the peace proposals Saudi Arabia and others have made for them to be active contributors in producing mutually beneficial outcomes. Advances in pervasive and sustained surveillance can also increase Israel’s confidence in the work being done by forces other than their own military, an accumulating asset. It would also free up the Israeli military for other uses, a welcome economy.

Enacting the proposal would require an enormous set of policy changes by the Arab states, though—changes whose cost has recently been further increased by the emergence of the Islamic State from Syria, into Iraq, and beginning to pressure Jordan. Those states (other than Jordan) would need to extend diplomatic recognition to Israel, which they have avoided doing, despite often close clandestine links between their governments. They would need to divert their intelligence forces from domestic security at a time when public demands for greater political representation and economic opportunity, the emergence of Islamist political parties and ferocity of Islamist terrorist movements are roiling the region.

Participating countries would open themselves up for criticism from Islamists, could even see called into question their legitimacy as faithful and as guardians of holy Muslim sites (as Iran has done previously and the Islamic State portends to). And they would need to work in military concert with each other, something they have largely avoided doing even in the instance of defending their own countries. All this while undertaking a non-trivial military operation fraught with the kind of political questions they have not answered particularly well for their own societies.

American training of Palestinian security forces in the West Bank has also been a good investment, shifting from Israel to Palestine the responsibility for producing security among Palestinians. While training programs have their limits—they are no guarantee forces will uphold order when the political incentives run counter—they have produced Palestinian security forces capable and for the most part willing to act on behalf of the state rather than Hamas. Palestinian military and Israeli Defense Force units collaborate now (less so in the aftermath of the latest fighting), but U.S. military assistance might be also helpful in establishing operations and intelligence fusion centers to ensure the two forces have a common operational picture and can improve their security collaboration.

So while there are no exclusively military solutions that will produce acceptable and sustainable political outcomes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are contributions that military forces and military operations can make to advance peace. They cannot, however, substitute for rebuilding Israeli confidence that peace is possible and diminishing the grievances Palestinians feel. Until some means is found that can achieve those objectives, Israel and Palestine will remain—at best—in a tenuous truce.


1. Peter Berkowitz, “What Israel Won in Gaza & What Diplomacy Must Now Gain,” Real Clear Politics, September 16, 2014.