Can Israel win?
Since I argued in a column last week that Israel can and must defeat the Palestinians, a barrage of responses have contested this thesis. Some were trivial (Ha’aretz published an article challenging my right to opine on such matters because I do not live in Israel) but most raised serious issues that deserve an answer.
The ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu observed that in war, "let your great object be victory" and he was echoed by the seventeenth-century Austrian war thinker, Raimondo Montecuccoli. Their Prussian successor Clausewitz added that "War is an act of violence to compel the enemy to fulfil our will." These insights remain valid today: Victory consists of imposing one’s will on the enemy, which typically means compelling him to give up his war goals. Conflicts usually end with one side’s will being crushed.
In theory, that need not be the case. Belligerents can compromise, they can mutually exhaust each other, or they can resolve their differences under the shadow of a greater enemy (as when Britain and France, long seen as "natural and necessary enemies," in 1904 signed the Entente Cordiale, because of their shared worries about Germany.)
Such "no victor, no loser" resolutions are the exception in modern times, however. For example, although Iraq and Iran ended their 1980-88 war in a state of mutual exhaustion, this tie did not resolve their differences. Generally speaking, so long as neither side experiences the agony of defeat — having its hopes dashed, realizing the futility of treasury wasted and lives extinguished — the possibility of war persists.
One might expect this agony to follow on a crushing battlefield loss, but since 1945 that has usually not been the case. Planes shot down, tanks destroyed, munitions exhausted, soldiers deserting, and land lost are rarely decisive. Consider the multiple Arab losses to Israel during 1948-82, North Korea’s loss in 1953, Saddam Hussein’s in 1991, and that of Iraqi Sunnis in 2003. In all these cases, battlefield defeat did not translate into despair.
In the ideological environment of recent decades, morale and will matter more. The French gave up in Algeria in 1962, despite out-manning and out-gunning their foes. The same applies to the Americans in Vietnam in 1975 and the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1989. The Cold War ended without a fatality.
Applying these insights to Israel’s war with the Palestinians points to several conclusions:
- Israel hardly enjoys freedom of action to pursue victory; in particular, it is hemmed in by the wishes of its primary ally, the U.S. government. That is why I, an American analyst, address this issue with the intention of influencing policy in the United States and other Western countries.
- Israel should be urged to convince the Palestinians that they have lost, to influence their psychology.
- An aggressive step like "transferring" Palestinians out of the West Bank would be counterproductive for Israel, prompting greater outrage, increasing the number of enemies, and perpetuating the conflict.
- Contrarily, perceptions of Israel’s weakness lessen the possibility of Palestinian defeat; thus did Israeli missteps during the Oslo years (1993-2000) and the Gaza withdrawal inspire Palestinian exhilaration and more war.
- Israel needs only to defeat the Palestinians, not the whole Arab or Muslim populations, who eventually will follow the Palestinian lead.
I refrain from suggesting specific steps Israel should take in part because I am not Israeli, and in part because discussing tactics to win is premature before victory is the policy. Suffice to say that the Palestinians derive immense succor and strength from a worldwide network of support from NGOs, editorialists, academics, and politicians; that the manufactured Palestinian "refugee" problem stands at the dank heart of the conflict; and that lack of international recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital festers. These three issues are clearly priorities.
Ironically, Israeli success in crushing the Palestinian war morale would be the best thing that ever happened to the Palestinians. It would mean their finally giving up their foul dream of eliminating their neighbor and would offer a chance instead to focus on their own polity, economy, society, and culture. To become a normal people, one whose parents do not encourage their children to become suicide terrorists, Palestinians need to undergo the crucible of defeat.