Reflections on the Arab-Israeli Conflict

By Paul Rosenzweig
Monday, December 26, 2016, 8:30 AM

In mid-December, I had the pleasure of joining a distinguished group of national security law scholars on an Academic Exchange to Israel and the West Bank. There is much to learn from such a trip and I will leave for another time most of it (for example, the fascinating discussion of how Israel's military targeting rules have been refined by technology). In this post, however, I want to reflect on a broader topic (one that, I confess, is generally outside my expertise - so take these reflections with a grain a salt as the observations of a relatively unsophisticated observer) and the perspective I gained from the trip -- to wit, the prospects of long-term peace in the region.

On the face of it, Israelis have good reason to be optimistic. After all, the country is nearing its 7oth anniversary (in 2018) and is an established fact that cannot realistically be undone. Meanwhile, on the ground, the correlation of military forces is as greatly in their favor as it has ever been:

  • The government in Egypt has a formal peace treaty with Israel and is more concerned about fundamental Islamic terror than about any conflict with Israel. Indeed, when we went to the border crossing where Israel meets Gaza and Egypt we saw Egyptian tanks moving against targets inside their own country. Most of the armed forces on the border were oriented inward rather than toward Israel.
  • In Gaza, a cold truce with Hamas enters its second year. A limited number of goods cross the border. Excursions from Gaza outward are relatively few, as Hamas actually seems to be affirmatively restraining more violent factions.
  • The peace with Jordan is stable. Indeed, Israel and Jordan share many common interests relating to both the Palestinians and Islamic extremists. Cooperation is not "robust" but appears to be well-settled and sustained.
  • Opinions differ on whether Syria will ever regain its status as a nation-state or (more likely in my view) that it will devolve into a conglomeration of tribal entities with Assad leading the strongest Alawite tribe. Either way, Syria used to have the strongest army bordering Israel -- today it is no threat at all.
  • Likewise, Hezbollah's engagement in Syria at the behest of the Iranians has been a significant distraction. They have suffered significant casualties (albeit while gaining substantial military experience) and could not, in the near-term, launch a sustained assault on Israel. To be sure, they remain the most well-armed entity facing Israel (with rockets galore) but at the moment their capabilities are degraded.
  • On the West Bank, Fatah is in a severely weakened state. They haven't had elections in eleven years. Nobody knows who will succeed Mahmoud Abbas, who at age 82 or so, is clearly losing influence. Threats from the West Bank are also strongly diminished by the growing separation wall -- leaving the disaffect youth to infrequent, ineffective terrorist attacks using knives and screwdrivers. While certainly disturbing these tactics are not strategically significant.
  • Added to this, Israel is enjoying a convergence of interests with its more distant Sunni neighbors in the Gulf. Both are particularly wary of Iran and the rise of Shia militants. Politics make it impossible for the Gulf States to coordinate with Israel openly, but one suspects that significant cooperation against Iran occurs behind the scenes.
  • And so the only real strategic threat to Israel today lies further afield in Iran. The mullahs there continue to develop regional influence (especially in the gap created by American withdrawal) and facially have a stated goal of Israel's elimination. But that threat is distant in both time and space.

Besides its military strategic superiority, Israelis can be confident in their economic strength. A robust "start-up country" economy tied to the IT sector is thriving. Recent discoveries of oil and gas offshore offer the hope of less energy dependence. It is no surprise that strategic opponents further abroad are focused on economic levers, where Israel is expanding and vulnerable. I personally predict more efforts like BDS and labeling rules as a way of pressuring Israel -- but given the realities on the ground, they will have an only modest effect.

And yet ...

For many reasons, I came away strangely confused and almost depressed. While Israel's short-term prospects are good (so much so that many of the Israelis we spoke to seemed almost complacent), the long-term factors do not bode well. Consider:

  • Egypt is starving. That's an overstatement, but the reality is that Egypt has more than 93 million inhabitants and doesn't have the capacity to feed them all. With crushing poverty and an authoritarian government, the prospects of social unrest are significant. Nothing can be good for the region when the largest nation, by far, falls into disarray. Expect the unrest to disrupt the border and relations with Israel. [As an aside, I would also predict an influx of refugees to Europe -- further destabilizing that situation.]
  • Gaza is a powder-keg. More than 2 million people crammed into a tiny space make it the third most densely populated corner of the world (after Singapore and Hong Kong). But unlike those city-states, Gaza has no economy to speak of. Israel's efforts to share some commerce are deeply constrained by security (at the border they offload and inspect every single bit of cargo -- just imagine if we tried that in the US!) and despite the effort, 90 trucks a day [CORRECTION: 90 was my memory. Turns out it is more like 500/day, according to the UN, though my point remains unchanged.] is just not enough to sustain an economy. Add to this the huge economic disparity between the two areas, and the fact that Israel controls all of Gaza's resources and conflict seems inevitable. Right now, Hamas is quiescent. But their tunnel building project continues apace, and those living on the border must be uneasy.
  • The Fatah/Hamas break shows no signs of healing -- leaving the Palestinians at war with each other and, as a result, disabled from actively participating in a dialogue with Israel. Two Fatah leaders predicted that there would be a reunion within 6-12 months. I am deeply skeptical. Neither side is willing to give up its power base. With nobody to negotiate politically, Israel cannot solve the Palestinian issue.
  • Hezbollah is better trained now and battle hardened by several years of war in Syria. Though they've suffered casualties when they get reinforcements we can expect a brutal war. Israel will win -- but the costs are likely to be greater than in any prior conflict. Imagine civilian hostages taken and missiles raining on the north.
  • Iran's victory in Syria, and Russia's success in making itself a player in the Middle East are a new, unpredictable wild card. Neither is at all friendly to Israel and how that enmity will play out is anyone's guess -- but it can't be good. Nobody knows how nuclear weapons development in Iran will proceed, but Israel has to be very concerned at the possibility.

But most significant of all, I think, is the prospect of a festering split between Palestinians and Israelis. Everything we saw portends deeper divisions. To begin with, Israel is a demographic loser. Today 20% of its population is Arab. If you added 2 million from the West Bank (not to mention Gaza) that would jump to 40%. Given comparative birth rates, Israel is going to have great difficulty maintaining its character as a Jewish state -- yet that character is fundamental to its identity and, indeed, to its existence.

Meanwhile, the border wall means that average Israelis and Palestinians no longer meet and interact. That sense of "otherness" pervades almost all their discussions about each other. One Israeli told us a poignant story of how his children met their first Arabs and said, wonderingly, "Now I know not all Arabs are bad." That view was not unique to that child, nor to Israelis. We heard the same suspicion from Arabs on the West Bank. Nor is there any mechanism in place to employ what we would characterize as "confidence-building measures." Neither side is interested. The prospect is that these two cultures (which, to my eyes, resonated with many more similarities than differences) will grow further apart.

A third factor is the rise of the Israeli religious right and, in particular, their intent on settling the West Bank. It seems (to my surprise) that the intent is driven more by economics (the land is cheaper and some people invest on the speculation that the government will repurchase the land later) than it is by zealotry. But nonetheless, the settler movement is busy creating "facts on the ground." And the Palestinians respond. We went to one new town where the town hall flew a giant Palestinian flag as an "in your face" gesture to the settlement across the valley -- and where the settlers had twice stolen the flag in response. Childish to be sure -- but emblematic of a real failure of empathy and communication. Given how dependent the Likud government is on the religious right parties for its majority, the Prime Minister is obliged to support further expansion.

One symbolic contest that played out while we were there was the dispute over the settlement of Amona. Israel's high court had ordered the settlers to move and the settlement to be destroyed because it was built, illegally, on land owned by Palestinians. The Netanyahu government could not, however, just divest the settlers for fear of fracturing its coalition. At the last minute, they made a deal to move the settlers (at government expense) to another hilltop that is said to not be owned by Palestinians (though the Palestinians dispute this). The court has granted a 45-day extension which now kicks the dispute over into the new Trump Administration. Meanwhile, as a further sop to the right, the government has proposed a "Regulations" bill that would, in effect, legalize all other illegal settlements as a matter of Israeli law. [This is distinct from the issue of whether the settlements (and the Regulations bill) are in violation of international law -- a different and much more detailed topic as to which a good debate is going on now over at Just Security.]

So, given the dissonance between the two groups, one would think the answer is obvious -- that the two populations should be separated in some way. This is the so-called "two-state" solution and it has, with varying details, been the fundamental goal of the international community, and the basis for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since 1967.

But the two-state solution is dead. At least that's my view and a majority view in the region. We spoke to nearly a dozen people and my own count was that the vote on whether or not it remains viable as a way forward was roughly 2-1 against. Our interlocutors may not be representative but all of them adverted to the same factors that make me personally skeptical of a solution.

To begin with, facts on the ground matter. As of today, there are more than 400,000 Israelis settled in the West Bank. A large number (call it 200,000) are in the immediate vicinity of Jerusalem -- an area where Israel might insist on an adjustment of the 1967 green line boundaries. But the other 200,000 are spread throughout the territories and many (estimates we heard varied from 25,000 to 75,000) are not willing to move. I doubt that anyone can seriously envision a world in which Israel forcibly removes 75,000 settlers against their will.

More to the point, the demands of the two parties are incommensurate. The Palestinians want a full state -- with all the independence that entails. But the Israelis won't permit that. They are scarred by the Intifada and the violence of that time still resonates strongly. Their idea of a state is a partially independent entity that remains subservient to their control for security matters. The two of these ideas just don't mix.

That has led some Palestinians (particularly younger ones) to suggest a one-state solution: Agree that Israel has won and owns the land, and then wage a civil/human rights campaign to gain equal rights and treatment. "You want us," they might say, "you got us. Now give us free health care; free education; and the right to vote." I'm not sure if that position can be sustained -- it is premised on passive civil resistance that is not culturally attractive -- but if it can it would pose a deep problem for Israel. It's commitment to liberal democracy would run straight into its commitment to a Jewish state -- and I don't know which would give way. My guess is that if the Palestinians called the Israeli bluff the Israelis would have to fold -- and simply admit that they plan to occupy the West Bank as a protectorate for the foreseeable future. That, too, is not sustainable.

The final straw, if you will, is the changing US policy that seems in these last days of the Obama Administration to be almost schizophrenic. The outgoing President, perhaps in a fit of pique or perhaps in order to create his own facts on the ground, has allowed the UN Security Council to condemn Israeli settlements as unlawful -- a change in US policy that is almost as earth-shaking as the President-Elect's abandonment of the one-China policy. Meanwhile, the President-Elect had lobbied against the resolution and has named as his envoy to Israel an appointee who strongly favors expansion of the settlements. The US embassy may move to Jerusalem. This radical shifting of American policy, after years of stability, can only be further unsettling in an already unsettled environment.

So there you have it -- A confident, strong (even complacent) Israel that feels safe in its current borders sees a near-term future where its strongest ally will back it aggressively. Internal political pressures drive Israeli expansion into the West Bank, creating a situation that the Palestinians must see as desperate. Meanwhile, Arab neighbors are increasingly under tribal pressures with religious overtones and the largest regional power, Iran, is arming itself. I can imagine 100 ways in which the spark of conflict will be relit -- in Lebanon; in Jerusalem; or in Gaza. And I can see almost no path forward to a stable peace that satisfies everyone. [I haven't even mentioned or discussed the near impossibility of resolving the status of Jerusalem!] In the next 5-10 years Israel will remain dominant. After that it will, I fear, have missed the opportunity for a satisfactory permanent resolution -- and then the region will, I fear, ignite.

All of which put me in mind of nothing so much as The Princess Bride:

The peace process between Israel and the Arabs is mostly dead. Perhaps a miracle can save it ... but I am saddened at the current state of affairs.