Vol. 8, No. 10 2 September 2008
A New Strategy for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Moshe Yaalon
Former Chief of Staff, Israel Defense Forces
Distinguished Fellow, Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, Shalem Center
- Solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says mainstream public opinion, and the rest will follow. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only one of many afflicting the Middle East, and it is by no means the dominant one.
- The Palestinian leadership continues to evade accountability. Today the watchword is "weakness." The image of political impotence has become a precious asset in the Palestinian strategy. The problem is not Abbas' actual capabilities. The problem is his unwillingness and lack of determination to create and govern a viable and accountable state.
- Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and others have called for more foreign assistance for the Palestinians. This strategy has no chance of success if it is not linked to reforms. Unless the Palestinians are first convinced through education to give up the extremism which informs their national and religious aspirations, they cannot be expected to be full partners in building a vibrant Palestinian economy.
- The central conflict of the Middle East is not territorial but ideological; not about borders but about Islamic Jihadism and Western liberty. No ideology, least of all radical Islam, can be defeated by concessions, which encourage, energize, and inspire Jihadists. Those who wish for peace must face and assimilate this fact, and realize that territorial concessions, or any concessions in any realm in the struggle against militant Islam, have been consistently counterproductive.
- From Oslo to Annapolis, we have engaged in a top-down strategy. We aimed to reach a political horizon or a final settlement agreement with the Palestinian leadership, hoping that political reform among Palestinians would follow. I propose we replace this approach with a bottom-up strategy in which the PA first proves its willingness and ability to govern.
Current efforts to achieve a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are based on a number of deeply flawed assumptions. These have in turn produced an erroneous paradigm and a manifestly failed strategy for seeking peace and security which is preventing us from moving forward.
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Is One of Many in the Middle East
Solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says mainstream public opinion, and the rest will follow. Since the November 2007 meeting at Annapolis, this has become the U.S. administration's policy.
I have a great personal desire to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict solved, for the benefit of Israelis and Palestinians, and for the benefit of all the region's peoples. Nevertheless, it is clear to me that it is not the epicenter of the region's many ills. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only one of many afflicting the Middle East, and it is by no means the dominant one.
The most important fault-lines of the strife in today's Middle East are found rather in non-localized conflicts such as pan-national Islamic Jihadism against the West, the Shia-Sunni divide, and the Persian-Arab contest for power and influence. Within Muslim societies, across the region and beyond, there is a struggle between nationalists and Jihadists. Many, if not most, Muslim nations in the Middle East are torn internally between groups that believe happiness is achievable in this world, and groups who preach martyrdom (istish'had), the killing of infidels, and happiness in "the next world."
There are indeed more than a few struggles in the Middle East in addition to the Israeli-Palestinian one. None of them emerged from it, and none are dependent on it. Admittedly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been exploited by those seeking to inflame passions in other arenas, often cynically and with a view to influence the prevailing wisdom in the West. It is essential for our own well-being that we maintain our clarity of vision in the face of misinformation and false optimism.
Implacable Palestinian Rejection of Israel
Another myth is that at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the "occupation." This term refers to the territories conquered by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. Among Palestinians from all sectors and factions (Fatah, Hamas, PIJ, PFLP, DFLP, etc.) there are those that use the term "‘occupation" simply as a euphemism for Israel ("from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River"). This view has proponents even among Israeli Arabs. They consider Israelis to be foreign colonialists and the entire land mass of Israel including its cities, towns, villages, and kibbutz farms as "occupied" territory.
The Palestinians have maintained a posture of implacable hostility to Israel's most fundamental and inalienable rights. The PLO, for example, existed and launched terror attacks against Israelis before 1967 when the West Bank and Gaza were not yet occupied by Israel. The PLO's pre-1967 raison d'etre has not magically disappeared in the meantime. Both Fatah and Hamas continue to maintain charters denying Israel's right to exist as an independent Jewish state. We find the rejection of Israel forms an integral part of the Palestinian ethos, and is expressed in no less than the founding documents and actions of the largest and most important Palestinian factions.
Rejectionism, far from being a "mere" matter of official policy or posturing, reaches the rhetoric of the Palestinian national leadership (including Mahmoud Abbas), the educational curriculum, and the Palestinian media. It deeply informs Palestinian strategy and policy. During the preparations for the Annapolis conference, it was demonstrated in the Palestinian refusal to make a basic declaration of their belief in "two states for two peoples." Instead they spoke only of "two states," avoiding explicit recognition of the Jewish people's right to an independent state. This quibbling over words is only the tip of an iceberg.
If the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were a territorial compromise within Mandatory Palestine, I have no doubt we would have reached this long ago. Instead, from the dawn of Zionism to the present day, the Palestinian leadership has rejected every partition plan proposed, and has reacted violently to all political initiatives seeking a settlement along those lines. This occurred in 1937 in response to the Peel Commission, in 1947 as a reaction to the UN partition plan, and in 2000 when the Palestinians rejected former Prime Minister Barak's proposal at Camp David.
Attempts by Israel at peace through territorial concession have been met, again and again, with violence by Palestinians. The core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the "occupation" according to its meaning in Western discourse. Rather it is the "occupation" in the Palestinian sense: The relentless refusal of the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel's right to exist as an independent Jewish state. Professor Bernard Lewis put it succinctly in the Wall Street Journal on November 28, 2007, a day before the Annapolis Conference: "‘What is the conflict about?' There are basically two possibilities: that it is about the size of Israel, or about its existence....If...the issue is the existence of Israel, then clearly it is insoluble by negotiation. There is no compromise between existing or not existing, and no conceivable government of Israel is going to negotiate on whether that country should or should not exist."
Do the Palestinians Want a State?
It is often said that the Palestinians desire and are capable of establishing a state that will live in peace alongside Israel. Those who believe this is so must explain why the Palestinian leadership, from the implementation of the Oslo Agreement in May 1994 through to the present, have failed to take even the first baby steps toward establishing a state - this in spite of overwhelming and unprecedented international support.
The facts suggest that the Palestinian leadership has been motivated by something other than a desire to create a thriving state. Although the Palestinian national movement stands out in recent history as the cause celebre of the international community, and despite massive political and economic support, the Palestinians have failed to create and nurture stable, efficient, and accountable political institutions. They have also crushed what little civil society they had. I do not think this failure was inevitable; I believe it is directly due to Yasser Arafat's conscious decision to create a society based on "gang logic."
Arafat and his cronies brazenly violated every agreement they signed with Israel. By eschewing the principle of "one authority, one law and one gun," Arafat was able, with craftiness, to evade responsibility for what was occurring. He used Hamas, PIJ, and other terror organizations as proxies, though he had the power and legitimacy needed to confront and disarm them. While his proxies were fighting Israel, Arafat could remain aloof and appear innocent. Moreover, to bolster his influence over the chaos he had created, Arafat established his own direct terror proxy, Fatah Tanzim, or the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade as it became known after September 2000. Arafat's war by proxy required a certain level of permanent instability in Palestinian institutions, and it was this that led to the "gang logic" which we now see mostly strikingly in inter-Palestinian violence.
Arafat has since been replaced by Mahmoud Abbas, yet the Palestinian leadership continues to evade accountability, according to a modified version of Arafat's strategy. Today, the watchword is "weakness." The image of political impotence has become a precious asset in the Palestinian strategy. Western politicians, as well as many Israelis, believe that Mahmoud Abbas is the only alternative to a far more extreme Hamas. They believe, therefore, that he should be strengthened economically, and equipped with additional weapons and ammunition. This approach has not and will not pay dividends because the problem is not Abbas' actual capabilities. The problem is his unwillingness and lack of determination to create and govern a viable and accountable state.
Mahmoud Abbas is not weak. He possessed more than sufficient power to institute reforms when he was elected on January 9, 2005. He has chosen to avoid the attempt to govern his people effectively, or to create a political culture based on "state logic." He chose "weakness" instead as his method of preserving and partially controlling the many heads of the Palestinian Authority that he inherited from Arafat. There is little difference between Arafat's "gang logic" and Abbas' "weakness" - both are designed to avoid the daunting task of Palestinian nation-building, while permitting the continuation of a bloody struggle against Israel.
The Key to the Conflict Is Not Economic
A third prevailing misconception in the Western understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict relates to the economy. This misconception holds that the key to the conflict is economic. Those who hold this view believe, just as the architects of "Oslo" believed, that a prosperous Palestinian economy would neutralize extreme nationalism and religious fanaticism, leading to peace and an improved security situation for Israel. While the improvement of the Palestinian economy should be part of any strategy for attaining peace, I do not think that the Palestinians can be forced to enjoy an improved economy and the fruits of prosperity while their own priorities remain entirely elsewhere.
Although the PA has received no less than $7 billion from donors in recent years, neither Arafat nor Abbas has managed to improve the basic living conditions of the Palestinian people in any significant way. On the contrary, the Palestinian economic situation began to deteriorate precipitously from the moment Arafat rose to power in 1994, and continues to do so under the regime of cronyism he instituted. Examples of wasted economic opportunity abound on all levels, and Palestinian terror groups have directly devastated economic resources. They engineered the closure of the Erez industrial zone which employed 4,500 Palestinians and provided for their families. After the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. the Palestinians wantonly destroyed the greenhouses left behind by the evacuees which were purchased by former WorId Bank President James Wolfenson and others for their benefit.
There is no doubt that the Palestinian economy is in dire need of assistance. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other prominent figures have called for more foreign aid to be directed for this purpose to the Palestinians. However, unless further foreign aid is directly connected to reforms within Palestinian civil society, there is no chance of success. Unless the Palestinians are first convinced through education to give up the extremism which informs their national and religious aspirations, they cannot be expected to cooperate in the creation of their own prosperity. They can do neither of these things before first imposing law, order, and security in the territories under their control. No law can be imposed while the Palestinian leadership continues to reject all responsibility, whether under the guise of "weakness" or otherwise. Responsibility will never be assumed as long as the Palestinian people continue to nurse the dream of the disappearance of Israel as the Jewish homeland.
In light of historical experience, there are some fundamental questions we have to ask ourselves. Can we trust that a future Palestinian entity in the West Bank will not become Hamastan, as occurred in Gaza? Could such an entity, even according to the 1967 borders, be economically viable? Would the Palestinians be satisfied with those borders as a final settlement? Would it bring stability, peace, and tranquility to the region? Are these borders defensible for the State of Israel?
A Palestinian Entity in the 1967 Borders Threatens Both Israel and Jordan
I believe, in light of the Palestinian leadership's behavior since its inception, and especially since Oslo, that the answer is an unequivocal "no." As things stand today, a Palestinian entity according to the 1967 borders would present an existential threat to Israel, to the stability of the region, to Western interests, and to Jordan.
The paradigm of the "two-state solution" within the boundaries of former Mandatory Palestine under the present status quo is both irrelevant and dangerous. It is irrelevant because today there is no Palestinian partner willing to accept it as a final settlement. It is dangerous because it fosters illusions which undermine our resolve and embolden our enemies. Ultimately, the "two-state solution" paradigm, at this juncture, threatens the security and stability of the region.
The paradigm of the "two-state solution" is based on Israeli territorial concessions. It rests on the same idea which stands behind the "land for peace" principle which has dominated Israeli politics since 1967, and which bore fruit when peace was made with Egypt in 1979. The principle then enjoyed the support of the vast majority of Israelis. A slim majority of Israelis likewise supported unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza in 2000 and 2005, respectively. These Israelis, like many in the West, believed that peace and tranquility could be reached by addressing Hizbullah's and Hamas' talk of "occupation" as a simple territorial grievance. We now know the results. Both from Hizbullah and the Palestinians, the reaction came in the form of concerted terror wars, rockets fired at Israeli cities, and kidnapped soldiers. There is no clearer proof needed that the central conflict of the Middle East is not territorial but ideological; not about borders but about Islamic Jihadism and Western liberty.
No ideology, least of all radical Islam, can be defeated by concessions. Concessions encourage, energize, and inspire Jihadists. Those who wish for peace must face and assimilate this fact, and realize that territorial concessions in the struggle against militant Islam have only been counterproductive. As Bernard Lewis has said, this conflict is not about the size of Israel, but about its very existence.
What is worse, the mistaken paradigm and conceptions regarding Jihadism and the Middle East prevent the emergence of a new strategy. While the pundits and the public continue to debate "the solution," the problem has slipped from their view. The problem is Islamic Jihadism and Palestinian rejectionism towards Israel's most basic rights. Whoever realizes this, realizes also that what is needed is not a solution based on failed paradigms and wishful thinking. What is needed is a long-term strategy based on realistic assumptions culled from experience.
Begin with Changes in Palestinian Political Culture
Let me briefly outline a new strategy for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From Oslo to Annapolis, we have consistently engaged in a "top-down strategy." We aimed to reach a political horizon or a final settlement agreement with the Palestinian leadership, hoping that political reform among Palestinians would follow. This approach was based on the mistaken paradigms outlined above, and failed. I propose we replace this approach with a "bottom-up strategy" in which the PA first proves its ability to govern. Real gains in stability and security on the road to peace can then be consolidated through political agreements. Experience teaches that political agreements which precede real changes in Palestinian political culture are useless, or worse.
The process of change in Palestinian society can and should be supported by Israel and the West, but most of the burden will necessarily fall on the Palestinian leadership to assume the responsibilities of good government. The process of change must begin in the territory which falls under their responsibility in the West Bank (areas A and B) and must encompass educational, law and order, security, economic and political reforms. All reforms should be carried out in parallel, with clear benchmarks in each area.
The reform process suggested would not be dependent on any issue related to a final settlement. The enforcement of law and order in Palestinian cities, for example, is not dependent on a final settlement, or on any other outstanding matter of negotiation. The same is true for the entire package of proposed reforms - none depend on new agreements.
During the imposition of law and order in the West Bank, the IDF must continue to operate in the area in order to foil attacks against Israelis, and in order to prevent the rise of Hamas in the West Bank similar to its rise in Gaza. Gaza will be considered a hostile entity as long as Hamas ideology holds sway there, and as long as it continues to serve as a base of operations for launching terror attacks against Israelis. Ultimately, only a decision by the Palestinian leadership can impose law and order on the Palestinian street, and that decision is theirs alone.
The key to all other reforms is educational reform. During the implementation of the Oslo Accords we were forced to confront a Palestinian educational system designed to inculcate hatred of Israel. It sought in a variety of ways to undermine Israel's right to exist as an independent Jewish state. It took pains to deny every connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, called openly for our annihilation, and promoted terrorism and Jihadism. While the Palestinian leadership was negotiating with Israel, it was educating its young for a war of annihilation. This must change before there is any chance for the Palestinians to reach a final settlement with Israel.
An entire generation of Palestinians has already been educated according to this curriculum. Change will not come quickly. It is clear, however, that demanding Palestinian educational reform is the only path to solving the conflict which will not require Israel to relinquish the idea of a Jewish homeland, and in which Islamic Jihadism will not be unwittingly strengthened.
At the same time, there is no need to wait for the end of this process before dealing with the refugee issue, as is sometimes argued. The refugee issue should, in fact, be dealt with as soon as possible and in parallel to educational reforms in the PA. A humanitarian solution to this issue will serve to neutralize it as a weapon against Israel. As educational reform in the PA encourages new thinking and new paradigms, a regional settlement which would satisfy both parties is likely to emerge.
Today, Mahmoud Abbas is engaged with all his energy on the political horizon issues instead of using all his energy to meet certain benchmarks regarding reforms. Dealing with issues such as a political horizon or financial support is another way for him to escape the actual need to deal with reforms. So instead of dealing with law and order in Jenin, he speaks about Jerusalem and borders. First of all, let's see if the Palestinians are able to manage the autonomy that they have now to run their civil affairs and to govern themselves. That should be the main mission of former Prime Minister Blair.
Iran Is the Main Destabilizing Force in the Middle East
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the core of the Middle East's instability. It is, in fact, the Iranian regime which is the main destabilizing force in the Middle East today. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has been exporting the ideology behind the rise of Islamic Jihadism, and it remains the base and center of gravity for worldwide Jihadism. We cannot afford to avoid confronting the Iranian regime. Until it is defeated, there will be no stability in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, or any other nation in the Middle East.
Iranian leaders today are allowed to feel secure despite their commitment to global Jihadism. They have made a massive commitment of human, financial and military resources in order to undermine moderate regimes from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. So far, they feel like they are winning as Hizbullah gains power in Lebanon and Hamas is strengthening its grip in Gaza. The June 2008 ceasefire agreement brokered by Egypt between Israel and Hamas is another achievement for the Jihadists. Iran is also advancing its nuclear project as it violates agreements and understandings with international institutions. The Iranian regime, with its rogue activities, has escaped paying any significant price.
Yet the government of the Ayatollahs is not a natural one in Iran, nor does it enjoy wide popular support. It will not last forever.
At the Hudson Institute in 2006 I spoke of the military capabilities needed to meet the Iranian challenge. Almost all Western air forces are capable of implementing a mission against Iranian nuclear installations.
I believe that the Iranian nuclear project can be stopped. I believe that in the end we will witness an internal change in Iran because of the domestic economic situation. Although they benefit from high oil prices, they're not in good economic shape.
Economic sanctions are the best tool to encourage those, who are considered to be 70 percent of the Iranian population, who reject the ayatollahs' way. I believe the nuclear program can be stopped by putting the regime in the dilemma of deciding whether it goes ahead or not. They do not feel the dilemma so far. They feel like they are winning, and that they can do whatever they want because of Western weakness and lack of determination. Indeed, those who try to avoid economic sanctions because of their particular economic interests actually enhance the possibility of a military confrontation with Iran.
If the Iranians are confronted with determination and are placed in a dilemma that threatens their survivability, they may prefer survival to the nuclear project. That was the reason they decided to temporarily halt the project in 2003.
Impact of the Western Offensive
In 2002, 2003, and 2004, Western civilization led by the United States enjoyed the upper hand. Muamar Khadafi, the ayatollahs, Syria, and Hizbullah all restrained themselves. The number of Hizbullah provocations in Lebanon declined from 2003 to May 2005.
It was not just the American offensive, it was the Israeli offensive as well. When Israel moved from defense to offense in Operation Defensive Shield in March 2002, there was an impact of a Western offensive, with America's offensive war against the global Jihad and Israel's offensive against Palestinian terrorism. However, in 2005 they realized that the United States had lost the stomach to go on with the offensive and that American troops were bogged down in Iraq and there was not going to be any further phase.
In the case of Israel, the disengagement was seen as weakness. Israel moved from offense to withdrawal. And the whole impact of the Western offensive ended. That is what caused what we witnessed on Israel's northern border in 2006. The same Hizbullah that restrained itself from 2002 to 2005 changed its mind. By moving again from defense and withdrawal to offense, which is up to us, we can again change the whole approach of the Jihadists, if Western civilization will show determination and not weakness.
Dealing with Gaza
I personally was against the truce with Hamas in Gaza. I believe we should use another approach there. We should have intensified our military operations immediately after implementation of the disengagement plan, in the face of daily rocket launchings - which wasn't the case before the disengagement.
In 2008 Israel launched just one brigade-size operation in Gaza, named Hot Winter, in which 130 Palestinians were killed. And Hamas stopped firing Kassam rockets immediately afterwards, without negotiating anything. That should have been done with all the Palestinian factions: intensifying military operations and putting them in the dilemma of deciding whether it is worthwhile to fire rockets at Israel or not.
I'm not calling for reoccupying Gaza. It's not my business who governs Gaza. I believe in managing the crisis, not solving it. We're not going to solve it. In this regard, I prefer intensive, medium-scale operations, and targeted killing of the leaders rather than reoccupying Gaza. I believe that in the end they will cry for a ceasefire without conditions, as happened in 2003-2004.
The Challenge for the West
The Iranians, the Syrians, and their proxies must be punished by the international community for funding terror and challenging the international order. They have been allowed to nurture international terrorism, develop WMD, and instigate the Second Lebanon War. This would not have been possible without the lack of clarity and determination in confronting them shown beforehand by the international community.
In light of the ongoing conflict between Sunnis and Shiites throughout our region, Israel and the West can and must find common interests with moderate Muslims. In order to create new political opportunities, a coordinated international policy should be instituted to ally ourselves with other nations aware of the Iranian threat.
The confrontation between Muslim moderates and extremists around the world crosses borders and threatens societies from within. There is no society in which everyone is a Jihadist. There are always those who prefer democracy and human rights over tyranny, freedom over oppression, and life over death. More and more people in the region are realizing that the culture of Jihad is a culture of death and self-destruction. The West must directly approach and strengthen those elements in order for them to gain the political strength necessary to undertake reforms in education, politics, and the economy.
It is true that this process is likely to be a long one. The challenge for Western leaders is to convince their constituencies that there are no instant solutions, and to educate their publics to patience. Western leaders cannot promise quick solutions and should not be tempted to do so. What they can do is develop a viable strategy.
The struggle against Islamic Jihadism is, in many ways, a contest of wills. As our values and way of life are challenged by Islamic Jihadists, and our legitimacy as a Jewish state is challenged by Arab nationalists, we in Israel must consolidate our belief in our path and its righteousness.
The "solution," when it comes, will be only half our doing. For us, the quest for stability in the Middle East requires moral clarity, vision, and a long-term strategy based on realistic assessments. Ultimately, the long way is the shortest way and I believe the right one which will lead towards a better future for all the peoples of the Middle East and the free world.
* * *Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Moshe Ya'alon is a former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs on June 24, 2008.