Armageddon and the Stalemate: Time as a Conflict Strategy

The world’s concern over the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate seems to have reached a state of fatigue. With the Iranian threat Israel has more important things to worry about and international attention has mostly turned to the developments in the Arab world. During a recent Paris panel event about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process one person in the audience asked the Israeli participants whether they thought that this stalemate works inIsrael’s favour or to its detriment. While for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this question carries enormous political and practical significance, it is also illustrates a classical one in the study of conflict and negotiation: Should I settle now with a compromise or wait for a better deal to come along in the future? Will a future deal turn out more costly or does patience (or time) pay off?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides plenty of empirical evidence to suggest what the negotiation literature has known all along: continued stalemate (or escalated violence) will always be more costly than settling at any point along the way. Time, in other words, always works against you, regardless of which side of the conflict you are on. Perhaps the most chronic illness of conflict adversaries is that they overestimate their chances of success while underestimate the negative consequences of continuing on an adversarial path. Time becomes part of the strategy, a strategy that often fails. The Palestinians have learnt the hard way: by not accepting deal after deal, they have witnessed how their beloved homeland has slipped out of their grasp, only to remain in their dreams and folklore, like a Prussian ghost.

For the Israelis however, the answer depends on where you stand on a number of assumptions and issues that cut to the core of the conflict itself. The question to the panel that I was attending was directed at the Israelis, with the intention of getting an answer that would prove to the audience that Israel will indeed be punished by time. However, it may be a surprise for some Europeans that for Israel the answer is not so clear-cut, nor is it bereft of controversy, something that is made clear by the present stalemate. While Israelis—just like Palestinians—may use time as a strategy, there is ambiguity regarding the benefit of time. This ambiguity has to do with the lack of consensus over the goal that the country is trying to achieve and the future towards which it should be heading. There are several dimensions of time that work at cross-purposes with respect to Israeli interests; call it the “two level game” of time, as if time was an actor in and of itself.

How time affects Israel’s stake in the conflict has three important dimensions: first, how time works in Israel’s favour. Second, how time works against Israel’s interests; and third, how time is used as a strategy for third parties who are interested in changing the course of the conflict in order to ensure a more successful negotiation process. Let me analyze each dimension briefly.

First, how does time work in Israel’s favour? Well, let us look at the Israeli experience of recent history. From a Jewish nationalist perspective (especially a religious one) post World War II politics provide the biggest evidence that God has begun the redemption process, which includes the ingathering of the exiles, the end of times, and finally, the coming of the Messiah. While obviously not all Israeli Jews are religious, it is difficult even for secular Israelis to not be awed by a series of political events that seemed nothing short of miracles: the 1948 victory against overwhelming odds, the return to the Biblical territories in 1967, and the flight of most of the Palestinian population from the areas that would become the Jewish state. In the complacency created by the status quo it is easy to be tickled by the idea that the next cataclysm may prove to be the last push to resolve Israel’s problems forever. Those who actively seek to implement this vision (whether secular or religious) work tirelessly to erase any notion of the 1967 borders both physically and emotionally, by expanding settlements in Judea and Samaria and reaching out to the “hearts and souls” of ordinary Israelis. The fact that this strategy of time is working can be illustrated by the desperation in Palestinian negotiator, Nabil Sha’at’s words when he exclaimed that “it’s as if two people are negotiating over a piece of pizza and while they are negotiating, one side keeps eating it!” Or from the desperate attempts of Abu Mazen to force Israel into an agreement by appealing directly to the United Nations.

How badly then will Israel be “punished” by time? There are three things in particular that may work to Israel’s disadvantage. First, and most obviously, the fact that Israelis soon may find themselves in the minority between the Mediterranean Sean and the Jordan Riveris indeed precarious, regardless of how you slice and dice the statistic. But while the demographic threat lends some credence to the peacenik argument that Israel’s borders need to be changed so as to include a minimum of Palestinians, there is another aspect that analysts often ignore when it comes to the peace process. Internally, the growing demographic strength of the haredi and national religious sectors will lead to a more inflexible Israel when it comes to making any such changes to its borders, thus precluding the prevention of the impending demographic nightmare. During the past year however a third aspect has to be added to this consideration: the long-term effect on Israel from the upheaval in the Arab world. While “Arab democracy” may sound promising to the rest of the world, for Israelis it carries a dark shadow and conjures up a number of possible doomsday scenarios. Given the neighborhood, and if the worst demographic fears are materialized, the best Israelis can hope for is perhaps that the Palestinians, having been cultured in Israeli civics for the past 40 years, will themselves fee alienated with their Arab “brethren” and demand full political rights in Israel rather than resort to another round of violence. But then again, that would be exactly the type of scenario that those who are waiting for Armageddon are trying to avoid.

Finally, can time serve the interests of the international community in their quest to help the parties along to work out an acceptable agreement? While this question alone could fill up the pages of many newspapers, it should be pointed out that it is only by realizing the time dimensions that the international community can grasp the urgency of getting more deeply involved in the peace process. Rather than preaching from their high horses, the West and the rest needs to sit down and think seriously about the viability of the plans that have previously been tried and tested but that have ultimately failed. Unfortunately, the two state solution and its foundations have become seriously undermined (by a whole lot of stalemate for a long time) and a lot of creative thinking will be needed in order to provide a new formula by which negotiations can restart. Third parties can be particularly helpful during this transition to ensure that the most important components of the previously made commitments from the old framework are transferred into the new.

The sad truth when it comes to the time argument is that it clear that the enemies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not necessarily the right-wing or left-wing or even the Palestinians and the Israelis but those that don’t believe in making any sacrifices at all in order to gain peace. To those that are stuck in the stalemate ideology it seems necessary to ask: What if the next miracle does NOT happen? What could we do if the Messiah doesn’t come soon? Are there any practical solutions that may make the world and the neighbourhood a better place?

About the Author
Tova Norlen is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Security Studies in Zurich, Switzerland, working on issues relating to international security, Middle East/Israel, conflict management and US foreign policy. She has a PhD in international relations and conflict management from the Johns Hopkins University School of International Studies in Washington DC, and has worked for several years teaching International relations and related subjects in Southern California.