Perhaps the most frequently-voiced theme in discussions about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is that there is no military solution to the conflict. This theme has been sounded by presidents and secretaries of state in successive U.S. administrations, by the most senior U.N. officials, by retired Israeli military and intelligence leaders, and innumerable commentators, experts, editorial-writers, bloggers and other assorted opinion-makers. I want to examine two ideas that too often, I think, are simply assumed to be unassailable implications of the notion that there is no military solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
The first idea is this: if there is no military solution to the conflict, then it must follow that the use of military force is actually an obstacle to resolving the conflict. This is a plain non sequitur; the conclusion does not follow as a matter of logic from the premise. That is, there might be no exclusively military solution to a problem, but the use of military force might nevertheless be one part of a comprehensive, broader-based solution.
In the twentieth century, two great world wars were ended — at least for several decades, in the case of the First World War — by the signing of peace treaties among the warring parties. The execution of a peace treaty is perhaps the quintessential act of diplomacy, but everyone knows that, in the case of the two world wars, both those treaties were signed only after titanic military exertions had determined which side was the winner and which the loser on the battlefield. One can speculate and argue that a much better result could have been reached if the wars had never been fought and the parties had gone directly to diplomatic negotiations to settle their differences, but the course of history went in another direction. First there was war, and only after one side had been militarily exhausted did diplomacy come to the fore. No serious person could say that the use of military force was not instrumental in reaching a ‘solution’ (to the extent any such solution was actually accomplished) to the problems that precipitated those wars.
The first point I want to make, then, is this: when it is said that there is no military solution to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, it should not be more or less automatically assumed that military force therefore has no role whatsoever to play in resolving that conflict. Military force might be necessary, but not sufficient, to the attainment of a resolution (to the extent any such resolution is possible).
The parenthetical expression in the preceding sentence brings me to the second idea I want to examine. That is the notion that, if there is no purely military solution to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, then the solution must necessarily lie in diplomacy or in some mixture of diplomacy and force. Of course, the pure use of diplomacy and the pure use of force are for all practical purposes opposites in the real world. So, if one believes that the use of force alone will not produce a satisfactory solution to some problem or conflict, one’s mind might very well naturally run to the conclusion that diplomacy and negotiation, perhaps combined with some use of force, are certainly the pathways to a solution. And that conclusion would seem to be inescapable, if in fact every conflict does indeed have a real-world solution. But, as it turns out, that is quite a big ‘if’. It is so big that upon analysis it collapses of its own weight.
History teaches, I think, that conflicts arising in large part from religious differences are particularly intractable. Here is one example. For more than a thousand years, there has been some degree of conflict between the Sunni and Shi’a branches of Islam. The conflict has not always flared into violence, but sometimes it has. In the last few decades, we have seen a particularly bloody war between Iran and Iraq that was motivated, at least in part, by that schism in Islam. And today’s newspaper headlines report that Syria, Iraq, and other parts of the Arab world are rife with violence precipitated in some substantial part by that same schism.
So, after more than a millennium, there is no solution in sight — neither military, nor diplomatic, nor of any other variety — for the Sunni/Shi’a conflict. Perhaps the nature of the conflict is such that there will never be a true, permanent resolution, and we can therefore expect that schismatic violence will erupt from time to time. One can hope that the conflict will one day be resolved, but there is no particular reason to believe that that will ever happen.
The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is to some substantial degree a religious conflict, whether one is comfortable with that idea or not. Israelis tend to be happier describing it as a conflict essentially over territorial boundaries and control of access to holy sites, and not as one between Judaism and Islam. Given the difference in the size of the world’s populations that identify themselves as Jews and Muslims, respectively, the Israeli tendency is to be expected. But, from the Palestinian side of the conflict, the perspective is very different.
We are told that the Palestinian National Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas (who is now in the tenth year of his four-year term as president) is fully willing to enter into a treaty that would codify the two-state solution: two sovereign states living side-by-side in mutual peace and security. Let’s assume that what we are told is true. The indisputable fact remains that a significant part of the Palestinian people — those who belong to and actively support terrorist organizations such as Hamas — believe that Islam imposes on them a religious obligation to place the territory of the State of Israel under Muslim control. It is also true that other groups outside of the disputed territories, including the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, similarly believe that Islam requires them to struggle until the decidedly un-Islamic ‘Zionist entity’ is replaced by a sovereign faithful only to Islam. Hezbollah, too, rejects any kind of two-state solution. And the various terrorist groups have varying views, also sincerely grounded on their understanding of Islam, as to whether or not all Jews must be killed, or only those Jews residing in Israel, or whether the Jews residing in Israel, rather than being killed, must all be expelled to Europe or elsewhere, or whether those Jews who themselves or whose family recently immigrated to Israel must be expelled, or etc.
One can question many aspects of the ideology of terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, but one thing that cannot be questioned, I think, is the utter sincerity of their members’ belief in that ideology; they sincerely believe that they have a religious obligation to obliterate any trace of a non-Islamic state that purports to exercise sovereignty over what they view as Islamic land. Thus, they believe they have a religious obligation to obliterate Israel. The opinions or ‘commands’ of Mahmoud Abbas as president of the P.N.A. clearly would have no effect whatsoever on those beliefs or on the violent actions that flow from them. Indeed, Mr. Abbas himself has not even set foot in Gaza since 2006, when Hamas violently ended the P.N.A.’s control of that territory. He no doubt fears that if he were to visit Gaza he might well be assassinated. Mr. Abbas is a ‘leader’ who is not followed by precisely those Palestinians who would have to lay down their arms if a treaty codifying the two-state solution were to be more than a piece of paper with lots of ribbons and seals affixed to it.
The modern State of Israel was created in 1948. From then until now, Israel has been unable to resolve the conflict between itself and the Palestinians. It is possible, I think, that there is no practical, real-world solution at all for the foreseeable future. Perhaps the best one can hope for is a relatively peaceful co-existence between the two peoples, interspersed with unfortunate but foreseeable periods of hostility and violence. Israel has managed to survive, and indeed by many measures to thrive, without any resolution of the conflict. It may have to continue to do so for a long, long time.