Exit Strategies

Why Israel Loses Asymmetric Wars

I originally wrote this essay for Taki's Magazine in January 2009, during the 2008-2009 Gaza War.  I recently re-read it and found that 1) little had fundamentally changed in Israel's conflict with the Palestinians and 2) that its central thesis still stands: Regardless of what happens militarily, Israel will symbolically lose its engagments with both Muslim states and NGOs such as Hamas.     

I’ve been reluctant to write about Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza this past two weeks for the simple reason that the ordeal has struck me as, to borrow a phrase from Bismarck, “some damn foolish thing” in the Holy Land—and one which, I hope, doesn’t precipitate a worldwide disaster like the original “damn foolish thing” in the Balkans.

The invasion also gives one a strong sense of déjà vu. In Hollywood, big-budget movies that are embarrassing flops thankfully don’t generate sequels. In foreign affairs, things are different. Much as if an exec had green-lighted Ishtar II for a Christmas release, Israel seems intent on making us watch a second installment of The Invasion of Lebanon. The cast is even mostly the same: Ehud Olmert is back, now flanked by new blonde co-star with the alluring name of Tzipora. This time ‘round, Hamas has replaced Hezbollah as the hate-filled, towel-head villains who just won’t acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.

It’s perfectly natural and reasonable—and likely strategically wise—for Americans to not want to have anything to do with the Gaza conflagration. And many don’t. But then there’s unfortunately no shortage of people in America with an obsessive concern for the Israel-Palestinian conflict—ranging from the rabid neocon hawks to the Endtimes evangelicals pining for the Apocalypse to my “more Israeli than the Israeli” Brooklyn neighbors to wannabe world statesmen who view a Palestinian state as an almost eschatological Answer To Everything. And since this conflict has been inflated beyond proportion—the India-Pakistan standoff seems more potentially dangerous, and yet it stirs few passions—we should at least speak clearly about what’s at stake.

When I say Israel’s Gaza incursion is a “damn foolish thing,” a bad sequel to a bad original, I’m not trying to be cute or flippant. I’m certainly aware that the invasion has had a high cost in human suffering, and I remain horrified that my tax dollars are supporting it, as well as the continued occupation of the West Bank. I also recognize the political implications involved. As Justin has argued, Israel is likely trying to get Hamas—as well as the Palestinian people—on a war footing before Obama takes office, heading off at the pass a potential pro-Palestine intervention or even a substantial shift in policy by the new administration. Olmert, who’s been reduced to a caretaking role, is trying to redeem himself for the botched Lebanon campaign before he leaves office, just as the new Kadima leader, the aforementioned Tzipora Livni, seeks to prove her stuff to Israeli Right.

All the same, the invasion remains a “damned foolish thing” for the simple reason that after it’s over, nothing will be accomplished or settled; indeed, Israel’s actions—as well as the justifications for them one reads in the Western press—are indicative of the fact that the Gaza campaign is a war to nowhere.

When Israel invaded Lebanon two and half years ago, the campaign was, by all conventional measures of military matters, a resounding success. The only problem was that Israel was fighting an asymmetric war—that is, an established nation-state (think F-14 firing missiles) was taking on an amorphous, state-like social charity and terrorism organization (think screaming poor person with a grenade launcher). The funny thing about this kind of conflict is that the little guy usually wins by losing, and the big guy is usually ruined by his success. On CNN International, Israel looked like a horrible monster, and on the proverbial “Arab street,” Hezbollah got cred for standing up to the “Zionist entity.” Hamas, which at the moment is much smaller and less well organized than Hezbollah, will undoubtedly benefit greatly from losing a war to Israel and will soon be rewarded with an enlarged donor base, new recruits, and a reputation for toughness. Getting attacked by the Israelis is good for organization branding.

This kind of “asymmetry”—in which the stronger party is usually at a disadvantage—informs the broader conflict as well. Israel voluntarily surrendered Gaza to the Palestinians in 2005, and even supported elections in the territory (until you know who got the most votes.) But despite this gesture, Israel was always perceived as an imperial-colonial power, brutally lording over the Palestinians. There is, of course, good reason for this, as Israel very much is occupying formerly Palestinian land in the West Bank—and expanding its presence there—and even after giving up Gaza, it made sure that the place remained an isolated, miserable shantytown without running water. But the perception also has much to do with the fact that the conflict appears, rightly and wrongly, to be one between “European,” “white” colonizers and “brown” third-world victim people—and this kind of thing went out of style a long time ago. As Steve Sailer wrote here at Takimag a little over a year ago:

Today, most countries … are ruled by elements relatively indigenous to their continent. A clear historical pattern has emerged: European settlers either take over an entire continent politically and demographically or lose power everywhere and find themselves expelled. There is, however, one famous exception to this rule: Israel.

The fact that Israel stands against such an epochal trend helps explain the inordinate excitement and loathing Israel arouses among its neighbors, just as decolonized Africa’s political elites found the continued existence of Rhodesia and white-ruled South Africa far more upsetting than the dismaying conditions in their own countries. Israel is a reminder of the European superiority to which these non-Europeans were once subjected themselves.

The occupation status quo is not only instable and violence-producing, but it makes it impossible for Israel to gain legitimacy approval for aggressive actions among anyone other than its patrons and underlings in Washington—and no amount of yammering about Arabs having full legal rights in Israel and the like is going to change this.

If Israel wants to rid itself of the colonial stigma, as well as guarantee its national security and preserve its identity as a Jewish state, then its options are fairly clear. Assuming a multicultural “one-state solution” (in which Jews would be demographically overwhelmed rather quickly) won’t be countenanced, Israel could choose to follow the advice of men like Martin van Creveld and draw a line in the sand—withdrawing completely from the territories, allowing the creation of an independent Palestine, and building a buffer zone between itself and the new state. The other option would be to pursue the grand, genocidal dreams of the Israeli far Right (and at one point, Ariel Sharon) and pursue “Greater Israel”—driving out all Arabs from the land bequeathed to the Jews in the Bible. (As option two is repulsive and unfeasible, I’d recommend option one. But who I am to tell Israel what to do?)

But instead of a hardnosed discussion of what’s possible, Israeli leaders, as well as the pro-Israel commentators in the Western media, have reverted to the all-too-familiar platitudes of the war on terror—a rhetoric just as mendacious as it is naïve.

Thus, immediately after Israel began its bombardment, David Horowitz cried out “Liberate of Gaza!,” in order to, I guess, save the Palestinians from their duly elected leaders, or themselves. Might Horowitz expect the troops to be “greeted as liberators,” and have to fend off barrages of chocolates and rose petals, when they march into Gaza? Victor Davis Hanson, also playing to type, spoke of Hamas’s creed of “religious fascism” And in making this clumsy historical analogy, the good professor doesn’t want to merely dehumanize the enemy. For in Hanson’s “militant liberal” imagination, Hamas, much like the Nazis, is an extremist clique that must be destroyed in order for the Israelis to move in and instruct the Palestinians on how to “craft a peaceful, prosperous democracy”—and not vote for Hamas! Melanie Phillips, who, granted, makes some legitimate points about Hamas’s placement of military targets in civilian areas, presents another variation on this theme. The recent conflict is the “frontline” (where have we heard that before?) in a struggle between “the West”—that great abstract, vacuous construction we’re supposed to defend—and “those waging holy war” on “civilization.”

Israel’s apologists want to reconstruct a paradigm of “the West vs. Totalitarianism” (sometimes throwing in an Israeli mission democratrice). But to much of the world—and, most importantly, to the Palestinians themselves—the conflict will always be colonizer vs. colonized, white vs. brown.

The Israeli politicians aren’t quite as taken with democratization theory, but with them, too, the emphasis is on explaining how Hamas deserves to be destroyed for their wicked rocket attacks, and not on what exactly will be done after Israel (inevitably) wins on the battlefield. Are more elections to be held, knowing that the surviving Palestinians won’t be particularly inclined to vote for a peace candidate? Is Israel to install Mahmoud Abbas as its Man in Gaza? Will a re-occupation ensue? What?

Unless Israel confronts these issues, the invasion will do nothing to ensure its security, and it will forever be remembered, quite rightly, as some damn foolish thing.