Humiliation Only Fuels War; Redeemed Honor Aids Peace

Humiliation Only Fuels War; Redeemed Honor Aids Peace

Several weeks ago I posted a dialogue about the role of shame and humiliation in the Israeli-Arab conflict  that I carried on with Richard Landes here and on Richard’s blog and in abridged form on Tablet.  Unfortunately, the current continuation of the always pointless Gaza War is primarily about humiliation, and that should be more widely understood on the Israeli side, as I think it already is among Palestinians. 

Of course the Israeli people and their government primarily want the rockets stopped and for the former that is probably the overriding issue (though many say they want to see Hamas “destroyed,” something the generals say is not militarily feasible).  Thus, Israel wants a simple ceasefire (at least for now), peace for peace, no rockets from Gaza in exchange for no air, artillery, or any other attacks from Israel on Gaza.  Pretty conmmonsensical, no?  Stop killing people and then talk about other issues?

On one level, that’s absolutely correct.  But this war had causes and both sides have important short, medium, and perhaps even some longterm fantasies.  And, as always, political leaders, whether democratic or authoritarian, identify their political survival and advancement with those of the state and its people (Palestine isn’t, of course, a full-fledged state but the principle is still relevant.)  The more a country suffers, the more it wants to prove that that suffering was not in vain, so in this case leaders on both sides are under considerable pressure to show tangible gains.  And for both, that is a zero-sum game; loss for one is gain for the other.

Israel has always, from the days of the pre-state Yishuv (Zionist community) in Palestine, considered deterrence to be one of the most important weapons in its arsenal, for obvious reasons.  All states do that if they can; they want to make potential enemies fear heavy losses when contemplating violence or war.  Israel’s main weapon, besides building up the IDF, has been swift, powerful, and often disproportionate retaliation.  This is not only basic IDF doctrine but also basic to the Israeli mindset.

Israelis believe strongly that being “a villa in the wilderness” requires that Arab forces must be afraid of Israel’s response to any provocation.  If they lose that fear, Israelis argue, then they could overwhelm Israel by sheer numbers.  Likewise, and perhaps strangely, they see that fear as a weapon for eventual peace.  Since Israelis take for granted that the Arab states and populations don’t want Israel to exist, they reason that only fear can make them accept Israel even in the short term, but in the longer term as well.  Humiliation makes fear even stronger, and that has certainly been one element in the instability of Arab regimes since Israel’s founding. Oudeh Bisharat, an Arab writer for Ha’aretz, makes this point rather differently here.

Anyone who knows Israeli history knows that it is replete with numerous incidents of disproportionate retaliation.  From Orde Wingate’s Special Night Squads to the Palmach tactics before and during 1948, to Ariel Sharon’s Unit 101 in the 1950s and Kafr Qasim, to the Suez campaign, and on and on, most recently the overwhelming force used in the Gaza War.  No one can deny that massive retaliation in the service of deterrence has been, and still is, a key Israeli doctrine.

With fear almost invariably comes humiliation.  It is less clear that stimulating humiliation was a calculation in many of these actions  As I have argued in my exchange with Richard Landes, shame and humiliation are not prominent elements in (Ashkenazi at least) Jewish or Israeli culture, while they are strong and important constituents in Arab societies.  Humiliation may or may not have been expressly intended in many of the actions listed above or others. But it is clearly an element of the larger conflict as well as the Gaza War against Hamas now, as I’ll discuss below.

First, though, I’d like to consider the efficacy of humiliation as an element of deterrence.  Does it work?  Did it make Arabs fear Israel and less likely to attack it?  Arguably it did in the short term after Israeli was established, since Jews had not been known for their military prowess for millennia and Arabs had to digest the implications of a warlike Jewish state.  Whether it was useful as a strategy, i.e. whether conciliation might have done more in certain instances in Israel’s first years, is a serious historical question that is unlikely to be settled soon.  But certainly after 1967, Israeli power was clear and impossible to seriously ignore.  Arabs may have hated Israel but they couldn’t pretend it was a pushover.

Yet Israelis remained afraid that Arabs did not fear them.  From Levi Eshkol (Prime Minister during the 1967 War) referring to Israel as “Shimshon der nebechdikker” (Samson the helpless) to Moshe Arens (Defense Minister during the Gulf War of 1991), lamenting that American pressure on Israel not to strike at Saddam Hussein when his missiles were hitting Israel irreparably damaged Israel’s deterrence, to the current insistence on Arabs recognizing Israel as the Jewish State, Israelis have believed that deterrence and humiliation work on Arabs.  In fact many believe that it is the only thing that works. The whole point of the “Jewish State” demand is to rub Arab noses in the “fact” that they were always wrong in fighting against Israel – and all their struggles were completely in vain.

Currently, as I write this, Israel insists that Hamas not gain anything from the war, even though Hamas (strategically) has pitched its demands for lifting the blockade, fishing rights, etc. as things that will clearly help the Gazan people.  Israel has allowed itself to be put in a position in which any humane concession redounds to Hamas’s benefit as well as to that of the population.  But Israel considers that humiliating Hamas is a primary objective, worth continuing the war. As Chemi Shaleve pointed out in Ha’aretz on July 14, early in the war: “both a cease-fire and a limited ground operation won’t see Hamas weakened or humiliated, but rather strengthened and victorious, at least by twisted local standards in which weakness is strength and the death of innocents only makes you stronger.”

I should add that of course this works for Hamas as well, that it wants to avoid defeat and thus humiliate Israel.  Merely returning to the status quo will be seen as an Israeli victory, but since it is Gaza that is doing the vast majority of the suffering, Hamas may have to cave.

Let’s look briefly at whether humiliation works as a deterrent.  It is a truism in studying the 1973 Yom Kippur War, that Anwar Sadat redeemed Egypt’s honor in the war, which enabled him to make peace with Israel a few years later.  Except in Israel.  Most Israelis, in my experience, insist that Israel won the war and that Sadat made peace because he saw that Israel was staying put, he wanted to address Egypt’s serious economic problems, he wanted to end his dependence on the Soviet Union and become an American ally.  All of these were factors, I agree, but the sense of redeemed honor is palpable in Egyptian statements at the time and even today about the war.  To put it more starkly, Israel’s seeming near defeat in 1973 (as Egyptians portrayed it) was a necessary precondition for peace. We know now that Sadat had no expectation of winning the war by destroying or invading Israel proper.  Rather, he wanted to give Israel a bloody nose, which he did, and all the pictures of Israeli soldiers invading the western side of the Suez Canal on the road to Cairo do not detract from that.

Humiliating a partially defeated enemy is almost invariably counter-productive.  I have no space to discuss it further but examples that come to mind are France after the Franco-Prussian War, Germany after World War I, and the Arabs after every war that Israel won, except, as discussed above, the Yom Kippur War.  Conversely, peace with honor is infinitely more likely, as negotiators and mediators know, to give an enemy an alternative to swearing eternal revenge.

Of course, like anything, this can be taken to an extreme but there is little danger of that.  Israel is and will remain the regional superpower for the foreseeable future.  On the other hand, offering the Palestinians a fair deal, in Gaza and the larger peace picture, is much more likely to empower moderates and disempower revanchism.  Understanding your adversary’s mindset is key to making a durable peace.  Humiliation is perhaps the strongest goad to enmity and radicalism; conversely, it is much harder to goad comfortable people to make war.  Even if Hamas gains in a peace agreement, in the longer term it will serve to tamp down on radicalism, especially if combined with a new and more viable set of negotiations with Abu Mazen as head of a new unity government.

By | 2014-08-26T16:07:00-04:00 August 26th, 2014|Blog|3 Comments


  1. judith August 27, 2014 at 5:02 am - Reply

    Excellent analysis. And, given today’s truce, if Israel can just humble itself a bit and allow Hamas to feel some pride (though it goes against both our emotional and rational understanding of reality),we may finally see some progress here and an end to taunting and humiliating.
    Judith Green, Jerusalem

  2. Molly Freeman August 27, 2014 at 3:05 pm - Reply

    Paul’s timely analysis resonates with the takeaway from The Gatekeepers….. “there has never been an overall strategy, only tactics….” and with the rarely acknowledged fact that there has been no or very few women at the decision-making tables. Neuroscience confirms that women and men have different competencies. Women more alert to systems thinking and a scan of wider implications and men more focused on immediate results in a win/lose context. ( Had more women been integral to Israeli policy decisions the dysfunctional generation of humiliation may have entered the discourse before it became embedded.

    Bring on the women to the current conversations… the Institute for Inclusive Security has a long list of ready, willing and very able experts.

  3. Edy Kaufman September 1, 2014 at 10:17 pm - Reply

    Excellent analysis. The arrogance of power is more often than not counterproductive, let alone in the Middle East. It sound more like a mutual perception between Palestinians and Israelis that :the only language that ‘they’ understand is FORCE. The ultimate expression of an Israeli official was “We need to cut the lawn from time to time” [meaning military intervention in Gaza]. This humiliating expression firstly, does not take into account that the more you cut the grass, the faster and longer it grows. I would rather compare the violence against innocent civilians -no matter whose fault- is like a painful wound, that every time you reopen it, it goes deeper and deeper. Reducing the level of hatred is a national security priority. As a common friend of Paul and mine. Alouf Har-Even told us about a ride with a Jewish taxi driver in Jerusalem, relating to “the Arabs”: We will have to keep hitting and hitting them until they stop hating us”,
    Edy Kaufman

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