Paul Scham is an Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute and formerly a Research Associate at the Truman Institute for Peace of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is co-editor of “Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue.”
Anyone familiar with Israeli foreign and defense policy will frequently have heard the justification: “We had to — [fill in the blank]. Otherwise we would have appeared weak”. Certainly, this is a significant rationalization for the current campaign in Lebanon. It is repeated by everyone from the person in the street to top policymakers.
The argument is not without justification. Israel is a small country that cannot afford to lose territory, let alone a war. If its many enemies get the idea that it is weak and can be pushed around, its strategic position can quickly erode.
This is combined with an oft-repeated analysis of the “Arab character” or “Arab mentality,” on which Israelis usually consider themselves experts. It is claimed, “Arabs only respect force.” Parenthetically, it is remarkable how often I hear the identical phrase from Arabs in speaking of Israel, who are astonished to learn that it is an Israeli mantra as well.
While one can find some traces of this policy in the raids and tactics emanating from the iconic British commando officer, Orde Wingate, who fought the Palestinian revolt in the 1930s, the strategy first became entrenched in the retaliatory raids against targets in Jordan and Gaza in the 1950s. The policy was particularly connected with a young officer named Ariel Sharon, who was both the despair and delight of David Ben-Gurion for going beyond his orders, often resulting in the killing of munerous Palestinians, most notably at Kibiya in 1953. In fact, the 1956 Sinai campaign was originally intended as a mega-retaliation for fedayeen attacks from Gaza.
It is still debatable how effective these tactics were. After the Sinai campaign, the border with Gaza was far quieter. But historian Avi Shlaim makes the argument that these raids were instrumental in convincing Egyptian President Nasser that it was impossible to make peace with Israel.
The logic behind retaliation is two-fold. First, it stems from the fear of showing weakness. This argument was far stronger in the early 1950s, when the Israeli victory in 1948 was seen as an aberration by many Arabs, the idea of Israel as a regional superpower was inconceivable, and the Arab world eagerly proclaimed its desire for a “second round” against Israel, to finish it off.
The second justification is the belief that if enough pain is inflicted on a society, its people will pressure their government to force those doing the raids to cease their provocations. Again, this fit the situation in the 1950s, when raids were carried out by Palestinian fedayeen groups, and eventually both King Hussein of Jordan and President Nasser found it in their interest to stop them.
Fast forward to the last few years. Israel is now generally recognized as the regional superpower, far stronger, qualitatively, than any combination of its potential enemies, and resting on a solid economic and political base. As everyone knows, it also possesses a nuclear capability, though it has chosen not to announce this formally. It also has the strong support of the United States, and a fair amount of Arab and Muslim opinion sees the tail as wagging the dog, i.e., Israeli policy controlling American actions, not vice-versa. While I do not accept that analysis, perceptions do matter in policy formulation.
Equally important, there is little evidence that the Arab world, whether on the “street,” among terrorist groups, or in the palaces of its rulers, considers Israel weak. Of course, every once in a while there is jubilation at a weak point being penetrated, as in the two separate abductions of Israeli soldiers in June and July. But this is a tribute to strength, that even pinpricks are cause for celebration. Rather, a general perception, and not only among Arabs, is that Israel is a bully, considering Jewish life sacred and Arab life inconsequential. There is no indication that any significant faction or leader considers Israel suffering from weakness.
Realization of this perception has significant implications for Israeli policy. First, Israel does not have to keep “proving” itself. That does not mean it can, or should, ignore provocations. But an enormous burden is lifted if it is recognized by Israeli citizens and leaders alike that Israel is not seen as weak.
Second, it calls into question the basic assumption that “Arabs only respect force.” Of course, Israel’s force is respected, even if hated. But once the fact of Israeli power has been established (and that has been an irrefutable since at least the Six Day War of 1967), then the question arises: how to use the perception of that force in a manner that avoids using it, when possible? Israel has not been very successful in this regard.
It is now clear that most of the Arab regimes are sick and tired of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and seriously worried about its ongoing consequences. Egypt and Jordan have long since made their peace with Israel’s existence. Saudi Arabia has also done so tacitly, but the Lebanon crisis, to the astonishment of many, caused the Saudi regime, always ultra-careful not to criticize other Arabs publicly in almost any context, to strongly criticize Hezbollah. This is unprecedented, and is only the most recent evidence that most Arab regimes realize the danger that the new Islamism poses to their survival, and that continuation of the conflict only strengthens the radical Islamists.
Moreover, it is also clear, with the ubiquitous image of dead children and fleeing refugees broadcast everywhere, that attacks usually strengthen resolve, rather than weakening it. This is certainly true in Israel, where the fractious population is unusually united thanks to Hezbollah’s rockets. It is equally true in Lebanon, where the significant majority that opposes Hezbollah and were fairly neutral about Israel, now hates it.
The regional effect of Israel’s actions is to inflame huge numbers of Arabs and Muslims and to destabilize precisely those regimes that have come to terms with Israel’s existence. Israelis dismiss the idea that, after the abduction of two soldiers, it could have built a coalition against Hezbollah. Even some who are uncomfortable with the current campaign claim “it would have shown weakness.” Yet building a coalition against aggressors, as President Bush’s father did so successfully in the first Gulf War, does not preclude the use of force, but rather makes it more acceptable if it must be used.
It is appropriate now that Israelis realize that the time to prove their strength is past. Now is the time to use it wisely to conserve it as much as possible.
Years ago, Abba Eban, who was more respected abroad than in his own country, urged Jews to “take yes for an answer.” This, of course, requires compromise. But compromises are best made from strength, which Israel now has. This is precisely the time to revisit some of the proposals from the recent past, most notably the Arab League initiative of 2002. This will enable Israel to build a coalition with Arab regimes against those who reject Israel’s existence, rather than rejecting those who have already come to terms with it.