The Arab–Israeli conflict has been at the centre of international affairs for decades. Despite repeated political efforts, the confrontation and casualties continue, especially in fighting between Israelis and Palestinians. This new assessment emphasizes the role that military force plays in blocking a diplomatic resolution. Many Arabs and Israelis believe that the only way to survive or to be secure is through the development, threat, and use of military force and violence. This idea is deeply flawed and results in missed diplomatic opportunities and growing insecurity. Coercion cannot force rivals to sign a peace agreement to end a long-running conflict. Sometimes negotiations and mutual concessions are the key to improving the fate of a country or national movement. Using short historical case studies from the 1950s through to today, the book explores and pushes back against the dominant belief that military force leads to triumph while negotiations and concessions lead to defeat and further unwelcome challenges. In The sword is not enough, we learn both what makes this idea so compelling to Arab and Israeli leaders and how it eventually may get dislodged.
This chapter introduces the idea that, in the Arab–Israeli context, the dominant belief has been that military force is the best way for Egypt, Israel, the Palestinians, and Syria to achieve their goals. While there are some historical episodes that align with this idea, the reliance on military force often backfires. When it comes to signing peace agreements, military force cannot replace negotiations and mutual concessions. The threat or use of force often produces greater insecurity or even war. Force and coercion often obscure diplomatic openings, leading to missed diplomatic opportunities and an unsuccessful peace process.
In documents and statements, some Arab and Israeli leaders and analysts tout the effectiveness of using force for advancing their basic goals like national security and independence. In 2008–2009, the battle between Israel and Hamas contained multiple examples of this perspective. There are also other historical cases where this idea is a plausible explanation: the 1967 Arab–Israeli war and how it shifted Egyptian and Syrian policy toward Israel; Israel’s strength in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a factor undermining the Palestinian national movement’s military approach; the first intifada, which pushed Israel toward a negotiated resolution of the Palestinian question; and two Israeli unilateral territorial withdrawals that emboldened the ‘force works’ narrative, from Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005.
Military force and the resultant wars cannot compel either party to sign a final peace agreement. In order to reach a peace treaty, they need to negotiate and offer concessions. Contingent factors like leadership and third-party mediation still matter for closing the diplomatic deal. Egypt and Israel fought wars, but the Camp David Accords (1978) and the peace treaty (1979) that fundamentally changed and stabilized the strategic relations between the two countries came through a diplomatic process. A second example, Israel and Syria, shows that force alone is not enough to produce peace. Their negotiations failed, and they remain adversaries to this day.
The primacy of military force as an instrument of statecraft can often create greater insecurity, failed political objectives, and new problems. The reliance on force may cause the possibility of peace to grow more distant as the threat and use of force result in increasing counter-attacks, an arms race, bolstering a rival’s international political standing, undermining support in one’s own society for negotiations, strengthening a rival’s view that one is hostile, casualties and loss of territory, and the creation of a wholly new enemy organization. Moshe Sharett, in the 1950s, and Mahmoud Abbas, in the 2000s, both pushed for recognition of the dangers of always turning to a forceful resolution. Case studies of the Gaza Raid and Suez war (1955–1956), the 1967 Arab–Israeli war, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) that began in late 2000 show how force may backfire.
The flipside of thinking military force is the best policy tool available to achieve national aims has often been the notion that negotiations and concessions are an inferior means, one that signals weakness and leads to being taken advantage of by one’s rival. In addition, structures of violence and coercion exert themselves, thereby undermining or leading to the premature closure of negotiating opportunities. In short, ideas and institutions combine to undermine diplomatic pathways. If a government or organization really have wanted to try to change the direction of Arab–Israeli or Israeli–Palestinian relations by de-emphasizing the reliance on military force, violence, and coercion, there were numerous moments that could have been creatively built upon to effect change. Case studies of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s ten-point programme in 1974, the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, and Israel’s disengagement in 2005 illustrate missed opportunities and some of the muddled signals that go along with those moments.
In the Arab–Israeli conflict, the dominant idea has been that force is the best way to achieve state aims while negotiations and concessions are a poor choice. What makes that idea hard to change? Three factors reinforce a commitment to military force as the dominant means: the realist structure of global politics; the multi-actor, non-unitary nature of global politics; and the impact that fear has in reinforcing the idea that force and sometimes violence are the best approach for achieving one’s national objectives or advancing one’s national security. At the same time, sometimes a secondary idea, that negotiations and concessions are the best available means and military force is counterproductive, has prevailed in this conflict. What leads to a change in the ideas? They include leadership from within the warring parties that embraces the idea of negotiations as a more effective policy tool, external mediation, an unexpected event or technological change, tit-for-tat interactions that build toward talking or even a mutually agreeable outcome, and changing threat environments. Both the 1970s and 1990s (with the Oslo process) witnessed some shifting in the dominant idea as Arabs and Israelis negotiated.
The conclusion considers the limits of military force in the central contested relationship, the Israeli–Palestinian one. Hamas and Israel clung to force as the best tool in 2014 and both paid a steep price. The chapter considers US foreign policy as well. US administrations have bolstered the dominance of the idea that force is the answer through a strong alliance with Israel while simultaneously pushing diplomatic processes that are meant to raise the profile of negotiations and mutual concessions. Israeli and Palestinian policy today both reflect the prioritization of military force and reveal the expected ramifications like insecurity and missed diplomatic opportunities. One or both could turn in a different direction, but that would require challenging the over-emphasis on forceful instruments of statecraft.