‘Mowing the Lawn’ Won’t Cut It — My Challenge to the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies
Israelis have gradually come to realize that at present the Palestinians are neither a partner for comprehensive peace nor capable of establishing a viable state… The Palestinian Authority has no intention of accepting a Jewish state in any borders, and the two sides remain far apart on most of the concrete issues to be resolved… Israel’s recent governments are left, willy-nilly, with a de facto conflict-management approach, without foreclosing any options. — Professor Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies, cited in “Israeli West Bank Policy – Where To?” by David Weinberg, Jerusalem Post, August 18, 2016.
Israel is acting in accordance with a “mowing the grass” strategy. After a period of military restraint, Israel is acting to severely punish Hamas for its aggressive behavior, and degrading its military capabilities… The use of force…is not intended to attain impossible political goals, but rather is a long-term strategy of attrition designed primarily to debilitate the enemy capabilities. — Professor Efraim Inbar and Dr. Eitan Shamir, “Mowing the Grass…,” BESA Center Perspectives, Paper No. 255, July 20, 2014.
Last week, Jerusalem Post columnist David Weinberg published a wide-ranging survey of the views of several senior policy experts at Bar Ilan University’s BESA Center regarding Israel’s future “West Bank” policy. At the outset, allow me to state that, to my mind, the BESA Center is perhaps the most solid strategic policy center associated with a major Israeli university — and the only one that is not doctrinally distinctly left-of-center. Moreover, I consider Weinberg, who is also the BESA Center’s director of public affairs, to be one of the most insightful and incisive opinion-writers in the Israeli English-language media.
That said, I have serious disagreements with the bulk of the positions he presents (although, significantly, he refrains from expressing any of his own), and am convinced that, if adopted, they bode ill for Israel’s future.
Conflict management: The “least-worst option”
The sub-heading of Weinberg’s piece sums up the dominant perspective prevailing among the BESA Center experts. It reads, “A consensus of experts: Conflict management is currently the least-worst option.”
Thus, according to Weinberg, the overriding theme that emerges from months of debate in BESA Center seminar rooms and on its website is that it “is wiser for Israel to defer action than to take steps that threaten to make a bad situation worse.”
Thus, for example, Professor Hillel Frisch, an expert on Palestinian and Islamic politics, stipulated five possible Israeli policy approaches: caretaker conflict management, creative friction, constructive chaos, unilateral withdrawal, and unilateral annexation. While conceding none of the options is ideal, Frisch deems the “caretaker conflict management option” to be probably the most feasible, noting that in all cases Israel will have to maintain a significant military presence in Judea and Samaria.
Major-General Yaakov Amidror, former national security adviser of Israel and today a senior fellow at the BESA Center, is also averse to unilateral Israeli initiatives. Amidror is concerned that concessionary initiatives would be likely to “increase, rather than decrease, Palestinian terrorism,” whereas assertive initiatives “may well inflame Palestinian passions and engender severe opposition to Israel abroad.”
But perhaps the most explicit and elaborate advocate for the idea of conflict management (rather than conflict resolution) in what appears to be an impossibly deadlocked impasse is Professor Efraim Inbar, the BESA Center’s longstanding director. According to Inbar:
Israelis have gradually come to realize that at present the Palestinians are neither a partner for comprehensive peace nor capable of establishing a viable state… The Palestinian Authority has no intention of accepting a Jewish state in any borders, and the two sides remain far apart on most of the concrete issues to be resolved… Israel’s recent governments are left, willy-nilly, with a de facto conflict-management approach, without foreclosing any options.
Why “mowing the lawn” won’t cut it
Inbar has long been a proponent of the conflict-management approach. Indeed, soon after the start of Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, he co-authored a BESA Center paper with Eitan Shamir, the former head of the National Security Doctrine Department at the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs. The paper, entitled “Mowing the Grass in Gaza,” details an approach that entails a new bout of fighting every time the Palestinian violence reaches levels Israel finds unacceptable.
The paper essentially endorses a policy based on resignation to a reality of recurring rounds of violence, separated by intermittent periods of calm, whose length is determined by either the enemy’s willingness to engage, or its desperation, making it impossible not to.
The “rationale” for this approach is not to inflict decisive defeat and impose surrender of the other side, but to force a cease fire on it after punishing it for its recalcitrant behavior, and degrading its military capabilities. As Inbar and Shamir wrote:
Israel is acting in accordance with a “mowing the grass” strategy. After a period of military restraint, Israel is acting to severely punish Hamas for its aggressive behavior, and degrading its military capabilities… The use of force…is not intended to attain impossible political goals, but rather is a long-term strategy of attrition designed primarily to debilitate the enemy capabilities.
Regrettably however, there is little evidence that this is succeeding. To the contrary, what we have seen is that far from “debilitating the enemy capabilities,” the said enemy keeps reappearing, spoiling for a fight, ever bolder, with ever-greater capabilities.
Indeed, since Israel unilaterally abandoned the Gaza Strip — and after three bloody military campaigns, which that ill-considered initiative precipitated — the enemy’s capabilities have been enhanced far beyond anything imagined in 2005.
“The ruinous results of restraint”
About the same time that Inbar and Shamir published their paper, I wrote a column entitled “Into the Fray: The ruinous results of restraint,” in which I warned of the fatal flaw in the conflict management-oriented, “mowing the lawn” approach. I pointed out that:
…the periods of inter-bellum calm have been consistently used by the Palestinian terror groups to enhance their capabilities… After all, when Israel left Gaza (2005), the range of the Palestinian rockets was barely 5 km., and the explosive charge they carried about 5 kg. Now their missiles have a range of over 100 km. and warheads of around 100 kg. When Israel left Gaza, only the sparse population in its immediate proximity was threatened by missiles. Now well over 5 million Israelis, well beyond Tel Aviv, are menaced by them.
Moreover, Hamas has exploited periods of calm to further advance and extend its infrastructures and other abilities, which were barely conceivable a decade ago, such as its massive tunneling enterprise and the development of naval forces including commandoes and underwater capabilities.
Indeed, had Hamas accepted Netanyahu’s offer of “calm for calm” at the start of Operation Protective Edge, ceased its fire and continued with the construction of its attack tunnels under the border into Israeli communities, who knows what perils the country would be facing today.
It is an open question just how many more rounds of “mowing” the residents of southern Israel will endure before losing confidence that the government will or can provide them adequate protection, and choose to evacuate the area permanently.
Eroding political realities: Rabin’s 1995 address as benchmark
But it is not only in the exponential growth of the terror groups’ martial prowess that the endeavor at conflict management has been a resounding failure. The same can be said — arguably even more so — with regard to the looming political threats Israel is facing, particularly as the Obama-term draws to a close, and the prospect of the US withholding its veto powers to block anti-Israeli measures becomes ever more tangible.
Perhaps one of the most dramatic and disturbing indications of just how far Israeli positions have been eroded over the last two decades is reflected in the views articulated by Yitzhak Rabin in his last Knesset address of October 1995, a month before his assassination. In it he sought parliamentary ratification of the Oslo II Accords, then considered by much of the Israeli public as excessively dovish and dangerously concessionary.
In this address, significantly delivered after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and showered with international acclaim as a “valiant warrior for peace,” Rabin:
• rejected the notion of Palestinian statehood (declaring the final Palestinian entity would be “less than a state”)
• robustly rebuffed any possibility of returning to the pre-1967 lines
• endorsed a united Jerusalem (including its post-67/trans-Green Line suburbia) as Israel’s capital
• called not only for the inclusion of existing “settlements” within the final frontiers of Israel, but for the construction of additional ones “like Gush Katif”
• insisted that Israel retain the Jordan Valley border – “in the broadest meaning of that term” – as its permanent security border
There can be little doubt that if, today, Netanyahu were to embrace, verbatim, Rabin’s prescription for a permanent accord with the Palestinian-Arabs in the “West Bank” as articulated in this address, he would be dismissed — scornfully, disparagingly, and angrily — as an “unreasonable extremist.”
Avoiding confrontations that can be won
There is, of course, some prima facie wisdom in the conflict management counsel to refrain from hasty measures that are likely to make a bad situation worse. However, such “wisdom” does not have universal validity. This is glaringly manifest in Israel’s grim predicament.
On the one hand, the country is facing the threat of the rapidly escalating military prowess of non-state terror groups increasingly able to threaten much of the civilian population, harm crucial infrastructure installations, and paralyze economic activity. On the other hand, the increasingly hostile political realities afford Israel a diminishing ability to deal with these threats effectively.
In this regard, it should be remembered that, today, with the changing nature of Arab enmity, the major existential challenge to Israel’s existence as the Jewish nation-state is no longer repulsing invasion, but resisting attrition.
The Arab stratagem is no longer the cataclysmic annihilation of the Jewish state, but the ongoing erosion of Jewish will to maintain the Jewish state, by making Jewish life in it unbearable – both physically and psychologically.
Accordingly, by advocating against the adoption of drastic measures to contend with a predicament that entails a mounting threat and decreasing freedom to deal with it, “conflict management” has become a prescription for avoiding immediate confrontations that can be won, thereby risking having to contend with later confrontations that cannot be won — or can be won only at ruinous cost.
Paying the price of diplomatic impotence
Regrettably, the penchant for conflict management reflects reluctance to face unpalatable realities, and unwillingness to accept the need for harsh, but essential, policies.
In this respect, it is little more than a needless admission of intellectual surrender and operational inadequacy. Thus, when Inbar urges the government to eschew pursuit of “impossible political goals,” this — despite its ring of down-to-earth common-sense — is, to a large degree, misleading. For what is politically “impossible” today reflects in great measure the gross incompetence and impotence of Israel’s public diplomacy efforts — which are little short of a grave dereliction of duty on the part of successive governments.
It is a diplomatic debacle that is endangering the lives of both Israeli citizens and Israeli soldiers — exposing them to recurring dangers because it is considered “politically impossible” to eradicate them.
But what is “politically impossible,” given the current puny public diplomacy effort, may well be eminently possible with a far more robust, muscular and assertive endeavor designed to provide the authors of Israel’s national strategy the freedom of action they require to achieve the goals they set for that strategy.
Thus, diplomacy must be developed to facilitate the attainment of strategic goals, not to become a constraint that determines those goals.
Conflict management as “red herring”
I have argued repeatedly in the past that the function of both general and public diplomacy is akin to that of airpower. For just as the traditional role of the air force is to provide ground forces the freedom of action to achieve their objectives, so diplomacy — especially public diplomacy — must provide national leaders the freedom of action to achieve their county’s national goals — including those that pertain to the “West Bank.”
Accordingly it should be afforded the kind of resources that befits its vital strategic role. I have advocated allotting 1% of the state budget (i.e. $1 billion) for a strategic diplomatic offensive. If that were done, one might find that what is politically impossible today, may suddenly become far more possible in the future — and conflict management will be seen to have been no more than a misleading red herring.
Dr. Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (www.strategicisrael.org).