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April 28, 2017 10:31 am

The Congressional Israel Victory Caucus: Kudos and Caveats

avatar by Martin Sherman

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The Capitol Hill launch event of the Congressional Israel Victory Caucus, April 27, 2017. Photo: Barney Breen-Portnoy.

“Palestinians will have to pass through the bitter crucible of defeat, with all its deprivation, destruction, and despair as they repudiate the filthy legacy of Amin al-Husseini and acknowledge their century-long error…there is no shortcut.”

 — Daniel Pipes, “A New Strategy for Israeli Victory,” Commentary, December 14, 2016.

At just about the time that this column was submitted for publication (Thursday, April 27, 2017), an event of potentially great long-term significance was taking place in Washington, DC. This was the launch of the Congressional Israel Victory Caucus (CIVC) by Congressmen Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and Bill Johnson (R-OH).

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The launch was the culmination of a Middle East Forum (MEF) initiative, headed by MEF’s president, prominent scholar Daniel Pipes, and aided by MEF director, Gregg Roman.

According to a MEF press release: “The caucus calls for a new U.S. approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ending the emphasis on Israel making ‘painful concessions’ and instead putting the onus on Palestinians — they must give up the goal of destroying Israel and recognize Israel as the Jewish state.”

A similar sentiment was conveyed in remarks by Rep. DeSantis : “Israel is our strongest ally in the Middle East, as we share common national interests and possess similar national values. Israel is not the problem in the Middle East; it is the solution to many of the problems that bedevil the region. American policy must ensure that Israel emerges victorious against those who deny or threaten her existence.”

This launch of a congressional caucus promoting the notion of Israeli victory, rather than Israeli appeasement, is a decidedly welcome and timely — indeed, a long overdue — development. This is particularly true since in the political and strategic discourse in Israel itself, the idea of “victory” seems to have been entirely expunged from the lexicon of the nation’s decision-makers — both as an attainable or even a desirable operational goal, and as a valid cognitive notion. Disturbingly, this appears to be the case even among the senior echelons of the IDF officer class and other branches of the security establishment.

As Pipes lamented several years ago: “No one at the upper echelons of Israel’s political life articulates the imperative for victory. For this reason, I see Israel as a lost polity, one full of talent, energy, and resolve but lacking direction…”

It is left to hope that the newly launched CIVC will constituent a step towards remedying this grave lacuna.

Collapse of conventional wisdom

The conceptual foundations of CIVC are eminently sound and derive from the indisputable failure of conventional wisdom regarding conflict resolution in general, and the Israel-Palestinian conflict in particular.

In Roman’s recent article titled “Israeli victory is the only way to advance peace process,” he challenged prevailing precepts: “Today’s conventional wisdom holds that conflicts are best resolved through negotiation and compromise. But let’s look at the facts. After 40 years of negotiations to reunite Cyprus, the island remains divided, and 60 years of standoff over the Korean peninsula have achieved little. In Syria, the killing continues unabated despite five years of talks to reconcile Sunnis and Alawites. And at the same time, years of diplomatic efforts to roll back Iran’s nuclear program ended with the West’s capitulation to Tehran’s demands.”

He added pointedly: “The negotiations fallacy is especially evident in the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Roman went on to stipulate the elements of a bold new strategy for attaining peace. Citing several historical examples to corroborate his contention — from the time of the Roman Empire, to the American Civil War, to World War II — he asserted: “For most of human history, military victory ended wars.” Applying this to the Arab-Israeli context, he concluded: “In order for there to be peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Israel must win and the Palestinians must lose.”

Condemning concessions

The elements of Roman’s blueprint closely mirror the principles laid out by Pipes in several earlier pieces, including a recent Commentary article titled “A New Strategy for Israeli Victory.”

In it, Pipes articulated the imperative for imposing defeat sufficiently devastating on the Palestinians so as to break their will to persist in fighting Israel and their endeavor to destroy the Jewish state. He provided a compelling case against Israel’s two decades-long policy of concessions intended to generate Palestinian goodwill and argues, as I too have done (repeatedly) in the past. He wrote that not only have these moves proven to be futile but detrimental, as they have tended to whet the Palestinians’ appetite, rather than satiate it.

Pipes castigated successive Israeli governments: “Thus [Rabin’s] government and all its successors agreed to a wide array of concessions…always hoping the Palestinians would reciprocate by accepting the Jewish state…They never did. To the contrary, Israeli compromises aggravated Palestinian hostility. Each gesture further radicalized…the Palestinian body politic. Israeli efforts to ‘make peace’ were received as signs of demoralization and weakness.”

Against this backdrop of the recurring failure of repeated concessions and conciliation, Pipes proclaimed: “Wars end, the historical record shows, not through goodwill but through defeat.”

“The bitter crucible of defeat…”

Accordingly, he proposed striking out in a new (or, more precisely, a renewed) direction: “This brings us to the key concept of my approach, which is victory, or imposing one’s will on the enemy, compelling him through loss to give up his war ambitions…”

He observed that “[w]ars usually end when failure causes one side to despair, when that side has abandoned its war aims and accepted defeat, and when that defeat has exhausted the will to fight.”

“[S]o long as both combatants still hope to achieve their war objectives, fighting either goes on or it potentially will resume,” he cautioned.

In applying these general principles to the specifics of the Israeli-Palestinian context, Pipes presented see opening excerpt) a stark and stern prescription for ending the conflict: “Palestinians will have to pass through the bitter crucible of defeat, with all its deprivation, destruction, and despair…”

In this, Pipes largely embraced the spirit of measures I first called for 15 years ago in a piece titled “Conquer or capitulate” (and again in 2007), in which, I argued (much like Pipes and Roman) that there would be no end to the conflict without inflicting devastating defeat on the Palestinians.

There were, however, some important differences between our approaches — which brings me from the kudus to the caveats.

Defining “defeat”  

If the idea of “peace through victory” is to become more than an academic exercise in political theorizing, it needs to be advanced from its conceptualization to its operationalization.

This means the prescribed “victory” — and its derivative “defeat” — cannot be left as abstract concepts. Clearly, if they are to be adopted as practical policy goals, they need to be given clear operational definitions. Without a clear idea of what has to be achieved and what has to be inflicted on the adversary, the notion of “peace through victory” — and any congressional caucuses founded on it — will never, indeed can never, lead to any actionable policy prescriptions.

Thus, it is not sufficient to merely advocate desisting from a policy of conciliation and concessions, but it is essential to designate what would be considered an adequate victory and a resultant effective defeat.

What would be the ramifications of victory? What should comprise the elements of “post-victory” policies? Can the Palestinians’ currently declared demands (i.e. statehood) be acceded to, pursuant to “defeat,” without the Palestinians’ defeat becoming, paradoxically and perversely, a medium for attaining the fruits of victory that previously eluded them?

These are questions that the CIVC initiative cannot ignore or evade if this worthy endeavor is to be translated into practical policy. This is particularly true because, according to the previously cited MEF press release, a parallel caucus in Israel’s Knesset is to be launched in Jerusalem this July — and while it may be possible for the US-based legislative caucus to confine itself to well-intentioned generic policy guidelines, this is a luxury an Israeli-based legislative caucus does not have.

Victory: From conceptualization to operationalization

If such a caucus is to be in anyway politically relevant, it will not be able to avoid formulating actionable policy prescriptions relating to the conditions that need to be achieved for Israeli victory and to be imposed for Palestinian defeat.

This would involve addressing questions such as:

Would “victory”/”defeat” entail the formal declaration of surrender by the Palestinians?  If so, by which Palestinians?

Would this have to be binding on both Fatah and Hamas? If not, what would the repercussions of this be? If it would include Hamas, would it be binding on other radical extremist organizations?  If not, what would the repercussions of this be?

Would “victory”/”defeat” call for exile (permanent or temporary?) of the belligerent Palestinian political leadership? If so, to where? If not, what would be the leadership’s fate and status? Would they be prosecuted/ incarcerated?

Would “victory”/”defeat” entail dismantling all of the armed Palestinian organizations and a resumption of Israeli responsibility for law and order? For how long?

Perhaps most crucially: How many Palestinian casualties would Israel need to inflict in order to achieve “victory” (i.e. unconditional Palestinian surrender)? Could Israel inflict this number without incurring highly detrimental international sanctions? Could Israel inflict such a number without precipitating international intervention, even military — by, say, Turkey, Iran or other Arab states?

But beyond such specific questions, perhaps the most elemental and daunting challenge would be not to stipulate what constitutes “victory” but to persuade decision-making echelons that such “victory” actually is feasible.

Given the hold that concessionary political correctness has on the mindset of many Israeli decision-makers, this will be no easy task even if the potential advantages of obtaining such a victory are not disputed. This would require initiating and fostering/promoting vigorous and ongoing public debate to apply pressure on decision-makers to adopt a concept now largely discredited as unobtainable.

Avoiding inappropriate analogies

In stipulating parameters for Israeli victory, and the resultant ramifications for subsequent Israeli policy, it is important not to be misled by inappropriate historical precedents.

In making the historical case for the victory-induced peace, both Pipes and Roman invoked the cases of Germany and Japan. Roman wrote that “German and Japanese ill-will toward Western democracies in World War II rapidly dissipated, thanks to the bitter pill of defeat; friendship soon followed,” while Pipes remarked that “if Germans and Japanese, no less fanatical and far more powerful, could be defeated in World War II and then turned into normal citizens, why not the Palestinians now?”

While this is factually true, these instances are unlikely to be instructive for the Israel-Palestinian conflict, at least as far as post-victory policy design is concerned.

After all, it should be recalled that in these cases the vanquished powers were not surrounded by, or adjacent to, countries with large populations of ethnic kin/co-religionists, who could sustain resistance and incite unrest within their borders.

Thus, Germany was not surrounded by a swathe of Teutonic nations, nor Japan by a swathe of Nipponese nations, which could provide a constant stream of insurgents and armaments to undermine any arrangement or undercut any resolution the victorious powers wished to implement.

This, however, would definitely be the case in the Israeli/Palestinian situation, as was the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, where neighboring Islamic states constituted a virtually unending source of instability and incitement after initial victory.

Clearly, this is an element that has dramatic implications for post-victory policy — especially with regard to the prospect of relinquishing Israeli control over any territory to Palestinian rule, even after a crushing defeat has been inflicted.

To be continued…

The CIVC initiative is an enterprise that has the potential to be a positive paradigmatic game-changer with regard to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As such, it merits more than one column in this “Into the Fray” series.

Accordingly, subject to breaking news, I will devote next week’s column to further analysis of the possible pay-offs and pitfalls this commendably daring initiative could herald.

In it, I intend to broach such topics as: “Distinguishing deterring enemies from defeating them”; “The Palestinian-Arab-Muslim nexus”; “Kinetic and non-kinetic routes to victory”; and, perhaps most importantly, “The Victory caucus and the Humanitarian Paradigm: Two highly compatible concept.”

Until then: Happy Independence Day.

Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.

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