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Israel’s policy of divide and survive

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Back in the days when hazy-eyed neoconservatives stood like prophets laying out their vision of a democratic wave of Biblical proportions sweeping across the Middle East, Israel was supposedly the actualization of what elsewhere might be possible.

The problem was that since it came into existence, all the evidence suggested that the Jewish state, far from serving as a liberating force in the region, had actually done the opposite. It became the prime legitimizer of autocracy and stagnation.

Benjamin E Schwartz, in an article in the latest edition of The American Interest magazine, describes how Israel, rather than striving for a sustainable peace with its neighbors, sees its ability to survive as dependent on its ability to be divisive.

For a state that believes its legitimacy will always be questioned, survival is a higher imperative than stability and the pacification of threats more valuable than peace.

The power of Schwartz’s essay derives as much as anything from the fact that he is clearly in sympathy with the Zionist enterprise. His is neither an apology nor a criticism; it is a clinical analysis.

He writes:

When American diplomats talk about the road to peace, few Israelis dare articulate one awkward truth. The truth is that Israelis have managed their conflict with the Arabs and the Palestinians for half a century not by working to unite them all, but either by deliberately and effectively dividing them, or by playing off existing divisions.

By approaching matters in this way, Israelis have achieved de facto peace during various periods of their country’s history—and even two examples of de jure peace. It is because of divisions among Palestinians that Israelis survived and thrived strategically in 1947–48, and because of divisions among the Arab states that Israel won its 1948–49 war for independence. Divisions among the Arabs and divided competition for influence over the Palestinians allowed Israelis to build a strong state between 1949 and 1967 without having to contend with a serious threat of pan-Arab attack. It was because of divisions and the strength of Egypt amid those divisions that Anwar Sadat decided to make a separate peace in 1979. It was because of another set of divisions that King Hussein was able to do the same in 1994.

The results of Israeli statecraft did not produce an American-style comprehensive peace, and it did not produce peace with the Palestinians. It may not even have produced a lasting peace with Egypt and Jordan—time will tell. But it did produce peace in its most basic and tangible form: an absence of violence and the establishment of relative security. This is what peace means for the vast majority of Israelis, most of whom do not believe that their Arab neighbors will ever accept, let alone respect as legitimate, a Jewish state in geographical Palestine. And the way Israelis have achieved this peace is, in essence, through a policy of divide and survive.

Schwartz then lays out in some detail the mechanisms through which Israel has implemented its divisive strategy — a strategy in which the control of Palestinian land, or at least the ability to rapidly enter and dominate it, is seen as a military prerequisite for defending Israeli land.

He concludes:

As a tiny country, Israel can only defeat its more numerous adversaries by breaking them into manageable pieces, or by behaving so that already broken pieces stay that way. Indeed, its geopolitical predicament mirrors that of the original Hebrew polity. It was the unity of hostile empires—Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman—that doomed ancient Israelite kingdoms. When its neighbors were divided, the First and Second Jewish Commonwealths did rather well.

There are three lessons here for American diplomats. First, Israelis will be reluctant to promote Palestinian social and economic unity, even if it is an essential precondition for strengthening Mahmoud Abbas’s moderate Fatah Party. The barriers and checkpoints that choke off the West Bank’s economic life and undermine Abbas’s popularity simultaneously inhibit rival Hamas from organizing its operatives. The Israelis have removed a good many checkpoints in recent months, and the local economy has thrived as a result. So far there have been few negative security implications. But American officials should expect that Israel will restore a greater degree of control if violence increases, and that there are strict limits to how far it will go to loosen its grip on the West Bank even without evidence of security deterioration.

Second, while the peace that America seeks—two states cooperating to ensure their mutual security—is the ideal political solution, it is operationally irrelevant so long as it also appears to be an improbable outcome. Governance in the West Bank is increasingly devolving to the local level, which critically undermines the Palestinian national project. Yet Israelis will allow and even promote this arrangement so long as local rule ensures near-term stability. Indeed, it benefits Israel for local rulers to be strong enough to control their own people, but weak enough not to challenge the Jewish state. It makes even more sense to the extent that anything better is judged to be unattainable for the foreseeable future.

Third, the geography of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, combined with the nature of contemporary warfare, dictate that Israel requires the presence of a security force it can trust in Palestinian territory. This means that the occupation will continue until Israelis come to trust the Palestinians, or at least some of them. Ultimately, this trust is the only viable foundation for a two-state solution. In the absence of it, American diplomats can expect all ambitious “high politics” peace initiatives to remain ethereal abstractions, Israelis to continue managing the conflict as they have long done and Palestinians to grow ever more fragmented. This is a formula for a local political life that may be nasty and brutish, but not necessarily short.

Or, to put Israel’s dilemma in slightly different terms which lead to the same conclusion: how can the Zionist state dispossess, divide and dis-empower the Palestinian people and then win their respect? After all, trust and respect do go hand in hand.

This is a cross-post from Woodward’s site, War in Context.

Paul Woodward

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12 Responses

  1. mig on November 9, 2011, 10:46 am

    Israel won its 1948–49 war for independence

    Won first war of land grab.

  2. Dan Crowther on November 9, 2011, 10:54 am

    In short, Woodward describes why zionists at OWS type gatherings are shit scared of real solidarity. Real solidarity, if achieved, would mean the end of the Zionist state.

  3. annie on November 9, 2011, 11:04 am

    This means that the occupation will continue until Israelis come to trust the Palestinians, or at least some of them. Ultimately, this trust is the only viable foundation for a two-state solution.

    israel doesn’t want 2 states therefore they have no intention of ‘trusting’. israel had no problem no getting the trust of palestinians to form it’s state, so would we claim it exists without a ‘viable foundation’? it still exists.

    • seafoid on November 9, 2011, 12:03 pm

      So many indicators all point to the same end. Israel isn’t going to make it.

      Every time a bureaucrat in black – ostensibly, ostentatiously, a Rav, a rabbi, a man of greatness – can discriminate against women; every time he can deny them access to holy sites and relegate them to the backs of buses; every time he can prohibit the image of a woman’s face in public advertising; every time he can decide when and where and if, as soldiers, as students, as worshippers, they may sing or dance or speak or stand or even be present in Jewish worship, Iran wins. Every time a well-connected crackpot preacher holds up vital hospital construction, brandishing a voodoo ruling of his alone; every time he abrogates the religious rights of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and even fellow Orthodox Jews, even rabbis; every time he bars Ethiopian or Moroccan schoolgirls from studying with Ashkenazi schoolgirls, Iran wins.

      Every time a self-styled pious Jew places an extremist holy man above the law and its commands; every time he desecrates a mosque, every time he destroys Palestinian-owned olive trees; every time he attacks Arabs with rocks; every time he threatens peace activists in their homes; and every time he gets away with it – which is every time – Iran wins.

      Every time the cabinet and the Knesset advance anti-democratic bills meant to stifle dissent, suppress the Arabic language, demonize human rights workers, and curb freedoms of expression and the press, Iran wins.

      Every time the pro-occupation minority, here and in the Diaspora, defines the illegal Migron settlement outpost as Zionism, equates Israel’s vital strategic interests with the permanent, God-mandated, clergy-driven, Messiah-oriented occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem; and blackmails the government into shunning peace talks, Iran wins.

      “If the Iranians will just be patient,” veteran commentator Yaron London remarked this week, “they can spare themselves the effort involved in developing an atomic bomb.”

      If Israel does not change, he wrote in Yediot Ahronot, in the space of a generation it will find that those who recognize Israel within its own population will constitute a minority. By then, it will be “doubtful that Israel will be a national entity any different than the nations that surround it: a theocratic state, poor from both the material and spiritual standpoints, chokingly crowded, and very similar to the Iran which poses us such threats.”

      Israel doesn’t even have a generation left

  4. Potsherd2 on November 9, 2011, 11:09 am

    Israel won’t trust the Palestinians until they are all in their graves. And even then, they’ll be afraid of zombies.

  5. seafoid on November 9, 2011, 3:27 pm

    It’s all based on manipulation. Divide and whatever. They have no interest in the 2 state solution. It all comes back to that Danny Danon interview. The peace process was just one long pussy tease with nothing at the end.

    Fine. Palestinians have no rights in the Jewish state. Fine.
    Just don’t expect any sort of long term equilibrium.

  6. Avi_G. on November 9, 2011, 5:12 pm

    Colonialism mastered the divide-and-control tactic.

    Another favorite tactic among the early Zionist movement and later the Israeli government has been the propping up of local community leaders.

    Israel would tell someone, Hey, we’re going to make you a chief. You’ll be responsible for this area. We’ll protect you and defend you so long as you do as we say.

    Once in place, that corrupt faux leader would sell the Zionist movement Palestinian land and sign off on agreements that disadvantage Palestinians. To perpetuate his authority he would grant travel passes to the people over whom he supposedly rules.

    • ToivoS on November 10, 2011, 2:52 am

      I guess the best evidence for this hypothesis is the use of the Bedouins. They were the trackers that hunted down Palestinians that attempted to return their home land. I remember those stories how the Zionist worked with the Bedouins to defeat the Palestinians. It was presented as proof that the Israelis were willing to work with the native people — that was is in the 1950s.

      Today we now hear how Israel is destroying Bedouin towns for the simple reason they no longer need them to fight the other Palestinian natives. Israel is expert in dividing the natives. It is a tactic that has worked so far. Now that the Bedouins have been neutralized both Israel and the US is working at dividing Hamas led Gaza from the WB Palestinians.

      I find it hard to support any of them. Why do the PA, Hamas and whatever Bedouin forces still exist continue to fight among themselves while the Zionist continue to conquer their land? If they could just get together and resist their common enemy then maybe they would have a chance. But no that is not possible, rather they fight amongst themselves.

      Why should anyone in the west support these multiple warring tribes. Shouldn’t we just work on trying to extricate US policy from the whole mess.

      • Avi_G. on November 10, 2011, 6:37 am

        Why should anyone in the west support these multiple warring tribes. Shouldn’t we[*] just work on trying to extricate US policy from the whole mess.

        Do you mean “tribes” in the political sense, or “tribes” in the orientalist-caricature-Lawrence-of-Arabia-look-he’s-riding-a-camel-like-a-‘typical’-post-Qadhafi-Libyan-like-all-Ayrabs-are-always-fighting-eachother sense?

        Those “tribes” wouldn’t be warring if Zionist colonialism hadn’t the support of the US of A or if Britain and France hadn’t drawn arbitrary lines across the region.

        The West causes the problems, meticulously and intentionally creating conflicts that serve its interests, and then you want to “extricate” yourselves from them. Well, go right ahead.

        *Who’s “we”, by the way?

      • patm on November 10, 2011, 1:25 pm

        AviG ‘The West causes the problems, meticulously and intentionally creating conflicts that serve its interests, and then you want to “extricate” yourselves from them. Well, go right ahead.”

        Good reply, AviG. People don’t read much history, these days. They don’t know about the terrible crimes 16th-21st century British, French, and American imperialists committed against indigenous peoples all around the world.

        Iran is no exception; it got whacked by British and American oil interests who installed their own puppet king.

    • seafoid on November 10, 2011, 5:06 am

      And then there are the lies. If you give us Shalit we will release your prisoners in 2 batches.

  7. lobewyper on November 9, 2011, 9:00 pm

    Schwartz here courageously lays out how Israel has successfully engaged in
    (to paraphrase Steve Walt and others) “on-shore balancing.”

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