OpinionIsrael News

The fatal flaw in Israel’s strategic thinking

One of the reasons the conflict with the Palestinian Arabs has dragged is that Israel has failed to conceptualize the conflict accurately.

An Israel Police patrol car burns in Lod, where synagogues and cars were torched amid riots by the city's Arab residents, May 12, 2021. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.
An Israel Police patrol car burns in Lod, where synagogues and cars were torched amid riots by the city's Arab residents, May 12, 2021. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.
Martin Sherman
Martin Sherman
Martin Sherman spent seven years in operational capacities in the Israeli defense establishment. He is the founder of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a member of the Habithonistim-Israel Defense & Security Forum (IDSF) research team, and a participant in the Israel Victory Project.

“Poll: 23% of Arab Israelis would support Arab invasion in Israel” — i24 News headline, May 15, 2022

Paradoxically, an incident that vividly illustrates the indelible Arab enmity for the Jews is an event that began with a display of Arab goodwill—indeed, gallantry—towards a Jew.

In mid-June 2020, an Arab construction worker, Mahmoud Abu Arabian, heard a woman’s cries for help. He rushed to her aid to find her under brutal attack by her boyfriend, who had stabbed her multiple times. At considerable risk to himself, he managed to overcome the (Jewish) attacker and extricate the wounded (Jewish) woman, who was rushed to hospital, where doctors managed to save her life.

After the victim’s recuperation, Abu Arabian stated that he would have liked very much to visit her, but did not do so because of disapproval in his social circles, who frowned upon his decision to rescue a Jewish woman and save a Jewish life.

To a large degree, this episode affirms the dour results of a recent poll, which indicated that a massive majority (75%) of Israeli-Arabs reject the right of the Jewish people to sovereignty and the status of Israel as the nation-state of the Jews. Even more ominous, when asked about their response in case of an Arab attack on Israel, almost a quarter answered that they would support the Arab aggressors, while over half would remain neutral. Only a bit more than a quarter (26%) would support Israel.

Inert lack of loyalty or latent disloyalty?

These numbers, grave as they are, are not or should not be unexpected. After all, in the last election Israeli Arabs voted almost monolithically for parties that promote an anti-Zionist agenda—over 80% for either the Joint List or the Islamist United Arab List (Ra’am). Even a cursory glance at the official platforms of either of these majority-Arab parties will reveal a rejection of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people that is both unabashed and undisguised.

This comes after Israel’s Arab citizens have enjoyed full civilian rights for well over half a century, living standards higher than those in Arab countries—with the exception, perhaps, of those blessed with oil riches—and more personal liberties than anywhere in the Arab world. This makes Arab reticence to support Israel against potential Arab aggression a perverse puzzle.

It matters little if the poll cited above is not entirely accurate. Even if we allow for significant imprecision, one thing is evident: A considerable portion of the Israeli-Arab population not only has no allegiance to their country of residence, but a sizeable segment would be complicit in an enemy assault on it.

There is, then, little alternative but to reconcile oneself to the fact that for the indisputable majority of Israeli Arabs, the attitude towards Israel ranges from an inert lack of loyalty to a latent disloyalty that waits for an opportune moment to manifest itself.

An archetypical zero-sum game.

The failure of the Israeli establishment to grasp the scale and scope of the rejection of Jewish sovereign statehood among Israeli-Arabs is reflected not only in Israel’s domestic policy but in its foreign policy vis-à-vis external Arab adversaries—in particular, the Palestinian Arabs, the supposed root of the Arab-Israeli dispute.

In this regard, it is perhaps worthwhile to recall the wise dictum of eminent social psychologist Kurt Leven, who observed: “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” After all, action without comprehension is a little like swinging a hammer without knowing where the nails are—and just as hazardous. In this regard, good theory helps us understand cause and effect and thus facilitates effective policy.

To devise effective policies to contend with abiding Arab enmity, Israel must conceptualize the conflict over the issue of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land in an accurate manner. The unvarnished truth is that, under an accurate conception, the conflict between the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs over control of the Holy Land is revealed as a clash between two rival collectives with irreconcilable foundational narratives.

They are irreconcilable because the raison d’etre of the one is the preservation of Jewish political sovereignty in the Holy Land, while the raison d’etre of the other is the annulment of Jewish political sovereignty in the Holy Land. This creates irreconcilable concepts of “homeland.”

As such, the conflict between the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs is an archetypical zero-sum game, in which the gains of one side imply an inevitable loss for the other. It is a clash of protagonists with antithetical and exclusive core objectives. Only one can emerge victorious, with the other vanquished. There are no consolation prizes.

Grudgingly accepted or greatly feared?

As a clash of collectives, the outcome of which will be determined by collective victory or defeat, the Israeli-Arab conflict cannot be personalized. The fate of individual members of one collective cannot determine the policy of the rival collective, and cannot be a consideration that impacts the probability of collective victory or defeat.

The imperative of Israel’s survival, then, dictates that it must forgo the pursuit of warm and welcoming approval from the Arabs. For the foreseeable future, this seductive illusion will remain an unattainable pipe dream. Rather, Israel must reconcile itself to a stern but sober conclusion: The most it can hope for is to be grudgingly accepted, and the least it must attain is to be greatly feared. More benign policy goals are a recipe for disaster.

To underscore the crucial importance of this harsh assessment, I would invite any prospective dissenter to consider the consequences of Jewish defeat and Arab victory. Indeed, a cursory survey of gory regional realities in the Middle East should suffice to drive home what would accompany such an outcome.

Only once a decisive Jewish collective victory has been achieved can the issue of individual injustice and suffering in the Arab collective be addressed as a policy consideration. Until then, neither the individual well-being nor the societal welfare of the opposite collective can be considered a primary policy constraint.

After all, had the imperative of collective victory not been the decisive factor in the Allies’ strategy in World War II, despite the horrendous civilian causalities that it inflicted on the opposite collective, the world might well live in slavery today.

When we consider the fate of individual members of the opposite collective, it is imperative to keep in mind that, while there are doubtless many Palestinian Arabs with fine personal qualities who wish no one any harm, the Palestinian Arab collective is not the hapless victim of radical terror-affiliated leaders. Quite the opposite. It is, in fact, the societal crucible in which those leaders were forged and from which they emerged. Its leadership is a reflection of, not an imposition on Palestinian-Arab society.

The conclusion is thus unavoidable: The Palestinian Arab collective must be considered an implacable enemy, not a prospective peace partner—and it should be treated as such.

Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (www.strategic-israel.org), and a member of the research department of Habithonistim: Israel’s Defense and Security Forum.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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