"We are in a war," Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said last week, referring to his country's fight with the Palestinians. The Palestinians agree: "This is war," responded Al-Fatah's commander on the West Bank, Husayn Shaykh.
In fact, Israelis and Palestinians have already been at war for over a year, but their leaders finally acknowledging this fact makes it easier squarely to assess the situation. War has clearly-established patterns, and these provide insights into the Levantine situation:
- What each side seeks - to achieve victory and avoid defeat - is primarily psychological in nature. Victory consists of imposing one's will on the enemy (Israel wants its neighbors to leave it alone; the Palestinians want to destroy Israel) by convincing it that his cause is hopeless. Defeat means accepting that one's cause is hopeless.
- Will, fortitude and morale are often more important for victory than are objective factors such as the economy, technology, arsenal, the number of casualties or votes at the United Nations. In many cases, these latter count mainly in so far as they affect a combatant's mood.
- Resolution occurs when one party realizes it can no longer pursue its aims and gives them up. This usually follows its unambiguous vanquishment, either a military collapse (as in World War II) or internal rot (as in the Cold War). "In every case I can think of," writes strategist Michael Ledeen, "peace has come about at the end of a war in which there was a winner and a loser. The winner imposed terms on the loser, and those terms were called 'peace.' "
- Resolution can follow from other reasons - e.g., when a bigger enemy turns up. Worried about the common German menace, Britain and France buried their historic enmity in 1904.
- Stalemate, conversely, keeps conflict alive by letting both sides hope to win another day. The Germans lost too narrowly to give up in their first attempt to dominate Europe (World War I), so they tried again (World War II), when they got decisively defeated and give up. Many unresolved conflicts loom in today's world. The Korean War ended inconclusively in 1953; a half century later, another round remains likely - unless the North Korean regime collapses first. The Iran-Iraq conflict ended in 1988 with neither side feeling defeated, so more hostilities are likely - again, unless one regime first disappears. So too in the Arab-Israeli conflict: The Arabs lost many rounds (1948-49, 1956, 1967, 1970, 1973, 1982) but never felt defeated, so they keep coming back to try again.
- Diplomacy rarely ends conflicts. Hardly a single major interstate conflict has concluded due to some one's clever schema. The idea that a "peace process" can take the place of the dirty work of war is a conceit. Again, to quote Ledeen, "Peace cannot be accomplished simply because some visiting envoy, with or without an advanced degree in negotiating from the Harvard Business School, sits everyone down around a table so they can all reason together." The oft-heard mantra that "there is no military solution" (repeated recently, for example, by former Sen. George J. Mitchell), in short, has things exactly wrong.
Applying these rules of war to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict offers some useful insights. Palestinians were winning until about a year ago, now Israel is.
Until Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took over, Israel was politically divided and militarily demoralized, avoiding reality and indulging in escapism (like "post-Zionism"). Meanwhile, Palestinians exulted in their successes. Smelling victory, they showed impressive stamina and great capacity for self-sacrifice.
A year later, circumstances have flipped. Palestinian violence had the unintended effect of uniting, mobilizing and fortifying Israelis. "Specialists in terrorism have been surprised - some of us are even amazed," admits Ely Karmon of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, "by the endurance, the patience, the relative calm of the Israeli public to what has happened in last year and a half."
Contrarily, the Palestinians' morale is plummeting and despair is setting as Yasser Arafat's ruinous leadership locks them into a conflict they cannot win.
History teaches that what appears to be endless carnage does come to an end when one side gives up. It appears increasingly likely that the Palestinians are approaching that point, suggesting that if Israel persists in its present policies it will get closer to victory.