Pursuit of durable peace in West Asia
Both sides in the Israel-Hamas war are focusing on the method (violence) and not on the goal (peace with dignity), which is a sure recipe for more violence.
The Israeli-Hamas war has brought the horrors of violence to the front burner. A war is a battle of wits fought in the perception domain of the populace and their leadership. Of course, there is blood, gore and physical destruction, but it finally boils down to who wins the “game of coercion”. It’s time to analyse whether Israel’s attempts at coercion through its strategy of cumulative deterrence will succeed.
Coercion is a mélange of deterrence and compellence. The nuclear age introduced terms like general, recessed and immediate deterrence. To this has been added Israel’s “cumulative deterrence”, in which a failure of deterrence results in kinetic action followed by Israel using disproportionate force to “bank” its destructive aura and coerce its adversary to “behave” in the future. Its origin goes back to Israel’s founder David Ben-Gurion’s view that “the outcome of every round of violence should leave no room for interpretation. The victorious should be undisputed and the price paid by the vanquished in prestige and material should be sufficiently heavy that they lose their appetite for another round in the foreseeable future… after a few rounds... the Arabs would understand that they had reached a strategic impasse and thus desist”. Seeing the events of the past decades, this strategy is certainly not succeeding.
The last major inter-State war in West Asia was the 1973 Egypt-Israel-Syria Yom Kippur conflict. Thereafter, the Westphalian States made peace with the militarily superior Israel but not the Palestinians, despite Oslo and other accords. One may have different views on who is at fault but realities on the ground are inextricably intertwined with the notion of a homeland — a romantically toxic idea, besides being a tangible necessity. Practically, it boils down to the notion of “victory”, which is different for the two belligerents.
Each cycle of violence has seen proclamations of victory from both sides. So, since Hamas sees it as a vindication of its capabilities every time, the cycle has continued no matter how much Israel feels it has accumulated deterrent power with every skirmish. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion that “...though Israel didn’t start the war, Israel would finish it” does not measure up to this historical reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The cycle repeats because Israel has to punish with even greater aggression to enhance cumulative deterrence for the next round. The result is an accentuation of humiliation in the Palestinians, availability of more volunteers and a return of violence as “there is nothing much to lose” for them. The collective punishment meted out by Israel leads to moral outrage and a further hardening of attitudes.
The moral outrage, post the sickening videos that emerged from the Hamas attack, is but human; indignation is also being witnessed due to the destruction wrought on Gaza by Israeli airstrikes. History shows that with time, rational analyses do emerge. For example, in a remarkable critique of Israeli policy in a 2012 documentary The Gatekeepers, made by Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, six ex-chiefs of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security agency, said that Israel may be winning the battle but is losing the war. As per the Shin Bet heads, “...there has been ‘no strategy, only tactics’.” “Forget about morality,” one of them said.
The security situation that Israel finds itself in is unenviable. The stakes are so high that emotions of retribution will always override the threat of punishment by Israel’s cumulative deterrence policy. Henry Kissinger in his book Diplomacy writes that “nations cooperate for long periods only when they share common political goals and that… policy must focus on these goals rather than on the mechanisms used to reach them”.
Currently, both sides are focusing on the method (violence) and not on the goal (peace with dignity), which is a sure recipe for more violence. The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which brought an end to war in Europe after decades of conflict through the “benefit of the other” approach could, perhaps, be a beacon to get some semblance of durable peace; it’s heartening to read many such opinions being expressed now. A Utopian idea maybe, but let’s give it a hearing as there appears no other alternative.
Manmohan Bahadur, Air Vice Marshal (retd), is former additional director general, Centre for Air Power Studies. The views expressed are personal