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Zeev Maoz

Zeev Maoz: Reasoning by others

A professor from the University of California revisits the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict

Entrevista_maoz_zeevPersonal archiveIn stating that “war is the continuation of politics by other means”, Clausewitz never imagined it would be possible to reverse the order of factors to turn war into a form of politics. For political scientist, Zeev Maoz, director of the International Relations Program at the University of California, Davis, and author of “Defending the Holy Land: a critical analysis of Israel’s security and foreign policy”, this has been the way in which Israel has been conducting its foreign policy. “Israel has no peace policy, just a military policy. This goes both as far as negotiations with the Arab states are concerned (in other words, a total lack of response to Saudi initiatives and the resolutions of the Arab League in 2002 and 2007), as well as in its relations with the Palestinians. But being a military state does not prevent Israel from also being a democracy, a highly developed civil society. One thing does not invalidate the other”, explains Maoz. Having served as a soldier and officer in several Israeli wars, including the Yom Kippur and Lebanon wars, the professor is researching in depth and without prejudice what he calls the “acritical” treatment of many in Israel based on the country’s national security doctrine and how, because it makes many mistakes, it needs to be reassessed.

Maoz forms part of a group of new Israeli historians who are challenging consolidated historiographic traditions, like the role of Israel in the Palestine exodus in 1948 and who refute the existence of a lack of Arab political willingness to discuss peace with the Jews. The movement brings together researchers like Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé, Avi Shlaim and others who are working from documentary sources taken from government archives, just recently released for research; most Arab institutions have no open archives (which is why his research is concentrated on Israel). “I believe that serious studies of this type will have a positive effect in the long term, because knowledge is the basis for a considered and structured change. Although the Israelis are a people who are generally critical, there is a consensus on many of the fundamental points of foreign and security policies, which is a good thing when they’re based on correct principles and hypotheses. My fear is that the fundamentals of the Israeli security doctrine will be transformed into religious principles instead of concepts that need to be tested  with empirical data”, he assesses. For Maoz, Israel needs to learn to think before shooting. “A military policy cannot be a permanent substitute for diplomacy and constantly subjugating the latter to considerations of security leads to both military and foreign policy errors. Political and diplomatic options must precede military ones: force is the servant of diplomacy and not the opposite.”

According to Maoz, there are a series of lost opportunities in Israeli diplomacy. “Over time Israel has been as responsible for the lack of peace with the Arabs as they themselves have been.” According to the researcher the concepts of national security were established in the 1950s by David Ben-Gurion and many strategists still consider them valid and current. The security policy was based on a series of premises among which are: the Arab world is hostile to Israel and is going to try and destroy the State if it has the chance; so the only way of preventing this is to make them perceive the futility of their mission by making them aware of the high price to pay for this. This is the so-called “Iron Wall”, a concept created by Zionist Zeev Jabotinsky in 1923. Furthermore, the international community, with some exceptions, is not a reliable ally, which leaves Israel isolated in its defense and because of its geography, a target for its enemies. Important factors, continues Maoz, arise as a result of this: Israel needs to invest in quality, both military and non-military, in order to stand up to the Arabs’ quantitative advantages, and so it is necessary to maintain the “nation in arms”, a society mobilized in times of crisis and ready to defend its survival; the choice of short wars, quickly decided, both for strategic as well as economic reasons, since lengthy conflicts are a burden on the State; this leads to the principle of cumulative deterrence, in other words, hitting the enemy hard and repeatedly until it understands it cannot destroy Israel and bargains on the latter’s terms; the settlement policy as a determinant of Israel’s final frontiers. “These concepts form a stable national security policy, even though they’ve never been set out in any official document. Their objective is to allow Israel to deal with threats to its existence and at the same time exist as a ‘normal’ society and attract Jews from all parts of the world.”

“Many of these principles are based on mistaken empirical foundations and despite this the Israeli elite has never revised the basic tenets of their doctrines. Were there any benefits for Israeli security in following the logic of the Iron Wall?  According to my studies the answer is no. On the contrary, Israeli success in the wars has not resulted in its enemies becoming resigned, but to a worsening of the conflicts. Its greatest military victory only increased Arab motivation to fight”, he observes. “Only when Israel’s leaders reached the conclusion that ‘the sword cannot destroy forever’, to use the words of Moshe Dayan, and understood the need for concessions did it achieve peace. Until this is understood, Israel’s ‘non-strategy’ of peace is going to continue to demand equal sacrifices from Israelis and Arabs alike.”

You state that Israel needs “to open its eyes to the reality” and resolve the Middle East question in terms other than military. Wouldn’t a developed and democratic country like Israel have noticed this if it was wrong?
The fact that the disproportionate use of force doesn’t work at a particular point in time doesn’t mean, according to this concept of national security, that it won’t work over the long term. Unfortunately, this long term has already come and gone, and Israel has placed itself in an inertia that’s difficult to break. This is fundamentally due to the fact that the establishment of security dominates foreign policy and so the use of force is always the first argument, instead of being the last, as is hoped. The invasion of Gaza is based on this same logic of a disproportionate response. Furthermore, it is based on a belief that was established long ago, that if you punish your enemy’s civilian population this will eventually force the government (Hamas in this case) to withdraw. But this attitude failed in the past and may very well fail in the future. There’s also another factor that determines the use of Israeli force in Gaza. There’s an election on the way [general elections in Israel were brought forward to the 10th of this month] and the government is suffering very strong criticism because it has failed to respond to the rocket attacks that Hamas launched on towns in the south of Israel and was pressured into attacking if Hamas refused to renew the cease-fire. But the Israeli government didn’t want to deal with lots of Israeli casualties and chose to start with air attacks and then to use indiscriminate force to minimize losses in the Israeli Defense Forces (FDI). Israel is repeating policies that often failed in the past, using disproportionate force against weak governments or political authorities that have no capacity to impose order on their members. It’s the concept of escalation dominance, an incorrect notion that massive force can weaken motivation and that every time a problem can be resolved by force it should be resolved by applying an even greater force. The problem is that the current conflicts show once more that the FDI have lost their capacity for carrying out “surgical attack operations” and are hiding their incompetence for dealing with “low intensity” conflicts, by choosing to use massive bombardments that are of questionable strategic value and that cause serious diplomatic damage.

Is there a solution for the conflict between Arabs and Jews?
Any historian who pores over the Arab-Israeli conflict a hundred years from now is going to find it difficult to understand why it took so long to resolve, given the number of reasonable solutions to the conflict that have existed since it began. Compared with other contemporary conflicts the Arab-Israeli question has received an exaggerated amount of attention from the international community and, in practice, it’s probably less severe and more easily solved than many other global issues. Above all it has to be recognized that the Arabs are affected by the same reluctance, shortsightedness and same “over my dead body” syndrome that affects Israel. They’re paralyzed by psychological fear and suffer from an ideological inflexibility that is as rigid as that of the Israelis. You only have to remember the refusal of Egypt to sign a formal peace agreement with Israel before 1967. Or the reluctance of Jordan or the irascible attitude of Syria, to mention a few examples. Every conflict seems to me to be a “tragedy of errors”, and undoubtedly the blame is not all on one side. But my research is centered not on the Arabs but on the security policy of Israel. Bearing this in mind, let’s analyze some important points. It has to be recognized that Israel is a reluctant partner when it’s a question of peace: most of the agreements were not initiated by Israelis, but by the Arab side or by a third partner, like the United States, for example. Israel’s diplomacy often relies on the “let’s wait for a telephone call from the Arabs” attitude, in a notable contrast to their hyperactive posture of using military force. Another relevant factor is the gradual conception that always underlined agreements between the Arabs and Jews. This theory always favored “time is on our side” in order to minimize Israel’s concessions while the peace momentum is maintained. Another characteristic is Israel’s aversion to making agreements with Arab blocks. They always choose bilateral agreements, as if a general agreement would bring very strong pressure for Israel to make extreme concessions. Therefore, the Israeli peace policy always favored the notion that a divided Arab world always offers better opportunities. The discrepancy between the official Israeli statement that “no one in the Arab world really wants to extend a hand in peace” and the real reluctance on the part of Israel to promote peace is very apparent.

How can we understand this?
I think it’s due to what I call the “siege mentality”, which was very well expressed in the notion developed by David Ben-Gurion of a small State surrounded by many more numerous enemies that has to develop and prosper under conditions that are a threat to its existence. This spirit means that it’s always as if “what’s good for the Arabs can’t be good for Israel”, as if Israeli interests were defined by the opposite to Arab demands. This also raises the notion of the “nation that’s fighting alone”, which means that proposals coming from third parties are always seen with a degree of mistrust. In the same way, international organizations are not worthy of trust because they’ve left Israel in the lurch in the past (like the UN forces, for example, before the Seven Day War). Any UN initiative is always seen as pro-Arab and rejected out of hand. This is, above all, a “policy of arrogance”, in other words, when the Arabs are sufficiently weak they’ll sit around the table to negotiate on Israel’s terms. Israel’s policies, based on this dual model, believe that if the Arabs are strong any Israeli moderation is going to seem like weakness, which would encourage attacks on Israel. On the other hand if the Arabs are weak there’s no need for concessions.

An orthodox Jew prays before the Wailing Wall in Israel

AFP PHOTO/PEDRO UGARTE An orthodox Jew prays before the Wailing Wall in IsraelAFP PHOTO/PEDRO UGARTE

How is this reflected in Israeli society?
Creating a society based on principles of self-defense generates a national attitude in which security is the first and most important value. In Israel there’s an immense preponderance of the security community because of the power of the FDI and other institutions, like the secret service. This dominance is reinforced by the lack of a civilian institution that can provide it with a hierarchical infrastructure that’s similar to decision-makers and legislators. This creates an imbalance and so in times of crisis the word of the FDI is decisive when it comes to taking decisions. This infiltration by the security community is further reinforced by the fact that many senior military officials are active in the political sphere, which gives this power more backing. Parliament fails to see and contain this dominance by the FDI and the security community in matters of foreign policy. The Knesset does not have the instruments or the political will to act in this way. The Supreme Court also reveals deference to the position of the security community. The consequences of this process are serious. At the same time public opinion, which is filled with this spirit, demands that government takes retaliation measures that serve both to account to society and encourage the ethos of the military initiative that the FDI and Ben-Gurion wanted and want to instill in the young people of Israel. Yitzhak Rabin was already talking about this when the suicide bombing attacks started in the 1990’s, which for him showed the strategic nature of Palestinian terror. Rabin knew that such attacks did not represent a danger to the existence of the State but were a strategic threat that affected the individual perception of security in Israel. Pressure at home on the government as a result of terrorism obliged the State to take actions that contradicted its peace policy and led to an unnecessary and spiraling escalation of the conflict. Elections are another important point. My studies reveal that at election time, the volume of Israeli attacks in response to Arab aggression decreases, but the intensity of these attacks grows, because they need to show what’s to come; this attracts the attention of the voters. There’s also the religious question.

What does that instigate?
I wrote an article, the title of which was “A Jewish State or a democratic State for Israel”. Religion has an important role to play in Israeli politics, so much so that a fanatical religious minority (those living in the settlements) runs wild through the occupied territories, constructs illegal settlements and constantly threatens the Palestinians on the West Bank, unrestricted by the authority of the government of Israel. But in reality these extremist religious factions are not so powerful. If the State had had a courageous leader the settlement movement would have been a footnote in the history of Israel. As it is now, with the force it has acquired because of the weakness of government, it’s a key player and plays a destructive role in Israeli politics and society. Once this religious ideology had been transformed into the dominant force in the settlement policy, a tacit alliance was formed between those elements in the Labor Party and Likud Party that were favorable to an annexation strategy; this was essential during the mandate of the two parties. Today, the government finds it tremendously difficult to control this settlement policy. You only have to see that it was only in 2003 the politicians realized how crazy these settlements in Gaza and on the West Bank are. This was the Sharon case. But it was already late: he had to take care of a population of 230,000 settlers, including 7000 inside the Gaza strip. They only got out of there after 950 Israelis had died and thousands had been injured.

You’re also a major critic of Israel’s nuclear policy.
The paradox of the Israeli nuclear policy is that it has no great impact. Every time there’s a threat that an Arab country (or Iran) is developing nuclear arms the Israelis start no longer believing in the power their nuclear arms have of putting fear into their neighbors and guaranteeing peace. It’s just like during the Cold War years between the USSR and the United States. If Israel has reasons to believe that Iran has achieved fusion point, in other words, that it’s ready to achieve a high level of uranium enrichment, then undoubtedly it’s going to attack the Iranians. And this is going to cause a huge escalation in tension in the Middle East. So, it’s a dubious privilege. The Israeli nuclear policy has achieved none of its objectives or presented the positive collateral effects promised by its defenders. On the contrary, this action has had a significant effect to the contrary.  It has caused an unconventional arms race in the region and ended up generating a State secret anti-democratic regime and meaningless deception from the civilian point of view. What it did was to encourage neighboring enemy states to develop chemical and biological “arms of mass destruction of the poor” and ballistic missiles. Above all, this nuclear regime operates without control by the political institutions and is not subject to public debate in a democratic and developed State like Israel. This type of attitude by the Israeli elite is very characteristic of a strategy for using the on-going conflict with the Arabs to their advantage and in detriment to the country, which as a result of its overwhelming military spending is leaving aside investment in values that were fundamental when it was created, such as education, for example. There’s a high cost to pay when it comes to mobilizing Israeli society. It serves as a way of fleeing from dealing realistically with many important social problems. Over the long term this principle of a nation in arms is having an indirect effect on the economic, technological and social situation of Israel relative to the rest of the industrialized West, a reference point for Israelis. Israel is beginning to be left behind in these issues.

Cartridge towers: Israeli soldiers advance towards Gaza

AFP PHOTO/DMITRY KUSTYUKOV Cartridge towers: Israeli soldiers advance towards GazaAFP PHOTO/DMITRY KUSTYUKOV

And how is the constant conflict affecting the Arabs?
I insist that my study is centered on the question of Israel, but it’s possible to observe that in the same way that the elite in Israel uses the conflict as a mechanism for constructing State and social integration in a democratic system, the Arab elite uses the war as a mechanism for maintaining authoritarian control and for perpetuating social and economic under-development. Even the more progressive Arab leaders, like Sadat, Arafat or King Hussein of Jordan maintained a closed social and economic policy, which was highly hierarchical and brutally corrupt, thus preventing any gathering of the economic and social fruits of peace. This duality exacerbated the problems of the Arab regimes, meaning that the success of Israel was even more spectacular when compared with the poverty, corruption and lack of political freedom in the Arab world. The Arab world also seems to be a hostage to the tendency of the intellectual and economic elite to lay the blame for all their woes on outside agents. First it was the British and French colonial powers, then the Zionists and now the Americans, who seem guilty of everything bad that happens in Arab countries. But the Middle East only loses out to Africa in terms of underdevelopment and is much less democratic than many regions of the globe. The conflict is not directly responsible for this but it’s always used as an excuse. Furthermore, in the oil monarchies most of the money earned is invested outside its country of origin and most of the work force comes from abroad. Total peace would mean the end of authoritarianism in the region. To worsen the situation radical Islamic groups have emerged in Arab countries and they have assumed for themselves the anti-Israeli rhetoric in order to mobilize opposition to attempts by any political regime to make peace with Israel. This opposition obliges the Arab leaders to walk a narrow tightrope, having on the one hand their strategic interests and on the other the need to calm down the militants who are opposed to peace with Israel. Also many radical groups rose to power under the façade of democracy. Many Arab states, therefore, once again withdrew into their authoritarian bunker, using rhetoric against Israel as a diversion tactic. Israel’s neighbors have come out of the situation very badly because they use the conflict to perpetuate and increase poverty and the terrible social conditions that already existed long before the state of Israel appeared on the scene.

Which principles of Israel’s security policy should be revised so we can think about a more peaceful picture in the future?
Israel needs to abandon the notion that only intransigence and attack are going to lead Arabs to peace. They need to perceive that truly cooperative gestures have a more long-lasting impact than just containment movements. A U-turn by Israel in the direction of an effective peace policy would have a huge impact on tension in the Middle East. Equally, an arms reduction initiative, for example, by Israel would have an important impact on the arms balance in the region and would be the start of a long road to establishing a climate of trust in the region. The Knesset, the Judiciary and civilian society need to increase their control over the security community. The institutions that are constitutionally responsible for security must play a more relevant role. Israel needs to go back to a conventional doctrine and offer to negotiate their nuclear arms in exchange for true regional security. It must also reduce spending on the defense industry and start trusting in a regular army more, with career prospects for its trained professionals. I think it’s important for the State to establish a defense pact with the United States that’s not to the detriment of an effective regional security regime. The relationship between the USA and Israel, today, is based on three elements: a perception of common interests in the Middle East, a common democratic affinity and, most importantly, the influence of Israel’s lobby on America. Obviously, American Jews support Israel, but there’s a growing disbelief with regard to Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians, even though Jewish leaders in the USA are on the side of the Israelis. International pressure has an effect on Israel’s policy but while the Bush administration kept on underwriting their actions the Israeli government felt under no pressure to stop. More recently the decision to declare a unilateral cease-fire was caused both by external pressure as well as by criticism at home of military operations. Israel has a lot to gain from peace and little to lose.