The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Allies Divided

Israel and America have long taken opposite approaches to managing Palestinians and other Arabs. It’s time we recognized the divide.

Published on March 1, 2010

The storm following Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s rebuff of the Obama Administration’s appeal for Israel to halt all settlement expansion—including “natural growth”—overshadows a rarely noted but more fundamental and intractable divergence between Israeli and American policies. This split is rooted in the two governments’ contrasting answers to the following question: Is Palestinian political and geographic fragmentation a barrier to peace?

Most American observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict certainly think so. Thomas Friedman went so far as to declare that the Obama Administration needs to make “half of U.S. diplomacy about how to make peace between Palestinians” before it can foster peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Based on the Administration’s public statements thus far, it appears that the Obama team is taking up that challenge. It is at the very least continuing the Bush Administration’s policy of working to rally the Palestinians behind Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority.

Of course, this approach to the conflict is not new to U.S. administrations. Even before there was a stark division between Fatahstan in the West Bank and Hamastan in Gaza, American diplomats sought to unite Palestinians behind a relatively moderate leadership that would recognize Israel and negotiate an end to the conflict. At the height of the post-Oslo peace process, they hoped Yasir Arafat would play such a role. The goal was that one day he would take out a pen and sign a peace agreement as a representative not only of his Fatah Party but also of the Palestinian refugee communities in Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere—as well as the wealthy Palestinians living in Europe and the United States and all the various “resistance” organizations, Islamist and otherwise, not under his direct control. Indeed, as Mr. Palestine, Arafat may have been the only person able to pull off such a feat.

Palestinians have always been more or less divided (usually more), and U.S. administrations have always sought to unite them, if for no other reason than that a centralized Palestinian institution might be able to renounce violence and even eventually prevent it. U.S. policy has also been of a piece with a general preference for dealing with states or provisional states or, lacking that, states-in-the-making, rather than with non-state entities, particularly amorphous revolutionary movements. That is one reason, among several, why U.S. diplomats sought to fold Palestinian representation into the Jordanian delegation to the 1991 Madrid Conference. Not only has U.S. diplomacy wished to unite the Palestinians; it has over the years often designed “comprehensive” approaches whose logic presupposed unifying the Arabs—or at least the Arab states nearest to Israel.

Despite a constant stream of agreeable rhetoric coming from Jerusalem, this is not how the Israelis have pursued peace. 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.

Other than infantrymen and police officers, few Americans tend to think about how to occupy a territory with forces that are outnumbered by hostile inhabitants, but this is a dilemma Israelis have grappled with since the birth of their country. It’s not that Arabs outnumber Israelis in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. For now, at least, the Jews retain a demographic majority. It’s that geography (and, increasingly, advancing military technologies) makes control of Palestinian land, or at minimum the capability to rapidly enter and dominate it, a military prerequisite for defending Israeli land.

For most of Israel’s history, its defense planners were preoccupied with how to enter and control the Jordan Valley, which is the natural defensive line to ward off an invasion of Arab armies from the east. The vast majority of Israel’s population and industry reside in the coastal plain that stretches from the Lebanese border in the north to gates of Gaza in the south. These plains are dominated by the hilltops of the central highland, which average 2,000 feet in height and reach their highest elevation at Har Meron at nearly 4,000 feet. This includes the heart of Palestinian-populated territory.

Still further east is the Jordan Rift Valley, which is some 1,400 feet below sea level, the lowest dry-land elevation in the world. It rises sharply to nearly 3,300 feet to the west, and similarly to the east, a significant topographic feature over which traverse only a few narrow paved roads and difficult mountain tracks. The valley itself is only a few miles wide in the north and south. Given this geography, Israel’s army must either control the Palestinian-populated central highlands or descend from the valley’s narrow openings to reach the valley from the coastal plains. The first option requires an Israeli presence or ersatz security force in Palestinian towns, while the second route risks high casualties and the possible denial of access at the valley’s narrow openings.

Since 1967, Israel has managed this problem by reshaping the political, economic and human topography of the West Bank to join it to the Jewish heartland of the coastal plain. Immediately after the Six-Day War, the Labor government, following the framework articulated in the Allon Plan, established a network of military settlements in the Jordan Valley just east of Route 60, the traditional north-south passageway that serves as the central artery of Palestinian economic and social life. Yet military requirements have a way of compounding one another. To ensure that Israeli reinforcements could rapidly reach these military outposts, latter-day Labor and Likud governments built a number of east-west road corridors that reoriented transit away from Route 60 and connected the Israelis of the coast with their outposts in the West Bank. In turn, to permanently guarantee the accessibility of these roads, as well as to provide strategic depth to the coastal plains, the governments planted a series of civilian settlements on the peaks of the central hills. Israeli strategists recognized that civilian communities—particularly those of religious Zionists—would be far more difficult to resettle, and hence more permanent than military personnel stationed in the territory’s barren terrain. And so the military outposts exist to protect Israel proper, the east-west roads to protect the outposts and civilian settlements to protect the roads. One might call this an example of “tactical creep.”

The roads and the settlements serve both to connect and to divide. In his autobiography, Ariel Sharon recalled that in 1948 he watched as “throughout the country Arab forces moved to cut off Jewish settlements and population centers from each other by controlling the roads and bridges that linked them together. Once isolated, the Jewish enclaves could be surrounded, then dealt with piecemeal.”1 This is precisely the approach Israel has taken toward the Palestinians, but on a far grander scale. Jerusalem is the most significant exemplar. Fearing that the city’s “Jewish core population was at the center of an ever-thickening circle of Arab suburban neighborhoods”, Sharon explained that the rationale for establishing Ma‘ale Adumim was to separate the Palestinians of Jerusalem from Route 60 and isolate them from the Palestinian communities of the West Bank.2 Indeed, the Israeli barrier may eventually complete Sharon’s objective. With East Jerusalem cut off from the West Bank, the Palestinians can expect to lose a region estimated to contain 40 percent of their economic activity, as well as, perhaps, the declared capital of their future state.?

Many argue that Israel no longer has any rationale for maintaining the checkpoints, settlements and military outposts that serve to strangle Palestinian social and economic arteries because its peace treaty with Jordan and the fall of Saddam Hussein remove the threat of an invasion from the east. Yet over the past decade a strategy to defend against mobile tanks and artillery fire has evolved to counter the threat of suicide bombers and short-range rockets, and the strategy has worked. By 2004, suicide bombing inside Israel had nearly ceased. This change was the direct result of Israel accelerating the factionalization and isolation of the Palestinian population.

The most public aspect of Israel’s military campaign was its increased “targeted killings” of Palestinian militants, but these strikes were the end product of a concept of operations that begins with checkpoints, curfews, road closures, the barrier stretching through the West Bank and frequent raids into Palestinian towns. For Israel’s commandos and air force to target militant leaders, they need precise intelligence, which in turn requires constant interaction with the Palestinian population. Israeli soldiers manning checkpoints aren’t there simply to restrict the flow of weapons or to stop suicide bombers, but also to provide a secure location for recruiting and interacting with informants. This makes up in part for the loss of the highly effective system of intelligence gathering Israel created after 1968 but abandoned with the end of the military government in 1995 as part of the Oslo peace process. Similarly, road closures and curfews serve to keep Palestinian intelligence sources where they can be controlled, co-opted, coerced and, occasionally, protected.

This system facilitates Israel’s military operations while restricting the ability of Palestinian militants to organize violence. Like all organizations, groups such as Hamas can only function if their members can freely communicate, transfer money and material, and occasionally meet. Face-to-face gatherings are particularly important because in an environment permeated with collaborators, suspicion and conspiracy theories proliferate when militants cannot verify the loyalty and reliability of their associates. By disrupting these interactions, the Israelis degrade the operational capacity of their adversaries. Indeed, it is the existence of such a system in the West Bank and its absence in Gaza that explains the failure of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to halt rockets attacks from Gaza after the 2005 disengagement, in stark contrast to its success at preventing rocket fire from the West Bank. Hamas’s decision to immediately exploit this vulnerability clearly demonstrated this to the Israeli public and has made it unthinkable for Israeli leaders to attempt a similar withdrawal from the West Bank, which would put Ben-Gurion Airport within the range of Palestinian rocket fire.

None of this means that Americans are wrong to conclude that Palestinian unity is a prerequisite to peace. Israel’s strategy can at best only manage the conflict; it can never solve it. Moreover, in addition to potentially profound moral problems associated with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians (a complicated subject beyond the scope of this article), there are limits to its long-term strategic viability.

Ariel Sharon and his generation learned a great deal about how to rule a foreign population from the British, who also often pursued a divide-and-rule approach to the Arabs. But the Israelis seem to have missed a key lesson. Many were aware of the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe, but the military elite should have also known about a different pale of settlement, constructed by the ancestors of their British administrators in Ireland. To pacify the Irish clans, the English constructed networks of rural settlements and urban estates overlooking strategic nodes throughout Irish lands. Administered by poor but devout Welsh, Scottish and English Protestants, these estates controlled the movement of people and food. In doing so, they allowed a minority to control a restive majority for centuries. And yet the system collapsed in the early 20th century. The English had embraced birth control, and the Irish had not. Demography proved to be destiny.

Yasir Arafat was fond of proclaiming that the Palestinians would not suffer the fate of the American Indians. He was correct in at least one respect. The latter lost the battle of the bedchamber with the European colonists, but the Palestinians, like the Irish, may come to dominate this particular terrain. Indeed, the Jewish settlements in Gaza were designed by Ariel Sharon to divide the strip into three manageable chunks, but by the time of the Israeli disengagement in 2005 this was no longer possible. Palestinian homes were nearly pushing up against the gates of the Jewish settlements. It simply was no longer militarily cost-effective for Israel to maintain the Jewish presence. No reliable studies have been completed on the current demographic trends between the Jordan Sea and the Mediterranean, but anecdotal evidence suggests that Israelis may eventually lose the battle of the bedchamber in this larger area as well. This is one reason why some secular Israelis have come to believe that the liberally procreating ultra-Orthodox are strategic assets even if many of them are as intolerant of their co-religionists as Wahhabi Muslims are of theirs.

Israel’s method of managing its conflict with the Palestinians is at cross-purposes with that of all U.S. administrations. However, both Israeli and American approaches are logical extensions of each country’s particular geopolitical condition.

As a continental power, rich in material resources and human capital, the American way of war has been characterized by the application of overwhelming force to exhaust adversaries, followed by the distribution of massive aid to reconstruct conquered societies and put them on the path toward liberal democracy and market economics. This approach has fit America’s material conditions and ideological convictions, particularly its founding declaration that all people have an unalienable right to a life free from foreign rule.

Israel’s geopolitical predicament and founding ideology are very different. While Jewish law commands that “you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”, the Zionist state exists first and foremost to ensure the survival of the Jewish people. 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.


1Sharon, Warrior (Simon & Schuster, 1989), p. 40.?2Sharon, p. 101.

Benjamin E. Schwartz is a Presidential Management Fellow who has worked on Middle East issues in various parts of the U.S. government. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect or express those of the U.S. government.