A game too difficult to win
The attempt to achieve total victory against the Palestinians by applying moderate pressure while paying a minimal price has a slim chance of succeeding; We are not playing Chess, in reality, success is often based on both sides feeling they’ve won some achievement that they want and can live with.
None of the belligerents wanted World War One to happen. But somehow, they all got dragged into a bloody war that changed the face of Europe and cost a huge price for an entire generation. We often hear about the elaborate web of alliances that created a domino effect: Small and local bursts of violence that dragged allies in, and led to the world war. However, this terrible war teaches us lessons far beyond the dangers of European politics in the early 20th Century. It teaches us about the danger of tactics beating strategy.
In tactical terms, all the players reacted reasonably. Provocation called for a response in order to save face, preserve deterrence, strike the iron while it’s hot. But all these reactions were executed in autopilot.
If you are playing chess and your king is threatened, you have no choice but to defend it. If your opponent cheats, you’re likely to react with assertiveness. The only question, a question that is rarely asked, is whether you want to be playing chess. Chess has rules, but it’s not the only possible game to play. I am reminded of the words of my late teacher, Michael Harsgor: “When I play chess, and somebody takes out my king, I declare a Republic and continue playing.” Harsgor was joking, but only to some extent. His funny quote reminds us that the rules of chess are not natural laws or the rules of practical logic. Sometimes we stumble upon a game where the loss is beyond the loss of honor. If you play poker, for instance, you might lose your honor, but also your pants. Before you place your initial bet, make sure you think through whether this is a game that’s worth playing. Because, once you’re in, it’s not easy getting out without having to pay a hefty price.
What kind of game is Israel playing with the Palestinians? It seems like the game is about achieving total victory at a minimal price. Israel sees the Palestinians as a weak military threat, but a massive Existential threat. In military terms, the Palestinians are only a minor threat, but in the long run, our policy-makers fear that if the Palestinians get stronger, it could threaten Israel’s existence.
I am uncertain that the second premise is correct, however. Like many others, I believe that the strengthening of the Palestinians, including them having their own state, is a reasonable threat that has many advantages, both internal and in foreign affairs. The assumption that any concession to the Palestinians is an existential threat severely narrows down Israel’s maneuvering ability. It has to attain a complete surrender by the other side in order to win the game.
What makes the game even more difficult, is that the Palestinian military weakness makes complete victory essential, but the price Israel is willing to pay is low. Israel could have decided that it’s willing to absorb thousands of casualties for Gaza’s surrender (meaning, conquering the strip and holding on to it, no matter the price), but it didn’t choose that. This complete surrender that Israel aspires to has to be achieved by moderate pressure. Ideally, the Palestinians will acknowledge their weakness and surrender, with or without official statements, to Israeli policy. In practice, this result will be hard to obtain.
Unlike chess, where a Checkmate wins the game, in real life the other side can declare a Republic. In reality, success is often based on both sides feeling they’ve won some achievement that they want and can live with. In the relationship we’ve created with the Palestinians, the only gain they can expect is quiet. If they follow our expectations, they will get to enjoy quiet. But it almost never works.
Even Germany’s unconditional surrender in WWI didn't bring stability. Actually, it brought on a worse war. Israel’s chance of achieving a complete surrender or lasting quiet by applying moderate pressure is slim. The price of a long-term military victory is too high (It’s not enough to win the battle, we would have to achieve a decent-enough settlement with the other side.) And so, Israel has to offer hope. But it doesn’t.