Israel's Mistaken Strategic Assumptions and Its Consequent (Mistaken) Strategy of Conflict

By Louis Rene Beres

Israel suffers a grave disadvantage vis-a-vis its enemies for many reasons, but one especially critical reason lies in the country's basic prevailing assumptions concerning war and peace. While Israel's regional enemies, state and nonstate, believe that any power gains for Israel represent a power loss for them - that is, that they coexist with Israel in a condition of pure conflict - Israel assumes something very different. For the Jewish State, Israeli relations with Arab/Islamic states and organizations are not, as these enemies believe, "zero-sum" relations, but rather a mutual-dependence connection, a nonzero-sum relation where conflict is mixed with cooperation. Israel, unlike its enemies, currently believes that any gain for enemies is not necessarily a loss for itself. Indeed, these days Israel is generally unwilling even to identify its enemies as enemies.

The strategic situation worsens. Israeli believes that its (now more or less unidentified) enemies also reject zero-sum assumptions about the strategy of conflict. Israel's enemies, however, do not make such erroneous judgments about congruence with Israeli calculations. These enemies know that Israel is wrong in its belief that Arab/Islamic states and organizations also reject the zero-sum assumption, but they pretend otherwise. There is, therefore, a dramatic and most consequential asymmetry between Israel and its multiple enemies. Israel's strategy of conflict is founded upon miscalculations and false assumptions, and upon an extraordinary unawareness of enemy manipulations. The pertinent strategic policies of Israel's enemies, on the other hand, are founded upon correct calculations and assumptions, and upon an astute awareness of Israeli errors.

What does all of this mean? Above all, it positively demands that Israel make rapid and far-reaching changes in the way that it conceptualizes the continuum of cooperation and conflict. The first required change is this: Israel, ridding itself of destructive forms of projection and wishful thinking, must immediately recognize the zero-sum calculations of its enemies and must begin to recognize itself that the struggle in the Middle East must still be fought overwhelmingly at the conflict end of the continuum. This struggle, in other words, must be conducted - however reluctantly and painfully - in zero-sum terms. There is no "New Middle East." If Shimon Peres wants to be "nice," he should find another way of expressing this commendable sentiment than upon the corpse of the nation.

The second essential change would connect revised Israeli assumptions with strategic policy: Israel must acknowledge immediately that its support for Oslo Accords is fully inconsistent with both the zero- sum calculations of its enemies (which must now again be understood as enemies) and with its own newly-recognized imperative to relate on the basis of zero-sum assumptions. By continuing to sustain Oslo, Israel, in effect, rejects correct zero-sum notions of Middle East conflict and accepts the starkly incorrect idea that its enemies also reject these notions. By rejecting Oslo, Israel, in effect, would accept correct zero-sum notions of Middle East conflict and accept the correct idea that its enemies base their policies upon exactly these notions.

As matters stand presently, Israel's mistaken strategic assumptions, and the juxtaposition of these incorrect assumptions with the correct assumptions of its enemies, undermine Israel's very survival. Ironically, these Israeli mistakes and asymmetries have the effect of creating an alliance between Israel and its enemies, not the sort of alliance that can help the Jewish State (after all, we are describing a zero-sum relationship), but rather the altogether one-sided and unreciprocated sort in which only Israel serves its enemies needs. Israel should not continue to be the best ally its enemies could possibly discover. Instead, it should now seek to serve itself, supplanting false assumptions that stem from misguided hopes with correct assumptions based upon valid argumentation.

In the language of formal logic, invalid forms of argumentation are known as fallacies. The overriding problem of Israel's current strategy of conflict is the commission of various fallacies. Unlike simple instances of falsity and error, which of course abound in ongoing Israeli military judgments, these fallacies are vastly more injurious because they involve the very property of transition from a set of premises to a policy conclusion. Distinguishable from singular mistakes, these fallacies ensure that all subsequent calculations will also result in error. This means that it is in the process of strategic thinking, not in the assessment of particular facts and issues, that Israeli transformations are most desperately needed. Actually, such transformations are presently indispensable!

This brings me to one last point. In the most charitableinterpretation, Israel's strategic fallacies have been the product of certain more or less remediable intellectual deficiencies. In a less charitable assessment, they have been the result of deliberate government manipulations, i.e., of propagandistic measures to deceive the Israeli public. If the fallacies of Israeli government strategic policy have been expressed with the intent to deceive, to carry conviction without justification or to impede open discussion, they are an example not of mere foolishness, but of sophistry.

It would be sad if the Third Temple were to disappear because of foolishness. It would be sadder still if such disappearance were the product of government sophistry.

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LOUIS RENE BERES is a Professor Department of Political Science, Purdue University and was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) He has published widely on strategies of conflict and the theory of games.

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