U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak during visit to Iron Dome defense system launch site in August 2012/REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool

The reaction to the Arab revolts that began in 2011 was more skeptical in Israel than in other countries. This is because most Jewish Israelis agree that the net effect of the fundamental changes in the Arab world will be negative for Israel’s security. What Israelis do not agree about, however, is how the country should best respond to these changes. While there are those who argue that Israel should engage with its neighborhood in order to lessen its toxic image in the Arab world, many Israelis take the more hawkish view that the country should retreat and focus on enhancing its military capacity to counter future threats.

Although equipped with one of the most sophisticated intelligence gathering appa­ratuses in the world, Israel was just as sur­prised as the rest of the world when the Arab Spring erupted in February 2011. How­ever, while most countries reacted with guarded hope and anticipation, Israel’s re­action was one of deep skepticism, laced with a certain fear and trepidation.

In one of his first public announcements in response to the Egyptian revolution, Is­raeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned that the Arab revolutions may turn out to mirror that of Iran in 1979, in other words, the end result would most likely be Islamic, radical, anti-Western, and, most importantly, anti-Israel. In a major attempt to spread understanding about Israel’s dilemma, Netanyahu called to­gether his ambassadors to Western coun­tries and instructed them to emphasize the importance of the stability of the existing Arab regimes. In November 2011, in a “told-you-so” manner, he reminded the Israeli Knesset and the world that his warnings and predictions had indeed been fulfilled. The Arab transitions were neither democratic nor peaceful, and increasingly hostile to the West in general and Israel in particular. The Arab Spring, he said, had be­come an Arab Winter.

While it is clear that Netanyahu represents a side of Israeli politics that has been es­pecially skeptical towards the changes in the Middle East, early public opinion polls showed that a majority of Jewish Israelis shared this perspective. And indeed, it is hard to deny that Israel is now less secure in its neighborhood than before. How­ever, while most Israelis agree that the upheaval in the Middle East has had real negative security consequences for Israel, the understanding of those consequences and what should be done about them var­ies between two approaches that can be described as two schools of thought: the threat-dominated perspective and the op­portunities perspective.

Although most Israelis agree that the Arab revolts have far-reaching consequences for Israel’s security, the understanding of those consequences and what should be done about them vary roughly along the Israeli left-right political spectrum. Those on the right, heavily represented in the current political establishment, focus al­most exclusively on the “threat” coming from the rise in uncertainty in the region, and prescribe increased Israeli isolation and preparedness as a response. Those on the left, more commonly found in academ­ic and intellectual circles, acknowledge the threats, but focus more on the opportuni­ties that are brought by the change, and thus recommend engagement with the emerging regimes in order to increase Isra­el’s chances that the new Middle East will be a friendlier place.

The main areas of concern described in the full analysis are outlined on the map below:

Major Israeli neighbourhood concerns

For the full analysis of these two approaches and their policy implications, the full document can be downloaded from the website of the Center for Security Studies in Zurich, by clicking the thumbnail:


It’s the Balance of Power Stupid!

Israel may be afraid that Iran is acquiring a nuclear bomb, but what its leadership is even more afraid of is the changing Balance of Power in the Middle East.

When the Middle East erupted into chaos in the Spring of 2011, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu warned the world to curb its enthusiasm, predicting that the Arab revolutions would most likely turn out to mirror the one in Iran in 1979, in other words, the end result would be Islamic, anti-Western and most importantly, anti-Israel. Since that time, Netanyahu continues to remind the world that he was right and that his warnings have been fulfilled. The Arab transitions, he claims, are neither democratic nor peaceful and the Arab spring has turned into an “Arab winter.” While the recent anti-Western violence across the Arab and Muslim world may have partially confirmed Netanyahu’s gravest predictions, it is far from clear what kind of long-run impact the possible failure of Arab democracies would have on the region in general, and on Israel in particular.

I would like to argue that neither the rogue violence coming from the Arab world, nor Iran’s possible acquiring of nuclear weapons present much of a threat to Israel’s ability to defend itself.  Even if Israel has a lot to lose if Islamic regimes that are openly hostile to Israel continue replace the “stable” dictators, what really threatens Israel’s long-term security is the changing balance of power in the region and the possible decline of U.S. power. Such a decline and subsequent retreat would reduce Israel’s maneuverability and hurt its ability to project a credible deterrence capacity in its neighborhood. Much of Israel’s foreign policy at the moment could in fact be explained by a desperate attempt to halt or even reverse such a U.S.  decline.

To read the entire article please go to the Times of Israel

U.S. interests in the Middle East (Map by Laura Canali/Eurasian Review of Geopolitics)

Armageddon and the Stalemate: Time as a Conflict Strategy

In this post, written for the Times of Israel, I argue that we need to continue to make efforts to get Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiation table. Even if it perhaps may seem so, continued stalemate and time does not work in favor of either party in the long run.

For the entire text, see my post in the Times of Israel

Hawks, Doves and Israeli Politicians

Israeli Air Force F-15 fighter jets fly in formation with a Boeing refuelling tanker (REUTERS)

My new Op-ed in Jerusalem Post talks about the classic IR dilemma of doves and hawks. In a time of war-mongering and saber-rattling leading up to violence and hostilities, doves are often silenced and accused of being traitors, while hawks are often emboldened. As a result, the prospects for victory and success of the use of force is often over-estimated, while risks and costs are underestimated. History (not so distant) teaches us that this tends to lead to use of force that is badly planned and lacking an exit strategy. This article describes the dilemma that is currently facing Israel’s top politicians, Ehud Barak, and Benyamin Netanyahu, as they consider the country’s strategy towards Iran.

Two errors appear in the article:
Obviously, Paul Wolfewitz was the deputy secretary of defense (Editor mistake)
The article by Ronen Bergman was in New York Times Magazine (error was mine)

Explaining Why Negotiations Fail in the Most Intractable Cases

Netanyahu and Abbas meet at the White House in September 2010 (Credits: AP)

The academic literature is full of suggestions why resolving violent conflict is difficult and why negotiations fail. Although a clear classification of the various explanations into neat categories would be almost impossible, it is helpful to look at some of the overarching themes that can fit most explanations under their umbrellas. This is especially helpful when we try to apply negotiation theory to practice, particularly when attempting to understand why some negotiation processes succeed while others fail. Why are some conflicts seemingly more intractable than others, and why do negotiations over such conflicts often fail? The conflict management and negotiation literature attribute conflict intractability and negotiation failure to a number of different variables that for the purpose of this analysis can be summarized as having to do with the process, the timing, and the nature of the issues under negotiation.

Those explanations that argue that conflict intractability can be attributed to the negotiation process itself often focus on the failure to move the adversaries from a zero-sum or distributive process to one that is more “win-win” or integrative in character. The failure to change the negotiation dynamics is said to be the consequence of various factors that have to do with the behavioral patterns of the adversaries, including entrapment, posturing, unwillingness to compromise, and the lack of credibility or trust. According to this perspective, indivisibility and intractability arise from how contentious issues are represented by the parties rather than being inherent in the issues themselves.

Explanations that look at the timing as being the major explanation for negotiation failure often stress the conflict dynamics itself as being the key for making negotiation more or less fruitful at various points in a conflict cycle. While this perspective does not discount either the behavioral aspect of the parties, or the nature of the contentious issues as contributing to intractability, it argues that negotiation will have a higher chance to succeed if it is done at the “Ripe Moment,” when the cost of continued stalemate is higher than the price that has to be paid from compromise. The timing approach combines both strategy and tactics, and is particularly useful for third parties and mediators in determining when to apply pressure on the parties in order to raise the cost of an escalation in violence.

The third approach, is the argument that the nature of issues plays an important role in explaining why some conflicts are more difficult to negotiation than others. One of the stronger findings within this research perspective is the growing evidence that territoriality may be one of the most important factors for understanding both conflict incidence and intractability. Various findings show that territorial issues are more conflictual than other types of issues, and that they tend to reach higher levels of violence. Territorial conflicts are also more likely to recur and tend to prompt more frequent crises in rivalries between states. However, territory by itself is not necessarily intractable; logically, if conflicts were simply over where to draw a border on a map, or even over the division of natural resources, even territorial conflicts would be quite simple to resolve. However, in the contemporary world, most territorial conflicts tend to be remnants of larger power struggles, where some national and ethnic groups have lost out and as a consequence suffered humiliation and exile from the territory that they consider their homeland. The most intractable conflicts in the world today—and the ones that tend to be the most long-standing—are the ones that involves disputes over territory that has taken on sacred and symbolic characteristics for the parties involved and where it is impossible to separate territorial attachments from ethnic and national identity.

In such conflicts ethno-territorial attachments are strengthened through a historic process of suffering and strife that feed into the conflict cycle to make stakes indivisible and even absolute. A territorial absolute can be defined as a disputed space that, through myths, symbols and/or spiritual practices or beliefs, has become so intrinsic to the identity of a group that it can only be treated as an indivisible “whole.”

The reasons why negotiations almost always fail to bring an agreement in such conflicts, is because the absolute character of the stake prevents the parties from exercising the flexibility needed in order to produce a formula that can provide even the minimum conditions that would be acceptable for both sides. Traditional negotiation theory that focuses on integrative solutions treats indivisibility more as a challenge than a hurdle, with the idea that divisibility can be added to most conflicts using substitution, exchange, or compensation. For territorial absolutes however, such measures are not possible, because for groups with absolute perceptions about territory often choose to defend the territory with their lives. Absolutes do not have a price that can be negotiated.

The Zone of Agreement (ZOA) between two negotiation parties falls in the intersection of the circles (©Norlen)

The second aspect that adds to the intractability of most conflicts over territorial absolutes comes from the way absolutes were created. Because they were developed over long periods of time and as a response to conflict and strife, conquest and exile, the same exact piece of territory is often regarded as absolute by competing groups. If we take the Palestinians and the Israelis as an example, the conflict is deeply tied to territoriality and both parties claim the same land exclusively, and that land is tied to their national and religious identity. Their interests are in this respect identical and negatively defined based on the exclusion of the ‘other’ from that space. The same rocks and buildings are considered sacred to both sides and are imperative to each side’s national narrative. While the conflict literature shows that the redrawing of borders between warring parties is not difficult in and of itself, it is the inherent value of the territory within those borders that adds to the intractability. Once a disputed territory becomes imbued with ethno-religious attachments, it can no longer be divided through a simple measuring exercise on a map.

When the minimum conditions of the parties do not intersect: No Agreement (© Norlen)

Third parties have a lot to learn in order to become more effective in dealing with conflicts over territorial absolutes. While the timing, the attitude and behavior of the parties, as well as the structure of the conflict, are all essential dimensions for improving the chances of successful negotiation outcomes, absolutes may be essentially immune to most of the already tried and tested methods. It is therefore time that we broaden the horizon and look at how we can accommodate the absolute rather than the absolute accommodating to us. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we have reached a low point when the formula that has traditionally been the basis for talks no longer occupies the space between the minimum conditions acceptable by each party. In other words, the zone of agreement (ZOA) is non-existent. The old formula was based on the idea that two states would be created and that the territory would be divided in order to accommodate the sovereignty of each state. It is becoming increasingly clear that that such a division of territory (at least on a permanent basis) may no longer be achievable. Whether the new formula needs to be a one-state, two-state, or no-state solution is not yet clear. What is clear however, is that the international community and the two parties themselves are going to have to come up with a new creative framework that does a better job at taking the territorial complexities of the conflict into full account.

Death of Peace Process Means Opportunity for New Ideas

My Op-Ed, published in the Jerusalem Post today, talks about the need for a new formula to replace the two-state solution. Israel, in its position as the more powerful of the two parties, has a unique opportunity to shape that formula, or to present the Palestinians and the rest of the world with their prefered scenario.

Newt Gingrich’s “What ifs” – the EMP

Photo: DoD Photo: Newt learning how to drive a STRYKER tank

This is the most worrying, outlandish, absurd, and threatening thing I have read yet about the republican campaign: Newt Gingrich warning against what in nuclear terms is called EMP, short for an electromagnetic pulse, meaning essentially the electromagnetic shock waves that would follow a nuclear detonation high up in the atmosphere somewhere over the American heartland. In Newt Gingrich’s mind this potential doomsday scenario presents Americans with one of the biggest national security threats in its history, as such a blast would possibly disrupt the nation’s electricity grid for weeks or even months. It is, he says, like going aboard the Titanic knowing it’s going to sink and not putting on the lifeboats.

Would such a blast wreak havoc? Sure, it would, although scientists disagree over its secondary effects. Is such a blast likely to happen? Not very likely say the scientists but if it does, the effects can not be predicted. Besides, they add, it really is the concern of yesterday; its threats are “theoretical” and defending against it would be as straight-forward as against any other type of missile attack. However, the threat itself is all that Newt Gingrich needs in order to argue for the pre-emptive destruction of both Iran’s and North Korea’s missile supplies, something that he would prioritize were he the commander in chief.

While the idea and its consequences sound only a bit more plausible than the threat of enemy scientists cloning the dinosaurs to be used to trample lower Manhattan, it leaves us with three observations (or rather, one observation and two questions). First of all, the guy is stuck in the Cold War, enjoying every fear-mongering minute of it. Second, who are those powerful enemies that would be able to carry off such a technologically complicated blast in the outer atmosphere? Third, can someone please trace which high-tech military hardware companies or which power companies are paying for his campaign? Because I suspect that this “threat” may be a prime example of the military industrial complex at work. Beyond attacking North Korea and Iran, Gingrich’s main arguments in preparing for such an attack is indeed to strengthen the country’s electrical grid and its defenses. While such an investment in the electrical infrastructure is indeed badly needed on its own merits, to safeguard it against EMT would require billions of dollars in protective steps. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are homeless, jobless and without healthcare… (you fill in the rest). But no, those things don’t threaten our national security and they are not paying for Newt’s campaign, so they don’t deserve our attention.

One of the best documentaries on the subject (featuring Gingrich himself):