Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Palestinian Strategy: A look back

Back in 2002, Stratfor published the following, excellent analysis of Palestinian strategic thinking, and how it fit into regional trends. It was offered as a free intelligence analysis at the time, the kind they urge subscribers to pass on as a way of increasing their membership, so I'm not breaking any copyrights that I'm aware of.

As the United States undergoes a rather public and acrimonious process of review regarding Israel's role in the American alliance network, it is worth looking back at how the geopolitical environment, core motivations and dynamics driving the Israel-Palestinian conflict have changed since 2002, and how they have not. Enjoy.

The Palestinian Strategy
24 June 2002


It is difficult to see the strategy behind Palestinian tactics. Suicide bombing has clearly become a mainstream Palestinian tactic, one that makes the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip unlikely to the point of impossibility. It not only locks Israel into a war-fighting mode but also eases diplomatic pressure on Israel to make a settlement. The Palestinians know this. So why have the Palestinians adopted this tactic?

The answer lies in what must be a fundamental strategic shift on the part of the Palestinians. They no longer see the creation of a rump Palestinian state as a feasible or desirable end. Rather, despite the hardship of an extremely extended struggle, they have moved toward a strategy whose only goal must be the destruction of Israel. Since that is hardly likely to happen any time soon, the Palestinians must see forces at work in the Islamic world that make this goal conceivable and not just a fantasy.


Embedded in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli war is the fundamental question: What is the ultimate Palestinian strategy? We see the tactics unfolding daily, but it is neither clear what the Palestinians expect to achieve nor what strategy links these tactics to their ultimate goal.

The suicide bombing campaign, involving both Hamas and Al Aqsa Martyrs, a unit of Fatah, is a well-defined and well-coordinated, mainstream Palestinian movement, not an errant action by splinter groups. Certainly, the Palestinians do not expect to be able to defeat Israel militarily by conducting suicide attacks. Nor do they expect to succeed at driving a wedge between Israel and the United States. To the contrary, the Palestinians are quite sophisticated managers of Western public opinion, and they understand that the suicide attacks decrease the probability of such an outcome, regardless of Israeli response.

The lack of strategic clarity stems from the murkiness of their ultimately incompatible goals. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's public goal, and the foundation of all third-party peace efforts, is to create an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and in Gaza. There are, however, two other possible goals: to reclaim all of the lost territories and create a Palestinian state throughout the former Palestine, not incidentally destroying Israel, or to reconcile the two goals and create a hybrid of a smaller Palestinian state as a springboard for broader operations aimed at ultimately defeating and occupying Israel.

The Palestinians' current tactics are only slightly compatible with a strategy aimed at creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. For this to be their goal, the Palestinians would have to believe that the bombing campaign will drive a wedge between the Israeli government and the Israeli public who will demand an end to the war and willingly give the Palestinians an independent state in return, overriding any security considerations of the Israeli government. The Palestinians observed a similar process take place over the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Possibly they believe they can achieve the same end on a much grander scale through this campaign.

Were this the goal, it would suffer from two serious defects. Historically, bombing campaigns designed to drive a wedge between the public and the regime have failed. When delivered from the air -- as in the Battle of Britain or the bombings of Germany, Japan or Vietnam -- they did not succeed, even at much greater numbers of casualties than are likely to be experienced in Israel.

The Palestinians must be aware that bombing campaigns against the homeland tend to fail. They also know Israeli sentiment very well and are too sophisticated to believe this campaign will result in a groundswell in Israel demanding negotiations. Quite the contrary, it is likely to freeze Israeli public opinion in an intransigent mode.

But even if the suicide bombings forced Israel to capitulate on creating a Palestinian state, a Palestine consisting of the West Bank and Gaza would be an untenable solution, and the leadership knows it. First, a consensus would never be reached, and someone would object sufficiently to organize new attacks and undermine any agreement.

Second, a small Palestine would be economically and militarily untenable: It would never be free of Israel's orbit. Therefore, Palestinian nationalism could accept a small Palestine only as an interim measure on the way to a greater Palestine. Most important, the Palestinians know that the Israelis are completely aware of this and therefore are not going to reach a settlement with Palestine on something that cannot be guaranteed: the complete cessation of warfare and an absolute commitment to accept the permanence of Israel. Which still leaves the question of why they are waging this type of campaign.

One explanation is that the Palestinians no longer believe a solution to their problem is attainable on a local basis. This means they do not believe they can reach their goals through negotiations with Israel sponsored by third parties, such as the United States. Rather, they believe now that their goals can be reached only in the broader context of a transformation of the Islamic world and a redefinition of the relationship of the Islamic world not only to Israel but also to the West in general.

From the Palestinians' standpoint, their fundamental problem is hostility or indifference on the part of Islamic states and Arab states in particular. Jordan has been actively hostile to Palestinian interests after Arafat almost overthrew the Hashemite monarchy in 1970. Egypt's peace treaty with Israel has kept it from redefining its relationship to Israel while paying only rhetorical attention to the Palestinian issue. The Syrians have supported factions of the Palestinian movement, still dreaming of annexing Palestine into a greater Syria. Other, more distant states have been more bellicose but no less ineffective. The Palestinians' fundamental problem of being isolated from Arab resources and power enables Israel to act against them without real concern for its other frontiers. Therefore, the Palestinians cannot hope to win.

The needed transformation of the Islamic world will take a long time to achieve. On the other hand, from the Palestinian point of view, time is on their side. Given that all quickly attainable solutions leave them in an unacceptable condition, they have nothing to lose by playing for the long-term solution. Given Palestinian psychology, a long-term strategy of enormous proportions is politically more viable than short-term strategies that cannot deliver genuine solutions. They can either capitulate or continue to struggle, but a small Palestinian state would not satisfy their needs. Nor could it preclude the continuation of war by Palestinian rejectionists and therefore would not be accepted by Israel. The Palestinians' only hope is a redefinition of the general geopolitics of the region.

It is in this sense that the ongoing suicide campaign must be understood. Having accepted that no political settlement in the smaller context of Israel and Palestine is possible, the Palestinians have accepted a long-term strategy of unremitting warfare using whatever means is available -- for now, suicide bombers -- as the only alternative. The price is high, but given the stakes, their view is that it is worth it. It follows that the Palestinians will accept reoccupation by Israel and use that reoccupation not merely to drain Israeli resources but also to create an atmosphere of war designed to energize the Islamic world for a broad redefinition of relationships.

The suicide bombing campaign cannot be intended to achieve any significant short-term goal. First, it is not likely to generate a peace movement in Israel --quite the contrary. Second, it locks the United States into alignment with Israel, rather than driving a wedge between the two. Finally, it creates an extreme psychology within the Palestinian community that makes political flexibility all the more difficult. The fervor that creates suicide bombers also creates a class of martyrs whose sacrifices are difficult to negotiate away. The breadth and intensity of the suicide bombings force us to conclude that the Palestinian leadership is focusing on a long-term strategy of holding the Palestinians together in a sense of profound embattlement, transforming the dynamics of the Arab world and then striking at Israel from a position of strength. In short, the Palestinians think that time is on their side and that sacrifices for a generation or two will yield dividends later. If they wait, they will win.

Here Palestinian strategy, intentionally or unintentionally, intersects with that of al Qaeda, which also is committed to a radical transformation of the Islamic world. Its confrontation with the United States is designed to set the stage for this transformation, enabling the Islamic world to engage and defeat the enemies of Islam.

For al Qaeda one of the pillars of this confrontation is the Palestinian question, which it defines as the recovery of Islamic land usurped by Israel, a tool of the United States and Great Britain. For al Qaeda, the Palestinian question represents the systematic repression and brutalization of the Islamic world at the hands of both Christianity and the secular West. Israel is merely the most extreme and visible dimension of Western injustice. Palestine is, at the same time, a primary means of energizing the Islamic world. The ongoing injustice of the Palestinian situation combined with the martyrdom of the bombers creates, in al Qaeda's view, both a sense of embattlement and religious fervor with profound political consequences. Hamas and Al Aqsa Martyrs are powerful recruiting tools for al Qaeda.

If the Palestinians have adopted the long-term strategy we described, then al Qaeda is the means of achieving their geopolitical end. If the precondition for the defeat of Israel is a transformation of the internal politics of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and the rest of the Arab world, then al Qaeda is currently the only force fighting toward this end. In the same way that Arafat's generation aligned itself with Egypt's Gamel Abdel Nasser, Arab socialism and the Soviet Union in an attempt to find a geopolitical lever to destroy Israel, so today's generation has to look for geopolitical salvation among Islam's religious fundamentalists. Al Qaeda is the only group operating effectively at the moment and therefore, by default if not by intention, al Qaeda is serving the Palestinians' interest and vice versa.

For al Qaeda, a Palestinian settlement would be politically and morally unacceptable: Morally, it would represent a betrayal of Islam; politically, it would defuse a critical, energizing issue. Any agreement that would accept the permanent loss of territory to Israel would increase the power of accommodationists in the Islamic world. Al Qaeda needs an ongoing confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis to serve its ends; the Palestinians need tremendous pressure brought on the Arab world to serve their interests. The Palestinians also need a transformation in the Arab world. Here the two interests coincide. Israel, then, becomes a foundation of al Qaeda's political strategy in the Islamic world, as well as a test bed for tactics and military strategies.

Palestinian strategy makes no sense except in the context of alignment with al Qaeda. We need to be very careful here. We are not saying that there is deep cooperation going on between the Palestinians and al Qaeda although we would be very surprised if representatives of the two entities have not met and coordinated at times. Rather, what we are saying is that the goals of the Palestinians and those of al Qaeda have converged. Whether this was by design or by the logic of their situation is not really relevant. What is relevant is the convergence not only of tactics but also of a strategic and geopolitical perspective. Unless the Palestinians undergo a profound change of goals, they need al Qaeda to be successful to aid their own success. Al Qaeda is helped enormously by Palestinian behavior. If not a word had ever been exchanged --which we doubt -- the interests would still have converged. And the alliance that grows naturally is the most powerful one.

This means that no real peace process is any longer possible and that Israel can expect to be under constant pressure from the Palestinians. Then the question is, can Israel define a strategy for containing the Palestinians without simultaneously inflaming the Islamic world? More important, can the U.S.-Israeli relationship survive when what Israel must do to suppress the Palestinians flies in the face of American coalition-building in the Islamic world? Of course the Palestinians may hope to provoke a response from Israel that the United States cannot tolerate. However, this is not 1973. Israeli dependence on the United States is much less today than it was then, and therefore U.S. influence on Israel is much lower. Second, the United States is not likely to break with Israel when the trigger is suicide bombing -- not what the Palestinians want to hear, but it is exactly what al Qaeda would want.

This is precisely the crisis both the Palestinians and al Qaeda want to create. Al Qaeda hopes to use U.S. commitment to Israel as a tool for political mobilization in the Islamic world, since the United States cannot accept the destruction of Israel and nothing less can satisfy the needs of the Palestinians. The forecast, therefore, is for pain.


  1. this is George Friedman at the Carnegie Council on January 27, 2010

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