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May 23, 2015 / 5 Sivan, 5775
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Empowering Weakness; Weakening Power: Hidden Meanings Of Israeli-Palestinian Relations


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By every tangible military and economic standard, Israel is more powerful than its Palestinian foes. Nonetheless, from time to time, there are stark and compelling reminders in world politics that the powerful can sometimes be weak, and that the weak can sometimes be powerful. For example, despite its evident superiority in arms, Israel is periodically at the mercy of Palestinian rockets fired into civilian areas from Gaza.

The weak can sometimes prevail over the powerful. How can this be? The answer lies in the paradox of power in world politics. Although power is obviously powerful, and weakness is obviously weak, power can sometimes become weakness. At times, moreover, weakness can even become a source of power. Nowhere is this meaningful irony more apparent than in Israel’s persistent but essential struggle with Palestinian terrorism.

From the start, Palestinian Jihadists had already transformed their generally presumed weakness into effective power. Again and again, the “weak” Palestinians outmaneuvered the “powerful” Israelis. Just a few years ago, the UN’s International Court of Justice chose not to condemn the unhidden criminality of Palestinian terrorism, but, instead, condemned the security fence erected by Israel to safeguard its citizens from murderous terror attacks. Today, even after Israel’s Gaza Operation Cast Lead, and even while the Palestinian terrorists still rocket Israeli civilians from Gaza, world public opinion generally blames the Israelis for using “excessive force.”

From time immemorial, the Jews had remained stateless and defenseless. But in a number of important and intellectual spheres of human activity, they were always innovators and leaders. Now, today, when there does finally exist a sovereign Jewish State suitably empowered with modern weapons, and with advanced centers of science, learning and technology, the 6 million Jewish citizens of Israel comprise the most vulnerable Jews on the face of the earth.

It is an almost unutterable truth. Yet, virtually no one sees. The world, as usual, sees only what it wishes to see. What it wishes to see in the Middle East is suffering Palestinians, not existentially fragile Jews. The fact that this particular Arab suffering has been brought about directly by Palestinian terrorism, and not by any gratuitous Israeli resort to force, remains politically and diplomatically beside the point.

Hamas “perfidy,” the Islamic Resistance Movement’s insidious and illegal resort to human shields, has deliberately created Palestinian civilian casualties. Under authoritative international law, Hamas, not Israel,is therefore responsible for these harms. Still, the image of Palestinian weakness has plainly become a critical source of Palestinian terrorist power. Again, truth emerges through paradox.

The Arab world is comprised of 22 states, nearly five million square miles and more than 150,000,000 people. The overall Islamic world contains 44 states with well over one billion people. The Islamic states comprise an area 672 times the size of Israel. Israel, with a population of six million Jews (the number is terribly significant), is smaller than New Jersey, and less than half the size of Lake Michigan.

Power vs. weakness? The State of Israel, even together with Judea/Samaria (West Bank), is less than half the size of California’s San Bernardino County. Leaving aside that present-day Jordan comprises 78 per cent of the original British mandate for Palestine, and that it has long had a substantial Palestinian majority, the now fratricidal Palestinian Authority is being encouraged to declare a second Palestinian state on land torn from the more “powerful” body of Israel.

What would this terrorist victory suggest about power and weakness in the Middle East?

The Palestinians have consistently drawn tangible benefits from their alleged “weakness.” Will a Palestinian state enlarge Arab/Islamist power or will it produce a weakened condition? Perhaps, with a tiny Jewish State existing next to a tiny Palestinian state, there would develop a mutuality of weakness. But this would make no real sense, as power is always a relative notion.

Plato wrote imaginatively about the reality of ideas. In matters of national security, as in science, good ideas are always logically prior to good policy. Israel and the United States will soon need to fully appreciate the reciprocal ideas of power and weakness.

Israel must learn that the most advanced weapons of war, however necessary, do not by themselves create adequate strength. By nurturing misjudgments of power, they can even create weakness.

More often than we may admit, foreign policy making in Jerusalem and Washington displays an absence of true learning. Soon, both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama should come to understand that the core ingredients of power in world politics can be both subtle and intangible. Oddly enough, these ingredients may, on occasion, include weakness.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES, Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971). He publishes widely on international relations and international law. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945, Dr. Beres is the author of ten major books and several hundred articles in the field.

About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.


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