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If you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. —Winston S. Churchill, in “The Gathering Storm”.

…the proposition that democracies are generally at peace with each other is [so] strongly supported… [it] has led some scholars to claim that this finding is probably the closest thing that we have to a law in international politics—Profs. Zeev Maoz & Bruce Russett, in International Interactions, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1992, pp. 245-6.


Events of the last year—such as the hastily concocted agreement by the recently ousted Lapid government (read “arrangement”) with Lebanon over the maritime boundary with Israel, allegedly to avert war; and the injudicious attempt to resurrect the two-state formula as a means of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—have once again stoked the discussion over the fabric of the relationship between the Jewish state and its still-belligerent Arab antagonists.

Antithetical types of “peace”

Inevitably, this focuses attention on the notion of “peace”, its feasibility, its durability, and its elemental components.

To adequately contend with this question, it is crucial to realize that the word “peace” is one that is decidedly both dictatorial and deceptive.

It is “dictatorial” because, just as one cannot declare opposition to a dictator, one cannot oppose peace—certainly not if one wishes access to “polite company”. Indeed, much like a dictator, “peace” commands support from all

However, “peace” is also a “deceptive” word, because the same five letters can be used to describe two completely different—indeed, antithetical—political configurations.

On the one hand, peace can mean “mutual harmony” between parties; on the other, it can mean the “absence of violence maintained by deterrence”.

Vastly different sets of conditions make for the feasibility of these distinctly different kinds of peace.

In a political system comprised of democratically governed states–-such as in Western Europe or North America—with open borders, free exchange of ideas, and largely unhindered movement of people, mutual harmony is a feasible kind of peace.

However, in a political system comprised mainly of dictatorial regimes—as in the Arab and much of the wider Muslim world—such unregulated flows of ideas, funds, and people are clearly not the case—and are largely incompatible with the unchallenged rule of the incumbent dictator.

Deterrence vs harmony

Now in conditions of “mutual harmony”, peace (i.e. the absence of violence) is the natural equilibrium state of affairs, and when disputes arise, there will be a strong tendency for the system to revert to its former non-violent stability.

However, in the alternative case, where non-violence is sustained only by adequate deterrence, this is not true. Indeed, if deterrence wanes, violence between the parties will result. There will be no tendency to restore stability and the system will descend into belligerent conflict.

Clearly then, for peace-making/maintenance to be successful, it is imperative to correctly diagnose what political realities prevail. After all, if the conditions are those, in which only a “peace of deterrence” is feasible, adopting a peace-making/peace-maintaining policy, designed to attain a “peace of mutual harmony”, will not succeed.

Quite the opposite! It will make war more probable —by one side making conciliatory gestures that are likely to undermine its perceived deterrence.

This duality in the typology of “peace” is reflected in a related divergence in the structure of conflictual situations. Accordingly, there exist two archetypal and antithetical contexts of conflict: In the first, a policy of compromise and concession may well be appropriate in advancing a resolution; while in the second, such a course would be disastrously inappropriate.

Sign of goodwill…or weakness

So, on the one hand, a protagonist in a conflict may make an initial concession and the opposing protagonist may understand that this concession was made as a sign of goodwill—and therefore feels obliged to make a reciprocal concession.

Thus, via a process of concessions and counter-concessions, matters converge into some kind of consensual resolution.

However, there is another, equally feasible, situation, in which a protagonist is tempted into making an initial concession, but the opposing side sees this not as a sign of goodwill, but as a sign of weakness. Therefore, rather than inducing a process of reciprocal concessions, the initial concession induces demands for further and more far-reaching concessions. So, instead of converging toward some consensual resolution, the interaction diverges into a coercive or violent response.

Clearly, even the most pliable protagonist will, at some stage, reach the limit of the concessions that can be made. Accordingly, when such a limit is reached, he will find himself in a far weaker position than he was in, prior to his proffered concession(s).

If you will not fight…” 

 For over a decade, I have warned repeatedly that, by its innate reticence to engage in a decisive large-scale offensive against its despotic adversaries, Israel is continually backing away from conflicts that it can win, while risking backing itself into a conflict that it cannot win—or win only at ruinous cost  See for example here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. 

 This danger was eloquently described by Winston Churchill in the first volume of his seminal series on WWII: “…if you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival.” 

 The futility of compromise 

In the perennial conflict with its Arab neighbors, attempts at compromise by Israel have proven not only futile but counterproductive. Despite a series of gut-wrenching concessions, peace seems further away than ever. Every concession made was not followed by an offer of a counter-concession but by demands for further and more far-reaching concessions. Clearly, the only kind of peace that is feasible in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict is a peace of deterrence – not a peace of mutual harmony. Indeed, it is a peace that concessions and compromises serve only to undermine.

Unless the Jews convey the unequivocal message that any challenge to their political independence and national sovereignty will be met with overwhelming lethal force, they will increasingly be the victims of such force at the hands of their Arab adversaries.

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Dr. Martin Sherman spent seven years in operational capacities in the Israeli defense establishment. He is the founder of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a member of the Habithonistim-Israel Defense & Security Forum (IDSF) research team, and a participant in the Israel Victory Initiative.