Stephen M. Walt

Get ready for more stupid Mideast violence

If memory serves, one of the lessons of Roger Fisher’s little book International Conflict for Beginners was "settle conflicts early and often." This isn’t always possible, of course, but his basic insight was that unresolved conflicts are dangerous precisely because they provide opportunities that extremists can exploit, they harden perceptions and images on both sides, ...

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Getty Images
Getty Images

If memory serves, one of the lessons of Roger Fisher's little book International Conflict for Beginners was "settle conflicts early and often." This isn't always possible, of course, but his basic insight was that unresolved conflicts are dangerous precisely because they provide opportunities that extremists can exploit, they harden perceptions and images on both sides, and most importantly, they can always get worse. So when a promising opportunity to settle a conflict arises, wise leaders should pursue them energetically.

I thought of that insight when I heard about the attack in Israel yesterday, which  left eight Israelis dead and some thirty wounded. The perpetrators are reportedly Gazans who took advantage of Egypt's present turmoil to cross the lightly guarded Egyptian-Israeli border, and the killings themselves are a reprehensible act that will bring no good to anyone. Just as Operation Cast Lead was both immoral and strategically foolish, this latest act of violence -- though on a smaller scale -- was equally misguided and morally bankrupt.

However one sees this situation, a key point to keep in mind is that this sort of thing isn't going to stop as long as the occupation and the siege of Gaza persists, and as long as one people has a state of their own and the other does not. If the situation were magically reversed and a million-plus Israelis were being kept in the same condition as the Gazans, I'd be astonished if some of them didn't try to take up arms against whomever was oppressing them. And I'll bet Commentary magazine would think that such actions would be perfectly okay. That thought-experiment doesn't justify the murder of innocents, mind you, but it may help us understand where such deplorable actions come from.

If memory serves, one of the lessons of Roger Fisher’s little book International Conflict for Beginners was "settle conflicts early and often." This isn’t always possible, of course, but his basic insight was that unresolved conflicts are dangerous precisely because they provide opportunities that extremists can exploit, they harden perceptions and images on both sides, and most importantly, they can always get worse. So when a promising opportunity to settle a conflict arises, wise leaders should pursue them energetically.

I thought of that insight when I heard about the attack in Israel yesterday, which  left eight Israelis dead and some thirty wounded. The perpetrators are reportedly Gazans who took advantage of Egypt’s present turmoil to cross the lightly guarded Egyptian-Israeli border, and the killings themselves are a reprehensible act that will bring no good to anyone. Just as Operation Cast Lead was both immoral and strategically foolish, this latest act of violence — though on a smaller scale — was equally misguided and morally bankrupt.

However one sees this situation, a key point to keep in mind is that this sort of thing isn’t going to stop as long as the occupation and the siege of Gaza persists, and as long as one people has a state of their own and the other does not. If the situation were magically reversed and a million-plus Israelis were being kept in the same condition as the Gazans, I’d be astonished if some of them didn’t try to take up arms against whomever was oppressing them. And I’ll bet Commentary magazine would think that such actions would be perfectly okay. That thought-experiment doesn’t justify the murder of innocents, mind you, but it may help us understand where such deplorable actions come from.

The usual response by partisans of each side is to blame the other for all the trouble, but in reality there is plenty of blame to go around. Israel’s occupation is illegal, unjustified, and relies on brutal coercion to continue, and its current government is more interested in expanding settlements than in pursuing reasonable opportunities for genuine peace. The Palestinian people have been repeatedly betrayed by their own leaders’ blunders, by supposedly sympathetic Arab states that have frequently sought to exploit their plight (or worse), and by extremists who seem to think killing a few more Israelis will somehow advance their quest for statehood. In truth, both sides have done a good job of "never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity," which is one reason why the conflict remains unresolved to this day.

In such a situation, one might hope that outside powers would use their influence to bring the conflict to a close, out of their own self-interest. It is hardly good for the United States to be perennially distracted by this issue, or to have its regional image tarnished and its diplomacy complicated by its one-sided position. Nearly twenty years ago, the Oslo agreements seemed to provide an opportunity to end the conflict once-and-for-all, except that the United States proved to be a hopelessly inept steward of the "peace process." And as Fisher might have warned, it’s just gotten worse. Remember that Hamas did not have a lot of popular support when the Oslo process began, but its popularity increased when Oslo failed to deliver and Fatah’s corruption became more apparent. Meanwhile, Israeli politics has drifted steadily rightward, making any sort of territorial compromise less and less likely. Given where we are today, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a "do-over" of the 1990s? Alas, that sort of replay is a mere fantasy.

To repeat: yesterday’s attack was morally wrong and strategically foolish. But until more people start thinking outside the box on this one — and demanding that political leaders think differently too — you can be confident that we’ll see more of the same — by both sides — in the future. And the danger of a larger explosion will grow.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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