Defending Israel, A Controversial Plan Toward Peace
Martin van Creveld
St Martin’s Press, 2004
182 pp., including extensive notes

Reviewed by Chet Richards,
Defense and the National Interest

November 1, 2004

Guerillas, so long as they do not lose, win. This observation by Henry Kissinger—quoted by van Creveld in the same chapter where he recommends the wall—forms the backbone of the book: How does a small country with no strategic depth succeed where Kissinger and the United States failed? For the United States, loss in Vietnam was traumatic but not fatal. For Israel, with its tiny population, religious distinctiveness from its Arab antagonists, and only the width of the Jordan River rather than breadth of the Pacific Ocean to withdraw behind, any loss could represent a mortal threat. It is not a risk that Israel is willing to take.

Van Creveld proposes a solution brilliant in its simplicity and creativity. If Israel cannot win an “evolved form of insurgency,” as Marine Colonel T. X. Hammes described what is often known as “fourth generation warfare,” (or as van Creveld calls it, “non-trinitarian war”) the solution is to convert the struggle back to something Israel can win1. This approach may be contrasted with Israel’s current strategy, which is to use conventional forces to try to win an unconventional war. Van Creveld is proposing to first convert the struggle to a conventional one, then win—or what is much more likely, deter—it.

Building on the framework he established in The Transformation of War, van Creveld goes to some lengths to explain why Israel is unlikely to prevail in its struggle with the Palestinians by using its military forces to suppress the Al Aqsa Intifada. Although the arguments are complex, they all come back to an observation by Joe Galloway (the reporter who was with Hal Moore at Ia Drang) that when conventional troops kill a guerilla, they create two more to take his or her place. If you throw in the higher birth rate of the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza, you see that Israel is fast running up against the dismal laws of arithmetic2.

If one rules out rounding up all remaining Arabs and marching them across the Jordan or into the Sinai—such ethnic cleansing possibly achievable in 1967 but mere right-wing fantasy today—the solution is two-fold. First separate the warring parties. This means withdrawing virtually all the settlements from the West Bank and absolutely all of them from Gaza and building a wall “so high a bird can’t fly over it.” This produces two well-defined geographical entities with fairly short borders (much shorter than current Israeli plans for the wall would entail.) It would also remove the 120 or so settlements, which now require more force to protect than Israel used to defeat Egypt in the 1967 war. Then exploit Israel’s universally recognized superiorities in maneuver warfare and advanced technology to deter or speedily interdict and defeat any attack, which would now have to be conventional, from any Arab state including the new Palestinian one. At some point in the future, when both parties desire it, the wall can be torn down.  In the meantime, van Creveld predicts that a secure Israel will be able to redeploy its human and economic resources to resume the economic growth that was interrupted by the Palestinian uprisings.

There are at least two arguments against this approach, and van Creveld considers them both. Some have insisted that it would amount to a reverse “ethnic cleansing” of Jews from the West Bank. This is a difficult argument for a non-Israeli to comprehend, since all the Jews on the West Bank moved there after the 1967 war to occupy land owned by Arabs. Many have already left. The other involves water. Van Creveld is, in my opinion, unduly optimistic on this point. As he notes, water from the West Bank's "Mountain Aquifer" and from the Jordan River (to which a Palestinian state would also have a claim) provides about a third of Israel’s consumption. Foregoing this would significantly hamper agriculture in Israel (which currently uses more than half of all Israeli water resources) and would require building expensive and strategically vulnerable desalinization plants. It can be done, and it may have to be done, but it will require a major cultural shift from the notoriously profligate use of water by the Israelis. For a DNI briefing on the water issue, please click here. [656KB PDF]

For all who have been wondering what an end state in the Middle East might look like, that is, one that did not leave the place a radioactive desert even hotter than the one there now, van Creveld offers a message of hope. It will certainly not satisfy the fanatics on either side, but that is probably a good test of its justice if not its feasibility.

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1In his new book, The Sling and the Stone.  For a DNI review, please see Comment #528.
2 Hammes makes a strong argument that the Al Aqsa Intifada should no longer be considered fourth generation warfare (4GW), since Israel has lured its combatants away from the 4GW goal of affecting Israeli determination to hold the West Bank and towards a standard insurgent objective, the destruction of Israel.  In falling for this, the Palestinians have lost all their support among the Israeli Jewish population and most of it in the United States and other Western countries.  Hammes is undoubtedly correct, but it does not undermine van Creveld's argument that the IDF is compromising its combat effectiveness by fighting even misguided "civilians," and that the birthrate problem will eventually decide the issue against Israel.