The Long War of Strategy in the Middle East

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By Dr. David Wurmser

The United States and Israel disagree about who will rule Gaza in the “day after” scenario. The United States seeks to install a refurbished Palestinian Authority and proceed happily toward a two-state solution. Israel’s “day after” plan is unclear and may not yet even have crystallized. It is difficult, thus, to comment on Israel’s approach, but one thing is certain: the plan to rehabilitate the Palestinian Authority as a government will fail.  And neither for the commonly understood reasons of its unpopularity and incompetence born of corruption nor for its inability to rise above its terror pedigree. It is because the very idea of the Palestinian Authority as a solution to the Hamas challenge is based on concepts divorced from a Middle Eastern context.

To understand the problem with our approach, we must begin with our bafflement over why deterrence failed and Hamas even started this war.  Moreover, why does Hamas still think it is winning? Why did it invite its own destruction and why does it not see it as its own destruction?

One of the greatest barriers Westerners have in understanding the region is our deep appreciation for structures and words as institutions.  In the West, institutions have a life of their own, and the possessors of office – a tangible concept in the West – are merely trustees.  A leader or office-holder is only a steward of a trust whose job is to protect the interests of the trust. It is not about him; he will be judged entirely on whether he strengthened or damaged the stature and well-being of the institution during his stewardship. As Westerners we place great faith in the solidity of structures and words as institutions.

But such solidity does not exist in the Middle East. Institutions are extensions of personal relationships. They lack a life of their own. Even on issues of succession in government, arrangements perish with the ruler.  When the founding prophet of Islam, Muhammad, died, the tribes met in Mecca to name a replacement, whom they did – Abu Bakr in 632 AD.  And yet, despite the “office” of leader’s having passed to Abu Bakr, he was promptly confronted with challenges, even war, by many of those who ostensibly supported him. The pledged unity of the various factions and tribes to Muhammad and the community of Islam melted away.

In the Western mind, this could be understood as treachery. Promises and pledges are institutions and have a life of their own. Violating them betrayed the institution and the sanctity of words.  But in the Middle East, such institutions and pledges are intensely personal and are meaningless in a structural or verbal sense.  While Abu Bakr may have acquired something akin to our concept of “office holder,” as well as might have expected to enjoy adherence to the world of pledges given by the followers of Islam, in fact, his ascent only marked the beginning of negotiations – even violently executed ones – to redefine, rebalance  and validate in a specific personal relationship to Abu Bakr the institution (alliance, unified community) as well as the promises and pledges that had been already agreed upon before with Muhammad. The cycle restarted.

Because of this, in the Middle East institutions have heft only in as much as they are extensions of a powerful person, clan or tribe, or reflect that power’s relationship with other powerful forces. Structures and pledges as institutions, thus, pass through endless rounds of redefinition, reconstitution and even collapse.

So, what does this have to do with the American “day after” proposal, let alone how does it explain to us why Hamas does not believe it is losing? In the Middle East, since nothing is institutionalized with solidity, strategy is not about establishing structures, mile markers, way-stations or anchors. It is instead about affecting realities from cycle to cycle. Those Western instruments transcend the current and acquire a permanence as a building block in an accruing structure.  But in the region, states and institutions are temporary arrangements. They reflect the momentary power of operating forces, personal or factional power. They are neither ends in themselves nor endowed with any concept of solidity as understood in the West.

So, Hamas does not, nor ever will, care about building Gaza.  To the West, Gaza is an entity or even an institution of a proto-state and thus Hamas loses any authenticity, following or right to rule because of its deep betrayal – self-destruction — of its charge. But that is not how Hamas sees it.  Hamas views Gaza as a mere stepping stone on a path to take over the world, as even its leadership has bluntly said in recent weeks. Neither does Hamas care about the Palestinian Authority for the same reasons.

The only importance of these statelets or institutions is if they are reshaped through each round to reflect Hamas’ refined relationship to the Islamic world. Hamas does not have a “contract” with the people who are subject to its power; it has a commitment to the Islamic community on the terms with which it personally negotiates them.  Since no Caliph or sitting “leader” of the Islamic world exists, that personal relationship is defined in terms of its popular currency (essentially tribally defined leadership by manifesting the sense of power needed for a tribe to survive) as well as in advancing the ideals of Islam (doctrinally-defined leadership within the Muslim community).  In this sense, both Gaza and the Palestinian Authority are meaningless. And since the structure is meaningless, so too is their destruction equally meaningless. And because the structures and their destruction are meaningless, victory and defeat of Hamas cannot be defined in terms of those concepts.

Thus, strategy for Hamas is not a plan progressing along a roadmap to seize meaningless structures. It is instead a relentless journey to navigate its personal relationships with the Muslim world as part of a deeper negotiation through endless cycles of building, leveraging and destroying temporal structures – often defined around cycles of interaction with the enemy – just like Abu Bakr had to do. And while Hamas never loses focus on the rest of the Islamic community as the only relationship that matters, its stature is established in part, as have many other Muslim rulers through the ages, through the language of its interactions with the enemy.

So, the destruction of Hamas, as we would define it, might end this immediate cycle of combat in the specific area of Gaza. And yet, the construction of new structures and pledges of fidelity to that structure will not lead to the sort of material advance that we expect.  It will not bring us progress along an arc toward a permanent resolution. Namely even if fantasies were realized in a functional Palestinian Authority, it will deliver a permanent victory over neither Hamas nor the underlying idea of it, let alone the sort of politics animating it. No “Palestinian Authority,” not even the concept of it — derived as it is from Western concepts of institutions — will ever serve as an obstacle to Hamas’ strategy derived as it is from Middle Eastern imagery. 

Both Israel and the West are in a long civilizational war with Hamas or its successor – perhaps even a perpetual war – and there will be a successor.  And since Islamic civilizations will not disappear, and since the West and Israel also have regional relationships – many of which are both amicable and vital – within that civilization, we must begin to think of strategic aims in those terms.  Namely strategy is about muddling and navigating perpetual rounds of interaction in which the West and Israel negotiate and renegotiate their stature based on personal connection (amical or inimical alike) and power in relationship to the other forces in the neighborhood. 

As hard as it is for us – a difficulty of which I am painfully aware given that I was trained in classic Western concepts of strategy — we cannot think of strategic goals in traditional terms. Strategy in the region is not the consequence of a crisply defined plan within the framework of a bounded episode that culminates in agreements (or even a final victory) that codify and govern a new, permanent reality around which institutions or pledges acquire solidity. It is a never-ending journey. 

And since Israel’s very history is itself a tale of muddling through a never-ending journey of threat and challenge — and a long history of constant change where empires rose and fell, and institutions all came and went — and because in Judaism great issues are examined and debated, but never fully resolved, in Talmudic fashion, Israel may be culturally more adaptable to navigating properly through the region than the West more broadly.

Still, under regional civilizational concepts, our employing terms like “Palestinian state,” “Palestinian Authority,” “two-states,” and “solving the Palestinian problem” only drive home how alien we are to that part of the world, and how naïve and clueless we appear to its inhabitants – and thus our failure is baked into the very DNA of our concept.  And perhaps the gap between the United States and Israel regarding the “day after” emerges from the subtle realization at which Israel may be arriving, if even without being aware of it, as it moves from the very Western “Oslo” seek-a-structural-solution paradigm to a paradigm that emanates from Israel’s contemplating and reverting into its own Jewish history.

In the end, to defeat Hamas not only as a faction, but as an idea, both Israel and the West need to learn how to speak in the political and strategic language of the region’s culture.