global politics, relationally

Waves of War and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


Like my good friend Steve Saideman, I don’t write much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is academically odd, given that most of my stuff has been on ethnic conflict, secessionism, and irredentism, and the whole Israel/Palestine thing falls smack in the middle of that category. It was certainly included in the data set I compiled for my dissertation, but I’ve largely avoided it since then for reasons well-known to most people in the international relations field. Israel-Palestine is the ultimate Third Rail – a viper’s nest of highly-charged, overly-emotional, moralistic arguments that are deadlocked into an endless shouting match. In that arena there is no winning, and rarely even surviving. From a rational choice perspective, staying away from this argument is a pretty obvious choice – the costs FAR outweigh the benefits.

So why am I stepping into it now? Because I wrote a review last week of Andreas Wimmer’s latest book, Waves of War: Nationalism, State Formation, and Ethnic Exclusion in the Modern World. And even though Wimmer manages to write the entire book without mentioning Israel or Palestine even once, I think the picture he puts together may hold not the solution to the problem, but the answer to why there is endless fighting and no progress towards peace.

Wimmer’s basic argument is that war and international relations for the last 200 years is overwhelmingly the story of the spread of a single idea: the sovereign, nationalist state. Over that time period wars have become less and less about other things (conquest, great power status) and more and more about nationalism and who rules who. Why is not hard to understand – the great powers have less and less to fight about (and more incentives, in the era of thermonuclear weapons, not to), but everybody cares deeply about their own backyard. Moreover, the notion the idea of national self-determination has become the only legitimate organizing principle on the planet. Divine rule, imperial rule of superior civilizations, rule by an international vanguard of the workers – all of these have gone by the wayside in favor of the “like rules like” idea. Tip O’Neill was right – all politics is indeed local.

In that kind of world, there will be no peace in Israel and Palestine until the political future of the Palestinians under Palestinian rule is secured. The two sides can spend their time pointing fingers and shooting rockets and missiles – which is exactly what they are doing. All this death and destruction is useless, because it has not shown any tendency to resolve the question that actually needs to be resolved: when, where, and how will Palestinians get to rule themselves in their own way?

Unfortunately, as much as I want to agree with my colleague Steve’s “pox on both their houses” conclusion (and as much as there is blood and ugliness aplenty on both sides of that line), there is an imbalance in power that creates an imbalance in responsibility. Israel has the power to deny, far into the future, any solution to the fundamental problem. So far, collectively, Israel has shown every indication of doing so. It cannot agree within itself on what kind of solution would be acceptable, or even that a solution is necessary. And as long as that is the case, rockets will rain down and busses will blow up and there will be war.

That’s not to say that Israel can wave a magic wand and end the conflict tomorrow. And that’s not to say that there aren’t some Palestinians still who want to “drive the Jews into the sea”. But so long as Israel debates about what kind of political solution, if any, needs to be pursued there will be no peace. Maybe some folks are OK with that – all equilibria produce winners and losers, and the status quo is certainly acceptable, even advantageous, to some within Israel (and probably some, including Hamas leadership, among the Palestinians).

Palestine is one of the last vestiges of the old world order, when large swaths of the world were governed by outsiders. While the details remain to be worked out, there is only one solution: the sovereignty solution. Until both sides – but especially Israel – want to achieve that solution more than they want anything else, war will continue.