I’ve been arguing for a while now that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to the wider East-West clash of civilizations what off-Broadway is to Broadway. It’s where you can see many trends at a smaller scale first.
That is why I study it closely. Whether it is airline-hijacking, suicide-bombing or trying to do nation-building with the other — Israelis called it “Lebanon invasion” and “Oslo”; we called it “Iraq” and “Afghanistan” — what happens there often moves to the larger stage.
So, what’s playing off-Broadway now?
It’s a play called “Containment.” When faced with a barrage of rockets from the Hamas militants in Gaza, Israel largely retaliated with artillery and air power. These inflicted enough pain on Hamas and the Gaza civilian population that Hamas eventually agreed to a cease-fire — but not to surrender.
Indeed, Israel chose to deliberately leave Hamas in power in Gaza because it did not want to put Israeli boots on the ground and try to destroy it — which would have required bloody house-to-house fighting — and because Israel also did not want to leave Gaza as an ungoverned space.
Israel’s adoption of a containment strategy toward Gaza also became viable after Egypt’s top military commander, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, replaced the Muslim Brotherhood government led by Mohammed Morsi. The Brotherhood saw Hamas as an ally and allowed it to dig tunnels into Egypt and smuggle in goods for profit and rockets to hit Israel. El-Sissi, who sees the Brotherhood as his archenemy, has closed those tunnels.
So containment, as a purely military strategy to stem disorder, can work for Israel, for now.
Containment also seems to be where the U.S.-led coalition is heading, for now, against the Islamic State. Since neither we nor our coalition partners are willing — or, thus far, in the case of the Iraqi army and Syrian “moderates,” able — to put many boots on the ground to oust the Islamic State, we will rely on air power to prevent the Islamic State from expanding and maybe to shrink it.
But here we come to the most important difference between the containment we used to defeat the Soviet Union and the containment of Hamas and the Islamic State. We and the Israelis are both using containment to seal off a problem that we each perceive as too costly, politically and in human terms, to try to eliminate. But that strategy has its limits.
As Mark Mykleby, a retired Marine colonel and the co-director of the Strategic Innovation Lab at Case Western Reserve University, put it to me: “In the Cold War, we contained the Soviets militarily to set the conditions for the USSR to collapse on itself, but that wasn’t the whole story. We also rebuilt the shattered economies of our former enemies, built international institutions like the IMF and World Bank, and redesigned our own governing institutions to address our new post-World War II reality so that we would have the strategic scaffolding in place to continue building a post-Cold War world once the Soviet Union did in fact collapse.
“In the case of Gaza,” he added, “the Israelis are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of a chronic problem by simply ‘containing’ the Palestinians.”
Without a strategy for improving living conditions there, that could prove very damaging to Israel in the long run as Gaza becomes a human disaster zone. The West is doing something similar with the Islamic State: containing without building “the regional scaffolding to support and leverage” a more modern, consensual and pluralistic Middle East that might fill the Islamic State space.
Containment, said Mykleby, only makes long-term sense if you commit money and political capital to fill that space with something decent. Israel is not doing that because Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and be a partner to a two-state solution. And because right-wing Jewish settlers so dominate Israel’s ruling coalition that Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu cannot or will not put on the table anything close to what the more moderate Palestinian Authority demands for a two-state deal. Nor is it clear the Palestinians could deliver the security Israel demands. In short, the whole relationship is broken, making a strategy beyond containment very hard.
On Broadway, we’re hamstrung in building a post-Islamic State political strategy by the fact that some of our coalition partners have no shared vision for a post-Islamic State Syria or Iraq and do not want democracy in this region. Also, some of them, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are purveyors of the intolerant, anti-pluralistic Sunni ideology that inspires militant fighters. Even Turkey’s Islamist government has some pro- Islamic State sympathies.
In short, containment in both theaters is necessary but not sufficient for long-term stability. But, unlike the Cold War where our containment strategy was largely the product of like-minded democracies working to liberate like-minded people from a bad system, we have few like-minded partners in the Middle East.
The most we can hope for are “least bad” allies and “least bad” outcomes. In today’s Middle East, least bad is the new good.