The Sword Is Not Enough: Arabs, Israelis and the Limits of Military Force by Jeremy Pressman, Manchester University Press (2020)
Most books dealing with issues of war and peace between Israel and Arab states tend to be written by historians, by contemporary or former participants in the drama, or by advocates with a perspective to push.
There are comparatively few books on the subject written through the lens of international relations. Jeremy Pressman attempts to fill that gap with his new book The Sword Is Not Enough: Arabs, Israelis and the Limits of Military Force.
An associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, and a former fellow at Harvard University, among other impressive institutional affiliations, Pressman is well-credentialed.
In his book, he draws from theoretical and comparative frameworks in an attempt to advance a new understanding of why Israel and Arab states have primarily relied on the use of military force to advance their national and foreign policy objectives.
Unfortunately, the book largely fails to deliver on this promise.
To Pressman’s credit, he eschews simplistic dichotomies that condemn the use of force and praise nonviolence. He offers a nuanced conceptual framework, arguing that the use of force and diplomacy can be intertwined and that the use of force can wring concessions from an opponent and even achieve substantial national goals.
Pressman counterbalances this argument for the efficacy of the use of force by noting that the reliance on force cannot compel antagonists to sign a peace treaty or enter into warm relations afterward. Sometimes producing a boomerang effect and resulting in unintended consequences, the use of force can obscure any diplomatic openings.
These observations are commonsense approaches both to international affairs in general and Israeli-Arab issues of war and peace in particular. Detailed, original research could buttress these rather uncontroversial theoretical claims, but Pressman’s methodology leaves little room for that.
Instead, he relies on brief case studies – such as Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip in 1955, Egypt’s surprise attack against occupying Israeli forces in the Sinai Peninsula in 1973, and Hizballah’s guerrilla warfare against occupying Israeli forces in southern Lebanon in the 1990s – to argue either that the use of force led to greater conflict or produced concessions.
However, these case studies are both too short and too reliant on existing academic literature and other secondary sources of information to shed much new light on these historical episodes.
Circular logic challenged
Pressman is at his best when demolishing tautological arguments from other academics who are overly enamored with use of force analytical frameworks.
He takes to task the circular logic of Yehoshafat Harkabi, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence and later a professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Harkabi’s 1977 book Arab Strategies and Israel’s Response contributed to Israeli strategic thinking. It influenced the worldviews and policies of Menachem Begin, Israel’s prime minister from 1977 to 1983, and informs those of Benjamin Netanyahu, who holds that position today.
The Palestine Liberation Organization’s 1974 Ten Point Program envisioned the establishment of a Palestinian national authority on any piece of territory liberated from Israeli occupation.
Harkabi interpreted this program as reflecting a change in tactics to “destroy Israel slowly rather than all at once,” in Pressman’s words – not as a step towards the PLO’s more explicit adoption of a two-state paradigm in 1988.
For Pressman, Harkabi’s analysis was “a particularly powerful argument because it is not falsifiable. No matter what Arab policy was pursued, it seemingly proved he was correct.” Harkabi could have his cake and eat it too.
Pressman devotes roughly equal amounts of pages to Israeli-Arab matters as he does to Israeli-Palestinian topics. He correctly notes that while the former is a more traditional inter-state contest, the latter should be analyzed through the lens of a national liberation struggle.
Minefield of terminology
However, it is precisely here that Pressman steps into a proverbial minefield of terminology, and his word choice calls into question the soundness of his analysis.
He refers to Israel’s assault upon the blockaded Gaza Strip in winter 2008-2009 as a “skirmish” between Israel and Hamas.
The UN-commissioned Goldstone report found that Israel both deliberately and indiscriminately attacked civilians, and wantonly destroyed civilian infrastructure and key economic productive capacities. Terming this a skirmish significantly devalues Israel’s brutal and disproportionate use of force.
Pressman also dubs the first Palestinian intifada a “use of force” against Israeli military occupation. Even if throwing stones or Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers could be characterized as acts of violence, they hardly rise to the definition of the use of force as enshrined in customary international law.
Moreover, the first intifada was composed overwhelmingly by acts of nonviolence: demonstrations, strikes, civil disobedience, boycotts and acts of economic self-sufficiency, such as planting victory gardens, to break Israeli-enforced economic dependency.
Even in his more traditional analysis of Israeli-Arab relations, Pressman makes some dubious claims.
He contrasts the completion of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty with the absence of such an agreement between Israel and Syria. According to Pressman, the contrast can be explained by differences of “leadership and mediation” rather than differing Israeli attitudes toward withdrawing from occupied Egyptian and Syrian territory.
The presidents of Egypt and Syria at the time clung tenaciously to the principle of Israel withdrawing from every square inch of territory occupied in 1967 in exchange for a peace treaty.
Menachem Begin was willing to withdraw from Egyptian territory. Yet Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak were unwilling to return to the 1949 armistice line when they were Israel’s prime ministers.
That accounts for the differential outcomes of negotiations in which the three leaders were involved.
Pressman concludes his book with an overview of how the Trump administration’s policies have seemingly changed the balance in the calculus between force and diplomacy.
Trump broke with previous administrations by rewarding Israeli intransigence with unprecedented backing in its objective to permanently rule over the Palestinian people in a separate-and-unequal way.
Although written before the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan normalization deals, Pressman foresees these developments and recognizes their potentially far-reaching implications in undermining his thesis that the use of force is not sufficient to obtain national objectives.
“If other countries moved to view Israel’s indefinite occupation or annexation and a system of unequal rights as legitimate, if all or at least most Arab states sought fully normal relations with Israel … such evidence could serve as a counter-example to the central claim of the book,” Pressman writes.
“It would suggest that Israel’s forceful policy of settlement, annexation and repression had led to a successful outcome: Israeli status as a legitimate actor in the international arena,” he adds.
Although Pressman professes that he is “skeptical that will occur,” it appears that Israel is now well on its way toward that goal. In the absence of accountability or external pressure that would encourage diplomatic concessions, the reliance on brute force to achieve national objectives just might prove a winning strategy in international relations after all.
Josh Ruebner is adjunct professor of justice and peace studies at Georgetown University.