There Is No American Sword for the Israel–Palestine Gordian Knot
Why should we redouble efforts that have already failed in bringing stability to the Levant?
The atrocious attacks by Hamas militants against Israeli civilian and military targets has reminded the world that this conflict is always simmering just under the surface, breaking open with little warning or provocation. More strikingly, it underlines a hard truth that many U.S. leaders still seem unable to accept: that the Israel–Palestine conflict is a gordian knot the U.S. cannot untie.
The complexity of the problem lies in its genesis: Multiple religious groups lay claim to land that has a holy significance to them. Members on both sides feel obligated at the depths of their souls to fight for it with a zeal that money, military power, and the threat of death cannot overcome. The Israeli response to the attacks will likely be disproportionate, but the methods and goals of that response are solely Israel’s to determine. It is also very likely that the Hamas leadership expects such a response, and indeed might be counting on it to rally Islamic sentiments in the region, disrupt the growing relationship between Israel and some Arab governments, and breed the next generation of extremist fighters.
We can safely assume all this because we have seen it before; the scope is just larger now than it has been in decades. Throughout that time, no tool that the U.S. government has—from our military power and our well-funded intelligence apparatus to our economic and diplomatic strength—has been able to untangle the mess and provide a stable solution for all parties. This includes a number of tried tactics: the trilateral peace process of the Clinton administration, the unyielding support of Israel and aggressive posture towards Iran from the Trump administration, and the multilateral diplomacy of Presidents Obama and Biden. Each has offered shadows of hope behind the idealistic proclamations of their champions, but ultimately led back to the same end.
Is it because we haven’t found the right strings to pull to untie this? Or is it because no such combination exists, at least not for a third party located on the other side of the world?
As noted by others, stable coexistence in this multi-cultural, religious, and ethnic region is “almost inevitably imperial, with a leviathan maintaining the balance of power and enforcing top down order.” Whether externally from the Ottoman, British, or French empires, or internally from authoritarians like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, only an iron fist has been able to keep the lid on the pot—and only temporarily at that.
Is the U.S. willing to play such a role? Leaders and pundits wax eloquently from TV studios and think tank armchairs about the need for a protector of global order, but if a nearly trillion-dollar annual defense budget and hundreds of global bases have not proven sufficient, what will? While public opinion in our country supports Israel, especially when attacked, the appetite for prolonged military conflict was spent on Iraq and Afghanistan—two geopolitical problems less complicated than those faced in Israel. And any increased U.S. presence or influence in the region would be matched by Iran and possibly Russia, further twisting the knot.
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We should not fall into the temptation of thinking that our advanced capabilities hold the key. The ability of Hamas fighters to catch the Israeli (and ostensibly the American) intelligence community by surprise should dispense with arguments that so-called “smart power” and our cutting-edge technology will be sufficient to end the conflict. Initial reports indicate that the Hamas operation to enter southern Israel was relatively low-tech, similar to the insurgencies against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The issues underlying the Israel–Palestine conflict are deeper and more rooted than anything we are able to influence through our usual military and diplomatic tools. Much like the conflict in Ukraine, our modern ideals and solutions are buried under the weight of complex historical, ethnic, and religious factors that we either don’t understand or actively choose to ignore.
In the legend of the gordian knot, Alexander the Great overcomes the impossible challenge to untie it by pulling out his sword and cutting the knot in half. It has been the desire of many American leaders in the past decades to find such an elegant solution for the Israelis and Palestinians, but it does not exist. Perhaps our way of cutting the knot is to step back to recognize our limitations and refocus on our core national interests: Support for Israel may be understandable, but the U.S. has an interest in not seeing this conflict widen to involve other parties, including our own.