A Threat beyond Terrorism: The Strategic Hazard of a Palestinian State

In making its cumulative judgments about Palestinian statehood, Israel’s leaders must be sure to look beyond the “ordinary” terror threat to more far-reaching strategic hazards. These significantly greater perils would be many-sided and intersecting, and should compel Jerusalem to fashion an increasingly seamless web of deterrence from Israel’s combined conventional and nuclear assets. Opinion


Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN General Assembly (Photo: AP)

“A scientist, whether theorist or experimenter, puts forward statements, or systems of statements, and tests them step by step.” (Karl R. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1959)

Ordinarily, Palestinian statehood is assessed by capable scholars and analysts from the expressly limited standpoint of terrorism. In these threat-based assessments, the dominant hypothesis has generally been that a new state of “Palestine” would represent a more-or-less substantial peril of expanding terrorism to Israel. While such a hypothesis is both plausible and convincing, it misses a much larger and more consequential point. This point is the credible expectation that a Palestinian state could quickly and comprehensively present a strategic or prospectively existential hazard.

Whatever its particular form or configuration, any tangible Palestinian state threat to Israel’s national survival would likely be indirect. Metaphorically, it’s a bit like the case of an individual human being who won't die as the direct result of some relatively insignificant or singular illness, but who could nonetheless be sufficiently weakened by such a minor “insult” to open the way for more catastrophic or terminal pathologies. Although not likely to appear under the circumstances of present weapons technologies, it is still at least conceivable that a Palestinian state would sometime pose recognizably lethal hazards for the Jewish State.

By definition, any such mega-hazards would augur more ominous sorts of destruction than what is usually associated with “ordinary” Palestinian terrorist assaults. Most plausibly, these greater hazards would make their appearance in assorted and unpredictable increments, and not in evident consequence of any sudden or dramatic “bolt from the blue” military strikes. In principle, it is similarly conceivable that Arab terror attacks launched against Israel would neither subside nor cease altogether following formalized Palestinian statehood. This is because the leaders of any future Palestinian state – an entity with more codified juridical or sovereign status than the current UN “nonmember observer state” – would continue to regard a now more vulnerable adversary as “Occupied Palestine.”

Why, Israeli strategists must immediately query, should Palestinian decision-makers (PA, Hamas, etc.) alter their original concept of “the Zionist enemy” after they had finally secured their own sovereign state? Of further and corresponding significance, at this point, Arab terror would likely expand more quickly and more insidiously than if there had simply been no fully authoritative Palestinian state. Such a troubling expectation for Israel (and derivatively, for the United States) follows directly upon all that is already well known about “official” Palestinian platforms, and correspondingly irredentist maps, charters, and widely-articulated postures.

Should anyone believe that the Palestinian Authority (PA) and/or Hamas would remain content with a new Arab state that had been carved from “Israeli occupied territory,” they would need only be reminded that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded in 1964. That was three years before there were any “Israeli occupied territories.” Such unscientific believers ought also to recall that the current State of Israel is measurably smaller than America's Lake Michigan.

Today, even before any further creation of Palestine, the extant Arab world of 22 states is roughly 672 times the size of Israel. Of course, this does not include non-Arab Islamic enemy Iran.

Periodically, there is widespread talk of “another intifada.” For Israel, however, the rational remedy here would not be to encourage its more rabidly insurgent enemies to morph into an even more powerful and organized state enemy. One seemingly obvious reason for eschewing any such purported “remedy” is that a juridically enhanced State of Palestine could significantly magnify cumulative Palestinian capacities to inflict devastating harms upon Israel.

At some still-indeterminable point, it is likely that such mega-harms, imposed with even more reassuring margins of collective impunity, could involve diverse weapons of mass destruction, including chemical, biological, or nuclear agents. In this last category, Palestine, after implementing its long-sought condition of statehood or sovereignty, could be placed in an unprecedented and optimal position to assault Israel's Dimona reactor. Already, this nuclear facility was attacked in 1991, and again in 2014.

Those earlier missile and rocket barrages produced no ascertainably injurious damages to the critical reactor core, and had originated with Iraqi and Hamas aggressions respectively

Regarding expected Palestinian state intentions, there is little cause for bewilderment. Any new state of Palestine could and would provide a ready platform for launching incessantly renewable war and terror attacks against Israel. Not a single warring Palestinian faction has ever bothered to deny such overtly criminal intent. On the contrary, on the part of all Palestinian factions, de jure aggression has always been openly embraced and fervently cheered as a presumptively sacred “national” incantation.

Just a few years ago, a September 2015 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research – the leading social research organization in the Palestinian territories – concluded that a majority of Palestinians reject any “two-state solution.” When asked, as a corollary question, about preferred or alternate ways to establish an independent Palestinian state, 42 percent called for “armed action.” Only 29 percent favored “negotiation” or some sort of peaceful resolution.

There is more.

On all official Hamas and Palestinian Authority (PA) maps of “Palestine,” Israel has either been removed altogether, or identified exclusively as “occupied Palestine.” By these revealingly forthright and vengeful depictions, Israel has already been forced to undergo at least a “cartographic genocide.” Unambiguously, from the critical standpoint of any prospective Palestinian state policies toward Israel, such incendiary maps are predictive, portentous and possibly even prophetic.

What is not generally recognized is that a Palestinian state, any Palestinian state, could play an indirect but still calculably serious role in bringing some forms of nuclear conflict to the Middle East. Palestine itself would certainly be non-nuclear; but that discrete sort of renunciation is not necessarily reassuring. After all, there would remain several other ways in which the new enemy state’s predictable infringements of Israeli security could still render the Jewish state more vulnerable to an eventual nuclear attack from Iran, or, in the even more distant future, from a newly-nuclear Arab state.

This second negative prospect would likely have its core origins in Sunni Arab state reactions to a still-nuclearizing Shi’ite Iran.

Increasingly, several Sunni states in the region, most plausibly Egypt and/or Saudi Arabia, will feel compelled to “go nuclear.” Any such considered Sunni Arab nuclear proliferation would represent a more-or-less coherent “self-defense” reaction against expectedly escalating perils, once still-avoidable dangers now apparently issuing forth from a reciprocally fearful Shi’ite world.

More might also be expected from the Sunni side. Here, in actions that could bear no evident connection to expected Iranian nuclearization, ISIS or some subsidiary reincarnation of ISIS could begin an avowedly destructive march westward, across Jordan, and perhaps all the way to the borders of West Bank (Judea/Samaria). There, should a Palestinian state already be established and functional, dedicated Sunni terrorist cadres would likely pose serious hazards to any deployed “Palestinian army.” In the event that this new Arab state had not yet been officially declared – that is, in a fashion properly consistent with codifying Montevideo Convention (1934) expectations – invading ISIS or ISIS-type forces will have become the principal impediment to Palestinian independence.

All this must be taken seriously in spite of US President Donald Trump’s recent assertion that “ISIS has been defeated,” or the related statement by Vice President Mike Pence that “the Caliphate has been destroyed.” Neither the Trump nor the Pence reassurance makes any military sense, both because affirmations were operationally premature and also because the true dangers here are not from any particular organization but from a conspicuously durable Jihadist ideology.

Whatever happens in the field of battle to diminish ISIS – even some still-impending and significant victories – the underlying system of Jihadist beliefs is not going away any time soon.

Many things are possible. In principle, at least, Israel could sometime find itself forced to cooperate with Hamas against ISIS, but any reciprocal willingness from the Islamic Resistance Movement, whether glaringly open or totally beneath the “radar,” is manifestly implausible. Additionally, Egypt, which works closely behind the scenes with Israel on certain common anti-terrorism causes, regards Hamas as part of the much wider Muslim Brotherhood and prospectively just as dangerous (or more dangerous) as ISIS.

In any event, after Palestine, and even in the absence of any takeover of the new Arab state by ISIS/ISIS-type forces, Israel’s physical survival would require increasing self-reliance in existential military matters. Such expansions, in turn, would demand: (1) an appropriately revised nuclear strategy involving enhanced deterrence, defense, preemption, and warfighting capabilities; and (2) a corollary conventional strategy.  The official birth of Palestine could impact these strategies in several disruptive ways. Most ominously, a Palestinian state could render most of Israel's conventional capabilities substantially more problematic.

Ultimately, it could heighten certain discernible chances of a regional nuclear war.

A nuclear war in the Middle East is not out of the question. At some point, such an unprecedented conflict could arrive in Israel as either a “bolt-from-the-blue” surprise missile attack or as an intended/inadvertent result of escalation.

If, for example, certain enemy states were to begin “only” with conventional and/or biological attacks upon Israel, Jerusalem might then respond, sooner or later, with nuclear reprisals. If these enemy states were to begin hostilities with conventional attacks upon Israel, Jerusalem’s own conventional reprisals might then be met, at least in the future, with enemy nuclear counterstrikes.

For now, this second scenario could become possible only if Iran were to continue its advance toward an independent nuclear capability. It follows that a persuasive Israeli conventional deterrent, at least to the extent that it could prevent enemy state conventional, and/or biological attacks, would substantially reduce Israel's risk of any escalatory exposure to a nuclear war. Israel will always need to maintain and refine its critical capacity for “escalation dominance,” but Palestinian statehood, on its face, could still measurably impair this overriding strategic obligation.

A subsidiary question should now come to mind. Why should Israel need a conventional deterrent at all?  Israel, after all, seemingly maintains a capable nuclear arsenal and corollary doctrine, even though both still remain very “deliberately ambiguous.”

There should arise a further query. Even after “Palestine,” wouldn’t enemy states desist from launching conventional and/or biological attacks upon Israel out of an entirely reasonable and prudent fear of suffering a nuclear retaliation? 

Not necessarily. Aware that Israel would cross the nuclear threshold only in certain extraordinary circumstances, these enemy states could be convinced – rightly or wrongly – that so long as their attacks were to remain evidently non-nuclear, Israel would respond only in kind. Faced with such probable calculations, Israel’s ordinary security would then still need to be sustained by conventional deterrent threats.

A strong conventional capability will be needed by Israel to deter or to preempt conventional attacks – attacks that could, if undertaken, lead quickly, via increments of escalation, to various conceivable forms of an unconventional war. 

It is not yet sufficiently understood that Palestine could have sorely deleterious effects on power and peace in the Middle East. As the creation of yet another enemy Arab state would need to arise from the intentional dismemberment of Israel, the Jewish State’s already-minimal strategic depth would be further diminished. Over time, Israel’s vital conventional capacity to ward off assorted enemy attacks could be correspondingly reduced.

Paradoxically, if enemy states were somehow to perceive Israel’s own sense of expanding weakness and desperation, this could strengthen Israel's nuclear deterrent. If, however, pertinent enemy states did not perceive such a “sense” among Israel’s decision-makers (a more likely scenario), these states, now animated by Israel’s conventional force deterioration, could then be encouraged to attack. The cumulative result, spawned by Israel’s post-Palestine incapacity to maintain strong conventional deterrence, could become: (1) defeat of Israel in a conventional war; (2) defeat of Israel in an unconventional (chemical/biological/nuclear) war; (3) defeat of Israel in a combined conventional/unconventional war; or (4) defeat of Arab/Islamic state enemies by Israel in an unconventional war.

For Israel, even the “successful” fourth possibility could prove intolerable. The concrete consequences of a nuclear war, or even a “merely” chemical/biological war, could be calamitous for the victor, as well as the vanquished. Moreover, under such exceptional conditions of belligerency, the traditional notions of “victory” and “defeat” would likely lose all serious meaning.

Although a meaningful risk of regional nuclear war in the Middle East exists independently of any Palestinian state, this uniquely portentous threat would be even greater if a new Arab (terror) state were authoritatively declared.

Palestine could sometime become vulnerable to overthrow by even more militant Jihadist forces, a violent transfer of power that could then confront Israel with a broader range of regional perils. In this connection, again, an ISIS-type successor could find itself at the figurative “gate” of Palestine. In such a fearful scenario, it is conceivable that the Jihadist fighters would overwhelm any residual Palestinian defense force, PA and/or Hamas, and proceed to absorb Palestine itself into a more-or-less rapidly expanding Islamic “caliphate.”

The “next intifada” remains just another legitimizing term for plausibly remorseless Palestinian terror. Should it transform and institutionalize the endlessly fratricidal Palestinian territories into Palestine, either by itself, or as a newly-incorporated element of some still-growing “caliphate,” it could even become another Syria. Indirectly, but even more ominously, Palestine could bring genuinely nuclear-based harms to the wider “neighborhood.”

As we should have already learned from Syria, an entire region could soon face a uniquely injurious form of chaos, one that is calculably primal, self-propelled and almost viscerally lascivious. To better visualize such a primordial expression of civilizational breakdown, we should bring to mind the near-total “state of nature” described in William Golding's prophetic novel, Lord of the Flies. Even before Golding, Thomas Hobbes warned insightfully about those lawless circumstances wherein humans must coexist “without any authority above them.” Summarized by the great 17th-century English philosopher in explaining the dire circumstances of chaos, there must then prevail a suffocating pall of “continual fear, and danger of violent death.”

As for the all-important “life of man” in these shrouded circumstances, Leviathan foresaw that it must inevitably be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” It is just such an intolerably corrosive life that we might have to expect for Israelis and various others in the potentially chaotic aftermath of “Palestine.” This sobering conclusion emerges not from any ritualized conventional wisdom or “common sense,” but from the overriding imperatives of disciplined scientific examination. Recalling philosopher of science Karl Popper’s core advice: There will need to be “systems of statements,” suitably interrelated, tested and re-tested, “step by step.”

For purposes of analytic description, we would be dealing here with much more usable methodologies than those offered by persistently haphazard divinations.


Louis René Beres, a frequent contributor to IsraelDefense, is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He lectures and publishes widely on matters of Israeli security and nuclear strategy.

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