One on One: The tyranny of the weak

Joel Fishman talks about Israel's disadvantage in face of asymmetrical warfare.

joel fishman 298.88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
joel fishman 298.88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'We have to understand the origin of the terms we throw around," says Joel Fishman, a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) and adjunct fellow at the University of Calgary's Center for Military and Strategic Studies. One such phrase, says Fishman - the author of a 2003 paper titled: "Ten Years Since Oslo: The PLO's 'People's War' Strategy and Israel's Inadequate Response" - is "two-state solution." Another is "peace camp." The former, he says, was adopted by the PLO in the early 1970s, after Yasser Arafat went to North Vietnam to consult with political officers on how to combat his international reputation as a terrorist. The latter was a Soviet term invented during the Cold War to make a distinction between the "good" socialists and "evil" capitalists. What such catch-phrases have in common, explains Fishman, 64, is their use as political tools to achieve military aims - something that has characterized many asymmetrical battlefields. Using the Vietnam War as an example of a weaker power's political victory over a stronger one, he shows the way in which the Palestinians have used it as a model for their own struggle against Israel. "The Vietnamese did not really win that war on the ground," Fishman points out. "They won it in the United States," with the help of the American Left. In an hour-long interview in his Jerusalem apartment, Fishman - who made aliya in 1972 from Brookline, Massachusetts - describes the way in which Hamas is using the Vietnamese model. "You begin with foot soldiers armed with a bag of rice and a rifle and are prepared to endure any hardship for the cause," he says, describing Vietcong strategy. "But ultimately the idea is to get as many and as sophisticated weapons as possible, preferably by taking them from the enemy, and to build a regular army." It is no coincidence, he asserts, that Hamas this week announced that it is doing just that. How have the current events in Gaza affected the Palestinian narrative? They have made it difficult for the Palestinians to define the situation to their advantage - in a way that portrays them as victims and Israel as their oppressor. The case of kidnapped BBC reporter Alan Johnston, for example, is one they can't blame on the Jews. Actually, as was reported in these pages on Sunday, Hamas leader in Syria Khaled Mashaal wrote an op-ed in The Guardian in which he blamed Israel for it. Well, this shows a real lack of introspection and imagination. But there's a greater issue here, one that goes beyond the fast-breaking news. The Muslim Brotherhood has transformed Gaza into an armed and fortified enclave, from which it can stage new acts of aggression. Indeed, Hamas has no plans to accept Israel's existence. Fatah controls Judea and Samaria, but Fatah control is not assured because of its poor handling of civil administration and the corruption of its leadership. The Palestinian leadership is still embodied by Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]. Whether he emphasizes it or not, his main objection to Israel is existential, as was the case with his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. We may ask whether the Palestinians, be they Fatah or Hamas, represent a partner for Israel or a lethal threat. Another basic question is whether the Palestinians actually want to build a viable state. They may not, because the moment they have a state with defined boundaries, their war against Israel will effectively be over. Whatever the answer, the events in Gaza represent a dangerous development. Still, Abu Mazen's declared objective, like that of Israel and the international community, is a "two-state solution" - Palestine alongside Israel. It's quite a victory for our adversaries that we have adopted their terminology. At the beginning of the 1970s, a delegation of Palestinians, among them Arafat and his second-in-command, Salah Khalaf, also known as Abu Iyad, went to consult the North Vietnamese political officers. Seeing how successfully North Vietnam was standing up to the United States in the war, while garnering sympathy and support even from the American public, the Palestinians - in crisis because they were universally viewed as terrorists - sought out their advice. In response, the Vietnamese counseled them to work for their goals in phases, which would conceal their real purpose, permit strategic deception and give the appearance of moderation. So the PLO leadership adopted the term "two-state solution" from the North Vietnamese. For the uninitiated, it sounded moderate enough and implied a type of compromise, but for those who knew better, the "two-state solution" represented a way-station on the road to ultimate victory. The real meaning of this term - and its real intent - was the model of North Vietnam which ultimately swallowed up South Vietnam. This is why it makes me shiver to hear Israeli leaders call for a "two-state solution." What role, if any, did the Soviet Union play in this? The Soviet Union mainly provided arms and political support. But the North Vietnamese had borrowed from and improved on the strategy of [Chinese Communist Party chairman] Mao Zedong - from what he called "prolonged conflict," where a weaker force can take on a stronger one, through a "people's war." This model is still followed by others, and now has different names. Some people call it "fourth-generation warfare" or simply "asymmetrical warfare." This happens when a weaker power tries to take on a larger and stronger one by fighting it both politically and then militarily over an open-ended time frame. Militarily, it might engage in guerrilla warfare. But politically, the weaker side tries to deprive its enemy of legitimacy and claim it for itself. It is noteworthy that Fatah translated the writings of General Giap into Arabic, as well as those of Mao and Che Guevara. How does the weaker side deprive its enemy of legitimacy? Through international bodies, such as the United Nations, it seeks to remove the legal legitimacy of an enemy. By exploiting the elite "leadership" of a society, it endeavors to change policy and public opinion. For this purpose, it enlists the witting or unwitting support of newspaper editors, authors, professors, clergymen, politicians and opinion makers, and front organizations, such as NGOs. This is a way of going after an enemy's political legitimacy. During the 1930s, Willi Muenzenberg, a protégé of Lenin and an absolute propaganda genius, perfected this method. Doesn't guerrilla warfare - the killing of innocent civilians through suicide bombings, for example - do damage to political warfare? If you're trying to delegitimize the enemy, wouldn't it seem to be counterproductive simultaneously to commit mass murder? How do the two go together? Very easily. You just redefine "universal justice" to mean "justice for the Palestinian people" exclusively. Universal justice is originally a Jewish concept according to which justice and equality before the law apply to all people, not only Jews. What the Palestinians have done - certainly in the political sphere - is to transform the ideal of "justice for the Palestinian people" into the supreme virtue, and it follows simply that in the pursuit of this objective the end justifies the means. The problem - one that's particularly dangerous - is that a good number of well-intentioned people are prepared to suspend their critical judgement and go along with this proposition. Many church leaders, for example, are willing to look the other way when it comes to any question of Palestinian justice. Another example of this assault on the universality of law and morality is the flawed distinction made between "good terror" and "bad terror." After 9/11, it generally became accepted that terror against the West had to be fought, but this applied to "everybody except the Jews." Terror against Israel remained part of the legitimate struggle of the Palestinians. Is Hamas consciously imitating the Chinese or Vietnamese model? It appears that there are similarities. Is Israel following a similar pattern to that of the US during the Vietnam War? The Israeli elites may be deluding themselves with wishful thinking, but the public has been able to grasp the situation and stand up to the reality. The public has demonstrated a remarkable resilience. One French philosopher observed that the mark of a good democracy is when the people are better than their leaders. According to this logic, [he laughs] Israel is a great democracy. Is asymmetrical warfare a function of asymmetrical political systems? When a despot is at war with a democracy, he is both in complete control and has no compunction about lying, whereas a democracy relies on an electorate and moral values that prevent it from engaging in similar countertactics. Of course there are differences between a democracy and despotic regime when at war. Although a democracy begins at a disadvantage, its great strength lies in the mobilization of its citizens and society. We should also look at the situation from a different perspective. From ancient times, Jewish history offers many examples of "the few against the many." We've always had to fight asymmetrical warfare, and we still do. The truth is that our enemies succeeded in inverting reality and framed us as Goliath. In every sense, modern Israel is the real David. Which brings us back to the Vietnamese model. Yes, the Vietnamese general, Vo Nguyen Giap, succeeded in exploiting the American news media and the weakness of an open society in order to get his message across. Although the Americans fought against the Vietcong with considerable success, the Vietnamese enlisted the American Left to portray the situation otherwise, as was the case with the Tet offensive. They strove to undermine support for the war within America. The Vietnamese did not really win that war on the ground; they won it in the United States. In his book, The White House Years, Henry Kissinger describes telling [Soviet ambassador to the US] Anatoly Dobrynin that the Vietnam War had been transformed into a domestic issue. By means of political warfare, the North Vietnamese broke the will of the American public to persevere, and came very near to destabilizing the government. Is the same thing happening in Israel? Yes. Our enemies have tried the same technique against Israel in order to destroy the national consensus. For example, the real purpose of the Geneva peace initiative was to undermine support for the Israeli government. In fact, Fatah official Hatem Abdel Kader told The Jerusalem Post ["Fatah scares off would-be Geneva signers," Dec. 1, 2003] that the main goal of the Geneva Accord was to create a schism inside Israel and undermine the Sharon government. He said: "Our aim was to create divisions inside Israel and block the growth of the right wing in Israel." I wouldn't be surprised if the 2003 pilots' and commandos' letters [stating a refusal to serve, due to conscientious objection] had been similarly inspired. [Prime minister Ariel Sharon's adviser] Dov Weisglass said this kind of domestic strife played a part in Sharon's considering the disengagement from Gaza. He was willing to pay a price to deflect the Left. Can you put the Vietnam model into the context of what is happening today in Gaza? Gaza is an armed enclave. Whether Fatah or Hamas - the Palestinians have a space where they can stockpile arms and wage war, like the Vietcong. The Oslo Accords gave them this advantage as a free gift. Gaza would be the first step in a strategy of guerrilla warfare against Israel on three fronts - one from Hizbullah in the north, one from Judea and Samaria in the east, and one from Gaza in the south. Returning to the North Vietnamese model - especially under General Giap - the important thing is to acquire modern heavy weapons. You begin with foot soldiers armed with a bag of rice and a rifle and are prepared to endure any hardship for the cause. But ultimately the idea is to get as many and as sophisticated weapons as possible, preferably by taking them from the enemy, and to build a regular army. It was not coincidental that Hamas announced this week that it is building a regular army. That's Hamas you're talking about. In the meantime, the West is providing Fatah with weapons. I predict that those weapons will also end up in Hamas's hands, and ultimately they will be used against Israel. This brings to mind a quote of Chairman Mao. In 1948 roughly, when much of Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist army was defecting to the Communist Chinese forces, he said something to the effect that "the great armories of the world are all sending their weapons directly to me." This is what is happening in Gaza, but Hamas is the beneficiary. What if the weapons didn't end up in Hamas's hands? Wouldn't they also end up being used against Israel? The chances of their being used against Israel are considerable, and the chances of their being used against Hamas are slim. If we recall the late Yitzhak Rabin's original idea of giving arms to the Palestinian Authority, we see the mistake it was. Defending the idea in November 1993, Rabin said that these arms were to be used by the Palestinian police in their vigilant fight against Hamas. He declared that they would never be used against Israel, but if they were, the Oslo Accords would be annulled, and the IDF would retake all the places it had given up. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know the outcome of this policy which the late prime minister defended with such brave words. The problem is that today the Americans again want to supply more weapons to Fatah in hopes that it will use them against Hamas. Here is a case where we can learn from history. Yet everyone, from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to the international community, distinguishes between Fatah and Hamas, saying that Fatah should be supported and strengthened. That comes from a mindset that is very popular in the US of "cultivating the moderates" or seeking a "win-win situation." Kissinger pointed out that the idea of helping the moderates dates from World War II. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's adviser, Harry Hopkins, argued that Stalin was a moderate and therefore had to be helped. [British MP and Celsius 7/7 author] Michael Gove and [German researcher] Matthias Kuentzel both attribute the weakness of the West to its lack of understanding of ideology as a driving force, particularly in the case of Iran. Generally, Westerners prefer to ignore the ideological dimension and focus on pragmatic problem-solving. They seek the "root causes" of terrorism, as if they were material. This mindset prevents one from understanding the enemy. For example, it fails to take into account the public declarations of [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad such as: "The Zionist regime must disappear from the scene of existence," which is a literal translation from Farsi. Indeed, the essential weakness of Israel and the rest of the West is that we tend to think that every dispute can be settled through some kind of deal. Another type of faulty reasoning is the assumption that our adversaries are decent people just like you and me. Neville Chamberlain, who had once been the mayor of Birmingham before becoming prime minister of the UK, assumed that Hitler's main objective was to to improve the well-being of the German worker. He thought that he understood this man. And he reasoned that if England gave him what he demanded and the issues of contention could be removed, Hitler would return to the work of building autobahns, spreading employment and raising his people's standard of living. This approach is called "cognitive egocentrism." It happens when you believe that everybody else is as reasonable as you are. For example, [US Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice once said that every Palestinian mother wanted to see her children going to university. Now, this might be true of Americans, but it's not necessarily the aspiration of every Palestinian mother. I happen to believe that more and more Palestinian mothers would really like to see their children go on to higher education. But Rice's statement in the context of what was going on shows that she doesn't get it. Rice is an American diplomat. But what about the Israeli decision-makers? They say similar things. Look, one cannot always know if they really mean what they say, or if they are saying certain things in order to please others. One thing is clear: Political correctness is a form of linguistic totalitarianism that leads to Orwellian "slavery." When there are certain things you're not allowed to say, it means in most cases that there are certain things you're not allowed to think. Give an example of things one is not allowed to say or think. It took a long time before one could call the Oslo Accords a failure. Nor could one say that Arabs were propagating anti-Semitism. What happened during the Oslo era and still persists is a type of a disconnect in our reasoning process. It was generally assumed that if we could cut a deal, we would have real peace and there would be no further need for Israel to project its message. That's why in May 1993 Shimon Peres, when he became foreign minister, shut down the information department of the Foreign Ministry. He confidently proclaimed, "If you have a good policy, you don't need public relations, and if you have a bad policy, public relations will not help." We still must come to terms with the hopes associated with Oslo and our present reality. Speaking of PR, most of the world has acknowledged that Hamas is a terrorist organization. If Hamas completely takes over the PA, how will it be able to delegitimize Israel and establish itself as the David to Israel's Goliath? We will have to wait and see, but probably it will follow the model of Hizbullah during the Second War in Lebanon, which was to take total control of the media message. And although Hamas will not enjoy the same widespread support as Fatah among the "chattering classes" in the US and Europe, there will always be some who will give it comfort. Bringing this back to the Vietnam model, what can countries like the US and Israel do to counteract the infiltration of the enemy's message into their societies? Our inclination has been to assume that the greatest threat to the state emanates from the far Right and to ignore the dangers from the Left. A Berkeley sociologist, William Patterson, explained that political identification is functionally defined by behavior. Describing the American radicals of the 1960s, he observed: "They are defined not by whether they pay dues to a party, but by their actions, their vocabulary, their way of thinking." It follows that, within the Israeli context, how people define themselves is tremendously significant. We may ask, "What exactly do people mean when they say that they belong to the so-called 'peace camp'?" This is a Communist term with a clear meaning. Lenin, in his late writings, formulated the "two-camp doctrine," which divided the world into the Bolshevik and capitalist camps. He named one camp the "counterrevolutionary imperialist West," and the other, "the revolutionary and nationalist East." As early as 1919, Stalin adopted the doctrine. This doctrine acquired new life in September 1947, with the proclamation of the Cominform [Information Bureau of Communist Parties] at the Polish town of Sklarska Poremba. There, Stalin's ideologist, Andrei A. Zhdanov, declared that "the 'peace camp,' representing the community of socialist states, was threatened by 'aggressive American capitalism.'" According to Sovietologist Robert C. Tucker, the "two-camp theory dichotomized the globe into two 'worlds' called the 'Soviet camp of peace, socialism and democracy' and the 'American camp of capitalism, imperialism and war.'" Thus, if you belonged to the "peace camp," your loyalty would be to Soviet Russia, no matter where you lived. You would be the dots of light in a world of democracy and darkness, but your real loyalty would be to the Soviet Union. So, today, in Israel, when one says that he or she is a member of the peace camp, one is actually stating that he is a member of the vanguard of the people's struggle for justice for the Palestinians, or to build a "state of all of its citizens," but not necessarily the sovereign State of Israel. If one takes this to its logical conclusion, these goals cannot be attained without regime change. This is a serious matter. We must learn exactly what these people mean, particularly when they use such terminology. It is the responsibility of citizens of good faith - and particularly of the security services - to prevent those who are working in the service of the enemy from getting their way.