Up Against the Wall: Back at Gershom

Gershom, you’re right about a number of things in your“Politics of Measurement” post. Science is never free of social, economic, and cultural constraints, even if the scientific method offers, by and large, a good way to minimize those influences and approach the truth. And proving cause-and-effect relationships in politics and relations between nations is a hazardous undertaking. The influences are complex and interlocking, you don’t have a control group, and experiments can’t be repeated.

In the specific case at hand, the separation barrier, you are also correct that it is very difficult to isolate the anti-terror effect of the fence from other factors. As you note, political changes took place in parallel to the construction of the fence. And Israel also conducted an anti-terror offensive, using a variety of military measures.

In my post on the fence, I cited Hillel Frisch’s paper on the fence. Frisch attempts to separate out the differential effects of military action and the barrier:

Nevertheless, even if offensive measures were relatively more effective than defensive measures, there is no doubt from the findings … in which we compare casualties within the Green Line parallel to the fence to those areas where the fence had yet to be built, that the fence was an important supplemental measure in achieving greater security. While fatalities within declined to significantly less than half in areas parallel to where the fence existed, they more than doubled in areas bordering Judea and Samaria where no border existed. The third test also corroborates the substitution effect thesis that terrorists, all other factors being equal, will seek the path of least resistance. Obviously, the fence was an impediment the terrorist organizations wanted to avoid.

Frisch concludes that offensive measures contributed more to the decline in terror than the barrier did, and warns that the fence’s effect will decline over time, as terrorists adopt methods that circumvent it (like firing missiles into Israel).

All this is well and good, but the real question is what the other alternatives were during the terror offensive five years ago, what potential chances of success they offered, and how quickly they would achieve a significant reduction in terror attacks. The Protective Wall reinvasion of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 2002 produced a quick reduction in terror attacks, but the effect wore off quickly, as should have been expected. The options we faced at that time were either to reinstate full-scale Israeli rule over the West Bank, accompanied by intensive military actions to root out terrorists from Palestinian cities and villages; to create a border unilaterally by building the fence; or to launch an intensive attempt to reach accommodation with the leaders of the Palestinian Authority.

As long-time advocates of accommodation with the Palestinians, you and I would both have much preferred the latter option. But we differed then about whether it was the right policy at that moment. I believe that many, even most of the Palestinians’ leaders at the time wanted an accommodation. But their rule was so weak and inept that we could hardly be sure that an agreement could be reached.

(Our mutual friend Menachem Klein’s new book A Possible Peace Between Israel and Palestine: An Insider’s Account of the Geneva Initiative shows that even a process involving the representatives most committed to accommodation on both sides barely reached agreement. How likely was it that Sharon and Abbas could do it?) Even if we had reached one, the decline in terror would have most likely been slow and gradual at best.

But a slow and gradual decline in terror was not a realistic option. As such a peace process progressed, the terror threat would most likely have turned Israeli society sharply against accommodation, while Israeli offensives further alienated the Palestinian populace and further weakened the Palestinian Authority leadership.

There was no magic way out of this bind. But in such a situation, a state and its army must first protect its citizens’ lives, and second create a sense of security. This is the sine qua non for any movement towards peace.

Of course, the fence has created severe hardship for the Palestinians, and has turned many away from the hope of peace and into the arms of Islamic extremism. But, in my best judgment, all three of the options I enumerate above were likely to cause that result.

I fully agree with your call for skepticism. Indeed, one danger the fence presents to Israel is that it has lulled our nation into believing that no more needs to be done. But the conflict remains dynamic, and we cannot depend on any one tactic to keep us safe and to move us forward. The fence is no replacement for continued military action against terror, and it is no replacement for vigorous diplomatic activity towards a permanent solution to the conflict.