Thursday, February 08, 2018


 Vic Rosenthal's Weekly Column



The conflict between Israel and her enemies is both like and unlike the game of chess.

In ordinary chess there are only two players, and their objectives are identical: to checkmate the opposing king. In the Jewish/Muslim conflict in the Middle East there are a multitude of players, each with its own objective. For example, Israel’s goal is to establish herself as a stable, peaceful country. The Palestinian goal is to replace Israel with an Arab state and remove the Jews from the land between the river and the sea. The Iranian goal is to eliminate an obstacle to expanding Iran’s area of influence throughout the region, and to become a hero to the Muslim world by defeating the Jews. And there are also Russians, Americans, Turks, and others playing.

Nevertheless, chess is a game of strategy based on war – simpler than reality although complicated enough –  so there are analogies that can be drawn.

For example, in the opening part of a game of chess, both sides jockey for position. Conflict is muted – a pawn here or there is traded, but the object is to arrange one’s pieces so that after the “middlegame” when the more powerful ones clash, the other side will be at a disadvantage, perhaps with holes blasted in the defenses surrounding its king, with parts of its army destroyed, and forced to constantly defend itself with no respite to develop a counterattack. 

Israel and Iran are currently in the positional phase, “developing their pieces” in chess terminology, but make no mistake, what happens today is preparatory to a more violent confrontation. Iran (which did not invent chess but has been playing it since at least 600 CE) is acting systematically to prepare for the more violent middlegame. The Iranian regime is a better than average player.

Israel and the Palestinians are mediocre players, making many “rookie mistakes,” although the Palestinians play somewhat more competently than Israel. Both sides often act without sufficient consideration of the obvious moves that the other side will make in response. For example, in December of 1992 Israel expelled 400 Palestinians , mostly associated with Hamas, to Lebanon. Unfortunately, Lebanon refused to take them, and within a year all of the deported Palestinians had been permitted to return.

But that was a small mistake. The biggest and most damaging error made by Israel was the massive sacrifice offered in the Oslo Accords. It is sometimes advantageous to make an unbalanced exchange in chess, to give up an important piece in return for a great positional advantage or to make possible a “combination” in which the opponent can be forced to choose between unacceptable alternatives. Israel gave up an important piece when she allowed the dying, irrelevant PLO to come back to life, and to insert its cancerous cells into her body.

The sacrifice was supposed to bring about a change in the PLO’s objectives and to make peace possible. But it was based on a complete misunderstanding of the nature and motivations of Arafat and the PLO. The Palestinians accepted the sacrifice and ramped up terrorism and diplomatic warfare against Israel. At the same time, the PLO began its educational project which has borne fruit in today’s young “lone wolf” terrorists.

The biggest Palestinian mistake has been to never accept Israeli offers of a state, even with restrictions on militarization and lack of a “right of return” for the descendants of 1948 Arab refugees. A Palestinian state, no matter how limited, would have greatly improved their strategic and diplomatic positions, and given them time and space to prepare to strike at the heart of the Jewish state. Their ideological dogmatism prevents them from playing an innovative game.

In chess, both sides start almost even (White has a slight advantage from moving first). By 1993, Israel had developed a great advantage over most of its opponents. But much has been lost from a series of blunders, particularly Oslo and the withdrawals from South Lebanon and Gaza. And as Israel has played more and more poorly, the Palestinians have improved. They have taken advantage of the UN and the historic anti-Jewish attitudes in Europe to make significant diplomatic gains. They have not been so successful with the terrorism gambit, as Israel’s security forces have become better at counteracting it.

Iran, busy with her war against Iraq, was mostly out of the game against Israel until the 1990s. But she has recently started to demonstrate her skill. She leveraged the US to end sanctions, prevent financial collapse and provide funding for her military plans, while keeping her nuclear program and even legitimizing it. She exploited the chaos in Iraq and Syria to expand her influence in the region, and to prepare new fronts for the coming war with Israel. She even got the US and Russia to do some of the fighting for her.

Israel is hampered by the lack of a consistent strategy against any of her opponents, possibly because of her internal divisions and democratic tradition. Even when there is a strategy, there is often poor execution. Israel’s pieces, to continue the analogy, sometimes don’t move where they are supposed to! This is less of a problem for the Palestinian, Iranian and Russian players, where there is more or less dictatorial control.

The game continues, in its three (or more) dimensional, multiplayer form. Israel’s most dangerous enemy, Iran, is biding her time until she feels that she is strong enough to come out of the slashing violence of the middlegame with a winning advantage. But this phase will not continue forever.

The middlegame is preparation for the endgame, the systematic pursuit of the enemy that will result in the players realizing or not realizing their often inconsistent goals. That’s in the future. We can’t get there except through the violent middlegame. Let’s hope we have a good strategy and competent leaders to execute it.

But life isn’t chess. Life is more complicated and beset by unexpected events. And if you lose, you don’t get another chance.





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