Political science after Gaza


Smoke rises from Tuffah neighborhood after Israeli air strikes in the east of Gaza City on July 29. (Mohammed Saber/EPA)

Israel’s latest war with Gaza has already killed more than a thousand people, including hundreds of children, while showing few signs of significantly changing anything fundamental. The dynamics of its asymmetric conflict, half-hearted cease-fire talks, civilian suffering, American inefficacy, Arab impotence and apoplectic public arguments feels painfully familiar. Indeed, besides the immediacy of the stomach-churning images of death and devastation circulated over social media, much of the analysis of the war could probably be recycled from 2008 or 2012 without changing much beyond the dateline.

That very stasis might actually be masking interesting questions, however. How has this conflict remained so impervious to the dizzying turbulence happening everywhere else in the region? Why are we still having the same arguments in the same terms when so much has palpably changed? Which changes in regional and international politics are likely to seriously destabilize the situation and which will be comfortably absorbed into the status quo? Will we soon look back at the long years of relative stagnation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as something akin to the false stability of Arab authoritarian regimes circa 2010?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been searching through the top political science journals looking for research that might be relevant for pieces about the current conflict for the Monkey Cage. I found surprisingly little, especially considering how much is written about the conflict in other disciplines and in the broader public realm. Most observers would probably chalk that up to the pathologies of public discourse about the conflict recently noted by the political theorist Jon Stewart. There is little space for explicitly ethical argument in the discipline, and many empirically-oriented political scientists may find the passions and overwrought rhetoric surrounding the topic off-putting. And it’s not like there’s a shortage of punditry on the topic.

But the long freeze and endless repetition suggests another possibility. It might be that for many political scientists, strange as it may sound, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just sort of boring. Year after year of “peace process still going nowhere” or “Israel bombing Gaza again” or “still no third Intifada” don’t offer the striking new puzzles that tend to drive political science research agendas. If that’s the case, then the potential for serious changes – for better or for worse – might open up some really interesting avenues for research. Here are a few issues that we might expect to see coming soon to political science journals and Monkey Cages:

What happens if there is no peace process? There’s a plethora of articles about the vicissitudes of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, but far fewer on how to think about their absence. It has probably been more than a decade since anybody seriously believed in the possibility of a negotiated two-state solution, but most diplomats and pundits continue to go through the motions out of fear of contemplating the alternatives. After the failure of Secretary of State John Kerry’s team, it is hard to imagine anyone else putting much effort in to them any time soon.

Some long-standing assumptions seem ripe for testing. What happens now that peace talks seem unlikely to resume? What is the universe of comparable cases, and how did they end up? Is it really true that Israel cannot sustain the status quo indefinitely? Does the commonly-invoked tension between being a Jewish state and a democracy still really matter to Israelis, given the ongoing changes in Israel’s demographics and the shift rightward in its political culture? How would Israel respond if changing technology erodes its military superiority? How would the open dismissal of the possibility of a two-state solution reshape Israel’s identity politics? With such long-settled assumptions now in play, work in the style of Ian Lustick’s magisterial “Disputed States, Unsettled Lands,” Nadav Shelef’s “Evolving Nationalism,” and Gershon Shafir and Yoav Peled’s “Being Israeli” may come back into style.

What are the prospects for the BDS campaign? The demise of the peace process could turn the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign into a growth area for future international relations research. International campaigns to mobilize or reshape international norms have been the centerpiece of decades worth of constructivist international relations literature. The BDS campaign falls squarely within the terrain of pathbreaking work such as Audie Klotz on the sanctions against Apartheid South Africa, Neta Crawford on the delegitimation of colonialism, Kathryn Sikkink on war crimes, Thomas Risse, Stephen Ropp and Sikkink on human rights, Martha Finnemore on humanitarian intervention, and Richard Price on land mines. Many of these studies demonstrate how the unthinkable became the inevitable, often against overwhelming odds, while others – as Charli Carpenter’s recent work on “lost causes” notes – show why they did not.

How does this literature apply to the intensely contentious arguments over boycotts against Israel? This seems like a great case for political scientists to assess a wide range of questions. Does the South Africa model really apply? When, why and under what conditions can moral campaigns trump material power realities, as they arguably did with regard to slavery? What are the real costs of international isolation or normative ostracism? When do activist campaigns succeed and when do they fail? What would be the effect of serious war crimes investigations or the involvement of the International Criminal Court? What about the still widely accepted moral arguments of Israel’s supporters, or the unease many liberals feel with collective boycott strategies? There have been plenty of essays and books written on the BDS campaign, but mostly by committed partisans on one side or the other. I couldn’t find a single article about it in any of the top political science or international relations journals. That will probably change.

What’s going on with the Arab states? Many scholars, including me, believed that the mobilization of Arab publics in 2011 would make it more difficult for leaders fearful for their survival to cooperate with Israel. Instead, Egypt’s reconstituted authoritarian regime of former general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has if anything been tougher on Gaza and closer to Israel than was Hosni Mubarak. So have Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Indeed, the Israeli-Egyptian-Saudi-Emerati alliance has never been closer and more open, except perhaps during the early days of Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah. Meanwhile, U.S. relations with all of these traditional allies are profoundly stressed. The widespread outrage over the Gaza war seems to disprove the idea that Arabs had stopped caring about Palestine (certainly that’s what is suggested by social media), but leaders seem no more inclined to follow public opinion on this now than in the past.

Israel’s relations with Arab states, and more broadly the international relations of the region, offer really fertile ground for some new political science research. Is it just that things are back to “normal” now that Arab autocrats have so thoroughly defeating the uprisings that they no longer feel the need to respond to their publics? Or has the mobilization of hostility toward the Muslim Brotherhood spearheaded by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt taken such a toll on Hamas? Are regimes from Cairo and the Gulf really feeling so secure that they can act with impunity, or is this how they behave when they are running scared? What is really driving their foreign policy behavior these days? How have Syria’s regionally-fueled civil war, spiraling sectarianism, the collapse of state authority from Syria and Iraq to Libya, and the prospect of a nuclear deal with Iran affected how Arab regimes think about the Palestinian issue? Has the taboo on Arab regimes openly aligning with Israel finally been broken? Will the current U.S. alliance structure survive the deep and growing divides between Washington and many of its traditional regional allies? It seems like the time is ripe for some new thinking on alliance politics and on regional international relations theory of all varieties.

Why haven’t the Palestinians thus far mobilized an uprising of their own? The Palestinian Authority has remained in control of the West Bank despite tremendous challenges. Last week’s protests outside of Ramallah were only the latest signal of the potential for a renewed intifada. But another Palestinian uprising has been predicted for years, and has failed to materialize even during the heady days of the early Arab uprisings or following the latest failure of peace negotiations. Will this time be any different? Why? Is it because of the effectiveness of the PA’s security services, or the legitimacy of its rule, or because of external support? Is it because West Bank Palestinians torn between Hamas and Fatah cannot unify? How long can the PA continue to control the West Bank and Hamas Gaza and what would replace them if they failed? What are the long-term effects of the Israeli occupation and the PA’s semi-rule on Palestinian political culture and institutions? What really happened in the Intifada and what would it take to spark a new one? Great books like Wendy Pearlman’s “Violence, Nonviolence and the Palestinian National Movement” and Yezid Sayigh’s (shockingly expensive) “Armed Struggle and the Search for State” might soon have some company.

These are only a few of the new areas for exciting political science research that seem likely to emerge – I’m sure there are many more, and that those political scientists more embedded within either the Israeli or Palestinian discourse on the conflict would pose completely different questions. New methodologies are also opening up opportunities. The Israeli-Palestinian arena is likely to remain a fertile domain for the experimental methods that are all the rage today, for analysis of the vast new sources of rich data to be found on social media, and perhaps even for considerations of international law and ethics. Hopefully you’ll be seeing some of these questions addressed here on the Monkey Cage, and if you happen to be a political scientist working on any of these topics, you know where to find us!

Marc Lynch is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
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