Will Demilitarization Work in the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict? Probably Not

News Abroad

Jonathan Dresner is Associate Professor of Asian and World History at Pittsburg State University. He blogs at http://froginawell.net and is an Assistant Editor of HNN.

President Obama's recent call for a new round of negotiation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict got a great deal of attention for his explicit mention of the 1967 borders as a starting point for land exchanges towards definitive borders.  This has been both the starting point and a sticking point for these negotiations for at least twenty years.  But his call for a demilitarized Palestinian state has a longer history:  demilitarization has been a component of political settlements to armed conflicts for at least a century, and has a decidedly mixed record.  For a situation like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, demilitarization alone will not work, and will only be a short-term situation.

The most spectacular examples of demilitarization came after the world wars of the twentieth century.  The disarmament of Germany after World War I, on the grounds that Germany was primarily responsible for the war (along with Austria-Hungary, whose empire was broken into many smaller units), produced a seething resentment exacerbated by the other punitive aspects of the Versailles settlements.  Not only did this infantilizing preventative measure facilitate the rise of the Nazi Party to power, but, in the context of the Great Depression, the added employment and economic boost produced by recreating and rearming a German military helped to legitimate and solidify Nazi rule.

On the other hand, the demilitarization of Japan after WWII was a striking success.  The demobilization and repatriation of the Japanese military did cause social and economic trauma.  But the Japanese people, by and large, were eager to have the war over and very supportive of the anti-war Article IX in the 1947 Constitution.  Japan did begin to reconstitute a military several years later—the Japan Self-Defense Forces—but it is largely an adjunct to U.S. forces in Asia and is strictly limited by law in its operations overseas.  

Yes, technically one of the ten best-funded militaries in the world shouldn't exist at all, but there it is.

The majority of the Japanese people still support Article IX, and the JSDF has had significant recruitment difficulties.  Japan's neighbor nations, all of whom were colonies of Japan, or lost wars against Japan, very much prefer that Japan's military remain limited in scope and mission.  It's possible that Japan's nationalist politicians, who would have preferred a normalized military decades ago, have finally gotten enough public support to consider a constitutional amendment, but Japan's politics are somewhat unstable at the moment, to say the least.

Why did Germany's disarmament produce such a vicious counter-movement?  Why did Japan's disarmament, while just as temporary, produce a radical change in culture and national goals?  As with most comparative histories, the answer isn't really simple, but the two most obvious elements are the experience of war and post-war prosperity.  Germany surrendered in WWI without ever experiencing combat on its own soil, suffered through the Weimar hyperinflation, then the late ‘20s stagnation followed by the Great Depression.  Japan was effectively and viciously bombed for two years, then given a great deal of assistance in rebuilding their economy, culminating in two decades of "miracle" growth followed by two decades of healthy growth, coinciding with the dramatic post-war expansion of the U.S. and global economies.

In both cases, there were guarantees of security, but the lack of war was not enough.  After WWI, Germany was a party to the League of Nations, adhered to a form of Wilsonian internationalism, and signed arms control agreements designed to prevent the arms races that contributed to WWI.  All these measures were designed to preserve a Bismarckian balance of power without the need for Bismarckian leadership, but they also preserved a status quo that was fundamentally unacceptable to many.  After WWII, Japan was placed under the protection of the United States, became part of the Western bloc in the Cold War, and has thrived economically—which is the only thing that mattered to Japan's ruling party for the quarter-century after the war—as part of the globalized world system.

It's not clear to me whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is sufficiently like one of the total wars of the early and mid-twentieth century for this comparison to work.  If it is, then the experience of war for the Palestinians is more like Japan than Germany, but it's not clear whether the economic situation, globally or locally, will result in steady growth for an extended period after a settlement.  That will partially depend on the global economy, and partially depend on the willingness of economic powers to support and engage the Palestinian economy as it develops.  But more importantly, it's highly unlikely that either side will surrender in this conflict, such that terms like disarmament could be dictated.

It's more likely, despite the greater likelihood of a two-state solution, that demilitarization in the Middle East might look more like one of the internal or anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century.  The two which come to mind are the reintegration of the Nicaraguan contras after the election of Violetta Chamoro and the Good Friday Accord, which laid out a path for decommissioning paramilitary groups, in Northern Ireland.  In both cases, the decision to disarm came after the establishment of a coherent and reliable expansion of the political process to address the issues and allow the participation of previously excluded groups.  Though both sides in each conflict were determined to move forward with a peaceful settlement, neither process was as quick or definitive as losing a world war.  There were reverses, periods of little progress, and even some uncertainty if a sustainable peace was possible.

And even if demilitarization is successful in such a process, the examples of Japan and Germany suggest that sovereign nations cannot be kept disarmed for long.  Even though Japan has unique restrictions on its military, it has had a military for over sixty years.

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