Wendy Pearlman and Boaz Atzili, Triadic Coercion: Israel’s Targeting of States that Host Nonstate Actors (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Wendy Pearlman and Boaz Atzili (WP & BA): The project began when we both had post-docs at Harvard in 2007 to 2008. The 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah was still fresh, and we had many hallway conversations about it. We were both deeply alarmed by Israel’s severe bombardment of Lebanon on the demand that Lebanon “take responsibility” and stop Hizballah. We wondered, why would Israel expect that pounding a famously weak state would somehow get it to stop a notably strong nonstate actor?

We began to research the topic and noted that many states try to combat nonstate actors by punishing the states that host them. We eventually came to call this strategy triadic coercion. We looked to history to try to understand why Israel uses triadic coercion, how that policy has changed over time, and with what effects. We researched Israeli military institutions, doctrine, and decision-making going back to the first years of statehood. We also studied the Arab states that Israel targeted with triadic coercion, as well as the complex relationships between those host regimes and the nonstate actors on their soil.

Based on our research, we wrote a 2012 article explaining the varied effects of triadic coercion. But there was much more to say, including on the drivers of triadic coercion. We decided to expand the research significantly, both in terms of theory and empirical scope. The result is this book.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

WP & BA: Two main questions drive our research. First, we investigate the conditions under which triadic coercion is likely to succeed. Traditional discussions of interstate conflict assume that the greater a state’s power relative to the state that it seeks to coerce, the more likely it is to succeed. The coercer state should thus prefer its adversary to be weak. Triadic coercion turns this logic on its head. For the host state to act effectively against a nonstate actor on its soil, it requires internal political cohesion and institutional capacity. The host state’s executive decision-making must be consolidated to recognize the national security interest in averting another state’s coercive assaults. It likewise must possess the competencies to design measures against the nonstate actor and the domestic clout to implement such policies even if they are unpopular. Strong regimes possess these means, whereas weak ones do not. As a result, we argue, triadic coercion can only succeed when directed against a host state with at least a minimum level of regime strength. Triadic coercion strategies against weak hosts are unlikely to suppress nonstate actor violence, regardless of the military power that the coercer state projects.

Second, if triadic coercion only is effective against strong regimes, why do states frequently employ it against weak ones? We attribute such actions to strategic culture. A state’s system of beliefs, values, and practices can elevate the use of coercive force as an appropriate response—and host states as appropriate targets—independent of the efficacy of those choices. Politicians, public opinion, media, and military leaders might contribute to rhetoric, attitudes, images, and analogies that crystalize this strategic culture. Under these circumstances, national security decision-making elite, and perhaps even the social and political environment at large, encourage triadic coercion on the basis of conviction rather than calculation, and due to a utility that is intrinsic rather than instrumental. The outcome is increased use of the strategy, even when it is bound to be ineffective or even backfire.

The book elaborates and illustrates these arguments in an analysis of seventy years of Israel’s practice of triadic coercion against every state on its borders. It offers a comprehensive account of the causes and effects of Israel’s use of triadic coercion from 1949 to the present. It first presents a general theory that we believe applies well beyond the Middle East, followed by a discussion of how Israel’s use of this strategy took shape in early conflicts with Jordan. Then we explore Israel’s use of triadic coercion against each of its other neighbors: Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority. Finally, we briefly examine the validity of our arguments in the ways that India’s battle against Kashmiri separatist movements has brought it into conflict with Pakistan and Turkey’s struggle against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has brought it into conflict with the states of Iraq, Syria, and Iran.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

WP & BA: What excited us about this project is that it allowed each of us to make use of our prior work, to bring it in dialogue with each other, and to extend it in new ways.

Boaz is a student of international relations and security studies. His earlier work on territorial conflicts and the politics of borders, culminating in Good Fences Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict. That book highlighted the importance of state and regime weakness in affecting their territorial policy. Triadic Coercion digs much deeper and shows how such factors operate in very different arenas

Wendy studies the comparative politics of the Middle East. When we began this project, she was finishing her book manuscript on the politics and strategies of the Palestinian struggle from the 1920s through the second Intifada, what became Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement. That research continually alerted her to the movement’s complicated relations to Arab states and how carrying out operation from those states into Israel complicated those relations even further. Researching Triadic Coercion allowed her to examine those dynamics further.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

WP & BA: We hope that this book will be read by anyone interested in inter- and intra-state conflict and security. We hoped to advance academic conversations on coercive policies and also provide a rich and nuanced history of this particular facet of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

We also hope that decision-makers attend to the book’s policy recommendations. The Arab-Israeli conflict is much larger than triadic coercion. The key to sustainable and just peace in the region does not lie simply in enforcing quiet along borders that have been determined by war and dispossession. Nor can genuine peace be built on thwarting violence by nonstate actors while ignoring the much larger popular and historical grievances that animate their struggles. Peace requires political agreements that address all peoples’ aspirations for freedom, security, dignity, and national self-determination.

Effective triadic coercion is not a substitute for political solutions that safeguard individual and collective rights. Misapplied triadic coercion, however, can cause tremendous destruction and bloodshed, and all should be done to avoid such needless violence. States and societies should scrutinize how policies that they think are rational might actually be fueled by socially engrained assumptions and institutionally reinforced tendencies toward excessive and misguided use of military force.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

WP & BA: Since 2012, Wendy has conducted interviews with hundreds of displaced Syrians across three continents. She published We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria in 2017. She continues to conduct interviews and, on that basis, is starting a new book project on Syrians’ evolving experiences of identity, home, and belonging.

Boaz is currently working on a project on buffer zones (geographic spaces designed to separate two rival states) and their effect on both the states involved and the residents of these zones. He is also researching the emergence of the territorial status of Jerusalem in the early 1950s.

J: Could you give us an example of how the strength of the targeted regime affects the outcome of triadic coercion?  

WP & BA: During the decade after 1949, Palestinian individuals and then groups crossed from Egyptian-controlled territory into Israel, sometimes attacking Israeli forces or civilians. Israel retaliated against Egyptian state targets. During the early 1950s, we argue, this triadic coercion proved futile due to the weakness of two successive regimes: the monarchy of King Farouk and the first years after the Free Officers’ coup. While these regimes were very different, both wanted to prevent nonstate actors from antagonizing Israel from their territory and both were unable to translate that preference into effective policy. Lacking internal political cohesion and institutional capacity, Egyptian governments in this era did not wield the policing power or authority over social forces in the Gaza Strip necessary to fulfill Israel’s demands that it control the nonstate actors under its rule.

This situation changed dramatically after 1956. Nasser’s political victory in the Suez War, along with the sweeping domestic reforms he instituted thereafter, greatly increased the strength of his regime. At the same time, Israel’s demonstrated military power in the war increased Nasser’s incentives to prevent nonstate actors from embroiling him in a confrontation that he knew he could not win. The result was a striking shift in the effectiveness of triadic coercion: Egypt took various steps on its border with Israel, and especially along the Gaza Strip. These measures were effective and prevented attacks from nonstate actors on Israel from Egyptian territory.

Excerpt from the book

This excerpt examines the 2006 War and the ideas that shaped Israel’s decision to attack the state of Lebanon. 

Strategic culture: ideas

The role of strategic culture in shaping triadic coercion was also apparent in assumptions and contentions that, having taken root in prior years, were heavily impactful in 2006. Four ideas proved especially dominant in Israel’s strategy against Lebanon, just as they had had been against the PA during the second Intifada.

Inherent utility of actions in pursuit of deterrence

In advocating triadic coercion, military elites appeared to be acting on an inherited faith in military force more than a reasoned assessment of how the costs of such actions compared with their likely benefits. Dug Henrikson explains:

Israel’s decision to go to war was not based on a thorough in-depth analysis of the specific situation at hand, but rather rooted in its strategic outlook cultivated in the decades preceding the war. This thinking has largely focused on the concept of deterrence, and should deterrence fail, to restore deterrence.

This circular thinking was front and center in the IDF command’s first meeting with the Minister of Defense after the adductionHalutz argued that Hezbollah’s attack was a breach of Israeli sovereignty made all the more intolerable by Hamas’s kidnapping of a corporal near Gaza three weeks earlier. “We have to restore our deterrence, which got hit by the abduction of Gilad Shalit, and now received another blow,” Halutz said. This perspective informed the IDF’s design of goals for the operation in Lebanon. Amongst the most paramount was “to strengthen deterrence against Hezbollah and the entire region.”

It does not appear that high-ranking officers stopped to spell out the logic by which their military strikes would actually generate deterrence. In this sense, they seemed to focus on the pursuit of a deterrent posture as a goal in and of itself, not regarding such activity as a tool whose value lay only in its ability to produce greater security. The closest that decision-makers came to probing the instrumental, rather than inherent, utility of deterrence strikes came in an exchange between Halutz and then-Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Halutz reportedly declared, “Israel’s deterrence will not be maintained just because they [Arabs] think we have this or that stuff. Even if we have them, it does not prove itself on the ground. The fact is that things [like the abduction] occur.” Peres asked the assembled leaders to think a few steps into the future, and to consider what might be Arabs’ responses to Israeli actions, Israel’s counter-responses, etc. Both the chief of staff and the prime minister reportedly brushed his comments aside.

Just as the defense establishment made no serious effort to evaluate the expected benefits of operations to “restore deterrence,” they made no attempt to assess its potential costs. There is scant evidence of any serious reckoning with such calculations during or even after the war. In leading books of investigative reporting by Israeli journalists, one is hard pressed to find evidence of someone in the Israeli government or military command undertaking analysis of this type. Neither does the meticulously-detailed Winograd Report offer such an account.

We were unable to find any sort of retrospective, counterfactual analysis that compares the Israel’s material and human losses in 2006 to a forecasting of what losses might have been had Israel not gone to war and instead sustained the pre-war status quo. Bracketing the important issue of Lebanese losses, this kind of an analysis is useful for gauging the effectiveness of Israel’s strategy for protecting its own citizens. In the six years between Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon and the war, four Israelis lost their lives on average each year to Hezbollah’s attacks, most of them soldiers. Assuming continuation of the same pattern, it would take almost forty years for Israel to suffer the same number of casualties that it suffered in the war (165 fatalities). Of course, there is no assurance that the non-occurrence of the 2006 war would have yielded continuation of the same casualty rates. Those rates might have been higher, lower, or fluctuated. Nevertheless, they offer a sound starting point for a rational calculation about the expected costs and benefits of war. To our knowledge, no such calculation was made. In choosing war, Israeli leaders did not ask whether existing trends in border clashes presented were tolerable or intolerable. Rather Israel’s security elites observed what they interpreted to indicate a lapse of deterrence and judged that to be the one loss that Israel could not tolerate.

Lack of Nuance

This drive for deterrence indicated an understanding of the threat to Israel’s north that was painted with a very broad brush. Decision-makers made insufficient distinctions among the different actors constituting the Lebanese landscape, no less their varying interests and resources. As Ofer Shelah and Yoav Limor observed, “Few [in Israel’s leadership] were concerned with nuances, such as the differentiation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Lebanese – not only as targets of shelling but as future levers to achieve the goal of strengthening internal pressure on Hezbollah.” They cite a telling example. As the war began, Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament Nabih Berri reportedly sent a secret message to Israel promising to remain neutral in the war as long as Israel did not attack his Amal movement, a Shiite rival to Hezbollah. Ignoring this offer, Israel attacked the movement on July 14.

As damaging was the lack of serious thinking about the weakness of the Lebanese state and government, and how this mediated the effectiveness of triadic coercion. All indicators suggest that the IDF did not act on the basis of careful, convincing analysis indicating that Lebanese authorities had the capacity to coerce Hezbollah into submission, or that Israeli pressure would even compel them to try. Such an analysis would have required attention to the Lebanese government’s institutional competencies, relationship to social forces, structure of political incentives, and domestic constraints. It would likewise have required an estimation of how, precisely, strikes on infrastructure would increase the likelihood that this government would assume the sovereign responsibility that Israel had never observed it assuming in the past. Halutz and the rest of the General Staff showed no interest in such analysis. “Halutz,” Harel and Issacharoff commented, “was keen to strike immediately. He didn’t mull over a detailed analysis of power centers in Lebanon.”

The lack of nuanced thinking came to the fore on August 9, when the cabinet discussed going beyond the bombing campaign to launch a massive ground invasion. Referring to the Lebanese government, Halutz reportedly said:

We tell them pay attention: The electricity supply will start to decrease by small portions, the fuel will stop flowing in portions … We will present steps: ten percent, twenty-five, thirty, seventy, a hundred. I don’t know a stronger signal for taking responsibility.

One minister asked Halutz if the government in Beirut had the capacity to stop Hezbollah even if it wanted to. “That,” Halutz reputedly responded, “is not my business.” The Chief of Staff thus relieved himself from the need to account for how exactly his plan would leverage pressure on the state to influence the non-state actor. He simply assumed it would.

This and other anecdotes from the war suggest that IDF leaders approached the problem of restoring deterrence with a simple, one-size-fits-all solution. The IDF’s almost automatic transfer of the target of triadic coercion from Syria in “Defense of the Land” to Lebanon in “Elevated Waters” and “Ice Breaker” point to the same unnuanced way of thinking. They did not devote careful attention to precisely whom it should try to coerce and how this would increase Israeli security rather than yield new security problems. Instead, the defense establishment, as well as the civilian leaders who trusted its judgment, adopted the assumption that the harder the blow to Lebanon, the more Israel’s deterrence would be restored.

Logic of appropriateness

The discussion thus far has critiqued the strategic soundness of Israeli leaders’ choice of triadic coercion in the 2006 War. However, decision-makers often justified triadic coercion on grounds that had nothing to do with strategic soundness, and instead asserted its moral appropriateness. This conviction stemmed from the widespread view among Israelis that, in withdrawing from Lebanon in 2000, Israel had prioritized international principles and obligations, even at jeopardy to its own national security.

This understanding carried two implications. First, in Israeli eyes, taking the risk of pulling back to its own side of the border legitimated nearly whatever Israel believed necessary to do to defend that border. In demanding an end to border hostilities, the state was not advancing expansionist or otherwise questionable ambitions. Rather, it was protecting its land and innocent civilians. Fulfilling that mission was the government and army’s obligation to its people. Second, if Israel was demonstrating its respect for Lebanon’s territorial and national sovereignty, then it was Lebanon’s obligation to do the same for Israel. Israelis believed that they had made great sacrifices, and endured great expense to show the world that it was committed to complying with UN resolutions. The Lebanese now had to do the same. This was particularly the case after Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon. Israel concluded that there was no longer any denying that the Lebanese state was the rightful custodian of its frontiers and thus the correct address to which to direct any complaint about violations.