Israel as a Failing State: The Consequences of Not Making Peace

April 10, 2023


Howard Adelman

A is for Astri

This series of blogs under the above title began as a draft paper for a symposium to be held in June 2023 in Bergen, Norway in honour of an exceptional colleague with whom I had worked over a number of years. Three points about the paper’s title. First, it is about Israel as a “failing” state, not about Israel as a “failed” state. Secondly, although, of necessity, the paper intended to deal with Israel as a failing state more broadly, the aim of the paper was to focus on the role peacemaking plays in the dynamic factors moving towards state failure in keeping with a major interest of Astri Suhrke. Thirdly, the essay accepted the broad consensus that efforts at peacebuilding with the Palestinians, but not with many of the Arab states, had failed.

These blogs, however, do not deal with the narrative or the causes of that failure, but only with the consequences, and, most centrally, the consequence of failure to make peace contributing to Israel as a failing state. More importantly, in Part II, the paper shifts its lens from the role of peacebuilding in contributing to Israel as a failing state to a new precondition for the resumption of the war against Palestinians via creeping annexation – namely the current Israeli government’s attempts to neuter the Supreme Court and prevent it blocking that primary goal of annexing the West Bank.

However, Israel is NOT a Failed State. Let me reiterate: Israel is NOT a failed state. Nor are these blogs about failed states. It is about failing. It is about a process, not a status. Israel is not Somalia, Myanmar, Yemen, Syria, the Congo or Chad, and certainly not like Afghanistan about which Astri has written so much. Ever since 1996, when I and Astri co-authored Volume 2, Early Warning and Conflict Management of the four-volume study of the Rwandan genocide[i], tracing the role of the international community from the Rwandan refugee problem prior to 1990 to the genocide of 800,000, mainly Tutsi, our concern had been with identifying the factors, the early warning signals, and the failures in identifying those factors, that could possibly allow the international community to intervene and prevent violence, state failure and, its worst possible outcome, genocide.

As Astri shifted her attention to focus on Afghanistan, in the report, Peacebuilding Lessons for Afghanistan (2002) that she co-authored with other members of her team from the Christen Michelsen Institute in Norway[ii], the focus was on post-conflict efforts to engage in peacebuilding and prevent the recurrence of violence and civil war. Those efforts obviously failed. Astri’s articles documented the process. In 2005, while she continued to engage in the discussion of using peacebuilding to rebuild a failed state,[iii] by her 2007 article in the Third World Quarterly, she warned that, as she had written in 2002, peacebuilding was complicated. Efforts in social engineering with an over-emphasis on development and modernization would not be sufficient to produce peace.[iv]  In fact, political engineering re economic development and modernization can undermine efforts at state building.[v] Those lessons are relevant to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as successive Israeli governments, in the face of failures at peacebuilding, shifted their attention to improving the economic conditions of Palestinians in the West Bank as a substitute for a political peace agreement.

What then are the factors that facilitate peacebuilding is one question. However, more pertinent to this inquiry, is a different but complementary question. What are the factors in failed efforts at peacebuilding that contribute to the internal dynamics of states that push them in the direction of failure? More particularly, why is the domestic legal system the focus of attention for an Israeli government more concerned with an ultimate defeat of Palestinian political aims than even its battle against its liberal competitors in defining the foundations of the rule of law within Israel?  

One could argue that Astri’s major obsession in the last two decades of an impressive life’s work has been on the linkage between peacebuilding and rebuilding failed states. However, Astri has also challenged the very concept of a failed state as fallacious.[vi] And certainly there has been a great deal of ink spilled on that debate and proposals for substituting fragility instead of failure as characterizing such states. While concerned with that debate, Astri was more focused on the growth of violence and terrorism in undermining the process of state building.[vii]

However, my focus in these blogs is not on post-conflict peacebuilding so much as the failures in that effort and the contribution of those failures to the creation or the undermining of a successful state. The focus is directed in the opposite direction. How do failures in peacebuilding contribute to undermining state institutions? Peacebuilding may or may not be a prerequisite for rebuilding a failed state. But does the failure in peacebuilding ensure that a state will be thrust on the path of failure and even, possibly ultimately, ensuring that it becomes a failed state?

ALL states are fragile. Some much more than others. On the other hand, very few states are failed states – perhaps 5% of the total number. The problem is that fragility and failure characterize a status, not a process. And my concern is with failures in peacebuilding contributing to the process of undermining state institutions, undermining the integrity and efficiency of a civil service, undermining the solidity of the banking system, undermining the creativity of its entrepreneurial class, destroying the underpinning of its human capital,[viii] and, most importantly for the final focus of this paper, undermining the independence and quality of the judiciary.  

However, Israel does not appear to be a failing state let alone a failed state. By most criteria, Israel appears to be an enormous success. If a failed state is a nation that has lost its effective ability to provide security for and govern its populace, is unable to tax and police its populace, control its territory and maintain its infrastructure, Israel would, on appearances, not only be far from that mark of failure, but would seem to be travelling in the opposite direction. Israel projects authority over its territory and population and is very effective at defending its national boundaries – and even expanding them if that is added, as it once was eons ago, as an additional criterion of a successful state. In general, Israel appears to be very effective in organizing and administering its resources and provision of infrastructure and public services. The majority of its citizens believe in the legitimacy of the state, but many citizens do not. And more and more have become suspicious. Further, many other nations also question Israel’s legitimacy.

It is important to recognize all the landmines that litter the efforts to document state failure or fragile states or failing states. Risk of conflict is not equivalent to an outbreak of inter-state or intra-state violence. Further, inter-state and intra-state violence may not be an indicator of a failing state. State weakness may be chronic but not correlated with violence, while state security strength may not be correlated with being a successful state.

Even when the borders that a state must defend remain unsettled and in contention, even when the societies may be far more diverse than the simplistic divisions of Arabs and Jews, even as the political leadership develops the experience and customs, or fails to use that experience to create the customs necessary to build an inclusive civic and democratic culture, there still may be no correlation between any of these factors and being or not being a failing state.

Astri Suhrke is a scholar and political scientist who has spent most of her long academic life dealing with the social, political and humanitarian consequences of violent conflict, of civil wars and inter-state wars. Her concern was with developing appropriate strategies to mitigate that violence and strategies of response to resolve the conflict and even prevent new wars from breaking out. These blogs are not about that topic but a related and overlapping one.

I am not concerned herein with strategies for mitigation or prevention. I am not concerned with the consequences of violent conflict – except for one. When peacemaking fails, how does that failure contribute to enhancing the factors that facilitate state failure, in particular, the rule of law in that process of failing?

How can we tell? If we just focus on the direct consequences of that failure in peacemaking, and only on those consequences, how do we know that they cause or are a significant causal factor in putting a state on the path to failure? There could be so many other forces at work. Further, how do we assess that impact without a base line to measure that failure. Bracketing the failure at making peace, to what extent is a state successful and to what extent is it failing anyway?

That means that we need a fuller understanding of a state in order to assess to what degree it is already failing and to what degree it is evolving in the opposite direction. We have to look at much more than just peacebuilding and the failures in that effort. This is particularly true since Israel has repeatedly failed to make peace with the main contenders challenging Israel. But, to repeat, on appearance, it also seems to be a very successful state.

I first encountered Astri as a scholar on refugees rather than peacebuilding when I began to build the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University as well as the journal Refuge. Ford Foundation invited me to comment on the work of she and two colleagues that became what is now a classic in the field of refugee studies, the book, Escape from Violence: Conflict and the refugee crisis in the developing world (Oxford University Press, 1989) that she wrote with the late Ari Zolberg and Sergio Aguayo.[ix]

Refugees had become an unprecedented crisis since the end of WWII. That crisis has since become much worse. The international community responds with heartfelt compassion, but also expresses a diffuse fear that refugees will pour into the various member states. The prime concern of the authors was enhancing and improving the humanitarian response in the face of various states responding to those refugees in very partisan ways to serve broader political purposes.

It seems appropriate to come full circle – to Israel as a state that came into being after WWII (1948) with the support of the international community and the United Nations primarily because Western states did not want to take in the remnant of 300,000 Jewish refugees wallowing in refugee camps several years after the end of the war.[x] Israel would provide a suitable dumping place. One result: war with local Arabs and with five surrounding Arab states. Another result: 720,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to flee; they became refugees and their numbers have multiplied many times over. 

Peacemaking failed then. But Israel grew stronger, more confidant and wealthier. The Palestinian refugee Nakba remains a festering sore on the body politic of the world. These blogs do not address that humanitarian issue, the reasons it remains unresolved or the causes of successive failures to make peace. Instead, the focus is on the extent to which this unresolved and apparently intractable conflict has contributed to Israel as a failing state. The focus, in the end, is even narrower – the role that attempting to resolve that conflict as a substitute for peace first through economic and technical means, and then through the current government’s preparation for an ultimate victory via conflict rather than peacebuilding and, as a precondition, preparing the ground by changing the system for the rule of law within Israel.


[i] Cf. The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience March 1996 published by the Steering Committee of the Joint Evaluation of Emergency I Assistance to Rwanda.,” Third World Quarterly, 23:5, 875-891. Cf. Robert Kaplan’s seminal article in the Atlantic Monthly, “The Coming Anarchy.”

[ii] K. B. Harpviken, A. Knudsen and A. Olfstad for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. See also Astri Suhrke, Kristian Berg Harpviken & Arne Strand (2002) “After Bonn: conflictual peacebuilding in which the authors focused on rebuilding the coercive capacity of the state in concert with legitimatizing political authority while neutralizing “spoilers”.

[iii] Cf. Astri Suhrke and Julia Buckmaster (2005) “Rebuilding a failed stateLiberia,” a discussion of Mike McGovern’s book in Development in Practice (15:6, 760-766). See also their article, “Post-War Aid: Patterns and Purposes.” (pp. 737-746)

[iv] Astri Suhrke (2007) “Reconstruction as Modernisation: The ‘Post-Conflict’ Project in Afghanistan,” Third World Quarterly 28:7, 1291-1308.

[v] A good example of this was John F. Kennedy’s adoption of the strategic hamlet approach to fighting the war in South Vietnam. The attempt to move South Vietnamese peasants forcefully off their land into strategically protected villages protected by the army was a disaster, not only because the person put in charge of the program in South Vietnam was a sleeper agent of the north who ensured that the hamlets were not strategically located to ensure protection on non-infiltration by the Viet Cong, but mainly because the whole effort failed totally to take into consideration South Vietnamese cultural norms and their attachment to their ancestral lands. Cf. Seymour Hersh, “DOES IT TAKE A WAR?”, March 1, 2023.

[vi] Astri Suhrke and Julia Buckmaster (2006) “The Fallacy of the ‘Failed State’,” Third World Quarterly, 29(8), 1491-1507. The core to the alleged fallacy by many was the creation of a false dichotomy between states that were salvageable and those that were unredeemable.

[vii] Cf. Astri Suhrke (2006) When More is Less: Aiding Statebuilding in Afghanistan.

[viii] As Stephen Kotkin, the historian and expert on Stalin and Russia, in an interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker on 17 February 2023 (“How the War in Ukraine Ends”) said of Putin, he “is not a strategic figure. People kept saying he was a tactical genius, that he was playing a weak hand well. I kept telling people, “Seriously?” He intervened in Syria, and he made President Obama look like a fool when President Obama said that there would be a red line about chemical weapons. But what does that mean? It means that Putin became the part owner of a civil war. He became the owner of atrocities and a wrecked country, Syria. He didn’t increase the talent in his own country, his human capital. He didn’t build new infrastructure. He didn’t increase his wealth production. And so if you look at the ingredients of what makes strategy, how you build a country’s prosperity, how you build its human capital, its infrastructure, its governance—all the things that make a country successful—there was no evidence that any of the things that were attributed to his tactical genius, or tactical agility, were contributing in a positive way to Russia’s long-term power.” Putin’s war against Ukraine has been the main factor in accelerating the failing process in Russia.

[ix] I am currently in Mexico. As I write this, Sergio is currently in a verbal slinging match with the President of the Republic, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, after Obrador attacked Sergio for marching in favour of INE (the independent National Electoral Institute which Obrador seems hell bent on politicizing). Sergio reminded Obrador that in 2006, Obrador had invited Sergio to join his cabinet. He also added: “I haven’t changed, you have. I am satisfied with my life; you live in grievance.” (February 26, 2023)

[x] The interpretation that the support came because of guilt over the Holocaust is a myth. But that is a subject for a different paper.


One comment on “Israel as a Failing State: The Consequences of Not Making Peace

  1. sandra herlick says:

    Hi. Seth seems to Jo longer be

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