A Palestinian State: Effects on The Regional Balance of Power
A Palestinian State: Effects on The Regional Balance of Power

Gerald M. Steinberg
BESA Center Strategic Studies, Bar Ilan University

From A Palestinian State: Implications for Security and American Policy, Published by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), Washington, DC, 1999


For the past 50 years, the Middle East has been one of the most unstable regions of the world. While the degree of instability has declined in the past decade, as evidenced, in part, by the absence of major Arab-Israeli wars, the potential for full-scale warfare remains. Radical revisionist states and regimes, including Iraq, Iran, and Syria, still use terrorism and military threats in order to advance their objectives. The major conflict zones (Arab-Israeli, Persian Gulf, Syria-Turkey, etc.) have not disappeared, and the possibility of instability and war in one zone spilling over into the others continues.

In this framework, a radical Palestinian State, or a failed state, such as Lebanon, Somalia, Haiti, and to an increasing degree Iraq, would add another major source of instability. Without a stable sovereign government that possesses an effective monopoly of the legitimate use of force, such a state could become another Middle Eastern haven and training ground for militias and small non-state armies. These forces, or those of a radical Palestinian state allied with Iraq, Syria, or Iran would have a very destabilizing impact on the balance of power in the region.

By itself, a Palestinian state would be a miniscule military power, easily held in check by the vastly more powerful Israeli army. However, in coalition with other states in the region, such as Iraq and/or Syria, the abilities of even small and lightly armed Palestinians as a force multiplier would be very significant. Thus, the assessment of the military impact of a Palestinian state cannot be limited to the narrow question of how Palestinians forces would fare in a one-on-one confrontation with Israel, but rather as part of a coalition in a wider conflict.

The particular impact of Palestinian participation in a radical coalition will be the result of factors such as combined military capability of such as coalition; the degree to which the Israel maintains control over the airspace, the central mountain range, and the roads that connect the heights to Jordan and Iraq in the East, and central Israel towards the West; and the ability of the Palestinians to provide military intelligence on target location, monitoring of activities at military bases, and post-attack assessment.

In addition to the additional threat such capabilities would pose to Israel, a radical Palestinian state, or a failed Palestinian state without a strong central government, would also contribute to the threat to Jordan and Turkey. While Israel, Jordan and Turkey cooperate to form the nucleus of a stable and Western-oriented regional security framework (which could eventually include Egypt and perhaps other countries), a Palestinian state could strengthen a radical alliance working to destabilize the region. Such an alliance, incorporating Syria and Iran (and perhaps receiving support from a post-Saddam Iraqi government with stronger Shi'ite influence) would be a major source of conflict and terror, and the addition of the Palestinians to this group would be significant.


There is a long history of Palestinian participation in military coalitions directed against Israel, Jordan, and other Western-oriented states in the region. After the 1967 war, the PLO set up what amounted to an autonomous zone in Jordan, from which they mounted terrorist attacks and raids. During this period, tensions mounted between the Hashemite government under King Hussein, and the Palestinians. In September 1970 (Black September), the Palestinian militia mounted a military coup designed to replace the Hashemite Kingdom with a Palestinian controlled regime. In this coup attempt, the Palestinians received military support from Syria, whose tanks were forced to return to the Syrian border after the Israeli Air Force mobilized to attack them.

In the 1970s, the Palestinians moved the base of their operations to Lebanon, where they undermined the Lebanese government, and contributed significantly to the civil war. Short-term alliances were formed with various Lebanese groups, as well, at various points in the conflict, with Syria. The destabilizing impact of the Palestinian use of Lebanon for terrorist operations led directly to the 1982 Israeli-Syrian confrontation.

In 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, Yassir Arafat went to Baghdad to embrace Saddam Hussein. Despite the presence of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Kuwait, the PLO pursued a strongly pro-Iraqi policy, which led to the expulsion of these Palestinians. The PLO support for Iraq (both official and popular) continued through the 1991 War, and contrasted strongly with the broad Arab participation in the American-led coalition. While Egypt, Syria, the North African states, and Saudi Arabia all took part, at various levels, in the effort to defeat Saddam Hussein, the Palestinians continued their enthusiastic support for the Iraqi regime. The enthusiasm was fuelled, in part, by the Iraqi missile attacks against Israel.

Although Arafat and the PLO hierarchy formally abandoned support for Saddam Hussein after the war, the sympathy, perception of mutual interests as well as shared enemies, have been sustained. During periodic crises between the U.S. (and Britain) and Saddam Hussein, Palestinians display their support by burning American flags and organizing mass demonstrations. For example, in December 1998, immediately following President Clinton's unprecedented visit to Gaza, and endorsement of Palestinian goals, the brief U.S.-led attack on Iraq led to another wave of demonstrations and flag burning in Palestinians cities. While the demonstrations were not officially endorsed by the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, the tight control of the PA over political activities shows the tacit support of the PA. It is clear that if Arafat and the PA leadership decided that the price, in terms of alienating the U.S., is small enough, the Palestinians would revert to previous behavior and provide widespread support for the radical regime in Iraq.


Against this background, the creation of a Palestinian state could have serious implications in threat scenarios involving Iraq and Syria, separately as well as in a combined attack against Israel. Such scenarios continue to be major factors in Israeli threat perceptions and military planning. Together, Syria and Iraq could deploy over 8000 main battle tanks, thousands of artillery and mortar launchers, and hundreds of combat aircraft, outnumbering Israeli standing forces by as much as 4 to 1 (3 to 1 after mobilization of reserves). While Israeli technological superiority can offset this quantitative disadvantage, a full-scale Iraqi or Syrian conventional attack could still overwhelm Israeli forces, causing very high casualties, and threatening the survival of the state.

The magnitude of this threat would increase following the creation of a Palestinian state. If Palestinian forces control the area between the Jordan River and the "green line" (the borders prior to 1967), Israel would lose all strategic depth. At the narrow points outside Tel Aviv, pre-1967 Israel is only 15 kilometers wide, and defense of these borders against major conventional attack is impossible. In the absence of any strategic depth, a full-scale attack across any border could easily reach major cities in a few hours.

In this context, any assistance provided by Palestinian forces (either formally or informally) to Iraq or Syria would be critical. In order to meet and interdict an attack from the East, Israeli forces will have to engage these forces in the Jordan Valley before they reach the mountains. However, even a small Palestinian force (regular or irregular) operating in this region can harass the IDF, block the main East-West corridors, and generally interfere with the mobilization and deployment of Israeli forces. If the Palestinians have control over these areas, they will be able to mine the roads in coordination with an Iraqi or Syrian attack, slowing or blocking the ability of Israel to meet the oncoming ground forces from the East. The roads are narrow and pass through steep ridges, making blockage and sabotage relatively easy.

The security deficit resulting from the transfer of control of territory to a Palestinians state would be balanced to some degree by improvements in the Israeli Air Force. Indeed, the addition of F-15I combat aircraft will enhance Israel's ability to attack offensive air and ground formations before they cross the Jordan River. Emphasis on ground attack helicopters such as the Apache, for use against tank and artillery columns, has also grown.

However, unless the IAF maintains full freedom of action over the West Bank, particularly during wartime, Israel's ability to strike attacking ground troops will also be impeded. Palestinians armed with shoulder launched anti-aircraft missiles, will be able to interfere with the activities of the IAF.

The envelope covered by the Palestinian missile capability will extend well beyond the areas controlled by a Palestinian state, and will include central Israel. Anti-aircraft systems in this territory, within a few kilometers of air bases, could significantly hamper Israeli Air Force operations taking place within Israel itself. In 1973, the IDF depended on a large scale American resupply effort, operating out of the central Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv. This airport is also within the envelope of shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles positioned in the hills just above the airport, and likely to be incorporated into a Palestinians state.

Although many proponents of a Palestinian State argue that demilitarization would solve these problems, such simplistic statements ignore the significant barriers to enforcement and verification. As the Palestinians gain control of the borders and ports in Gaza (including the airport that is now operating), they will be able to obtain large numbers of small hand-held SAMs, as well as anti-tank weapons, land mines and small weapons. Indeed, the IAF already has to assume that in such conditions, it will face Palestinians armed with anti-aircraft missiles.


The alignment of a Palestinian State with another state or coalition in conflict with Israel will also have important consequences in terms of providing military intelligence. In the age of satellites, computers, and instant worldwide communication, the Palestinians could make a major contribution in the context of an alliance with Syria and Iraq. In planning ballistic attacks, these states will be able to receive information on the exact location of potential targets. Palestinians located on the hills and ridges overlooking most of the Israeli military bases will be able to report on the activities in these bases, and on the arrival and departure of combat aircraft. This intelligence information would also be important in terms of post-attack assessment. During the 1991 Gulf War, Israeli military authorities went to great lengths to prevent release of information regarding the exact location of missile impact points and on damage. Such information would have helped the Iraqi forces to redirect their missiles and increase their accuracy. Post-attack damage assessment after a missile attack, particularly if chemical weapons are used, would allow the attackers to determine the degree to which the targets (particularly if they are military bases) have been put out of action.

With significant territorial control, Palestinians could also work with Iraq or Syria in blocking Israeli intelligence capabilities. From the high-points in the Judean desert and nearby hills, the IDF maintains critical early warning and long-range intelligence capabilities. Early detection of large-scale troop movements in Iraq and Syria provides Israel with the time to mobilize its ground forces and launch preemptive air attacks. When combined with Iraqi or Syrian military movements, this form of Palestinian assistance would have a very important and negative impact on the balance of power. Similarly, with extensive networks in Jordan, the intelligence assets of a Palestinian state could also work with Iraq and Syria in undermining Jordanian security.


Iran is too far away to pose a conventional military threat to Israel or Jordan, and thus a potential Iranian-Palestinian conventional alliance is not realistic. However, Iran continues to be the center of radical Islamic and anti-Israeli activity, even after the election of Khatami as President, and the growth in the power of the "liberals". (Foreign policy appears to be either insulated from Khatami's influence, or he and his followers have a strictly domestic agenda and have no interest in or ability to change Iranian foreign and security policy. Khatami's rhetorical attacks on Israel are not very different from the language of the other Ayatollahs.) Iran continues to support Hizbollah in Lebanon, as well as other terrorists groups in the Middle East. In addition, the Iranian ballistic missile program and efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction have accelerated in the past few years. In July 1998, Iran tested the Shihab 3 missile, with a planned range of 1300 kilometers (enough to reach Israel, Jordan, and Turkey). These capabilities, combined with an ideology which rejects the legitimacy of Israel, and the rhetorical threats that accompany this ideology constitute a tangible threat to the region.

Iranian influence among Palestinians is based on support and training for radical Islamic groups, such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Hamas has significant influence among the Palestinians, and will play a major role in the context of a Palestinian state. In the post-Arafat era, Hamas could become the dominant force, turning the Palestinian state into a center for radical Islamic activity and terrorism throughout the region. In this context, other radical Islamic forces, including Iran, could play a heightened role in the process.

There may be some comparisons between the Palestinian environment and the situation in Lebanon, where Iran is closely related to the Hizbollah terrorist group (providing training and weapons). However, there are also some important differences in these two cases. Most importantly, Hizbollah is composed of Shia Moslems from Lebanon, whose close religious links to Iran have existed for many years, and who provided the fertile ground for the radical Islamic policies of the government in Teheran. In contrast, Palestinians are part of the Sunni branch of Islam, and the religious and cultural links to Iran are relatively limited.

Still, Iranians have been active in working with Islamic Jihad and Hamas terrorists against Israel, and it would be a mistake to ignore potential Iranian influence in the context of a Palestinian State.

Furthermore, while Iran is located at the periphery of the Arab-Israeli conflict zone, and Iranian intelligence capabilities vis-a-vis Israel are limited, the Palestinian population could provide Iran with vital intelligence information in the event of a confrontation. In addition to continued cooperation in terrorist activities, Palestinian information on the location of military installations and the activities around bases would be useful for Iranian forces planning a missile attack on Israel, and for post-attack damage assessment.


Many analysts and policy makers dismiss these concerns, noting that a Palestinian state would be very small and weak, compared to Israel, and would not endanger its own vital interests or even survival by threatening its neighbors. However, the same arguments could have made about Lebanon in the 1970s, which, in many ways, was weaker than the prospective Palestinian State. When the government in Lebanon self-destructed (with Palestinian and Syrian assistance), Lebanese territory provided a base for terrorist training and operations. The ability to operate freely in Lebanon served as an important force multiplier for the Palestinians, Syrians and Iranians. Similarly, when used by other radical states, or allied with those states, a radical Palestinian state would have a major and negative impact on regional stability and the balance of power. The creation of a radical Palestinian state could also accelerate the development of an anti-Western regional alliance, including Syria, Iran, and perhaps Iraq following a regime change. Although Iraq is dominated by Sunni Moslems, and has been engaged in a protracted conflict with Iran, the majority of the population is Shia. Thus, the development of a Shia based government in Iraq, with ties to Iran, cannot be ruled out. Although the Syria population is not primarily Shia, Syria has been closed allied with Iran for over 20 years, and was the only Arab state that provided weapons and support to Iran during its war with Iraq during the 1980s. Iran and Syria also share missile technology, and cooperate extensively in the development of ballistic missiles.) Such a radical alliance is likely to be arrayed against a Western-oriented cooperative regional security system (either formal or informal) including Israel, Jordan, and Turkey, with the possible later addition of Egypt. In this context, the assets brought by a Palestinian state to an anti-Western alliance would include terrorist operations, the provision of additional military manpower, and, perhaps most importantly, intelligence assets.


Fifty years of Palestine terrorism and violence, often in coordination with radical Arab groups and states, have not left much room for optimism regarding the regional impact of a Palestinian state. A realist view of the impact of a Palestinian state suggests that such a state would quickly become allied with the same radical forces that have supported (and often directed) various Palestinians groups over the years.

The history of cooperation and mutual interests between Palestinians and leaders of radical states in the region is too strong and deep to be ignored. In 1970, despite the differences between Syrian and Palestinian leaders, the Syrian military attempted to support the Palestinian effort to overthrow King Hussein and capture control of Jordan. After decades of anti-American ideology, and support for a range of radical governments, including Saddam Hussein, the recent warmth displayed by Arafat towards the U.S. is tactical. The hostility towards the U.S. and the West, which is found in many parts of the Arab and Islamic world, remains a central component of the Palestinians political orientation.

On this basis, the creation of a Palestinian state is likely to exacerbate the tensions and conflicts in the region. Such a state would become a center for radical terrorism, and with control over the territory bordering both Israel and Jordan, and allied with Syria or Iraq, add to the military challenges faced by both states in the context of a wider regional conflict.