Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Israel and Its Messianic Right: Path-Dependency and State Authority in International Conflict

Israel and Its Messianic Right: Path-Dependency and State Authority in International Conflict


Why do states responsible for unleashing violent nonstate actors fail to stop them? Why do they sometimes continue to actively give support despite rising costs and, at best, marginal utility? These questions carry with them real-world significance. The Israeli state’s entanglement with the Jewish messianic Right—the focus of this article—entails important ramifications for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and thus to Middle East security, in general—as well as for the quality of Israel’s statehood and democracy. Similarly, Pakistan’s association with the state’s jihadi protégées plays a central role in the dynamics of South Asian security, while the Iraqi state’s struggle to stay intact is inextricably linked to its central government’s reliance on Shia militias.

I argue that a historical-institutionalist framework helps us understand the dynamics of such entanglements, in general, and that of the Israeli case, in particular. Path-dependency explanations link observed outcomes to sequences of earlier measures; they suggest that an actor’s policy may inadvertently divert it from a planned path and bind it to different, costly choices. With each subsequent step, the actor finds itself less able to change course—even as the policy’s adverse consequences become increasingly evident.

This article builds on the findings of an earlier study (Mendelsohn 2014) that focused on the role of ideology and identity in the delegation of primary state prerogatives to armed nonstate actors. While that study focused on identifying ideational variables that contributed to launching the relationship between the state and the nonstate actor, it also sketched the process that sustains that relationship. This article takes on that task in a more systematic way. Utilizing the ideational factors identified, as well as material factors that received much less attention in the previous piece, I propose that state entanglement can result from five—analytically distinct but often interlinked—path-dependent mechanisms: (1) a penetration of state bureaucracy and the armed forces, undermining state ability to take action out of step with the nonstate actor’s preferences; (2) a steady ideological shift among the public toward positions advocated by the nonstate actor; (3) intensified security dilemmas; (4) a weakening of the principle of state primacy, reducing the ability to use state legitimacy as a resource against nonstate challengers; and (5) a gradual shift in the balance of power between the state and its protégée, leading to its capture by the proxy. I therefore introduce a theoretically informed analysis of an important problem in international politics while also illustrating the usefulness of historical institutionalism to international relations theory.

This article proceeds via five sections. In the first, I discuss the reasons states may forge cooperative relations with foreign and local terrorist groups along with different factions in civil wars, while also pointing to substantial downsides of employing (or tolerating) these violent nonstate proxies. The second section focuses on the question of state entanglement: I argue that explanations based on rationalist and ideational factors offer, on their own, insufficient explanations. Historical institutionalism, with its focus on the reconfiguration of the bargaining environment, provides a more complete explanation. The following section lays out the five mechanisms through which a state could find itself wedded to supporting a violent nonstate actor despite diminishing benefits and mounting costs. The fourth section specifically discusses the Israeli case, arguing that a path-dependency model sheds light on that state’s puzzling behavior. I identify the working of four of the five mechanisms in its entanglement with the messianic Right. The conclusion summarizes the argument and discusses implications for the Israeli state’s ability to reverse course.

States and Armed Nonstate Actors

Contrary to realist depictions of world politics as essentially interstate relations (Waltz 1979), nonstate actors play an important role in global politics. The 9/11 attack and its aftermath proved their significance even in the sphere of security—the ultimate domain of state action. Given the state’s claim to be the sole legitimate wielder of coercive means, one might assume that states view nonstate violence wielders with, at best, suspicion. Yet, many states develop close cooperative relationships with violence-wielding nonstate actors. These relationships take various forms that diverge primarily on the motivation of nonstate actors—financial or political—and their identity as foreign or local groups. All share the potential to considerably harm the states partaking in these arrangements.

Some states cooperate with foreign terrorist organizations. They provide training, operational assistance (such as intelligence for operations), funds, arms, and logistics. Furthermore, they may even assist in the…

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