Realism vs. Institutionalism and the Middle East Crisis
Until fairly recently, the dominant theoretic rubric most analysts of international relations operated under was the theory of realism. The international relations theory of realism holds that each nation-state in the global community operates as a unified, rational actor. Realism as a theory was born and evolved at the same time as the modern conception of the nation-state was coming into its greatest influence in the international community. In contrast, institutionalism, which stresses the need for institutions to broker the peace between warring actors, came into its 'own' as a theory during the second half of the 20th century, well after the end of World War II and the establishment of the United Nations.
According to realism, above all, the nation-state is unified in terms of international affairs and always acts towards its own self-interest. Self-interest, according to realism is defined, by the state's primary goals of ensuring 'its' safety, security, and survival. The state operates almost like a rationally interested person in realism, in contrast to institutionalism where the state is in dialogue with the international environment. Realism holds that in pursuit of national security, states will attempt to amass power, allies, and arms, and that national relations between nation states are an exercise of power juggling rather than true ideological conflicts. Ideology always masks self-interest, according to realism, while institutionalism suggests that brokerage between states is possible, and that states may entertain more idealistic notions of creating peace in non-self-interested conflicts.
Almost immediately, one can see the problematic nature of applying realistic ideas about the nation-state to the Middle East conflict. First and foremost, the Middle East is a tribal community of many different ethnic, religious, and family groups. In Israel, the nation state itself, there are Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews, as well as secularists and splinter groups, with different views of how to conceptualize this nation-state. The Palestinians are not a nation-state at all, but a fairly lose conglomerate of nationals with varying degrees of radicalism, some of whom have never dwelled in their homeland, other of whom live within the borders of Israel. Rather than being an atypical pattern in the state of Israel, this tribal makeup is common to the Middle Eastern nations. In Iraq, for example, the nation is currently torn apart by fighting factions of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as well as other ethnic groups such as Kurds. Often these splinter groups themselves have competing self-interests and ideologies within their own tight borders of family clans. States, as suggested by institutionalism, are not homogeneous, and are just as anarchic as the international environment itself.
Given this diversity of interests within supposedly autonomous actors, realism offers little hope of explaining, for example, why Arafat might have rationally rejected a potentially profitable peace solution during the Clinton Administration. Arafat did not, for fear of upsetting the minority of radicals, as well as his own personal, political survival. Even though his own personal and political survival was not essential to the advancement of the Palestinian people, the stateless nature of the Palestinians enabled Arafat to act much like an autonomous, individual actor, and no election or royal coup could stop him. However, institutionalism shows how ethnic or governmental authorities can be faulty in pursuing self-interest, and thus other institutions must step in to continue to mediate between actors.
Another aspect of the conflict realism does not entertain, but is rampant in the Middle East, is the notions of different kinds of power in religious, ideological, and media terms. For example, through superior public relations, the Palestinians were able to garner world support, by using young children in the intifada to attract Israeli troops occupying Gaza and the West Bank. In turn, the small nation of Israel has rallied worldwide Jewish support, because of the history suffered by the Jewish people as a faith. Institutions of Arab and Jewish authority became involved because of this conflict, often seeking to mediate between the two fighting factions.
This also shows that although Israel is a small nation, and the Palestinians have no formal national status at all, but because of ideological and media sway, they have commanded world attention because of their political 'capital' as symbols of oppression and history, well beyond their real level to exercise military power. But realism holds that power is alone determined by the state's capabilities in pure military and economic terms…