“For every complicated problem there is a solution that is simple, direct, understandable, and wrong“
H.L. Mencken (aka Mark Twain)
Sheila and I have just returned from a fortnight overseas to meet with family and friends followed by local encounters of the surgical kind. It is now time to make good on my undertaking to keep up with Solar Plexus on a regular basis and I intended to post some thoughts sparked by 3 very different recent articles on the situation Israel.
But events in the simmering pressure cooker of the Middle East deteriorated suddenly, though hardly unexpectedly. It started with the fatal shooting of 2 Arab-Druze Israeli security policemen at the entrance to the al-Aksa mosque (within the Temple Mount) by Palestinian terrorists as prelude to a shootout with Israeli security forces within the compound.
This was followed by the well-practiced incitement of Muslim religious passions by extremist leaders. The Israeli authorities, eager to damp down and contain passions, instituted precautionary measures, including similar metal detectors to those used by Saudi security at Mecca and Medina. These basic measures became in turn a tool for further incitement on the part of Palestinian leaders, including Abbas, inevitably leading to violent riots by well-primed Palestinian youth and the death of some rioters.
By now we had the full-fledged, familiar scenario of a “cycle of violence” so beloved of Western MSM commentators caught between their detestation of Israel and the necessity of maintaining the pretence of impartiality. The term “cycle of violence” provides the illusion of events beyond the control of Man, something like an approaching tsunami. ‘Cycles of violence’ apparently occur regularly in the Middle East without any human intervention.
It also gives commentators the opportunity to add up causalities on both sides so that any attribution of responsibility to the initiating party can be lost in the body count. This deception is aided by the romantic images of Palestinian youth with bare torsos engaged in hurling rocks, concrete debris and the occasional Molotov cocktail against Israeli mechanised and armoured security forces trying to both minimise casualties and contain the scope of the violence.
Of course, it does not stop there. Another militant Palestinian youth felt he could best express his hatred and desire for heroic martyrdom by stabbing to death 3 members of a peaceful Jewish family in the West Bank settlement of Halamish following Friday Shabbat dinner. In short order, this was followed by a somewhat confusing ‘incident’ near the Israeli Embassy in Jordan in which an Israeli security guard was stabbed and two Jordanians fatally shot.
Given the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel feelings of the vast bulk of Jordanians, this threatens to become a diplomatic row despite the vested interests of both establishments in a low-key resolution. However clarity on what actually transpired is still not forthcoming.
As of writing, Israel has removed the metal detectors but, according to the Jerusalem Times, many Muslims are refusing to enter the Noble Sanctuary anyway. So much for diplomacy; or should it be called appeasement? Of course all human experience shows that this concession will only provoke escalation.
Let’s take a step back. One way of looking at the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab stand-off is that it’s a political stalemate held in place by tribal narratives of self-righteousness, grievance and victimhood, the political interests of contending elites, the agendas of various regional and distant powers and the machinations of sub-national actors ranging from Jihadists to various activist NGOs. Remarkably this has resulted in a quasi-equilibrium however ‘unpleasant’ it may be.
‘Unpleasant’ is, of course, an inadequate term. But whatever the short-term attractions of inaction in comparison with yet another failed ‘peace bid’, at least for Israelis, two things are true: firstly, that the equilibrium is inherently unstable and if/when it unravels it can set in motion unpredictable and dangerous events which have the potential to seriously harm Israel. Secondly, whatever the short-term advantages the net effect on Israel and the Middle East more broadly is negative and it delays the necessary political and cultural changes which will ultimately be required to obtain a stable, sustainable region.
History, however, is however neither rational not can it be dictated to. Perhaps it will take some form of serious apocalypse to push the region into a better trajectory. But I want to introduce 3 articles (or collections of articles) which, in very different ways, take a more interventionist view.
“This June, Israel is marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Six-Day War. Some Israelis, including most members of the present government, are celebrating the country’s swift victory… others, like me, mourn it as the start of a seemingly inexorable process of moral corruption and decline,...”
The first is from the pen of David Shulman who lives and has lived in Israel since the 1967 war. He did not come as an ideological Zionist but rather for his love of Hebrew. He has certainly remained true to his earlier vision and is both a distinguished scholar and a committed leftwing activist. His article ‘Israel’s Irrational Rationality’ published by the New York Review of Books examines 5 books, each of which writes about different aspects of the stand-off (in his terminology ‘the Occupation’).
At the risk of oversimplification Shulman takes the position that Israel’s policies, at least under Netanyahu and the settler movement, are hypernationalist, coercive and inhumane; in a sense the mirror image of Hamas. Although he would not deny the incitement and violent extremism within the Palestinian camp in essence he depicts Israel as the sole moral agent and aggressor with the Palestinians fulfilling their assigned leftwing role as victims.
Given this basic stance, it is not surprising that endorses Norman Thrall’s argument that the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate is coercion, directed mostly if not exclusively at the recalcitrant Israeli state. At no stage does Shulman examine the possible negative outcomes to a ‘peace agreement’ forged under such conditions.
Let me say that I share some of Shulman’s moral concerns. I find aspects of the ultra-orthodox religious camp repugnant and, ultimately, seriously destructive to a viable Jewish Israeli community in an evolving globalised world. I, along with many other supporters of Israel, also see an ugly streak of racism being liberated by the conflict both within Israel itself and its supporters in the Diaspora. These trends are of course far from unique to Israel (even in the West) but they run counter to the humane, liberal Jewish traditions in which I believe.
Where I strongly differ from Shulman is his absence of historical insight. He neglects the impact of Jewish history and constant war (military and psychological) exerts on the psyche of Israelis and Jews around the world and assigns moral agency to Jews and Israelis alone while allowing Palestinian and Muslim extremism essentially off the hook. He can readily acknowledge the powerful influences of culture, history and context on Palestinian – Muslim attitudes but denies the legitimacy of these same factors in the case of his own tribesmen.
To sustain his argument that pressure on Israel is the pathway to peace, Shulman quotes Matti Steinberg in his book ‘In Search of Modern Palestinian Nationhood‘ as follows “… Palestinian attitudes went further and further from the original unanimity [that Israel should be destroyed and replaced by a Palestinian state on all the land west of the Jordan River] as far as means and aims are concerned.”
At best that is only partly correct. For instance, in a detailed study of Palestinian polls carried out over nearly two decades, Daniel Polisar comes to a more sobering conclusion. He summarises his findings as follows:
- “The majority of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza have for the past decade been opposed to the most generous package deal they are likely to be offered for a state alongside Israel;
- When asked to choose among three options—an Israeli and Palestinian state living side by side, a unitary state with equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis, and a Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea—most Palestinians have chosen the last-named; and
- When asked what ought to be done if Palestinian leaders strike a two-state deal with Israel, most have declared that the struggle should go on until all of historical Palestine is “liberated.”
Polisar concludes that this is “morally unacceptable and pragmatically unproductive“. The Shulman camp would argue that these findings are not incompatible with Steinberg’s more optimistic assessment. I believe the evidence suggests otherwise. It is clear from their diplomatic stance that the leadership and the most activist elements within Palestinian society have not genuinely reconciled with Israel’s existence as a Jewish homeland in any meaningful sense of the term.
The systematic campaign of denial of Jewish connections to Jerusalem and the broad region called Palestine, the incitement, the glorification of martyrdom and the abuse of religious feelings to inflame Palestinian mobs quite clearly points to the immense obstacles to a secure peace agreement; especially one obtained by crude coercive means. Assurances by outside parties of nonpartisan support for the terms of such an agreement contradicts all historical evidence when it comes to Arab-Israeli relations and the obvious media bias against Israel.
Such words should be (and are) treated as a poisoned chalice by the majority of Israeli Jews and will only convince those who don’t particularly care whether or not Israel survives as national Jewish homeland. After all in the brave new world of globalisation anachronistic notions of national identity (notably when expressed by Israel) are seen as contrary to universal human brotherhood, allegedly just around the corner. It is not too vast a step from there to the idea that Jews as a people are also problematic to global peace. Indeed such statements would not be seen as controversial in many Muslim and Western hard left and alt right quarters.
In his honest and humane book, ‘Letters to a young Muslim’, Omer Ghobash depicts the closed and angry environment in which Muslim youth are raised in so many Muslim or Muslim-majority states. He depicts the power of such teachings on young impressionable minds and the psychological and spiritual distortions they engender. Ghobash is not easily dismissed as an intemperate Islamophobe, the fate which befalls other critics like Hirsi Ali. He is the UAE ambassador to Russia and his open calm demeanour and obvious integrity are not readily dismissed.
Given this background and the floating population of restless, frustrated young males in stagnant economies, it is not difficult to see that here is ready-made fuel for mob and extremist politics within the Arab-Palestinin-Muslim camp. This reality represents an enormous challenge to the world and, more specifically, to Israel as shown by the recent rioting over access to the Temple Mount. That the religious outrage is fake and the political incitement obvious make little difference to youth primed on anti-Semitism and religious fanaticism.
Thus polls used by Steinberg and by Polisar reflect quantitative trends but do not account for the non-linear dynamics of politics in which much smaller groups can exercise outsized influence. In particular within the Arab world and also within Israel for somewhat similar reasons, ‘extremist’ groups exercise undue influence on the political process. This is important in considering options.
Broadly speaking here are three possible strategies available in response to the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off: the do-nothing or ripen strategy, the victory strategy and the ground-up, transformation strategy.
Netanyahu’s preference is for the first much to the fury of his critics and the admiration of his friends. There are clearly many plusses to this approach to politics in general and Israel’s predicament in particular, but the big disadvantage is obvious. No situation lasts forever and when the crunch comes, Israel may well find itself in a vastly inferior strategic position. Also if change comes precipitously, as it is prone to do in such situations, events get out of hand rapidly and Israel loses the ability to control or adapt in time.
Of course it will be argued that Netanyahu is busily strengthening Israel’s position in the diplomatic, economic and technological fields and will be better prepared for change when the time is right. This is a line of thought I wish to consider in future posts and but will go on to address briefly the two other broad options proposed in this post.
“The time is ripe for a new approach, a basic re-thinking of the problem. It draws on Israel’s successful strategy through its first 45 years….with a stress on Israeli toughness in pursuit of victory“
As summarised in the quote above, one strategy is a decisive Israeli victory followed by a realistic and sustainable peace with the Palestinians. The is Richard Pipes’ prescription as outlined in Commentary, in his own blog and in Mosaic. In essence Pipes defines victory as the acceptance of Israel as permanent, Jewish and legitimate by a majority of Palestinians and believes that this outcome is only achievable by a systematic policy of commensurate and graduated response. He provides guidelines:
“When Palestinian “martyrs” cause material damage, pay for repairs out of the roughly $300 million in tax obligations the government of Israel transfers to the Palestinian Authority (PA) each year. Respond to activities designed to isolate and weaken Israel internationally by limiting access to the West Bank. When a Palestinian attacker is killed, bury the body quietly and anonymously in a potter’s field. When the PA leadership incites violence, prevent officials from returning to the PA from abroad. Respond to the murder of Israelis by expanding Jewish towns on the West Bank. When official PA guns are turned against Israelis, seize these and prohibit new ones, and if this happens repeatedly, dismantle the PA’s security infrastructure. Should violence continue, reduce and then shut off the water and electricity that Israel supplies. In the case of gunfire, mortar shelling, and rockets, occupy and control the areas from which these originate.”
Pipes argues that eventually a working majority of Palestinians will acknowledge that Israel is not going away and that a genuine peace is preferable to on-going misery.
Clearly this outcome is dependent on staunch and powerful outside allies (think USA) over the long-term, the inability of the Palestinians to muster sufficient international support to isolate and punish Israel, consistent and sufficient support from within Israel itself and being able to handle blow-back from within the region. All these are big ‘ifs’ and the odds worsen exponentially over time and with inconclusive changes.
One could construct alternative versions of the victory strategy. For example, a short-term and decisive military-economic action designed to bring recalcitrant rejectionists to the negotiating table. Such plans would only have a hope if backed by substantial international and regional support and under foreseeable circumstances would appear to be akin to whistling Dixie in the hope of winning the lottery.
“A quarter century after the Oslo agreements, more and more people now understand that there is no easy short-cut to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. They sense that in the real world it is as the poet wrote: “peace comes dropping slow. This report is invaluable to those who would strain every sinew to help it drop nonetheless.“
From Foreword to Bicom-Fathom Report by Ned Lazarus ‘A future for Israeli-Palestinian peace building’
And so we come to the last clear alternative: to build a foundation for peaceful co-existence based on strengthened Arab-Israeli-Palestinian relationships from the ground floor up. To this end the leftwing, pro-Israel organisation, Fathom, together with Bicom, jointly sponsored and nurtured a systematic research programme into the feasibility of developing inter-communal Arab-Israeli cooperation. Such initiatives would be supported by economic, political, security and related measures designed to facilitate genuine peace negotiations at a stage when regional-global circumstances are propitious.
The project was led by the academic-activist, Ned Lazarus, a specialist in the field of conflict resolution studies and published as a substantial report under the joint auspices of Fathom and Bicom. It is modelled on the Irish example. In the words of Jonathan Powell:
“The great unsung hero of the Northern Ireland peace process was not actually a person, but a fund. The International Fund for Ireland (IFI), by supporting intercommunal civil society engagement from 1986, contributed hugely to the support given by majorities of nationalists and unionists to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
The Fund promoted economic and community development; stimulated dialogue and cooperation within and between divided communities; tackled the underlying causes of sectarianism and violence and fostered reconciliation.
I am in no doubt that the Fund was essential in consolidating peace.”
I’m not going to discuss this proposal in detail here or the obvious objections which will be raised. This post is long enough already and the proposal is too important and too complex to discuss meaningfully at this stage. For those with a real interest in this issue and who are prepared to devote some effort and time, it is worth reading the report carefully. I intend to take it up again later. Some of the issues it raises are obvious but there are subtler aspects which are worth exploring more carefully.
To end: practical politics can never be reduced to a formula. The complex and unpredictabilities of reality as it unfolds requires attention to the here and now and to the larger but scarcely perceptible currents and apparently insignificant events unfolding just beyond our political vision. This does not mandate inaction but rather a flexible strategy which takes into account both moral and practical dimensions. This is the basis of my political outlook and exploring our political realities through this prism is the purpose of this blog.
I would be very interested in your thoughts and comments on any issue raised in this post.