Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Other Two Sides in Israel and Palestine

It is not only hard to write about the bloodshed in Israel and Palestine without taking sides. It is impossible for most people to read about the violence in Israel and Palestine without taking sides. So the debate bogs down into questions of justification and self-defense and proportionality: that is, into the utterly useless question of whether Israel or Hamas is more in the wrong. It may well be that one side or the other is more justified, or more culpable. But since the answering that question will not prevent even a single death, the question is meaningless. Taking the Israeli side or the Palestinian side does not matter, the real merits of those causes notwithstanding, because the conflict that matters is not between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Neither side can actually win that conflict, and everything those two sides are doing right now puts resolution further out of reach. The two sides that actually matter are not the Israelis and the Palestinians but the peacemakers and the warmakers. That struggle can be won, but not by the side that's currently winning.

Instead of thinking of two ethnic peoples, we can think of the Israel/Palestine conflict as a contest between the negotiators and the escalators. There are negotiators and escalators in both camps. The negotiators want to end the violence and reach a peaceful long-term solution. Various individuals envision different versions of that settlement, and the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators each want their own ethnic group to get the maximally advantageous deal. But the goal is still a deal.

The negotiators have been on a long losing streak, and their position is incredibly weak at the moment. But even at their weakest, there is a single fundamental advantage that cannot be taken from them. They are the only side that can win. There is no military solution to the Israeli/Palestinian problem. There is no endgame through which either group can win through sheer force of arms.

Neither side can wipe out the other. That is not militarily feasible, politically viable, or morally acceptable. And no one is going anywhere. Israel is not going to be swept into the sea. If your goal is to do undo 1948 and make it as if Israel never existed, then your goal fundamentally cannot be achieved. Nor are the Palestinians going to be expelled. If you think that a nation founded in part by Holocaust survivors can solve its security problems through ethnic cleansing, you need to face basic reality. No One. Is Going. Anywhere.

In the long run, a negotiated settlement is the only endgame possible. But the escalators (who, like the negotiators, exist on both sides of the ethnic divide) are dedicated to prolonging the war as long as possible. Not to win it. Winning is objectively impossible. The real objective is the continuation of the war itself. If military victory were the actual goal, much of the behavior we see on the ground would be futile or even counter-productive. (Hamas's rocket attacks, for instance, don't make a lot of sense as an attempt to weaken Israel's military. But they are not an attempt to to weaken Israel's military.) If we understand the real goal to be provocation, the behavior becomes easily explicable. The violence is not an attempt to defeat the other military, but an attempt to provoke further military action by the opposition. A sudden big offensive is not an attempt to end the fight once and for all. It is an attempt to ensure that the fight does not end.

Some of the escalators are simply refusing to accept military reality, and delude themselves with dreams of victory. Some are driven by their personal ideology or personal hatreds. Some are not thinking straight at all. And some have a vested interest in keeping the hostilities going. Any conflict that goes on for as long as the Israel/Palestine conflict becomes institutionalized to some measure. Structured organizations, both official and unofficial, emerge specifically to wage that particular war. Careers are built around that war. There are wealthy and influential people who rely on the war for their wealth and influence, and power brokers who rely on the war for their power.

There are political figures, Israeli and Palestinian, whose careers are built on taking a harder-line position than their domestic political opponents, no matter how hard a line those opponents take. There are political leaders, Israeli and Palestinian, whose relationship with their constituents is founded on their constituents' fears. There are figures within the Palestinian leadership who have gotten seats at the table by making themselves indispensable to the war effort: the recruiters, the warlords, the money people. At least some of those people suspect that peace would make them dispensable. And on the Israeli side, in somewhat subtler ways (subtler, of course, because the Israeli state is more bureaucratically developed than the Palestinian movement), there are people who prosper in various ways from the militarization of the conflict.

I am not claiming that both sides are equally culpable, or morally equivalent, or any of that. I am not interested in arguing about right and wrong here. Arguments about right and wrong have led to piles of dead bodies. I am interested in arguing cause and effect.

That there are entrenched interests who benefit from the hostilities, on both sides, is not primarily a symptom of individual bad character. It is the inevitable result of a conflict that has gone on this long. A war that lasts two generations stops being just a war. It becomes a way of life. And people will fight to defend their way of life.

The escalators can always keep the war going by provoking the other ethnic group. When the opposite side retaliates, it is a pretext for further escalation, and pretty soon peace talks are out of the question again. Whenever things get too quiet, you convince yourself that the enemy is vulnerable and it's time to take advantage. Then, when the enemy strikes back, everyone on your side of the line has to rally to the fight. Things too quiet? Kidnap some hitchhikers. Build some settlements on the wrong side of the treaty line. Fire some rockets. Break a cease-fire. Sure, some of the people on your own official side of the conflict will tell you not to do these things, but once you've done them the other side will come on the attack and then the people who wanted to restrain you will have no choice but to back you.

The thing to realize here is that the Israeli escalators and the Palestinian escalators, while fighting each other on the battlefield, are also working together. They are both struggling to continue and escalate the war. You don't attack Israeli civilians and expect to get away with it. You don't kill Palestinian civilians in your reprisal attack and expect that this will calm the Palestinian side down. Bringing on the other side's reprisal is the goal. It is never stated that way. It could not be. But that is what is actually happening.

The problem is not just that IDF expeditions into Gaza will not stop the rocket attacks. It's that the point of the rocket attacks is to bring the IDF into Gaza. Why would Hamas, or elements of Hamas, want the IDF to invade Gaza? Several reasons, but one of them is that when the Israeli military is on the move, the people of Gaza have no choice but to stand by Hamas. There is no middle ground on a battlefield. And the escalators' main goal is to make negotiating impossible. Their war is against the middle ground.

Most of the struggle between the negotiators and the escalators is political; it is about whose faction is in ascendance, whose policy wins the debate, and whose orders get obeyed or ignored on the ground. But sometimes things actually flare up into intra-Israeli or intra-Palestinian violence. Fatah and Hamas have sometimes exchanged gunfire. An Israeli Prime Minister has been murdered by an Israeli fanatic because a final peace deal started to seem plausible. If the doves get too close to a deal, the hawks on their own side sometimes try to kill them.

But the hawks haven't needed to do anything so blatant lately, because the party of war has been on a roll. The Israeli and Palestinian hawks have worked together in a masterpiece of unspoken coordination, a long series of seamless no-look passes. In this, the escalators have a massive advantage over the negotiators. The Israeli and Palestinian doves need to communicate explicitly with one another, and they need to trust each other. They have to hold talks. In short, they have to actually negotiate. The Israeli and Palestinian hawks don't need to communicate with each other at all. They can simply act. They know what will happen if they provoke the other side. They can count on it. It's not about trust. It's about predictability.

Worse yet, the doves need unity and discipline on their own side in order to function. They need to deliver on their deals. But the hawks can disrupt things through insubordination or disobedience. They can, to various degrees, freelance. Settlers can disobey the Israeli government, but know that the state and the army will eventually have to back them. Palestinians can initiate attacks on Israelis without necessarily clearing it all the way to the top, and some people doing the attacks are not necessarily inside any real chain of command. ("Let's go kidnap a few teenaged Israeli hitchhikers" is not a plan hatched at the top level of leadership.) But the people who go ahead with those attacks know the leadership will not disavow them. An IDF commander can promise his superior that he will use restraint, and then use harsh and provocative tactics once an operation starts. A Palestinian who doesn't like a cease-fire can break it with just a few like-minded accomplices. Last Friday's cease-fire was broken almost immediately by a small group of armed Palestinians. That was not a real attempt to take military advantage, which would require a coordinated set of attacks by a large group. That was free-lancing, one small unit or cell just going out on its own. Your leaders agree to a cease-fire, you go out and shoot at Israelis, cease-fire over. That wasn't a side effect. That was the main point of the attack. 

As long as this behavior goes on (and it goes on, to different degrees, on both sides), the war will never end. The hawks cannot defeat each other, and on some level aren't even trying. But they are committed to driving any hope of peace from the field. And they are willing to frag the doves when necessary. As long as those seeking to escalate the war can continue defying restraints imposed by their own side, the war will go on forever. And that is really the goal.

cross-posted from Dagblog

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