I frequently find it useful to analogize countries to individuals. States will often have personalities and behavior sets quite similar to human beings.
That means they can sometimes be noble and do wonderful things. But it also means they can be petty, greedy, violent and worse.
If you've ever known what an arrogant bully looks like, you should find the personality of Israel today quite familiar. But if you've ever really understood what almost always lays behind a bully's almost always faux arrogance, you also might understand why Israel acts as it does.
In Israel's case there are some very good explanations (which is not necessarily the same thing as justifications) both contemporary and especially historical for attitudes that increasingly veer into paranoia, expressed in an international behavior set that too often takes the form of militant violence. These policies are, however, far more than most Israelis recognize ultimately to their own detriment, apart from the more obvious death and destruction brought down on others.
But those in the international community who are contemptuous or dismissive of Israel's very real security concerns are either analytically weak, normatively biased, or worse. That "worse', unfortunately, is only somewhat less prevalent in the parlors of "civilized' society today than it ever and always has been, and needs little provocation to rear its ugly little anti-Semitic head.
Still, regardless of what might happen tomorrow, we should be clear about what happened yesterday. If history has produced a people more afflicted than the Jews have been with racism, violence and even genocide, I don't know who that could be. Jews everywhere, including those in Israel, have come by their fears honestly. It is also undeniably the case that Israel remains to this day surrounded in a sea of mostly hostile neighbors, nearly all of whom were not so long ago committed to the country's annihilation. That is far less true now than it was in 1948 or 1973, but it is still true for Iran and Syria and Hamas and Hezbollah, among other actors in the region. And for Egypt and Jordan and the rest, the era of hostility is still not that far in the past, by historical standards.
And thus, though I am as little a fan of nationalism as anyone is ever likely to meet, I nevertheless believe it to be beyond doubt that there has to be a Jewish state in the world, and I don't even object to it being armed to the teeth with defensive and deterrent weaponry. It seems to me that there are few lessons of history which express themselves more clearly than this one, and believing otherwise risks the prospect of renewed violence and even genocide.
That said, had it been up to me in 1948, I might not have placed that state in Palestine, and I certainly wouldn't have countenanced the forcible ejection of Palestinian residents from their homes. But now it is 2010, not 1948 or 1880, and Israel is not going anywhere. Nor should it, for any such solution would be far worse than the problem it seeks to address. Countries like Egypt and Jordan have reluctantly made peace with that fact, and it would be helpful if others followed suit.
Regrettably, however, and notwithstanding a set of legitimate historical security concerns, nobody makes it harder to love Israel than Israel itself. This week's murderous incident in the Mediterranean is a shock to the senses, an offense to humanity, and an outrage piled on top of further outrages. It is difficult to imagine any circumstances that could justify the behavior of Israel in this episode, in light of the alternative non-violent solutions so readily available even if the country wanted to prevent to flotilla from ever reaching Gaza. As one Israeli member of parliament herself said, "This had nothing to do with security. The armaments for Hamas were not coming from this flotilla."
But, of course, this week's events are only the top layer of a very poisonous cake. The existence of the flotilla points to a deeper Israeli outrage, which in turn is predicated on an even deeper one yet. There would have been no naval relief caravan to Gaza if there had been no need to bring relief to a blockaded Gaza in the first place. And there would be no Gaza as we know it today had there not been a continued illegal and oppressive occupation of Palestine for the last forty years.
This occupation has been incalculably onerous and humiliating for Palestinians. Moreover, despite the fact that Israel has withdrawn previously from the Sinai and Gaza, the character of the occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem telegraphs only one intention. You don't build houses and whole cities in places where you have strategic security concerns. You build military outposts instead. The avowed agenda of the far right in Israel, which includes the government, is to fulfill some insane biblical promise (pardon the redundancy of terms there) that the Jews should come to possess lands in the region constituting a Greater Israel, stretching in the minds of the most deluded from the Nile to the Euphrates. Building towns and housing settlements for forty years in the West Bank and East Jerusalem not only smacks of colonialism, it is nearly impossible to construe it otherwise.
One of the great ironies of the Middle East debacle is the degree to which this behavior hurts Israel, not just those whom it represses and whose land it occupies. With the possible exception of the Golan Heights, there is almost zero strategic value in possessing these lands. Like America under the Bush administration, Israel has simply now become a country of many humane and decent people whose foreign policy has been hijacked by radical sociopaths belonging in insane asylums and jails, not world capitals. (Although that characterization of Israeli public opinion is less true today, as attitudes have hardened since the Second Intifada, and the disconnect between the public and its leadership is less profound another of the region's ironies.) But for a long time prior to that, there was a good deal of robust debate and sentiment for peace in Israel, certainly far more than there ever was in the United States.
What radical regressives (and in Israel we are talking about regressing 6000 years, far more than any Jerry Falwell ever dreamed) appreciate more than can be imagined is the power of fear, and how cycles of violence can be mobilized to make people do stupid things they wouldn't otherwise. Dick Cheney, to choose only the most prominent example, wouldn't even exist outside this simple premise. And, while there is plenty of blame to go around for the century of violence in the region, Israel has now been led by radical criminals to the place where it is the chief purveyor of that violence, which has become both the biggest stain on its international reputation and, again ironically, its own biggest security threat through the radicalization of adversaries and the alienation of allies.
The recent invasion of Lebanon (not to mention the one before that), the invasion of Gaza and the attack this week on the relief flotilla all represent almost wholly unjustified acts of aggression on Israel's part. While any state can always muster up some pretext for war ("Saddam has WMD!"), and Israel has done so in each of these cases, what has become clear is that the country has left the earlier epoch of its history in which it fought mostly defensive wars of existential urgency (1948, 1967, 1973), and has transitioned to an era in which it is now fighting rudely aggressive wars, using outrageous weapons and tactics, and offering increasingly weak justifications for those wars (which justifications are anyway are rooted in the Palestinian people's reaction to the ongoing provocation of an illegal and oppressive occupation).
In addition to the carnage suffered by others, in this way Israel has become its own worst enemy. I mean that quite literally, and not just in the sense of the moral outrage of the international community. The sad truth is that nothing threatens Israeli security more today than the stupidity, greed, aggression, inhumanity, and lately sheer arrogance of its foreign policy.
People are beginning to notice in places where they had not before. That big ol' country to the north is less a turkey than a canary in a coal mine right now. Israel has long had good relations with Turkey, certainly its best with any Islamic country. But the Israelis seem almost willfully intent on alienating their friends in Anatolia, and they are succeeding admirably, especially this week. Meanwhile, the British prime minister sharply criticized the attack, and the US did that rarest of things, letting a (toned way down, to be sure) resolution emerge from the United Nations Security Council.
Likewise even in America. I never go in for the right-wing supposed honor code violations that call for heated response to the impudence of this Cuban dictator or that French president who has the stones to diss American policy, especially when their greatest sin is telling the truth. But I confess that it pissed me off considerably when the Israeli government announced new housing construction for East Jerusalem at just the moment when the American vice president was visiting. America (foolishly, to some extent) gives Israel a considerable amount of (my tax) dollars every year, and jeopardizes a good deal of its own security by the unpopular choice of backing Israel in the region. Would it be too much to ask that Israel, in return, not publically stick its finger right in our eye? That announcement of new housing construction, expressly contrary to the articulated position of the US government, wasn't just a bad policy choice. That was a willful expression of supreme arrogance.
The list of damages done goes on. Israel seems increasingly intent on spending all its remaining virtues to cover the initial bad check of its turn toward colonialism. It is eating itself from within, in order to avoid confronting its demons. The war crimes documented in the Goldstone Report on the Gaza invasion give one example, the reaction to which among the South African Jewish community (which must be much like the American one) was initially to try banning Mr. Goldstone, an internationally highly regarded jurist, from attending his own grandson's bar mitzvah. Meanwhile, no less than a former deputy speaker of the Knesset has expressed serious concerns about the far-right's successful attempts at domestic censorship of any critical discourse in Israeli society.
Perhaps the most telling episode, however, has been Israeli reaction to the Saudi peace plan of 2002, which was reintroduced in 2007 and endorsed unanimously by the twenty-two members of the Arab League. The proffered bargain gave Israel everything it originally wanted peace, recognition by its neighbors, normalized relations and even more, since it contemplated a return to wider 1967 borders, not those lesser ones detailed by the 1947 UN resolution which partitioned Palestine and gave birth to the Israeli state. In exchange for this, Israel had only to recognize a Palestinian state and agree to just treatment of Palestinian refugees. It is a measure of the pathology that has overtaken contemporary Israel today that the government has never even responded to this grand deal which represents a monumental leap for the Arab community although the current prime minister rejected it outright when he was the opposition leader in 2007.
In short, the situation is grim, as this week's events underscore. The cycle of tit-for-tat response has metastasized into a pathology of violence and recalcitrance in Israel's government, and among some parts of the Arab and Muslim world. Shooting civilians on a ship in the middle of a relief mission is merely the logical extension of such a process.
And yet, these events could perhaps also produce some salutary effects in the end. Barack Obama clearly has little use for Israel's antics, but is also clearly the most gutless creature on the planet with the possible exception of a few especially reticent amoeba hiding under a rock somewhere in New Zealand. However, Israel's arrogance and provocations may create the space for even the feckless Obama to apply some real pressure. That doesn't seem likely, given the power of the Israel Lobby in Washington, and given Obama's overall uselessness as president, but it also seems more probable today than ever in my lifetime. Israel has simply gone crazy, and by doing so it is making it increasingly difficult for others to stand by it.
My wider hope is that the Palestinians have stumbled into a more effective way to bring pressure toward a passably equitable solution to the conflict. I deplore violence, but I understand why Palestinians have employed it, including the use of terrorism (notwithstanding that the term has been distorted and politicized to the point of near meaninglessness). It was successful in putting their cause on the map, just as Zionist violence (and "terrorism" by the way conducted by people who would later become Israeli prime ministers) gave birth to Israel, and just as colonists' violence and "terrorism" (as King George described it) gave birth to the United States. But that said, and even apart from the moral question, strategically, the era in which Palestinian violence effectively serves to advance its agenda has ended.
What the confrontation at sea this week dramatically points out is an idea I have argued for a long time. Namely, that the Palestinians, who already have the vast majority of world opinion on their side, should adopt Gandhian methods of nonviolent confrontation in order to bring Israel to its senses and to the bargaining table. What if a million Palestinians went on hunger strike tomorrow? How long could Israel and its American benefactors withstand the glaring spotlight such an action would shine on the Palestinian cause, especially as martyrs began dying? Perhaps even something quite that lethal would not be necessary. Perhaps mass sit-down strikes might do the trick, or civil disobedience in public venues. The point is that such tactics would work, whereas violence against Israel not only isn't working, but only strengthens the bloody hand of the monstrous hawks there.
Palestinians must also come to terms with the fact that their full aspirations will never be realized. This must be psychologically painful in the extreme. It is as if someone knocked on the front door of your house, walked in and took over the first floor and parts of the second, cheerfully left you a few remaining rooms to ocuupy, and then wondered why you weren't satisfied. I think Palestinians have long been debilitated by the Hobson's choice of, on the one hand, accepting, and thereby legitimating, the status quo, versus continuing to hold out for more, up to and including the dream of driving the invading Jews into the sea and restoring the homeland to their exclusive control. In addition to the horrors of what they call "the catastrophe" itself, I don't envy anyone the additional moral dilemma of choosing whether and when to admit defeat as opposed to continuing their struggle for what they believe is justly theirs. That's a very hard choice to make, and is always further haunted by those who have already sacrificed for the struggle before.
But history is history. There is no remotely serious prospect of undoing the Zionist project, with all its ramifications for the Palestinians, just as there is no undoing the Holocaust or the pogroms, or the much earlier forced Jewish diaspora from the same lands the Palestinians now mourn losing. I hope the Palestinians can find a way toward negotiating a peace with Israel that is by definition far less than everything they want. Fatah, post-Arafat, seems to be there. Hamas would appear not to be, but not necessarily implacably so. (The regional and ideological differences between the two are, by the way, no small thing. Indeed, I have long believed that the first casualty of Palestinian statehood will be the Palestinian state itself. Just as East and West Pakistan, separated by India, quickly transitioned from one country into two, so, I suspect, would Palestine become Gaza and the West Bank.)
The potential for peace finally coming to the region is not insubstantial at this moment. Some of the underlying conditions are even rather favorable. Nor should we be blinded by the magnitude of the project into believing that it is impossible. No one would have ever believed in 1970 that Israel would soon have peaceful and substantially normal relations with Egypt and Jordan. No one would have ever believed in 1940 that France and Germany would become, not only close friends and allies, but even partners in driving an integration project in which both have voluntarily ceded much of their sovereignty to a supranational organization.
But getting there will require that both sides, and the United States as well, adopt new approaches to replace the existing ones which are clearly dysfunctional. Israel and the United States have the upper hand in terms of sheer physical force, and are favored by existing conditions on the ground. They are therefore least likely to move. The Palestinians, who have everything to gain from change, must drive the process forward if they want it to happen.
My advice to the Palestinians would be two-fold. First, as described above, start employing civil disobedience and other forms of mass-based passive resistance tactics in place of rockets and bombs. The power of those images especially today, in our YouTube world are enormous, and enormously effective at gaining the sympathy of the world. My second suggestion may sound like a joke, but it is not at all. The Palestinians should follow other countries, corporations and the like, including most who need it far less than they do, and spend a boatload of money to hire the best public relations firm they can find in America, in order to give their image and their cause here a massive make-over. America is crucial to the Mid-East conflict, but American politicians are unable to do anything but reflexively support Israel, even when it is snotty and abusive to the US itself. That's because the Palestinians have no image here other than as terrorists, and because their plight is all but unheard of. This perhaps can be rectified, though it won't happen quickly or easily. But a change in American public opinion would free American foreign policy to change, which might likely in turn ultimately undermine Israeli arrogance and recalcitrance.
Israel, like America under Bush, has gone mad. Some of the reasons for this happening are morally valid and some are not. What matters, though, is how to bring the country back to its senses, especially now that the Palestinian leadership (at least in the West Bank) has changed sufficiently to do a deal, something Yasser Arafat seemed constitutionally unable to quite ever embrace, plagued as he probably was, I'd imagine, by the awful Hobson's choice described above.
But I don't think Israel is likely to change on its own. It has little incentive to, as things stand today. That change will require the Palestinians, perhaps via the United States, to force it upon Israel, but not by means of force.
If there is any silver lining to the events of this week, it is that they have illuminated the path by which that might be done. And, better still, it is a nonviolent path.