One definition of mental disease is when someone repeats the same counter-productive behavior again and again and again and expects different results. Which brings us to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
This time it's centered in Gaza, but the ramifications threaten to engulf much of the Arab Middle East, and Iran, and possibly beyond the region.
Each side believes that with just a bit more violent pressure, one more attack, one more mass bombing, one more unleashing of the dogs of war, the other side will bend to its will.
In effect, each side is acting out of a belief that it can make The Other simply disappear. The Palestinians, many Israelis want to believe, will migrate to other Arab/Muslim countries and leave Israel alone. The Israelis, many Palestinians want to believe, will take their Zionist philosophy and leave the premises, perhaps go to Eastern Europe somewhere or find an abandoned island in the Pacific or move to the American desert.
Both sides concoct their tragedy-producing scenarios out of such wisps of delusional belief, fueled by bloody history and/or religious or nationalist fervor. But since reality does not bend to satisfy beliefs and fantasies, the result is never-ceasing slaughter and generations of children turned into haters, killers, fanatics.
That, to me, is the real subtextual tragedy here. It breaks my heart to see Israeli and Palestinian children caught up in this vortex of violence, not just those youngsters killed and tragically maimed in the bombing and crossfire but in the larger context: This endless cycle of hate and war closes off the possibility of them ever leading normal lives of hope and peace and movement toward something better. Instead, generation after generation continues in the senseless carnage and tit-for-tat vengeance attacks. The result is the annihilation of hope, which is the ultimate war crime.
BREAKING THE SPIRAL
So is there a way out of this maelstrom of death and destruction?
I think there is, but the bloodshed has spiraled for so long as to be almost unstoppable at this point. Still the effort must be made. If Northern Ireland could reach a peaceful solution to its seemingly intractable conflict after centuries of religious/class/nationalistic warfare, other bedeviled regions might be able to do the same.
In the Middle East, there are those on both sides who understand the futility of the current paths each side has chosen. We call them "Israeli moderates" and "Palestinian moderates," but, more correctly, they should be called Middle East realists in this horrific situation.
They realize that the current spiral of violence twists and turns on itself and gets them nowhere but back to where they started. There must be some way out of here, but the voices of courage and clarity are few and far-between in Israel, Palestine and even here in the U.S. Hate, rage, mistrust, slaughter -- these dominate the Middle East's politics and policies.
It seems clear that there will be no significant progress toward peace and justice under the current leadership in Israel and Gaza. They are like two tarantulas locked in a death embrace; even if they wanted to separate, they no longer know how to release. It will take a "neutral" outside force to help them and guide them to a different, more hopeful reality.
CAN U.S. BE "HONEST BROKER"?
Conceivably, that outside agent could be the European Union or the United Nations or the Arab League (there already is some talk of an international peace -keeping force), working in concert with "inside" forces, meaning new leadership in Israel and Hamas.
There is a strong peace faction inside Israel, but it's been marginalized lately and the hardliners seem poised to win the upcoming election. The Palestinian Authority under Abbas seems on some level to understand the futility of the current struggle and probably would be willing to settle with the Israelis, given good-faith negotiations. Hamas seems incapable of major change at this point, which is why Israel is bent on destroying it as a viable military/political force.
But the key to any positive movement would be, would have to be, the United States. Claiming the role of an "honest broker" won't be easy for the incoming Obama Administration, given the incendiary role played by the CheneyBush regime during the past eight years in Israel/Palestine and in the Greater Middle East, in effect pouring gasoline on the embers of despair. The moral power of the U.S. is at its nadir in the region.
Then, too, Obama, during the presidential campaign, seemed to indicate little more than unquestioning approval of Israeli policies, which would not bode well for assuming the "honest broker" role. But Obama was a candidate then, he will be president now and must put America's national-security interests first. Tamping down the tension and reasons for violence and extremist terrorism in the Middle East, with its spillover effect on terrorists angry at the U.S., certainly qualifies under that charge, and polls show that most Americans agree.
THE SITUATION LOOKS BLEAK
Regardless of the difficulties involved and the fact that Obama already has a lot on his incoming plate, he should make Middle East peace a top priority. If the Israel/Palestine conundrum can be solved, many other pieces will start falling into place throughout the region. That can only be good for Israel, the Arab world, the Greater Middle East, and the U.S. itself. (And bad for Al-Qaida and extremist Islamist fanatics.)
But right now, things don't look good for any kind of settlement of the dispute. Extremist mentalities on both sides continue to repeat the mental-illness loop mentioned in the first paragraph. The Israeli government thinks its bombing and invasion of Gaza will influence the local population to abandon the Hamas leadership voted into power in the most recent election. It won't. Hamas thinks if it continues sending rockets and suicide bombers into Israel, it will dissuade the Israelis from its over-the-top military assault on Hamas. It won't.
(As I write this, Israel, having run out of sites to attack from the air, is now on the ground with a massive ground force in Gaza, tasked to destroy even more of Hamas' infrastructure, tunnels, hierarchy, ability to govern. The Palestinians, remembering how Hizbullah in Lebanon bloodied the invading Israeli forces last year, may have some military surprises in store for the occupying Israeli troops, including suicide bombers in great numbers and even longer-range rockets to send deep into Israel. But Israel is the big kahuna in the region and its firepower, and willingness to use it against a vastly devastated foe, would seem to lead Israel to a short-term victory. However, as many occupying armies have discovered, it's easier to get into a country than it is to get out. And Israel, seen worldwide as a giant bully, is losing friends and supporters everywhere.)
WHAT IS REQUIRED
No, for any hope of a peaceful solution, it seems to me, a number of tumblers need to click into place:
1. A respected outside force must somehow arrange, encourage, coerce a cessation of hostilities, and probably set up some kind of peace-keeping buffer zone, using some palatable excuse: "for humanitarian reasons," or whatever. And the Palestinian Authority will have to be involved and in the room of any talks.
2. Hamas and the Israeli government must be willing to negotiate with The Other, maybe not face-to-face at first, but eventually. Such willingness to negotiate would signify an implicit recognition that the other side exists and must be talked with and listened-to. Israel says it will never negotiate with Hamas and doesn't recognize its authority over Gaza, despite its overwhelming popular electoral victory there. Israel will have to change its mind. Hamas says it will not negotiate with "Zionist criminals" since Israel has no legitimacy and should not exist. Hamas will have to alter that position.
If those two pre-requisites don't happen, there is no alternative but another generation of slaughter, endless recrimination, vengeance extracted forever. When enough blood has been spilled in the years that follow, perhaps more (probably younger) realists will emerge on both sides who are willing to face the truth of the matter: that neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are going to disappear, that no amount of violence will accomplish that fantasy of disappearance, and that both sides are right and that both sides are wrong.
If that point ever can be reached (and it's in America's best interests to make sure that point arrives sooner rather than later), then comprehensive negotiations can take place that could eventuate in a just peace for both parties. Neither side would get everything they want, of course, but both would get enough of what they need.
THE OUTLINE FOR PEACE
It's been clear for decades what the outlines of a just peace might look like and what each side would have to do to get there:
1. Both sides would have to abandon their "I'm the true victim" and "you started it" loops. Each side has some history on its side, each side has behaved abominably, each side has some justice in its arguments. Both sides would have to stipulate, so to speak, to these recognitions and vow not to get bogged down in whose claim is the more righteous but stick to how to make living together in the same region workable and mutually beneficial.
2. Israel would have to return to its pre-1967 borders, fully end its occupation and control of the West Bank and Gaza, abandon its settlements on Palestinian land and make sure no new ones are allowed to intrude into the new viable Palestine state, which Israel would officially recognize. (In terms of Gaza and the West Bank, Israel would cease its ruthless policy of "a hundred eyes for an eye" overkill, which constantly reminds the Palestinians of their utter powerlessness.)
3. The Palestinians (both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority or, better yet, Hamas inside the Palestinian Authority) would have to officially recognize the de facto State of Israel and its right to exist within secure borders. No more rockets, no more suicide bombers inside Israel, no more calling for Israel's destruction, etc.
4. Realizing that there are crazy fanatics on each side, acting out of religious zealotry or ultranationalist urgings, both sides would have to agree to crack down on those extremists and not let occasional militant violence interfere with the peace process as it unfolds and in living together after the peace treaty has been signed.
5. Jerusalem, prized for historical and religious reasons by both sides (and by Christians as well), would become an international city, administered by the U.N. and/or a tri-religious civic council agreed to by all. Both Israel and Palestine might well have their administrative capitals in the new, calmer city.
6. If Israel will not permit the "right of return" of Palestinians forced off their lands by the original establishment of the Jewish state or by the Separation Wall, they will pay fair compensation for the land and homes. Perhaps Arab nations separately and the Arab League collectively can aid in this regard as well.
7. Treaties would be worked out regarding the free-travel rights of Palestinian workers inside Israel, the fair allocation of precious water resources, sharing technological developments, etc.
IMAGINING THE FUTURE
The fact that these, and other, topics over the past decades have been widely discussed and recognized as potential solutions to the Middle East conflict suggests their viability still today. If you can imagine it, it can happen.
But, as so many politicians and diplomats have discovered, the situation in the region is so explosive and tenuous that it's extremely difficult to get from here to there. But, for the sake of the future of both societies, peace in the region and the globe, and for America's future as well, President Obama must become more even-handed in the Middle East and must be willing to dive in and try once and for all to help move the crisis to its peaceful, just end point.
To do otherwise is to ensure more terrorism emanating from that region, and generations of children devoid of hope and opportunity. The candidate of "change" and "hope," and love of children, simply cannot let that happen.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). His 90-minute drama "Playing for Peace," about the Mideast situation, is available for production. To comment: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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