Sunday, May 15, 2011

1948, 1973, 2011: whither the middle east?

Following my brief experience with Israeli literature (see previous post), I've been doing a lot of reading in the country's history, or more precisely its wars which unfortunately constitute a fair if not necessarily the better part of its history. I started with 1973, which was most closely related to the Grossman book, and went back through 1967 to 1948 with various stops in between. And, of course, approximately half my incoming e-mail and Facebook posts concern the contemporary Middle East--Richard Goldstone, Tony Kushner, whatever else is new--so the issue is never far from my mind.

It's hard to say anything about the Middle East that hasn't been said before, even after a stack of reading like this. But herewith a couple of things that stood out, and several of which even surprised me:

The Problem of Perspective.--One of the things that struck me most forcefully was the radically different way in which Israelis and Arabs perceive the conflict (the books were each written by Israeli authors (Rabinovitch, Oren, Morris) but made a serious effort to include Arabic sources and outlooks). Much of Arab behavior--the attempt to blame the U.S. and Britain for the defeat in 1967, the claim of military victory in 1973 when the Israelis defeated or surrounded both Egyptian and Syrian armies, the insistence on a "right of return" in 2001--often seems irrational or self-defeating from a Western perspective. It becomes less so when one understands that the Arabs perceive Israel, not as a return to its homeland by a small Middle Eastern people, but as a continuation of colonial humiliations that precede and encompass the Palestine problem. The sense of virtue that Israelis feel as a small outpost surrounded by enemies, and the corresponding sense of their enemies' evil nature, is likewise more than reciprocated by their Arab foes. For example, many of the Egyptian casualties in 1967--and to a lesser degree in the remaining wars--took place while their army was retreating, which appears like legitimate pursuit to Israelis but is likely to appear more like a massacre from the Arab perspective, a difference that no amount of logic is likely to overcome.

There's nothing new under the sun.--Another thing that strikes you in reading backwards is how few really new ideas there are in the Middle East. The one-state solution? This was the basic Arab position going back to the 1930s. Two states? The 1947 partition proposal. A partial, symbolic right of return for (say) 100,000 Palestinian refugees? Benny Morris reports that Israel proposed it in the 1950s (although rejecting suggestions of a larger number). None of this means, of course, that any of these ideas are necessarily right or wrong: only that it's awfully hard to come up with proposals in a place where just about everything has been tried, and failed, already. Ask George Mitchell.

Nobody's really a good guy.--It's obvious, from the above, that I don't think much of Israelis who assume that all virtue is on their side and all evil comes from their enemies. But the opposite idea is no more, and perhaps even less, convincing. Both sides committed atrocities; both sides launched surprise attacks; both sides have a strong and recurring tendency to think in extremist terms and deny the existence of the other. This point is important, I think, because there is a tendency among intellectuals (and especially Jewish intellectuals) to engage in "intellectual flips:" the Israelis are not perfect and the Arabs are not all evil the way that I learned in Hebrew School, therefore the Arabs must be all victims and the Israelis aggressors. (See Tony Kushner, above; see also neoconservative movement.) Demonizing your own side, or parts of it, is no better than demonizing the opposition: in some respects it is worse, because one loses credibility with both sides and becomes part of the problem rather than the solution.

All of which bring us back, somewhat dejectedly, to the current "peace process." It seemed obvious to me, even before my reading, that Israelis and Palestinians have been talking about different things for the past decade: the Israelis about undoing 1967 (by returning all or most of the "territories" and calling it a day), the Palestinians about reversing 1948 (by permitting a return of refugees and creating, at once or in several stages, a majority Arab state). This recognition, of course, does not solve the problem (and may even make it more difficult): but it still seems preferable to a process that papers over the obvious differences in perspective and sets the stage for further conflict. My belief continues to be that a lasting peace must involve creation of a Palestinian entity, probably linked closely to Jordan; a lengthy transition period in which the Palestinians much more closely approach the Israeli standard of living; and serious constitutional changes within both countries, so that the Arabs content themselves with a limited or symbolic return to Israel proper and Israel becomes a מדינת כל אזרחיה (state of all its citizens) in a way that its Arab as well as non-Zionist Jewish minorities feel like full citizens rather than tolerated guests. This too is not particularly original: it's more or less what liberal Israelis, and some Arabs, have been saying for some time now. But does anyone have a better idea?


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