Saturday, January 17, 2009

Birth Pangs or Death in Camouflage?

The customary victims of the Palestinian-Israeli tragedy have assembled again in their full, familiar regalia. There they are, the crouching man, head between hands, about to give full vent to his Munchian scream; the baby, a bloodied, lifeless Cabbage Patch dangling from her panic-stricken mother’s arm; the terror-filled children lining the corridors of supposedly safe schools minutes before lining the corridors of a supposedly extant heaven; life itself in the twin grip of defiance and beggary. And yes, they are all Palestinian because, hands down, in the heartbreak department they are always the winners.

The occasion does call for poetry, and even the Economist was moved enough to oblige with prose that makes of raging realities a thing of quiet eloquence: “And Gaza, remember, is only one item in a mighty catalogue of misery, whose entries are inscribed in tears.”


Throughout this last bit of bloodletting, almost everything that needed to be said about Gaza has already been written. And yet, somehow the story refuses to leap into the next dreaded page as if in mortal fear that this drama has outgrown all the old plotlines and is agitating for new ones. A century into this conflict, even the most bold amongst us are loath to part with perspectives and interpretations that have served us so well for so long.

But it is time to move on, and perhaps the first serious thought we need to confront is that well before Israel and Hamas came to blows over the ruins of Palestine the only conceivable way out of this problem—the two-state solution—was already dead, and it breathed its last as shifting trends and alliances converged to reshape the face of the region.

Among the new regional variables that have come to influence the question of Palestine, Iran’s final ascendance in the aftermath of Saddam’s collapse (and concomitant Shiite resurgence) looms largest. In fact, Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s nervousness about Persia’s growing hegemony in the Middle East and Shiite assertiveness in Iraq is amply reflected in their loud impatience with Sunni Hamas, which, along with Shiite Hezbollah and Alawite Syria, has enabled Iranian encroachments deeper into Arab turf. Palestinian factions have always been a playing piece in the Arab regimes’ rivalries, but while Arafat’s somersaults may have been infuriating, he kept them strictly in the family. Hamas’ willingness to pair with the Iranian intruder crosses the line and borders on heresy, especially for Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two pillars of the Arab status quo. The disaffection with Hamas is not necessarily a prelude to a Sunni-Israeli alliance, as some on both sides of the divide hope. There is still much to disagree about between them, and we have yet to see how Iran will play the Obama card. For Hamas, though, there is not much space for a sigh of relief in any of this. When it limps out of this fight, its surroundings will be infinitely more hostile than they were before it.


And so, the pain of Gaza may feel like a replay of the same old sorrows, but this “sad finger of dunes” bleeds over an entirely new political landscape. The usual chest pounding and finger wagging will be distracting, maybe even deceiving for a while, but after all the momentary victories have been declared after this round, they will all be losers, Palestinians and Israelis alike.

True, on the face of it alone the historical record shows that providence has been palpably kinder to Israel than to Palestine. But lurking on the surface of things in the Middle East is like splashing around merrily in a swamp and ignoring the muck tugging at you neck down. It is indeed nothing short of damning for the Israelis and Palestinians that they—and the region with them—are at the doorsteps of a new age, whose beginnings seem to be beholden to the same conviction which set the old one ablaze: that there literally is no room for coexistence between these two people. Except that when this debacle started one hundred years ago, the slate was clean, the killing fields were empty and the possibilities many; today everywhere you look there are vistas of wretchedness and a trail of blood that leads to cul-de-sacs which were once wide-open exits.

Take out a map of this burning expanse. You will see two people in a choking embrace that has put paid to sacred dreams and age-old plans. The growing number of Israeli settlers (464,000 by the last count) living in a mounting number of settlements and outposts (121 and 102 by the last count) in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has killed almost all chances for a Palestinian state, and fratricide has completed the job by decapitating an already mangled and tormented Palestinian nation. This does not make for a “2-state plan” in peril, as Michael Slackman offered in last Monday’s New York Times. It makes for a dead one. And it did not die the casualty of furious events, it died a slow, deliberate, well-executed, ugly death. Avi Shlaim put it well a few days ago in The Guardian when he wrote, “Land-grabbing and peace-making are simply incompatible. Israel had a choice and it chose land over peace.” However reticent or ill intentioned or violent or weak the Palestinian side has been throughout this impasse, as Israel has long been claiming, the settlements and the policies devised to satisfy the messianic hunger of their residents are a reflection of the Jewish state's own motivations and choices.

But if the settlers are a blatant commentary on the ideological fervor and militant politics that have nurtured and guided Israel’s strategy in the Occupied Territories, the war between Hamas and Fatah is flagrant proof that these two resistance movements are clueless about the hard business of resistance. Worst still, the fierceness with which both organizations reign over their charred, trapped, wretched patches of Palestine makes clear their contempt for cause and people.

However gratifying all this must be for Israel, whose mantra has always been that Palestinian leaderships, whatever their color, are simply incapable of providing a decent life for their people, the dividends it yields for it are little more than fictional. As dire as the situation is for the Palestinians, that choking embrace has made it just as untenable for the Israelis. Look at the map again to catch a glimpse of Israel frantically picking through the wreckage of its occupation for the prospect of a state that is uncontaminated in its Jewishness and remotely convincing in its democracy. It turns out—and could Israel not have known?--that in plotting to do away with the spirit and aspirations of the Palestinians, it ended up trampling on its own. It turns out—and could Israel not have realized?—that in order for it to be irreversibly Jewish, it would have to commit acts no self-respecting state could possibly entertain let alone undertake. If the settlers have rendered hopes for a Palestinian state practically nil, the 1.4 million Palestinians in Israel and 3.7 million in the Occupied Territories (including Gaza) have ensured that Israel’s hopes to be a Jewish democracy are equally faint.

In spite of the accusations and counter-accusations that coat this morbid issue much like the debris that cakes the corpses of its unending wars, the effects of the 40-year-old occupation are very easy to read, and they have proved as taxing on Israel’s rigor as they have been debilitating to the Palestinians’. Forgive this excerpt from a previous post, but there is no reason to rephrase old conclusions:

This moral and demographic quandary in which Israel has put itself since 1967, because of its conviction that a biblical carte blanch and epical yearnings justify earthly conquest, is pretty much what it has to show for forty years of occupation in the name of redemption. Perhaps the most exasperating part of this journey for Israel has been its inability to write the post-1967 narrative in the spirit of the 1948 one. Neither its exalted conception of itself nor the world’s sympathetic conception of it proved immune enough to its blatantly predatory policies, and the unfortunate outcome is written all over the Israeli state’s current distress.


These past three weeks have been a time of wrath and then some. From them, Israel might well reap a licked Hamas, pounded, clobbered and thrown about. That’s what happens when a liberation movement opts to raise itself above ground and govern a people who are living in an encircled virtual prison: many of its representations become tangible, more of its assets become visible, more of its cadre becomes identifiable, its institutions become concrete—literally. It morphs from a stealth force into a sitting duck, easier pickings. Hamas should have known that much as land grabbing and peace are incompatible, resistance and governance (under occupation) are simply irreconcilable. Hamas had a choice and it chose governance. It would appear this Islamist group thought it had absolutely nothing to learn from Fatah. But then again, of all the flaws that make one of the PLO under Yasser Arafat and those who came after him, and Hamas (and those certain to come after it) the most detrimental is a crippling intoxication with power and a devastating disinterest in the grueling and painstaking struggle for liberation.

For this breathtaking failure of leadership, the Palestinians have been paying the highest price. Now they are two movements down and there is not a third voice in sight. In their century-long battle for a fistful of biblical sand, this moment is historic: where it most counts for the Palestinians—a dignified life in a state of their own—Fatah and Hamas, for all the wiliness of Arafat, the toadying of Abbas and the fury of Hamas, have delivered nothing and are all but bankrupt. Since their inception, Hamas and Fatah have each committed many follies and followed many a wrong path, but it was sheer madness to finally achieve for Israel what it could not have accomplished by its own wits alone.

Where to from here?

When Gaza quiets down, the more Hamas’s wounds, the more boastful its victory lap will be, and the fewer its wounds, the more boastful its victory lap will be. You see, however major the strategic miscalculations, however great the losses and traumatizing the outcome, there is no place for defeat in our Arab dictionaries, because when we die in our battles with Israel, we die as martyrs, and when we survive, we live as heroes.

For Israel, this hardly matters. If Hamas is visibly beaten down, then more radical elements will pick up where it left off and Israel will have an even more attractive pack of enemies; and if Hamas stays defiant and retains control of its boxed in, flattened strip of land, then all the better because Israel will have an even softer punching bag. Needless to say, Mahmoud Abbas will be what all moderates usually become when blood is shed and violence sets up camp: enfeebled, discredited, irrelevant.

And yet because of that chocking embrace, Israel will still be stuck where it was before it embarked on Operation Cast Lead: its democracy in tatters, its society at once implacable and demoralized, its Jewishness still in jeopardy, and an occupation that is sure to keep eating into the three of them.


A tragic panorama, you’re sure to think, irrespective of the side of the fence you happen to be standing on—and it is primed to become even more harrowing. Alas, the audacity needed to bring the two-state solution back from the dead, even if Obamanesque in name, will have to be herculean in size. Not surprisingly, as fast as the vision of two states is dissolving into a mirage, the imponderables of the past are becoming the only possibilities of the future. One old, particularly sinister Israeli idea currently being openly peddled by the likes of John Bolton as a respectable way out is a Jordanian nanny in the West Bank and an Egyptian one in Gaza.

War in the Gaza Strip demonstrates yet again that the current governance paradigm for the Palestinian people has failed. Terrorists financed and supplied by Iran control Gaza; the Palestinian Authority is broken, probably irretrievably; and economic development is stalled in Gaza and the West Bank….Given this landscape, we should ask why we still advocate the "two-state solution," with Israel and "Palestine" living side by side in peace, as the mantra goes…Instead, we should look to a "three-state" approach, where Gaza is returned to Egyptian control and the West Bank in some configuration reverts to Jordanian sovereignty.

Thankfully the gods of subtlety were taking a snooze when Bolton popped out of his mother because, when it comes to saying it like it is, there is no one quite like this much mustachioed, neoconservative, one-two-punch. Who better, then, than a straight shooting friend of Israel’s to imbue a loathsome notion with the air of resigned inevitability? If not this infernal exit for the Palestinians and their Jordanian and Egyptian neighbors, there is another no less searing for Israel: a bi-national state. Other than these two propositions, we have, of course, permanent occupation.

No wonder the hip, hip, hoorays for the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative have suddenly begun to sound in the West after four years of silence. Hope has become dirt poor again and is frantically looking for shelter, and short of this last ditch of a peace effort the alternatives are few and all plainly deadly.