Obama and Gaza: Exiting the Vortex of Violence
By Bernard Weiner,
The Crisis Papers
January 6, 2009
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
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
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,
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
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.
Copyright 2009, by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught government & international
relations in 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).
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