Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Collapse of the Middle Eastern Order

In the midst of the unprecedented conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has escalated into an Israeli blockade of Lebanon and to an all-out campaign against Israel by a much better-armed Hezbollah, I have decided to post a Sunday op-ed that I managed to place in the Boston Globe four years ago. While I could not anticipate everything that has happened since then--especially the fates of two key individuals--I am sorry to say that the basic analysis seems to be holding up better than ever. The piece is reprinted for non-commercial use only.

Utterly at odds

As a new generation of leaders takes charge, the pragmatic lessons of the past are being lost, replaced by visions of a dogmatic future

By David Kaiser, 4/28/2002

FFrom 1820 to 1860, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and other children of the early American Republic kept the slavery controversy under control and preserved the Union. Why their offspring failed to do so is not easily answered.

At 140 years' distance, neither the Southern states' determination to secede in 1860-61 nor the Northerners' decision to bring them forcibly back into the Union seems entirely logical. Newly elected President Abraham Lincoln opposed any further extension of slavery but denied any intention to disturb it where it existed. Why, therefore, should the Southern leadership have abandoned the Union? Why, on the other hand, should the North, which included only a minority of real abolitionists, have tried to preserve it?

In the same way, outsiders today assume that both Israelis and Palestinians have nothing to gain and much to lose from prolonging and deepening their armed conflict. This supposedly logical view, however, misses the point. Like the Civil War in 1861, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle does not relate to the present. IT, too, is about two parties' utterly irreconcilable ideas of the future and reflects the rise of new generations of leaders who have no commitment to or faith in the arrangements under which they have grown up. They are willing to risk their future and their children's lives to try to turn their ideas into reality.

By 1860, the white Southern leadership - composed exclusively of men far too young to have any memories of the American Revolution or the adoption of the Constitution - believed in slavery as a positive good, one that needed not only to be maintained, but extended - first into the Southwest, and later into Mexico and around the Caribbean (where it had already been abolished). (The postwar myth that states' rights, rather than slavery, caused the war grew naturally from the bad conscience of a defeated elite, but the secessionists themselves made it very clear at the same time that they fought the war for the sake of slavery.) Lincoln and the Republicans, meanwhile, argued that slavery would die out if it could be kept roughly within its original limits, as some of the Founding Fathers had hoped, but they also decided that slavery threatened the expansion and survival of free labor and free institutions.

When the South seceded, Lincoln initially defined the unrest as a test of democratic institutions, of whether a freely elected government could defeat a rebellion. After 18 months of indecisive conflict he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation and turned the war into an all-out moral crusade. No foreign intervention could have dissuaded either side from fighting the war to the finish.

The goals of the Israelis and Palestinians are equally irreconcilable. In 2000, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians now living in the West Bank and Gaza the right to manage their own affairs - hedged by a vastly restricted but continuing Israeli presence - but insisted that they accept this as the maximum that they would ever receive. Ariel Sharon, the current prime minister, who fought briefly in Israel's war of independence, might have offered them a smaller state under similar conditions.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who is old enough to remember the initial Palestinian expulsion from what is now Israel and who has spent his whole adult life dealing with its consequences, might have wanted to accept some such deal, but the increasingly influential generation of middle-aged Palestinians who have spent their whole lives under foreign rule and their adulthood under Israeli occupation will not. Whatever their ultimate goal - and for many it remains the destruction of Israel itself - they now insist upon a complete and irrevocable withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlements from the territory occupied in 1967, and the right completely to control their own state. This includes the right to readmit millions of refugees, to build their own military power, and eventually perhaps to engage Israel in a new conflict.

Three generations of Palestinians have now been born in occupation or exile, and the third generation displays nearly every day its willingness to die for its parents' ideals. The Palestinian leadership will not stop terror until it is promised a full and irrevocable Israeli withdrawal from the territories. There is not the slightest indication that any successor to Arafat would be more moderate than he.

Israelis of all political persuasions now understand these goals and are revising their own views accordingly. This is why Sharon is going to insist - as he told New York Times columnist William Safire recently - not merely on keeping some of the territory occupied in 1967, but on controlling the border between Palestine and Jordan. Sharon's most likely successor is Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister who was born after the war of independence and who has shown even less interest in the rights of the Palestinians. And a majority of Israelis now regard the creation of an armed Palestinian authority as a serious mistake.

Recently the Israeli historian Benny Morris - author of ''Righteous Victims,'' an extraordinarily evenhanded treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the 20th century and previously a critic of the occupation of the West Bank - declared publicly that compromise has become impossible. Either Palestine will become an Arab state with a rapidly diminishing Jewish minority, he wrote, or Greater Israel will become a Jewish state with a very small Arab minority. A recent poll found 40 percent of Israelis surveyed favoring expulsion of the Palestinians.

Some historians are beginning to focus upon 80-year cycles in American and world history, and to understand how the outcome of one cycle - the crisis that creates a new political order - ultimately creates the basis for new conflicts that come to a head when a postwar generation has grown up. In the United States the founding of a Republic divided by the issue of slavery in 1788 eventually made the Civil War inevitable. The outcome of that war, in which the North reestablished the Union but eventually allowed the ex-Confederates to maintain white supremacy, laid the foundation for the civil rights struggles that began in the 1950s.

On another front, for the last 20 years a new generation of Republicans and corporations has been waging an increasingly strident and effective campaign against most of the achievements of Roosevelt's New Deal, including labor unions, limits on economic inequality, and even Social Security. In the same way, the struggle in the 1930s and '40s to create Israel - which succeeded partly because of the Holocaust in World War II - has created the conflict with the Palestinians.

In the last 10 years, we witnessed the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union - all creations of the First World War that had lasted 75-80 years. The next 20 years will see the disintegration - or at least the transformation - of many of the national and international beliefs and institutions that the Depression and the Second World War created in the United States, Western Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East.

The prestige the United States secured as the victor in the Second World War and the founder of the post-1945 world order will mean very little in a world in which no one any longer remembers those events. The baby boom generation - which in the late 1960s first mounted an intellectual challenge to their parents' world - will have to build a new one to put in its place, and history does not guarantee that it will be a better one.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not, alas, the last one of the post-1945 era to be resolved. Instead, it is the first great conflict of a new era that will discard many of the beliefs of the second half of the 20th century and leave behind the stable, comfortable, and equitable world that our grandparents and parents created in which middle-aged Americans have spent their entire lives.

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 4/28/2002.

I did not realize when I wrote this piece how much the Bush Administration's would do to accelerate this process. Its emphasis on regime change and elections has accelerated the disintegration of the old order. In Lebanon and Palestine, the Administration counted on elections to bring moderates to power, but they have done the opposite, giving Hezbollah cabinet seats in Lebanon--where a Syrian presence kept some check on Hezbollah until Washington unceremoniously ushered it out--and giving Hamas its extraordinary victory in Palestine. The latter victory led immediately to an escalation of the conflict against Israel. Things in Israel did not go altogether as I had suggested during the last four years. Ariel Sharon decided on some measure of unilateral disengagement, and after his stroke, Ehud Olmert decisively defeated the Likud and declared his willingness to continue along the same path. Now, however, the Israeli press and public are filled with recriminations about the Israeli withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, which are thought to have emboldened Hamas and Hezbollah, and calls for a tougher policy abound. With the clear toleration of the United States, Israel is trying to destroy hostile structures of authority (starting with the buildings they occupy) in an apparent attempt to intimidate Arabs from siding with armed opposition to Israel's presence wherever it chooses to remain. It is beginning to look that if Olmert survives, the Israeli line will harden again. Israel still has dissenting voices, and I just read a column in the relatively conservative Jerusalem Post by Naomi Chazan, who made an argument similar to this one and suggested that Israel has to find a way to strengthen, not weaken, the Palestinian authority. Ms. Chazan is right—we must realize before too long that even despotic authority is better for the average person than no authority at all. But her view is likely to remain an isolated one.

On the Arab side the Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist actions certainly do show increased radicalism, encouraged by Iran and Syria, the two hostile governments the Bush Administration has not, as yet, attempted to bring down. Events since Arafat's death have confirmed that he was, in context, a moderate, even if he was never a real partner for peace. That the Palestinian and Hezbollah terror campaigns do not seem to have done anything but create more misery for their peoples seems essentially irrelevant, certainly to the Palestinians. Most frightening of all is the growing ascendancy of militantly religious, militia-based movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas, not only in Lebanon and Gaza, but also, of course, in Iraq. The civil war in Baghdad has been in progress for months, according to the Israeli website Debka and the London Times. Rather than set up a separate state in the south of Iraq, Shi’ites seem determined to purge Sunnis from Baghdad. None of this could have happened, of course, had the old Ba’ath regime remained in power.

The metaphor of a human life upon which the model of an 80-year cycle is based suggests that we should not be too quick to blame the Bush Administration for the collapse of the old order. An infection or a tobacco habit may accelerate the demise of an elderly person, but that demise is eventually inevitable in any case. Authoritarian regimes based on older colonial Administrations, like those in Egypt and Jordan, and tribally ruled societies like Saudi Arabia, may well be doomed anyway. The growth of radical militias, for which no one seems to have found an antidote (any more than there was for Mohammed’s rampaging tribes so many centuries ago), will be tragic for the region and will certainly not benefit the western industrialized world. But the United States, Europe, and even the emerging Asian powers must ask themselves whether they want to involve themselves deeply in this process without much hope of affecting it, except for the worse. American and, to a lesser extent, European institutions are suffering from severe decay themselves. Their best hope may lie in putting their own houses in order.


John K. said...

Sad but true it seems to say that Israel and the Palestinians will never see eye to eye.

Israelis will never allow for the creation of a Palestinian state, a state which will always possess the seeds of future war given their histories. Could Israelis ever allow a Palestinian state to exist with the West Bank cutting deep into Israel? It's hard to imagine.

But what bothers me about this specific issue is how our media discusses only one side of the story. In other words, of course there are elements in Palestinian and Arab societies that will never accept Israel's right to exist. But the other side of the coin is that much of Israel will never allow for a Palestinian state to exist in their backyard.

Another idea that interests me which you allude to and I've seen mentioned elsewhere is how our invasion of Iraq has done to make the region more volatile and less stable: our actions have emboldened Iran.

Iran is now an uncontested major player in the region. Obviously, the USA is a counter-weight to Iran's actions. But we are so tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan with our stretched thin military that it's hard to see how we can be an effective balancing force to Iran in the region.

This is one of Sy Hersh's points in his recent article in the New Yorker about why we are negotiating with Iran: we don't really have any other options, other than some kind of air war to stop Iran's nuclear program. And as Sy points out, the air war option is very risky.

So while Saddam may have been a monster and a horrible leader, he kept the lid on the conflict between the Sunnis and the Shia, and he served as a counter-weight to Iran. With Iraq/Saddam out of the way, Iran has been emboldened. And this has also emboldened Hamas and Hizbollah to some degree.

And America's willingness to look the other way whenever Israel acts also allows Israel to feel emboldened as well. It's sort of a proxy war between Israel and militant groups in the region with Israel acting as our attack dog and Hizbollah and Hamas acting as Iran's attack dog.

Is that a fair description?

But I think suffice it to say that our invasion of Iraq has stirred up the pot in as yet unforeseen ways that are just now coming to fruition.

Leo Brux said...

I'd like to add a tentative attempt of an anticipation to your excellent analysis.

Could it be that in the MidEast the tide is turning against Israel?

- USA on gradual decline
- China on the rise (and not yet, but soon a strong power in the MidEast, not attached to Israel's interests, but sooner or later using Arab hostility against the West to gain ground in the fight for oil ...)
- more power and chance to choose allies on the side of the oil producing nations

If these three developments will become strong in the coming decade, then Europe and the USA will also have to reconsider their support for Israel's occupation and landgrabbing. To save Israel's existence it might become necessary to force this nation to withdraw from the occupied territories (East-Jerusalem included) completely.

For the current conflict, Israel and the West might still be strong enough to prevail, I suppose. But the result will not be a sustainable victory.

On the long run, Israel will lose, and even today we can experience that Israel's aggressive politics is nothing but a liability for the West. The Arab (and Muslim) world is watching with different eyes than ours - and the temperature there is rising toward a boiling point.

Only the US government seems to enjoy the deviation from their Iraq desaster and hopes that an Israeli triumph might boost American confidence. For short-termists Israel's aggressive acting may be heartening. But, as in chess, in politics those will prevail in the end who prove to be superior in long-term calculation.

George Buddy said...

A little late with a comment, but I enjoyed your excellent piece (s).

What i want answered is to a question that is about 58 years too late. Did the United Nations and the British have the legal authority to sign away rights to designated parties in the Palestine Mandate?

You know. none of the Arab or Muslim states then in the UN (about 50 nations total --of which maybe a dozen were Arab-- at that time in 1947)voted for the creation of Israel. So even back then how could 32 or 33 states force this decision down the throats of the Middle East nations?

This is the root of the problem. I support Israel on a moral basis. But i just question the legality of the UN and previously, the League of Nations to re-arrange national boundary lines without local support.

Some people would say, you don't believe Israel has a "right to exist."

Right is as right does.

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