Close Encounters with the Middle East

October 30, 2014

I was at my desk on Monday at 11:52. I eat out most days, but on this day I had a lecture on my calendar and my workout bag in the car. Lunch, lecture, or workout? After some teetering and the slightest of nudges, the lecture won!

Khalil Shikaki spoke for about an hour at UA Hillel on “The Gaza War and the Future of Palestinian-Israeli Relations.” Dr. Shikaki is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, and a Senior Fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. He reported on polling his organization has done in Gaza. (Pollsters in Gaza? Who knew!) And the results? With violence or war comes, Palestinians move away from Fatah/Mahmoud Abbas to Hamas positions. Over time, the people who move toward Hamas positions move back but, each time, more people move toward Hamas positions, and it takes them longer to move back to moderation. He also shared his sense that the Israeli government has no strong desire to deal with Palestine as a partners, but did mention the absence of strong Palestinian leadership. (Strongest leader? Marwan Barghouti, resident in an Israeli prison and not likely to be leaving soon.)

I have some observations. First, and with respect for Dr. Shikaki—who knows much more than I do about the situation—I learned nothing new. Then, of course, I asked myself the big questions:  You thought this man would have some answer no one else has yet disclosed? And if an Israeli had spoken, would you have expected some keen new insight from her/him?

Sadly, Israeli and Palestinian leaders offer their people and the world no evident action regarding peace. No new answers. Nothing creative. Bupkes, which I suspect the cousins—what Ms. J calls the people from Abraham’s other family—can translate into Arabic with ease.

Second, recently I read Failure in Gaza, written by Assaf Sharon for the September 25 issue of the New York Review of Books. Mr. Sharon, an Israeli, provides an excellent survey of the latest Gaza War. What really resonated for me were these words, offered after noting the failure of the Gaza War for Israel:

Yet this is not an accidental mistake. Israel’s conduct throughout the crisis has been based directly on [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s philosophy of “conflict management,” whose underlying premise is that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians cannot be solved, but can be effectively “managed” for a very long period of time.

An old friend—a Jewish communal professional— told me years ago that he deals with conditions and problems. “Conditions we manage, and problems we solve.” The comment made sense then and now. And if Dr. Shikaki and Mr. Sharon are right, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government have decided they have a condition—Palestine—they can manage. Who knows for sure whether the Prime Minister subscribes to the conditions/problems dichotomy. And no one really know how well Israel can maintain the status quo, if that is its goal. Regardless, I like the fact that people may be clearly describing the situation, to wit:  Israel intends to maintain and manage the status quo for the foreseeable future. I think that position makes peace highly unlikely at best, but if that is what we have, we need to deal with it. (If you think I am letting the Palestinians off the hook, read the next two paragraphs.)

Finally, there’s the matter of courage, necessary to solve big problems and seemingly  in short supply in the Middle East right now. I thought about South Africa, and about just what must have been going through the minds of President F.W. de Klerk and his people when they decided to free Nelson Mandela. (A senior moment also arrived, then, and I had to google to recall Mandela’s name.) While we wonder about whether there is a de Klerk in the house, we might also ask how South Africa might be different today if President de Klerk had not had Nelson Mandela. The absence of a Palestinian Mandela explains, at least in part, why Israel chooses managing a condition, as against solving a problem. (The link to Mr. Barghouti attributes Palestinian Mandela to him, although Dr. Shikaki suggested he has many issues with many constituencies.)

Insanity, reportedly, involves “do-overs,” over and over again, with an expectation that results will be different. Alas, the Middle East is not insane, for there is no evidence that anyone expects a different outcome after each war. Instead, we have people who have must have reached the conclusion that status quo > peace * risk of failure. Failure by math, and that’s a bloody shame, literally!

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