Geraldine Doogue had an interesting interview yesterday with Walter Russell Mead ( a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations). He’s recently written an essay for the Foreign Affairs journal entitled: “Change They Can Believe In: To Make Israel Safe, Give Palestinians Their Due”.
He argues that both sides are trapped, almost powerless to fundamentally alter anything because of the fragmented nature of their societies. He also believes the rest of the world has an obligation to do everything it can to resolve matters since it was a combination of their direct interference and inaction that both created the Jewish state and then failed to provide security (for both sides) at the most critical time. That all this was done without taking the least bit of notice of the wishes of the existing inhabitants virtually guaranteed things would turn out badly.
All absolutely right, it seems to me.
I’d initially thought to tack this on to the thread that grew out of last week’s piece on Israel and Palestine but soon realised that would be a bit pointless. Lively though it was, there can’t be many who are still following it and Mead’s essay, in my view, looks at these matters in a creative enough fashion to deserve all the readers it can get.
These three quotes will hopefully provide some sense of the “Copernican shift in perception” Mead sees as vital if any real progress is to be made:
The conflict is not just fiendishly hard to resolve; history and culture make it difficult for both the Israelis and the Palestinians to make the necessary choices. The two peoples had very different experiences in the twentieth century, but both have been left with a fractured national consciousness and institutions too weak to make or enforce political decisions.
* * * * *
The twentieth century taught both the Jews and the Palestinians that the international community’s grand moral claims are mostly hollow, that great powers are cynical and brutal, that international politics is a blood sport, and that, at the end of the day, a people can depend only on itself. And both survived thanks to dogged persistence, violent struggle, and a refusal to accept defeat. The Jews clawed their way out of the ruins of Europe to build a state and then turned it into a regional superpower despite repeated efforts by others to destroy it. The Palestinians created a national movement in the face of disaster, asserted themselves by armed struggle, defended their independence in the harsh world of Middle East power politics, and succeeded in placing their cause on the international community’s agenda. Both peoples trust their own instincts much more than they do the promises of any single power or of all the world’s powers together. They distrust each other because they know how tough and even how ruthless each of them had to be to survive. And they both understand, as no others can, the bitterness and the intimacy of the unique situation they share.
* * * * *
That said, it would be as unfair to place all responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem on Israel as it is to overlook the injustices the Palestinians suffered. The Israelis argue that the War of Independence was a fight for survival: here were survivors from Hitler’s death camps suddenly facing not only the Palestinians but also the armies of five Arab states. Self-defense, the Israelis argue, justified their actions during and after the war. And although most Israelis acknowledge that wrongs were committed, almost all charge that, faced with similar choices, their critics would have done the same or worse. They are right. The responsibility for the nakba cannot simply be laid at Israel’s door.
The United Nations’ failure to provide elementary security for both the Arab and the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine as the British withdrew was the immediate cause of both communities’ suffering in the late 1940s — of the initial clashes between them, of the accelerating spiral of violence, of the Arab armies’ entry into the conflict, and then of the prolonged period of hostility. Modern Israel should acknowledge and account for its part in those tragic events, but the international community at large must accept the ultimate responsibility for the nakba, solemnly acknowledging the wrongs done and sincerely trying to compensate Palestinian refugees today.
At a time when many despair of the actions taken even by the side they favour, and when those directly involved seem quite incapable of breaking the cycles of mutual distrust, fear and anger, Mead’s suggestions seem to me very valuable.
The reminder that it was the rest of the world (through the League of Nations and later the UN) which created this dilemma could prove particularly constructive: not only does it provide a strong rationale for the world to become much more actively and evenly engaged, it also suggests that some of the anger the two sides of the conflict often feel for each other might be usefully directed elsewhere.
If nothing else, it’s an invitation to reflection and a more open conversation.