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Palestinian Meltdown and the Cheap Payoff of Violence

I have a few things I’d like to respond to regarding Jonathan’s comments on the Palestinian meltdown.

Being really good at fighting with or complaining about one’s enemies has very little to do with being able to run anything, from basic institution building, to the more vague but equally powerful effort required to build a sense of common purpose among a people. Not to mention developing ways of resolving differences. That’s as true for couples – who may fall madly in love, but if they can’t figure out how to deal with their darkness, they are doomed – as it is for a people/nation. I think this has been a fundamental problem in Palestinian politics and how Palestinians organize and express power. And even though Fatah is the more direct descendant of the PLO, Hamas seems to suffer these shortcomings just as deeply. Neither apple fell far from the tree; perhaps there is too much of a sense of identity and purpose tied up in being the underdog, the fighter, the rebel. But as long as both sides hold onto this image of themselves and how it underscores the Palestinian sense of purpose and meaning, they will continue to be incapable of leading efforts toward real political, social, and economic development; developing human infrastructure, institutions, and systems; and managing difficulties and differences. In other words, I see the shadow of Arafat and his cronies casting a pall over the region to this day and for some time to come. And just as Arafat did, both sides are quick to cover up their ineptitude and internal squabbling with complaint and conflict. There’s nothing quite so effective to rally a people like a fight. (See Karl Rove Playbook for more.) The problem is that it keeps distracting everyone from the deeper questions as to what a people does after the fighting; it focuses the attention of a people as “against” something. Definitions based on external cues, especially reputation, take precedence. This is a very dangerous road to go down. At some point, one has to look within to become more fully developed. I think the same goes for a nation.

In some sense, getting into fights, mostly with the Israelis but now with each other, has become an addiction. And like most addictions, all this fighting and fussing anesthetizes some sort of pain and deflects attention from issues that need addressing. But addictions are hard to get out of because in many ways they work. And for Hamas, the last two weeks has been successful, at least on a superficial level: they shouldered their way clear of what they seemed to regard as Fatah’s/Abbas’ paternalism and claimed Gaza as their own. Fatah, gained something as well; looking like the more reasonable of two bad options. Of course, none of this addresses the need to build physical, social, or cultural infrastructure. In fact, all of these things are in tatters.


So now what? Frankly, I’m suffering from a certain degree of MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) trying to figure out what’s going on. And what to do about all this. But two things come to mind straightaway. Reducing the capacity for violence and increasing the incentives for cooperation.

Although it falls into the “easier said than done” category of things, I have to say that as a world culture we have to do something about the proliferation of guns on this planet. The


bears particular responsibility here because we produce so much weaponry. We share this special responsibility with our old Cold War nemesis, the

Soviet Union

– these days,

Russia and the former Soviet republics. That’s because the 1947 model Automat Kalashnikov (that’s AK-47 in common parlance), the worlds most popular killing machine, comes from both

Russia and the former Soviet Republics.

Since the AK-47 is about to hit 65, why not create an effort to retire it? Sure, everyone is making far too much money off of sales and distribution of this weapon, but is there a way to reduce demand or to tie profits to costs? I can think of two ways to do this: make weapons manufacturers liable for some of the damage created by what they’ve manufactured (in the same way that cigarette companies can be liable for the harm they produce); or, to beef up enforcement against illegal arms shipments to the point that the costs of being in the business go up. This would require developing countries to actively put pressure on weapons manufactures, the UN, Interpol, and others. Again, we’re back to the realm of longshots. Too many entrenched interests make too much money off of the arms trade, legal and illegal.  Once again, the weakest seem to be destined to end up under the wheels of “progress”, or at least, someone else’s agenda.Three:

The second point goes back to something Jonathan and I talked about ages ago: creating ties that bind between the various states in the

Middle East

The Middle East Regional Cooperative Program (MERC)  mentioned in the Jerusalem Post article is one such effort.  We need a lot more of these efforts, from shared low/no interest investment pools to interlocking production systems that provide incentives for firms in different countries to cooperate creating and distributing various products and services. If the firms cooperate, then politicians, who want to see constituents with jobs, will support these efforts. Little by little everyone in the area can learn that they have more to gain though cooperation rather than conflict.


And even though Jonathan may want to wash my mouth out with soap for drawing this analogy, I think something can be learned about the problem of building ties that bind by revisiting the ways in which South Africans dismantled apartheid. I remember reading a fabulous piece in the New Yorker years ago about how middle tier legal administrators and bureaucrats in South Africa kept meeting with each other beginning in the 1900s, getting to know each other, and generally creating open channels that higher-ups like Mandela and de Klerk could use when high-level talks broke down. No such ongoing effort seems to be in play in


Or if it is, it’s not being actively sustained, which limits its impact. The US and the EU and some collection of Arabic states (who have talked a good fight but have shown little initiative or imagination in grappling with the Palestinian issue) need to create a roundtable that meets on a schedule, and places various diplomats, bureaucrats, and business persons in the Occupied Territories, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt, into ongoing contact with one another. Spreading a little money over it (in the form of venture capital funds, low/no interest loans, grants, and reduced tariffs and customs barriers) might grease the wheels just enough to produce a bit of momentum.

Will any of this work? Given recent experience, probably not. Too many persons seem too inured to revenge and retaliation, punishment and petulance, to trust, or more simply, to listen. A sense of meaning, purpose, and cultural connection seems to be built around strife; a point I made earlier in this post. That’s a scary place to be because it means that broaching the subject of peace requires a reordering of priorities and values that go very deep. At least, this is true with the leadership and the actual fighters on both sides. For them, the payoff to making trouble gives them a sense of value and meaning. This will consistently trump, or at least undermine, potential economic benefits.

However, I’d say that “just plain folk” want to enjoy the pedestrian pleasures of peace: a decent job, good food, a comfortable environment, spending time with family and friends, and so forth. In the On-Point program on the current conditions in Palestine, both Taghreed El-Khodary and Hanan Ashrawi say that both sides have failed the Palestinian people. This seems obvious to those of us who believe that war is necessarily a failure of more productive options. I take a sense of hope from this, though: the common people may well decide that they’ve had enough of corruption and belligerence and move in a new direction. Such thinking seems to have gained increasing traction in Israel, but in both Israel and in the Palestinian Territories, leadership on both sides seem unwilling to steer the ships of state in this potentially more productive direction.


Which brings us back around to


In a pretty heated email exchange between a Palestinian friend of mine, Jonathan, a local "pan-Mediterraneanist" I know, and myself, it was clear that the Palestinians are just plain worn out with


many Jews are worn out with


but some of us are still holding out hope for reform. Or maybe it’s just a matter of trying not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But bringing pressure to bear on Israel must be done. Broad-based boycotts – something advocated by the pan-Mediterraneanist in the aforementioned email exchange – may be imprecise, but some sort of cost has to be attached to the brutality and thoughtlessness that seem to be part of daily business.


What I’d really like to see is an American administration with the stones to withhold funds going to Israel until 1) peace negotiations resume; 2) concrete steps toward real Palestinian autonomy are in place and are acted on; 3) deadlines are set for relinquishing control of the

Occupied Territories

This seems like a mirage right now, but I don’t see how any long-term stability can be realized without taking these steps.


Moving forward – that is, moving toward peace – will require, just as Jonathan notes, movement. Do something that leads in that direction. Right now I don’t have the feeling that anyone takes this seriously. Abbas is making noises about peace talks, but I don’t see that he has the moxie or pull to make it happen. But at least he’s got the invitation out there.

What’s frustrating is that those with the most influence seem to be committed to the least reasonable course of action. The people who have no voice, those tormented by the masked men and largely ignored inept leaders, continue to endure the pain of death, displacement, fear, riot, and humiliation. They continue to be ground under the wheels of history. For them, progress is more about this immediate ongoing pain than it is in deliverance or renewal. If these people can be given voice, and some tools for realizing the kinds of outcomes that would truly serve their interests, we could see considerable progress in the region.


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