COLUMN-Peace may be the true threat to Hamas, Israel's leaders

by Reuters
Tuesday, 19 August 2014 18:06 GMT

(Amy Wilentz was Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker. The opinions expressed are her own.)

By Amy Wilentz

Aug 19 (Reuters) - It's time to wonder whether Israel and Palestine will ever be able to move out of the moral abyss into which they've plunged themselves, and address the threat of peace.

"Threat" is the right term. Because peace is dangerous for leaders in the Middle East.

It always has been. But back in the early 1990s, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who hated everything the other stood for, knew that each had his reasons for working for peace. Just possibly, they imagined, peace would be better than war for future generations. Certainly it would not be as wasteful.

Not that those days were bliss - but at least peace was plausible.

The tragic truth is that positions have hardened now. Today's rulers, singularly unimaginative and reactive, are not vessels aching to be filled with the potion of peace. Both Rabin and Arafat learned in brutal fashion that working toward peace is a perilous, risky business.

After this past decade, can the two sides ever be courageous enough to move beyond their twisted mutual history toward shaky and precarious chairs at the peace table?

This is not to suggest that there is equal blame to be assigned for the turmoil and bloodshed of the past 10 years. Hamas' behavior may be wretched and irresponsible, but Israel has occupied Gaza even while walking away from it, and its indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations in a place it holds prisoner is inexcusable.

Yet eventually warring sides must progress from mutual murder to a lasting peace in which "lawns" don't get "mown" (the cynical Israeli metaphor for their repeated shelling of Gaza), nor soldiers kidnapped, nor teens executed, nor neighborhoods razed, nor playing boys bombed.

It's hard to get there because with peace in Israel, the population is likely to become more restive, more concerned with tough domestic problems that the government needs to face. Peace means individualism and hard-fought political battles. War means groupthink - which is to say reflexive support for the military and the prime minister who goes to war.

In Palestine (call it Gaza for the moment), peace would mean the challenge of figuring out how to run a nation, how to create an economy, how to lead a normal family life. Peace diverts the public mind from hatred of Israel and from groupthink. War, on the other hand, stops people from focusing on whether their leaders have served them well or poorly.

But most of all, peace is for moderates - and the leadership in both Israel and Gaza despise moderation. They despise compromise, they fear the handshake. They loathe everything that leads to peace, including negotiation. They can only be led to the cease-fire table by outsiders.

War is simpler for them, easier. Indeed, it sometimes seems that hating Israel is just a tool in internal Palestinian politics, and despising Hamas simply an expected element in Israeli elections, a key plank in the political platform.

War is a basic component of the Israeli creation myth. In the same fashion, intifadas are part of the Palestinian identity. Wage a war, stage an intifada and all the people on your side will follow.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, is far more popular now than he was before this latest round of killing began.

And almost everyone in Gaza knows that Israel's long blockade of the strip, plus its sporadic intensive bombings, have pushed Gazans further into the arms of Hamas. At least three generations of Palestinians have now been raised on the romance of resistance. Protective Edge, the name of this latest Israeli operation in Gaza, has thus enhanced the militants' standing. If an election were held tomorrow, Hamas could win it by universal acclaim.

The point of view of each side is pretty well understood. Israel, as always, feels it's in an existential war and points to Hamas' new tunnels and longer-range missiles as good reasons for bad Israeli behavior. Hamas, understandably, points to the slow starvation and imprisonment of the Palestinian people in Gaza as a reason for continued, if impotent, shelling of Israel.

The whole Gaza affair is a pathological repetition of the dysfunctional relationship of these two populations, who both consider themselves victims even as they are firing off rockets that kill entire families, or are intended to kill entire families. Any psychoanalyst could tell you that these two have to change their behaviors.

But the leaders on both sides don't see it that way. Like sick siblings, each side needs the other to establish its own identity. Israel is now close to meaningless without the Palestinian threat. As for the Palestinians -- without Israeli oppression to resist, who are they at this point?

Still, the entity most undermined by the recent conflict is Israel. It's like an angry older brother. It just continues to bash and bash, not realizing that little bro has become more agile, cleverer, more resourceful - and has new friends.

While the Israelis again use the macho-satisfying cliché of aerial overkill to deal with the enemy, the Palestinians now have better hardware and infrastructure for resistance, and they've also become better at hiding their moves from Israeli intelligence.

Hamas can now hold out longer, pushing the game into overtime. While Hamas continues the fight, more Palestinians die in Israeli bombings, and more members of the international community move into the Palestinian camp. It's a brilliant strategy: to fight, and die, and in losing, win.

Hamas must bear some responsibility for the civilian casualties on its side during this round of conflict -- but there is no better place to hide your moral shame than behind the bodies of your own people. International disgust at the killing of innocent civilians can sometimes stop superior firepower in its tracks.

It's now old-fashioned even to mention the Oslo peace process, but it bears considering. What was the idea behind peace, as far as Israel was concerned?

The reason to pursue peace was that normalization of the Palestinians would bring them into the fold of respectable nations, with responsibilities other than resistance and militancy.

Palestinians inspect the rubble of destroyed houses in the Shejaia neighbourhood, which witnesses said was heavily hit by Israeli shelling and air strikes during an Israeli offensive, in Gaza CityBut that peace fell apart, dramatically, when extremists on both sides destroyed their own moderates. The second intifada began; Hamas took over Gaza; Fatah, Arafat's organization that had sought peace, was marginalized, and Israelis sealed off the strip and bombed its airport. A militant Israel de-normalized the Gazans and ensured that they would remain extreme in their hatred of Israel. What else is there to do for a population that is 70 percent to 80 percent unemployed?

M.J. Rosenberg, a Middle East watcher who has been writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades, focusing mostly on Israel, decided during this last battle to stop. "To put it simply, I'd rather not write about Israel anymore," he wrote. "I'd rather not even think about it. Especially because I have given up any hope about its future."

It may be wrong to go that far. Yet the extremism of Israel's leadership offers precious little reason to expect a meaningful change in the ugly status quo any time soon. (Amy Wilentz)

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