Next time someone bores on about the so-called decline of the British literary novel you might consider pointing out to your dinner-party companion that this is not such a bad thing. It suggests, if the thesis is true, that there aren’t too many problems in this realm that are still worth exploring, far less solving.
Consider, by contrast, the twin and warring agonies of Israel and Palestine. Is there a better, bigger, subject for any novelist working today than this? I suspect not which is one reason why the likes of Amos Oz and David Grossman (and, doubtless, others too) are vital in every sense of the word. These dual tragedies evoke terror and pity in equal measure. There are few innocents and many guilty parties. Injustice is met by injustice, abomination by abomination and perhaps the only certainty is that though things cannot continue as they are they probably will anyway. Hopeless in Gaza, indeed.
This should not be confused with a soppy sense of hand-wringing moral equivalence. The point is that asking questions as natural as Who Started It? is, in the end, pointless. They all started it and none of them are minded to end it. Perhaps because none of them can end it.
A famous detective once suggested that when everything that is impossible has been eliminated whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Except that in this case whatever remains is just as impossible as everything that has been eliminated. Absent an entire series of improbabilities the Two State Solution has perished. Yet no other so-called solution is possible either. A One State Endgame is impossible. At least, it is impossible if Israel is to remain a democratic, Jewish state. And if Israel cannot remain that then Israel, as it is both known and imagined, cannot remain at all.
I dare say this would not trouble some. But it troubles many of us nonetheless. We are where we are and relitigating 1947 does no-one any good. In that limited respect there is a comparison with Ulster: even an imperfect peace process could not begin without admitting that Northern Ireland existed and arguing that it should not have been born in the first place was both pointless and counter-productive.
But if rockets fired from Gaza can hit Tel Aviv you need to be a bear of little brain not to appreciate why Israelis might wonder what would happen if it relinquished the Occupied Territories on the West Bank. The Occupation – it deserves capitalisation, incidentally – is both impossible to sustain and impossible to relinquish. It is both killing Israel yet also sustaining Israel.
No wonder that, in general, Israel does not receive a good press at the best of times but the sense that the western press is inveterately prejudiced against Israel has become something close to a self-fulfilling prophecy that in turn justifies any Israeli action. It sometimes seems that Israel’s staunchest defenders judge Israel not on the merits of its policies but on the extent to which those policies outrage wrong-thinking pundits and papers in Great Britain or the United States. The more they howl the more this is proof Israel is taking the only course open to it! I can appreciate the appeal of this kind of confirmation-bias but I doubt it does Israel much good.
And the truth is that none of the sides in this multi-faceted fuck-up have a monopoly on truth. Each, in their way, is a victim. Israel really is surrounded by hostile forces, many of whom would welcome its obliteration. Gaza really is a ghastly place and, if you like, some kind of unofficial internment camp. There really are few grounds for hope. On all sides there is a Lutheran conviction that here we stand, we can do no other.
The peace process – such as it is – has not emboldened Fatah. The more moderate Palestinian factions have been – or are in the process of being – supplanted by Hamas. Israel’s disinclination to talk about settlements in the Occupied Territories has contributed to this but it is also true that quasi-state-building on the West Bank has neither done enough for the Palestinians in an economic sense nor yet offered a plausible path to real statehood.
And yet from an Israeli perspective you can see how this makes a ghastly kind of sense. Mahmoud Abbas has been marginalised and, frankly, this suits both Netanyahu and Hamas. Negotiation and compromise are not Netanyahu’s strengths. Talking demands a certain level of trust and good faith and a willingness to concede that the other side might occasionally have a point. This is not Netanyahu’s style. He is psychologically ill-equipped for this role. So, of course, is Hamas. Suggesting that Netanyahu and Hamas need one another is too simplistic; nevertheless they understand one another. Their relationship has a certain grim clarity. (This does not make them equals: I suspect Netanyahu is often mistaken; Hamas is invariably wicked.)
If Israel could crush Hamas prospects for some kind of solution might be bonnier. The PLO might then have space to make concessions themselves. But since, at best, it seems probable that Israel can only contain Hamas (until the next conflagration) this too remains a moot point. As Aaron David Miller says, Hamas won’t make peace with Israel, and Abbas can’t.
So, from Israel’s perspective, this is not about “moving forward” or anything as ambitious as that. On the contrary, it’s about preserving the status quo. If that status quo is unsatisfactory it is at least comparatively tolerable. A known known if you will. Israel can only tolerate the rain of rockets landing on Sderot and other towns for so long. At some point it needs to respond even if it knows that doing so will only kick the problem down the road.
Reminding Hamas that their provocations come at a price comes at a price too. Professor Alan Johnson correctly points out that a “proportional” response is not the same as a “symmetrical” response. This is true. Yet it is typical of the lose-lose situation in which Israel finds itself that any response is immediately taken to be “disproportionate” and that this further undermines Israel’s “legitimacy” in the “court” of international public opinion. Sometimes, you can only win if you do not play the game. Military weakness is a political strength and military strength a political weakness. It is easy to wonder if Israel is being rope-a-doped.
Even so, Israeli complaints that Israel is held to a higher standard than its enemies are not groundless. It is! But it is held to that higher standard at least in part because Israel invites the world to hold Israel to a higher standard. When you set such store about being the only democracy in the region you should not be surprised when the inhabitants of other democracies respond by thinking your actions might be governed by the norms that dictate the actions of other democracies. Of course this is also unfair: other democracies do not face the wretched choices Israel must contemplate. Nevertheless, the double standards by which Israel is measured are, at least in part, a consequence of Israel’s own choices and preferences.
This too is a problem of legitimacy. Israel insist upon its democratic legitimacy even as it undermines its claims to that legitimacy. That it may be forced to act in such a fashion does little to assist its future. There is a heavy risk here: at some point the outside world may give up on Israel, concluding that the combination of Israel’s actions and the cost of supporting the Jewish state make that support more costly than it is worth. To hell with them and their problems. And that would jeopardise Israel’s future just as much as it is threatened by Hamas and other Palestinian irredentists. What might be good for Likud domestically is not necessarily good for Israel as a whole.
This is not a battle between unambiguous good and evil. Those of us instinctively sympathetic to Israel’s plight must also appreciate that a different Israeli government would face just choices no less unattractive as those endured by the present Israeli government. Those of us – you – instinctively sympathetic to the Palestinians might pause to wonder whether killing Jews bolsters the Palestinian cause.
Alas, each side is imprisoned by the fear of selling out. This helps persuade all parties to the conflict to love their positions not wisely but all too well. And so we carry on, pretending there are grounds for hope even as events should persuade us that there’s next to no prospect that all passion will be spent soon or that any of the sides to this will find grounds for hope. Political will is not enough and there are some problems that cannot be solved by hoping for greater and more heroic dollops of political will or the suggestion that if only everyone came to their senses everything might be different and better. The problem here is not that the participants are acting rationally but that they are all too bloody rational. When the costs of peace are greater than can be supported are you surprised when peace is not on the agenda?