Optimism, pessimism and political judgment

Everyday categories like optimism and pessimism tend to color most people?s political thinking, especially about questions involving international relations in the Middle East, but since they are irrational affects that are extraneous to factual realities, such attitudes are entirely at odds with sound political judgment. What is required for serious political analysis, especially when there is a vital goal at stake, is to dispassionately evaluate what is happening, in so far as possible free from assumptions, prejudices, pre-judgments and emotions. This is asking a great deal of people who are profoundly invested emotionally in a conflict, but it is necessary if one is to seriously evaluate the risks, opportunities and possibilities for advancing a specific agenda. This may sound obvious, but I am completely convinced by extensive experience that most people who are engaged on the question of Palestine, on all sides, consistently fail to apply this standard to their thinking, and are largely driven by irrational affects, emotions, and generalized attitudes such as optimism, pessimism and cynicism.

On the Palestinian and pro-Palestinian side, pessimism about peace and ending the conflict and the occupation is almost universal. In fairness, people came by this attitude honestly, having endured decades of suffering, frustration and disappointment. This pessimism about the future informs a very common, and even typical, deep-seated cynicism about diplomacy, negotiations and the potential for any kind of workable agreement. It is understandable, but it is also dysfunctional as a basis for analyzing political developments. Everything is always too little too late, insufficient, worthless, fraudulent, meaningless or counterproductive. Some people have become so cynical and pessimistic that they never see anything of value in anything any actual political actors with any degree of leverage or authority, on any side, say or do. It would be easy to identify activists and commentators who literally oppose anything and everything that actually takes place in the political register that has an impact on fundamental realities. It?s a safe position, since everything that really exists always has myriad downsides, but it?s also an attitude that precludes any kind of serious engagement with the actually existing political realm. Gadflies are sometimes interesting, occasionally insightful and often annoying, but they are by definition ineffective.

The only approach that can actually help to achieve practical political results is to carefully and dispassionately examine every development, attempting to identify what it offers that can help move towards a clearly defined, overriding goal (in this case, ending the occupation). Every development, statement and action, no matter how seemingly minor, may offer something, however modest, that can be deployed in pursuit of the goal. Successful campaigns to create change in the real world, especially at the level of international relations and diplomacy, depend entirely on an accumulation of political leverage and capital based on the successful utilization of countless minor, and occasionally a few major, developments. Sneering at everything precludes this slow and steady accumulation of leverage and capital. It means relying on one major, massive breakthrough that changes everything suddenly and miraculously. This almost never happens. Relying on it is unrealistic and indeed foolish. Pessimism and cynicism, therefore, are mortal enemies of achieving a major goal, as they blind their adherents to the potential uses to which modest or insufficient developments can be put towards the painstaking accomplishment of an overriding objective.

When my colleagues and I at the American Task Force on Palestine engage in the kind of analysis that looks at every development for opportunities to advance the goal of ending the occupation, we are frequently accused of being Pollyannas and engaging in irrational optimism. This is entirely incorrect. Optimism, being another irrational affect, is as much a threat to sound political judgment as pessimism and cynicism. Optimism in this context would involve a deep-seated belief that peace and an end to the occupation are overwhelmingly likely or, even worse, inevitable. To the contrary, all sensible observers, no matter how committed they are to peace and ending the occupation, understand that is going to be extremely difficult to achieve and that the obstacles are enormous and under no circumstances to be underestimated. Irrational optimism of this kind is actually more readily to be found in completely unjustifiable and indefensible pronouncements that a binational state is ?an inevitability? and that the intersection of Palestinian demography and Israeli settlement policies mean that nothing can stop it from developing over time. The further irrationally optimistic implication in most of these pronouncements is that this binational state will be democratic, equitable and bear no resemblance to the occupation or systematic legal discrimination.

In truth, of course, nothing is inevitable, and everything that happens in the political realm is the result of human agency and a genealogy of human choices and actions. We shape our own realities, and only the most foolhardy would claim some sort of inspired certitude about what the future will look like many decades hence. Whatever happens will be based on the art of the possible and the consequence of actions by those who take the necessary step to dispassionately and systematically look for every opportunity, however marginal, to advance their goals and interests. The typical reaction among Palestinians and their allies is to dismiss all developments as deeply flawed and unacceptable because they fall far short of achieving an end to the occupation or a viable peace agreement. There is almost no recognition in many of these quarters that one must, perforce, make lemonade out of lemons, and work with the realities that actually exist rather than spitting at the facts and denouncing anyone and everyone, and everything they do. The Arab Peace Initiative, the Obama administration?s focus on a settlement freeze and resumption of peace negotiations, Salam Fayyad?s plan to establish the institutional framework of a state on the ground by 2011 (as he puts it, de facto statehood), the fact that the United States now openly pursues Palestinian statehood as a major national security goal, the economic development underway in the West Bank, and so much more, like everything else, is dismissed with a tisk and a derisive wave of the hand.

Obviously indeed none of this is sufficient, satisfactory or decisive. And, there is no guarantee that a reasonable peace agreement that ends the occupation will be achieved, or that Israel and Palestine will live side-by-side in peace anytime in the foreseeable future. However, it is overwhelmingly obvious to any dispassionate observer that there is a great deal for Palestinians and their allies to work with in the present circumstances, the undeniable serious obstacles and difficulties notwithstanding. Just because something is difficult and may or may not be accomplished is no argument for giving up, walking away and preferring simply to sit by and denounce everything as insufficient, unsatisfactory and worthless. That kind of pessimism and cynicism isn?t realism at all. In fact, it is a very pernicious form of defeatism, and a practical surrender of agency and the abandonment of the idea that through systematic, concerted and painstaking effort we can, within the limits set by the art of the possible, seriously change existing realities.

It is almost entirely certain that the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis will refuse to accept a single democratic state (or Hamas? Islamic state) between the river and the sea, and that sufficient political or military leverage to compel them to agree to such arrangements does not exist and, in reality, cannot be acquired. In the real world, this simply is not going to happen, unless one is counting on many extremely bloody decades of continued and massively escalated violence that exhausts and demoralizes both sides to the point that they abandon their national imperatives. Whether Palestinians and Israelis are capable, in practice, of agreeing to a mutually acceptable border and resolving the other issues that would allow the occupation to end and a Palestinian state to emerge to live alongside Israel in peace definitely remains to be seen. There is no guarantee that this will happen, and plenty of grounds for skepticism. However, it most certainly remains in the realm of the possible, and therefore subject to the art of the possible.

To achieve it, Palestinians, their allies, and those Israelis and Americans who understand that this is in Israel?s and the United States? interests as much as anyone else?s, will have to proceed not on the basis of irrational affects such as optimism, pessimism or cynicism, but on the basis of dispassionate political judgment that focuses on finding every opportunity, however modest and limited, to take one small step after another towards the goal. Irrational pessimism is, in effect, surrender. Irrational optimism means believing that something good is inevitably or almost certainly going to happen, which is also self-defeating in practice. Sound political judgment, by contrast, always keeps its eyes on the prize without illusions. It is, generally speaking, the only way to realize an elusive, difficult and major accomplishment such as ending the occupation. When something ? anything ? happens, you pocket whatever it is you can get from it towards the goal and move on. It is the only way forward.