The perils of certainty

Among the most dangerous aspects of the political culture surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on both sides are glib assertions of inevitable victory and the uninterrogated assumptions that inevitably lie behind them. It’s an obvious point, but was brought home to me with some force yesterday when a friend pointed out the following passage from a particularly foolish Arab-American blog:

“I have been critical of Haykal’s monologues on Aljazeera but he made a good point the other day. He said that if you despair, you just need to look at the map. To see the size of Israel and the size of the Arab world. The map explains why Israel’s years are numbered.”

One expects this kind of gobbledygook from the blogger in question, and it’s not particularly surprising to hear it from Mohamed Hassanein Haykal, or Al-Jazeera for that matter, either. What’s important is that Haykal was repeating the single most commonplace and damaging collective delusion the Arabs have been laboring under for the past 70-80 years, at least: the idea that because Israel is relatively small in territory and population, and the Arab world large in both, the outcome of a historic conflict is predestined and inevitable. After more than 60 years of dealing with the Israeli state, it’s unfortunately still possible for commentators and almost anybody else to make this allegation in front of an Arab audience with a straight face and get applause and approbation rather than dismissal and mockery. The persistence of this irrational and almost theological certainty is an overdetermined symptom, reflecting trauma, wounded pride and dignity, hubris and undoubtedly many more causes. But I think it’s important not to let this kind of baseless claim go unchallenged. Among other extremely dangerous consequences of such an attitude are reckless errors in judgment based on groundless assertions and, even worse, a sense that little or nothing really needs to be done about the present crisis, the occupation, the conflict, etc. because the long-term outcome is preordained by an ineluctable logic deriving from unchallengeable geographic and demographic statistics.

First of all, let’s look at the historical record of what was always, from the outset, a dubious proposition at best — that demographics are destiny and that the size of the Arab population by definition guarantees the failure of Zionism. During the mandatory period, Palestinians and other Arabs were confident that the Israeli state could not be established because Palestinians constituted the overwhelming majority in Palestine. After the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948, most were confident the collective Arab intervention in the war would reverse the Palestinian defeat in the civil conflict that took place as the British mandate was falling apart. After the new Israeli state prevailed and expanded its territory in the 1948 war, the official Arab governmental and intellectual position was that Israel was a temporary aberration that would quickly be expunged. In particular in 1967 there was an absolutely irrational and deluded (I use the second term in order to emphasize the extent to which the Arab people have been lied to about this issue by leaders and opinion makers, including Nasser’s then-megaphone Haykal, not only at that time, but historically and to the present-day) certainty of victory, which made the trauma of the rapid, decisive and catastrophic defeat all the more deep and painful. I don’t think the Arab world or the Arab people have fully recovered from it even today. 1948, 1967, all the wars and all the ghastly eventualities that have taken place over many decades have, astonishingly, done little to undermine the faith that many people have in the idea that Arab territorial and demographic size spells doom for the Israeli national project.

Haykal’s commonplace but highly questionable assertion is based on an enormous set of underlying assumptions that are, it seems to me, extremely dubious. First, it assumes that in the long run, smaller powers cannot survive in the presence of ones that are larger in territory and population. I think both the sweep of human history and present Middle East and indeed global realities do not support any such idea. Second, it assumes that the Arab world was, is and/or will be united in placing the goal of eliminating Israel on the top of their national agendas. Again, both history and present reality suggest this is a dangerous assumption to make. It’s certainly true that the Arab world has been and remains strongly supportive of Palestine and quite hostile to Israel, but it’s also true that most Arab governments and much of the Arab populace have lost their taste for endless wars with Israel. There was a concerted effort to reverse the catastrophe of 1948 for a couple of decades after it occurred, but even by the 1973 war, the focus for countries like Egypt and Syria was the reconquest of their own lost territory and not a broader ambition to do with Palestine.

Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel signaled what certainly appears for the foreseeable future to be an irrevocable end to a concerted and united Arab effort to do away with the Israeli state. Since then, Jordan has signed a similar treaty, Syria and Lebanon have made it clear that they are willing to do so given the right terms as well, and the entire Arab world has endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative which embraces the formula of land for peace that would result in the recognition of Israel and normalization of relations. Whereas Israel was once surrounded by Arab states committed to its elimination, it is now surrounded by Arab states pursuing a reasonable peace agreement that would ensure Israel’s long-term survival.

Of course one could always argue, as I’m sure many people would, that this strategic shift reflects only the parochial, unprincipled and unrepresentative behavior of corrupt, self-serving ruling elites that serve at the pleasure of imperial masters, and reflects only American and Israeli interests, not the interests of the various Arab states and societies. It’s hard to argue against that kind of categorical assertion that cannot be tested or disproven — it’s based on a set of allegations about the collective attitudes of ordinary Arab people from Morocco to Iraq, and a set of extrapolations based on those allegations about what different kinds of governments (democratic, revolutionary, Islamist, or whatever people have in mind) would do differently when it comes to Israel. However, there is no basis for thinking that Arab regimes in general are about to be replaced by some radically different governments anytime in the near future and no way of anticipating what those governments would look like or what they would do if they did suddenly or even gradually emerge.

Another of the dubious assumptions behind Haykal’s glib assertion is that Arab states don’t have their own specific national interests that can or will take priority over matters regarding Israel; or that Israel will be at the top of the national security priorities for all Arab states with any governments other than the ones that currently exist; or even more fancifully that the present Arab state system will be replaced by either a pan-Arab or pan-Islamic political entity that will then focus all of its energies on a long-term project to eliminate Israel. What we have witnessed over the past few decades is logical, predictable and often unrecognized in the kind of silly pseudo-analysis of the Haykal variety: Arab states and societies have many interests and priorities, and even though Israel is extremely unpopular with most ordinary Arabs and Palestinian suffering heavily identified with, both governments and societies have increasingly focused their main energies on other problems. Indeed, for better or worse, the question of Palestine is not the main national security or national agenda priority for most Arab states and societies at the present time.

North Africa, from Morocco to Libya, has always been and remains practically and politically distant from the conflict, and all those states have other priorities. Egypt is certainly focused on Palestine as a national security issue, but not with an eye to eliminating Israel but rather containing the threat to its stability and security concentrated on the Gaza border and preventing itself from being sucked into responsibility for Gaza again as the Israeli right frequently fantasizes it can be. Jordan has similar concerns to Egypt and also views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict mainly through the lens of its own internal security. Iraq is wracked by civil conflict, occupation, rebuilding, power struggles and sectarian tensions. Like North Africa and Sudan, Yemen has always been distant from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it is now the site of two separate insurrections and a major infiltration from international terrorists taking advantage of the chaos. The Gulf states are increasingly focused on the rise of Iran as a regional hegemon that is attempting to project its power throughout the Middle East, and especially in the Persian Gulf, and which has repeatedly announced its full territorial claim on Bahrain and hinted at broader territorial ambitions as well. Indeed, much of the Arab world eyes Iran with considerable suspicion, and great anxiety about its possible rise as a nuclear as well as a hegemonic power.

This means that the only Arab societies that place Israel at the forefront of their national security concerns are, at most, the Palestinians, Lebanon and Syria. But Lebanon and Syria have made it clear that they’re willing to sign a peace treaty with Israel as long as the price is right. Moreover, for all its bluster about “resistance,” the Syrian regime has maintained the quietest border with Israel of any of its neighbors, including the ones who actually have signed treaties. Indeed, it’s one of the quietest borders in the world. Iran, Syria and others are happy to use proxies in south Lebanon and Gaza to bedevil Israel, but the idea that Syria remains committed to the eventual elimination of Israel flies in the face of both its conduct and its stated positions. Lebanon’s concerns have to do with its own vulnerability to Israeli attack and to additional possible future wars involving Hezbollah. And, while none of this means that Syria, Lebanon or the Palestinians as societies remain committed to the elimination of Israel, it is worth keeping in mind that these are the three Arab societies with territories still under Israeli occupation, which is undoubtedly the main source of tension, anger and conflict.

Certainly in the Arab world Islamists and the extreme left continue to talk in terms of the need to destroy Israel, but these comments have to be taken in the context of a quest for domestic political power in which strident populist and nationalist rhetoric is deployed in order to gain credibility and do not reflect the exigencies of actually running a country and being responsible for its foreign policy and national security. None of these groups seem to be in a position to come to power, and if they did it’s very questionable if their governing policies would reflect these attitudes.

Beyond the Arab world, Iranian leaders speak in terms of the “inevitable” downfall of the Israeli state, but again, this is calculated political rhetoric designed to appeal not only to a domestic constituency but an Arab one that otherwise might have severe doubts about the intentions of a Persian and Shiite power. In other words, outbidding everybody else on Israel is one of the best ways an Iranian leader can get otherwise skeptical Sunni Arabs to regard their hegemonic agenda in the region and nuclear ambitions sympathetically. More importantly, it’s obviously not reflected in any practical Iranian policies. Iranian financial and other support for Hamas, which is well documented, not doubted by any serious person and openly admitted by the Gaza leadership the other day, certainly qualifies as an effort to spread its influence, destabilize its rivals and take advantage of chaotic situations. But I don’t think it qualifies as part of a policy that ultimately seeks the elimination of Israel, as this would be extremely difficult and dangerous and yet not advance any obvious Iranian national interest.

My point here is that Haykal’s remarks may have seemed insightful or reasonable at first glance to people like this frankly idiotic blogger, his hosts at Al Jazeera and much of the audience, but they are based on a set of assumptions that aren’t reflected by history or the present reality, and on an imaginary future that is really quite implausible. I think it’s definitely true that Israel faces a grim future if it does not come to terms with the Palestinians, and may in the end find itself confronting forces beyond its control or comprehension. But the outcome of such a confrontation is not clear at all, especially given the fact that the Israelis have an extensive stockpile of high-tech weaponry including many scores of nuclear warheads and probably a submarine-based second strike capability as well.

Of course the same kind of foolishness is readily be found on the Israeli right as well: racist assertions of Jewish and Western superiority over the Arabs; baseless confidence that Israel’s undoubted successes in the 20th century can be indefinitely extended; a delusional, self-destructive dismissal of the Palestinians as a society and national movement that can be “defeated;” and in some extreme cases borderline-psychotic balderdash about chosen peoples, covenants with God and redemption of holy lands. Many Israelis look at their past military victories, weapons stockpile, high-technology and special relationship with the United States and much of the West, and draw the reckless and indefensible conclusion that their position in the long-run is secure and that they have no need of a reasonable, viable peace agreement with the Palestinians. There is a sense, and it’s unfortunately reflected in parts of the present Israeli Cabinet, that a reliance on brute force and a certainty that realities will remain more or less as they are now relieve Israel from any need to end the occupation or otherwise accommodate the Palestinian national project. Frankly, it’s a suicidal attitude, and there’s no other way of putting it forthrightly.

But, as I’ve tried to show above, Arabs like Haykal — who look at the map and note the geographical size and the burgeoning population of the Arab world, and thereby conclude that in the long run “victory” and the elimination of the Israeli state are “inevitable,” or who are glib about the extraordinary carnage and cataclysm for both sides that would be involved in any such eventuality — are at least as misguided. As long as the conflict and the occupation continue, and there are enough Israelis who will not reconcile themselves to a Palestinian state and enough Arabs who will not reconcile themselves to a Jewish state, both Arabs and Israelis are in a very vulnerable and exposed situation. Even though I spent a great deal of space above interrogating the dubious assumptions underlying Haykal’s facile remarks, none of it should give any comfort to supporters of the occupation, or any friends of Israel for that matter.

The point is that no one can anticipate the future, and neither side should have the least confidence in its ability to secure a maximal “victory” that consists of the permanent elimination of either the Jewish or Palestinian states respectively. It is precisely this ambition that places both societies in grave danger, because they both have, especially in the long run, the ability to do incalculable damage to each other. Almost any scenario that does not involve the realization of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and an end to the occupation instead promises the likelihood of a lose-lose outcome with no winners and horrifying consequences for all parties.

There are lessons to be drawn from both recent and deep history, but grand historical analogies are, as I have argued many times before, dangerous because they are, at some level necessarily, arbitrary. They usually illustrate more about the political orientation and ideology of those proposing them than they do about any future developments. Haykal and others seem to think Israel faces the fate of the medieval crusader state in Palestine. Others imagine that the recent South African experience is the best guide to what not only can, but will, happen between Israel and the Palestinians. Right-wing Israelis and all those opposed to the end of the occupation obviously think that the Palestinians will experience the same fate shared by the indigenous peoples of the New World. It’s remotely possible that some version of one of these scenarios might play out, but infinitely more likely that what the future holds in the Middle East is not foreseeable, predictable or analogous to any of these models. It’s also possible that the grim future I imagine in the absence of a peace agreement will be avoided as well, by some means which I cannot anticipate. But I do think the most plausible scenarios are really quite chilling, which is why, in spite of the extraordinary difficulties, I am convinced we need to press on in trying to achieve a two-state peace agreement that ends the occupation and the conflict.

The one thing I think all Israelis and their friends and all Arabs and their friends need to recognize, in contrast to the glib and frankly stupid certainties offered by people like Haykal or supporters of the occupation, is that it is entirely possible for either Israel or the Palestinians or, quite conceivably, both to lose everything.