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Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Bill for his his excellent wisdom in constructing this piece


A conversation I had with Bill regarding his Gaza flotilla piece had me thinking about how “The Middle East Debate” is approached and dealt with. I highlighted that there had been a minor backlash against the Panorama documentary mentioned in his article, and a concerted campaign by ‘pro-Palestinians’ to complain to the BBC about their ‘pro-Israel’ bias. This illustrates a number of wider issues informing how the debate, and ultimately actions relating to the Israel-Palestine conflict unfold. [1]

Problems with ‘the Middle East debate’

As much as it moves me, in recent years I’ve become frustrated when trying to be engaged in the issue. I see this as being the result of a number of characteristics of the debate. These are:

  1. It receives an arguably disproportionate amount of attention in light of the crude numbers of how many it directly affects in comparison to other ongoing events.
  2. Anyone who knows anything about politics (or religion for that matter) must have an opinion on it, irrespective of their relation to it.
  3. There is an attitude of actively policed polarisation amongst those who claim to have a stake in the conflict; ‘you’re either with us or against us’.

Coverage

There are in reality ‘only’ a few million people directly affected by the insecurity in Israel and the conflict/occupation in the Palestinian territories. This is of course terrible, and anyone with a conscience seeks for all suffering to be ended. Nevertheless, as uncomfortable making rudimentary observations is, it often reveals something interesting about the way we are socially and culturally conditioned to think. For example I recall the fairly shocking statistics on the relatively low level of donations to Pakistan’s flooding victims, or the noticeable-by-its-absence coverage of the ongoing tragedy in Congo.

There is a curious obsession with the Middle East conflict in the media as well as in general culture. Perhaps this has something to do with the length of time it has been ongoing, making it one of the longest militarised conflicts in recent history. Maybe it’s the significant presence of some form of diasporas who claim to have a primordial stake in the one side or the other. It may even be the fact that it is prolonged suffering being inflicted at the hands of other humans rather than the wild Mother Nature, which captures the shared imagination.

Nevertheless, one of the few things from childhood I remember regularly seeing on the news was the latest violence from the Israel and/or Palestine.

Opinion

The constant presence of the issue in the news, with few balanced and reliable sources of information regarding the conflict’s history, means many people seem to feel obliged to have a snap opinion the matter. In the same way that at school, your peers demand of you whether you support Manchester United or Liverpool (I was growing up in the 90s, which meant it was a fairly straightforward binary between the two), it seems people feel obliged to make an arbitrary decision on the basis of the flimsiest affiliation – usually ‘left’, ‘right’, race or religion.

Time and time again people demonstrate unquestionable support for their respective sides purely on the basis of ethnicity/race/religion; it seems bizarre that for example though I’m perfectly able and willing to criticise India’s policies or society despite having a more generationally recent and concurrent family connection to my ‘motherland’, others feel obliged to condone extremism on the basis of significantly more tenuous personal links.

Ultimately it amounts to strong opinions being held without any real reason for doing so – strong opinions without any sense of balance, or even tolerance for anyone who disagrees with you.

Polarisation

Invariably people on both sides are adamant that there are two distinct opposing sides to the debate. To begin with, ‘sides’ are not objectively stable coherent entities – they exist only inasmuch as we believe them to exist and their boundaries can be realigned as is politically useful. [2] To quote Adorno:

‘The New Testament words, “He who is not for me is against me”, lay bare the heart of anti-semitism down the centuries…it is a basic feature of domination that everyone who does not identify with it is consigned for mere difference to the enemy camp.’

I recall a rather upsetting argument with a close friend which I thought was a fair debate whilst discussing the then-contemporary situation during the Gaza War/Operation Cast Lead. It concluded as follows:

Them: (cutting across me abruptly) Do you think Israel has a right to exist?

Me: Well I’m not sure it was right decision or done sensitively enough at the time, but it’s there so they’ve all got to find a way to live side-by-side.

Them: Aha! So you DON’T think Israel has a right to exist!!!

Me: Huh? That’s not what I said…

Them: You’re intolerant!

The conversation was successfully and bluntly closed off as I reeled from what had just happened. Naively, little did I know that “Do you think Israel has a right to exist” is a standard yes/no litmus test that helps tribalists categorise you into the ‘pro-Israel’ or ‘pro-Palestine’ camps. To me it seems that asking whether Israel ‘has the right to exist’ is a fairly redundant question, in the same way that exhaustively scrutinising the decision not to take my umbrella when I left the house this morning and facing a downpour on the way home is.

Without wanting to trivialise the debate, frankly what’s happened has happened. Asking such questions only takes us away from the reality of the situation as it is today, 60-odd years later. Instead it wrenches us back to an inconceivable point in history (created in our minds only through collective memory and selective historiography) to envelop ourselves in the historical creation of the binary, and the germination of the very hatred we’re seeking to overcome. No one can say convincingly whether it was the right or wrong thing to do, because the reality of such decision-making is that there are far more nuances to the situation than we think we know.

Changing the terms of the debate

It seems to me that it is the resort of those who are insecure about their arguments to try and dogmatically steamroll over balance in opinion; the balance I think is needed from everyone, but particularly those that not directly affected by but want to influence the outcomes of the conflict. History is important as context, and the past should not be forgotten; however this must be in a positive and constructive manner to achieve reconciliation, not used as hammer with which to crush non-agreement. So much of it is down to ‘identity politics’; to quote William Connelly:

“…a powerful identity will strive to constitute a range of differences as intrinsically evil, irrational, abnormal, mad, sick, primitive, monstrous, dangerous, or anarchical – as other…This constellation of constructed others now becomes both essential to the truth of the powerful identity and a threat to it.” (2002: 64-5).” [3]

The only people who seek to gain from the perpetuation of the conflict are philosophically speaking, those who have insecure identities, and in practical terms, weapons corporations and those with political ambitions.

My position

To lay my cards on the table, broadly I feel that the situation cannot go on as it is much longer. For years it feels like the political, social and economic circumstances have been at breaking point, and the conflict has gone on for so long that we are losing the generations who remember what it was like before violence. The time is imperative now more than ever to reach some form of settlement, and I look to Sharm el Sheikh with many others to hear news of positive negotiations and outcomes.

On that note, I would like to plug One Voice Movement, an organisation whose aims are to:

“…amplify[y] the voice of mainstream Israelis and Palestinians, empowering them to propel their elected representatives toward a two-state solution. The movement works to forge consensus for conflict resolution and build a human infrastructure capable of mobilizing the people toward a negotiated, comprehensive and permanent agreement between Israel and Palestine that ends the occupation, ensures security and peace for both sides, and solves all final-status issues in accordance with international law and previous bilateral agreements…The movement recognizes that violence by either side will never be a means to end the conflict.”

(emphasis my own)

The work OVM has done shows that the majority of people both in Israel and the Palestinian territories would accept a two-state solution. The terms of a settlement are of course contentious, and bitterness over territorial concessions will not disappear overnight. Nevertheless, the willpower may just still be there amongst ordinary people and we still have this hope in our grasp – that surely is the starting point for something viable to happen.

It’s quite evident that any meaningful resolution, should it come, is going to be incredibly complex, and will require enormous amounts diplomatic negotiation. It will never satisfy everyone, and will certainly not be a panacea to the conflict or ongoing violence. In part this is because of the way in which the debate has been hijacked by demagogues attempting to coerce the world into one of two entirely irreconcilable camps.

Pretending that the answer to the Middle East conflict is as simple as ‘either/or’ not only does a disservice to those working to resolve it, but actively seeks to undermine progress towards an inclusive and acceptable solution, and ultimately, one day, peace.


Notes:

[1] I will refer to it as a debate, because that is the only context in which I have experienced the conflict here in the UK. Though I’m well aware that there is a distinct reality of the conflict for those involved, it is specifically the debate and ensuing counter-campaigns that happen around the world – external to the immediate stakeholders – which I believe to be counter-productive and interfere and shape actual policy and action on the ground. The same goes for talking about media coverage and diasporas – I am referring to specifically the UK context.

[2] Plenty of philosophers have written about this enforcing of binaries to secure identities, but to name some of the top of my head, William Connelly and Richard Ashley, in the context of international relations. Michel Foucault has written extensively about discourse and power relations also.

[3] Connelly, Identity\Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox (2002)

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