Thursday, January 15, 2009

Apocalypse Now?

How is it that Israelis, as Ethan Bronner reports, are almost universally in favor of the Gaza operation, including the way it's been prosecuted, while government leaders and educated people around the globe, even those disgusted by Hamas missile attacks, condemn the operation, and especially the way it's been prosecuted?

What's so strange, as veteran Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy rails, is that ordinary Israelis know as well as anybody that hundreds of Palestinian civilians, including perhaps 300 children, have been killed or maimed, and yet this horror has not become a significant part of public debate. For a small minority of peace activists, even a few people in the south, the price in blood has seemed much too high for ending random missile attacks. But most will argue, not entirely convincingly, for humanitarian relief—and then spur on the IDF. 

Israelis, I hasten to add, are as sickened and frightened by military violence as the rest of the world is, even by their own. They may feel a superficial pleasure in retaliation for the missiles, or a satisfied relief in seeing the IDF perform in a coordinated, disciplined way, but they are not immune to doubts. There were two blockbuster films over the last couple of years, both anti-war films lamenting actions in Lebanon, "Beaufort" and the throat-clenching "Waltz With Bashir." My Palestinian friends will cringe when I say this, but most Israelis think of Israeli soldiers as children, too.

Ron Ben-Yishai, the veteran war correspondent whose revulsion over Sabra and Shatila was featured in “Waltz With Bashir,” now supports keeping up "the pressure." One young soldier, interviewed this week on the radio, spoke with obvious sadness and compunction—but also with grim determination—about blowing up houses on the edge of Gaza city. He said, haltingly, that he feels he has had to harden his heart: "If it is their house or my house, I suppose I have to destroy their house," he said. 

HOW COULD THE vast majority of Israelis feel it morally defensible to take actions bound to result in the deaths of so many kids; how for the sake of gains everybody assumes will be, in the grand scheme of things, tactical and temporary?

There is a big clue in that soldier's apocalyptic language. Israelis speak about this operation entirely in terms of Hamas' capabilities. Israelis are asking: Do you not see that any pain they have the capability to inflict on us they will inflict, sooner or later, so we have to go after those capabilities, if not once and for all, then now, while we can? Have you not looked at their covenant? Can you not see how their Iranian patron is arming them? Israelis are intrigued by levels of Hamas' motivation, but never by Palestinian motives more generally. The latter are not ever mentioned because they are assumed to be irrelevant to the confrontation in Gaza. It is their house or our house.

Think about this. Occupation, preventive detentions, 300,000 settlers, the annexation and walling off of East Jerusalem, checkpoints, house demolitions, economic collapse, Gaza becoming Somalia—all the things that all Palestinians care about all the time, all the things that people abroad cannot get out of their minds—all irrelevant. Forget for a moment what Hamas is. The point is, for most Israelis nothing Hamas says—i.e., lift the siege, negotiate a “hundred year cease-fire,” subject any deal to a referendum—can be responded to by diplomatic or other means. Their sad choice, most Israelis think, is to attack Hamas, even at the expense of mauling Gaza’s citizens. Their vague goal—as Tom Friedman surmises, a little too much like King David counting up enemy foreskins—is that although the attack will redouble hatred for Israel , it will significantly raise levels of resentment for Hamas. Hell, hatred for Israel is absolute anyway.

WHY APOCALYPSE, of all times, now, when Israel’s military power seems so incomparable? Why extend the vendetta culture in which Hamas thrives?

What needs to be understood—and Israelis themselves don’t see this easily—is that Hamas’ professed commitment to Israel’s destruction torments a kind of collective unconscious. Any Palestinian threat seems an “existential” one. I am not referring here to some “holocaust complex” outsiders like to go on about (though, God knows, filtered memories of the European genocide are in the emotional background). Nor do Israelis fear that they could never make restitution to Palestinians for dispossession, for the Naqba, though this fear brings us closer to the truth. I am referring to something more actual, a kind of projection from everyday knowledge of Israel’s political and legal structure, which Israelis feel protective (if not vaguely guilty) about—a structure they rightly suppose no self-respecting Palestinian could ever accept.

Israelis, you see, ask another question, which is not at all about Gaza: How can we have a Jewish state if this cannot really accommodate non-Jewish citizens? Is it not obvious that, in the end of ends, they just don’t want us here? One can challenge Israelis on what Palestianians mean by "want" and "here." The great problem is that Israelis themselves don't really know what they mean by "us." This makes public debate increasingly defensive, frustrated, strident. It makes politics dangerous.

IT IS NO accident that—just last week, as the Gaza attack raged—Israeli Arabs took to the streets, while a majority of Knesset parties, including Kadima, voted to strip the Arab parties of the right to participate in the upcoming elections (a right, most agree, the High Court will restore).  For the growing discomfort of Israeli Jews with the country's Arab citizens, and vice versa, is very much reflected in Israel's fierce response in Gaza. The prosecution of this attack suggests, not just a fear of some next crisis, but of the chronic crisis; the presumed challenge to Israel always waiting around the bend, causing Israelis to prove—so they think—that they have overwhelming staying power.

What is the crime these Arab parties have committed? They insist on Israel being "a state of its citizens," not a "Jewish and democratic state." To foreign ears, this sounds like a distinction without a difference. Why not a democratic state, patently Jewish insofar as it is Hebrew-speaking, much like France is “French.” But since 1948, Israelis have allowed "Jewish state” to evolve in curious ways: most land is reserved for “Jewish settlement,” the state gives the orthodox rabbinate control over marriage and aspects of citizenship, the whole of Jerusalem is decreed a Jewish patrimony, and so forth.  (I take this all up in The Hebrew Republic.)

While the Arab minority, 20% of the population, has been marginalized, Israel has spawned a kind of Judean settler state around Jerusalem and the West Bank, which Israelis are reluctant to confront for the sake of Palestinians. For most, the word democracy has come to mean, more than anything else, maintaining “a Jewish majority.”

And this Jewish state, Israelis know in a day-to-day kind of way, is something that they would reject if they were in the shoes of Israeli Arabs. Lurking behind this knowledge is the not unreasonable fear that any peace they make with the Palestinians will unravel as the rejection of Israel by its own Arab citizens unspools.

Sadly, you see, Israelis see their Jewish state as a bone in the throat of Palestinians, not just historically, but still. They feel themselves, increasingly, in a desperate “existential” fight where no holds are barred now, because no holds will be barred later. Show weakness about what is yours, and you are a baby-step away from Bosnia. Which is, of course, what Serbians thought, and how "Bosnia" began.