When presented with a problem, nobody wants to hear “it’s complicated.” When searching for answers, “I don’t know what to do” rings hollow.
Again the scenes out of the Middle East echo across a stage decades (even centuries) in the making. Each conflict from the past has had its own unique triggers, narratives, and loss, but they have all grown out of the same blood-soaked soil. It is wrenching and infuriating, humbling and perplexing, tragic and seemingly hopeless. No matter how much the world, and even some of the immediate actors, may want to look the other way and ignore the increasingly combustible fuel that was accumulating, the cycle continues and will do so until and unless the feedback loop is broken.
Spectators and participants will see the same images and come to very different conclusions. We are all shaped by our experiences, histories, biases, and self interests. In this case, you can add the fraught overlays of religion, nationalism, and culture. You cannot untangle all that has happened in the past, a series of chicken and egg mind exercises where every descent into conflict was preceded, and will in all probability be followed, by others.
We have to pull away all the layers and recriminations. Let’s start with a basic belief, which I believe nobody but the most blinded by hatred would find controversial. From a human scale, this is a crisis that begets a universal heartbreak. Whenever civilians find themselves under threat of death, whenever the body count includes especially children, whenever you can’t help but wonder, what if I found myself in their place, running to air raid shelters on one side of the border or hearing the roar of military jets on the other, there can be nothing but a profound sense of loss. Death is death. Terror is terror. Mourning is mourning. These are human feelings shared across whatever social constructs we have erected to separate us from others of our species.
Similarly, the history of both peoples is one of tragedy. I am old enough to remember the liberation of the concentration camps and the harrowing images and stories that emerged. I know that Jews, who have often been persecuted, had nowhere to go and perished in the Holocaust in numbers so great that the human mind cannot begin to comprehend the scale. Babies and their mothers sent to gas chambers. Murdered by industrialized genocide because they were the “other.” And many had been turned away on the brink of their slaughter by other governments, including some by our own leaders in the United States, who said we couldn’t take all who wanted in. Any consideration of Israel must take this history and these facts seriously, and they should not just be waved away as a given.
The Palestinians of course have their own different but still terrible history of woe, including often being treated as pawns in the power games of other nations. Many were uprooted from their homes during the creation of the Jewish state and then have been caught in the literal, diplomatic, and cultural crossfire that has ensued over the last 70-plus years between Israel and its Arab neighbors. They have been subjected to collective degradation and deprivation. Many have perished. Generations have lived in inhumane conditions, unable to control their own destiny. They have been suppressed, exploited, and denied lives of hope.
It is hard to remember now, but there was a time when a peace process seemed to be a real possibility, the famous and often-maligned goal of a two-state solution. Why we are where we are now, seeing combat and not co-existence is a sordid journey… Prospects for something positive have been undermined by bad-faith actors on both sides of the divide. Building a new framework for peace is difficult. It is always easier to demonize and destroy, to play to cynicism and fear.
This narrative, as stated earlier, is not new. But there is something different this time that will cast what is happening and what might yet occur in potentially novel ways we cannot predict. For most of Israel’s existence, both the American Jewish community and the United States government backed whatever Israeli government was in power with almost unquestioned support. There was an understanding, and with good reason, that Israel’s very existence was threatened daily by despotic regimes in Syria, Iran, and in earlier times Egypt and Iraq. Then there are the non-state actors like Hezbollah and Hamas, all bent on destruction of Israel and the killing of Israelis.
But this threat has become increasingly complex when balanced against Israeli military power. This is especially true when it comes to the Palestinians. Hamas is a horrific organization that fires missiles indiscriminately into Israel. They do so with Iranian support. But the Israeli response this time is of a nature that is creating what the New York Times is calling a “a growing humanitarian catastrophe” A particularly high-profile example is the leveling of a high-rise tower in Gaza that housed media organizations, including the Associated Press. Israel says Hamas operated in the building. They should prove it and still answer for whether this action that left many homeless, was within the rules of conflict.
As the body count rises, especially on the Palestinian side including scores of women and children, the response in the United States is different. A group of senators, including usual stalwarts for Israel like Chuck Schumer and Bob Menendez, is voicing criticism. To some it may seem tepid. But the message they are sending cannot be underestimated. They are telling the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that there is a new era in the bilateral relationship between the countries. It goes roughly along these lines: Strong support for the nation and people of Israel, yes; but not always unquestioning, “blank-check” support for any and all governments and policies that may wield power at any particular time. We will have to see how President Biden navigates the cross currents.
One cannot overlook the shadow cast by the previous American presidential administration. The “peace deals'' Jared Kushner touted between Israel and countries such as the United Arab Emirates strike many diplomats as flimsy and naive. They skipped over the problem at the heart of the conflict in the Middle East —the Palestinians. And in so doing, they seemed to give Netanyahu a wink to go ahead with his policies, such as expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The Israeli right wing and the United States right wing have forged increasingly tighter bonds in ways that have rightfully alienated many American progressives, including many Jews, especially the young. There are also the growing ties between Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin and China, worrying developments in a country that is an ally of the United States and the beneficiary of so much American aid.
If the Israeli leadership wants to cozy up to America’s rivals, and if they want to play to the Fox News crowd and become associated with one side of the political aisle in Washington, they are at heavy risk of overplaying their hand. Israel has every right to defend itself, but I don’t sense the patience or tolerance for the aggressive actions we are seeing in Gaza, especially with the reckoning over race and justice we are seeing in the United States. There are far too many problems for the Biden Administration on the world stage, the pandemic, Russia, China, climate change, and a host of others, for them to want to worry about peace in the Middle East —again. And there are far too many voices in the Democratic Party who will not sit by and watch the death toll in Gaza rise without demanding a shift in America’s approach. And we’ve already seen that.
There are no easy answers with what we are seeing. There is a briar patch of history and disappointment. What is needed is a new approach that returns to the goals of a past mission. And the United States must make that abundantly clear. Bombs and rockets, leveled buildings, broken lives, a cycle of hopelessness, are humanitarian disasters. They will not solve anything in the long run. I have long held fast to the idea of staying “steady,” but steadiness on a destructive path is not helpful. We must remain steady in our beliefs of the value of life, hope, and the betterment of the lives of all. And we must speak the tough truths and do the hard work to point us to that destination.
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