Counter Thinking in the Israeli Palestinian Conflict

by A. Jay Adler on September 7, 2010
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In the contemporary field of education, few concepts are more heavily promoted than that of what is called critical thinking. Very simply, thinking that analyzes itself, that habitually questions suppositions and established intellectual foundations –  the warrants on which we base our claims about the world – is critical thinking. Revisionist histories arise from critical thinking. Much of literary studies for going on fifty years has been directed at reading against the grain: dehistoricizing, rehistoricizing, deconstructing.  The whole hermeneutic endeavor is to dig out, even create, from below the surface and between the cracks, and in a new dynamic interplay of elements, the hidden meanings beneath the obvious (and therefore misleading) surface. Common sense? Obvious? Common, indeed. Too obvious.

Cleverness – true and deep, as well as superficial and showy – is prized. How can I see things differently from others? How can I reveal the obscure truth to them? Conspiracy theorists, scholars, think tankers, journalists, personal coaches and seers, Tony Robbins, writers of all kinds. It seems a billion people try to make a living or a name doing this. With the advent of blogging, make that two billion. (My hand is raised.)

As I say, though, some of this cleverness is true and deep, some not so. Everywhere – you never know where or when – the subtle thought slips into the sophistical and the misleading casuistry. An example of this kind of approach in political history is to focus, in the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, for instance, on American anticipation of the power struggle with the Soviet Union, and the impending Soviet declaration of war on Japan, rather than on the Japanese refusal to surrender and the projected carnage to come in an invasion of Japan. The clever counter thinker tells us that, since all policy-making is self-interested and cynical, the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki not to end the war quickly and spare hundreds of thousands of American lives, but to make a show to the Soviets.

In the political history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we get counter thinkers like Robert Malley. Malley is one of those who have offered a revisionist take on the 2000 Camp David peace talks, in which he participated. Rather than Arafat, who, committing himself to nothing, rejected an offer in which Ehud Barak conceded so much, and that Bill Clinton endorsed, Malley blames Clinton for negotiating poorly, Barak for making offers Arafat could not accept. (So far, we have no basis to believe that the Palestinian side will accept anything other than nearly everything – not so with Israel.)

What happens with this kind of counter thinking is that the world gets turned upside down. The subtle drops off the cliff into the preposterous, yet there are always those at the bottom waiting to catch it. The latest example? By Malley himself and Hussein Agha, from the September 3 Guardian. My analysis of its absurdities – preparing the way to justify another Palestinian refusal to come to terms – follows below.

The skewed Middle East peace talks

Whether there’s a deal or not, the Palestinians can’t really win, while the Israelis have little to lose

Well, you can’t say the head and sub-head are hiding their purpose. But they embed an argument that reappears and that I’ll return to.

Israelis and Palestinians who have started peace negotiations in Washington are separated by much more than the gulf between their substantive positions. Staggering asymmetries between the two sides could seriously imperil the talks.

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is the head of a stable state with the ability to deliver on his commitments. Celebrations of supposed institution-building notwithstanding, Palestinians have no robust central authority. Their territory is divided between the West Bank and Gaza. On their own, Palestinians would find it difficult to implement an agreement, however much they might wish to. Israel controls all material assets; Palestinians at best can offer intangible declarations and promises.

Consider the implications of this. The authors are setting the foundation for an argument that delegitimizes the negotiations, and any outcome – treaty or no treaty – that follows, based on “skewed” conditions, “asymmetries.” Translation: Israel is, in fact, a successful, functioning democratic state while the Palestinian Authority has no such. (This ignores the truth that the PA is actually functioning in many respects with increasing success and authority on the West Bank.) Israel’s success and Palestinian dysfunction are unfair. Give me back my ball; I’m going home.

Netanyahu operates within a domestic consensus. On issue after issue – acceptance of a two-state solution, insistence on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, rejection of a full settlement freeze including Jerusalem, refusal of preconditions for negotiations – his stances resonate with the Israeli people. Neither the right, from which he comes, nor the left, whose peace aspirations he is pursuing, denies him the mandate to negotiate. Netanyahu is heading on his own terms to negotiations he has demanded for 20 months; Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is being dragged there without any of his preconditions having been met.

Translation: Israel is an integral society. Palestinian society thus far is not. This somehow (start with the headline, follow with the tone and the clear direction in which the argument is headed) is mark against Israel. “Netanyahu is heading on his own terms to negotiations he has demanded for 20 months.” One can only not laugh if one does not recall that Netanyahu’s “terms” were no terms – no preconditions, which is always the open, non-prejudicial approach to negotiations. Abbas, in contrast, is to receive our sympathy, because his preconditions were not met. What were his preconditions? That there even be preconditions. And he is being “dragged” into negotiations. Israel willingly seeks unconditional direct negotiations, the Palestinians for 20 months reject them – and this is a mark against Israel.

The Palestinian leadership has never been more vulnerable. Participation in talks was opposed by virtually every Palestinian political organisation apart from Fatah, whose support was lethargic. Abbas’s decision to come to Washington is viewed sceptically even by those who back him. Netanyahu’s is supported even by those who oppose him.

One is nearly speechless. (But, of course, not.) This whole focus on Israeli strength – political and social, not simply military – as a subversive element to negotiation is relatively new. I last encountered this argument when debating George Clifford at Ethical Musings, on which I reported in “Framing Israel.” Clifford argued at one point: “Negotiation implies equality. Israel refuses to negotiate with the Palestinians as equal.” Leaving aside whether that second statement is factually true – from where did Clifford get such an idea, that negotiation implies equality? Does he mean that in civil law suits, when the two parties negotiate a deal, they both have, or should or must have, equal footing? We know this is not so. When defendants plea bargain with district or U.S. attorneys – a negotiation – are they equal? Why does one company in merger negotiations retain its name and CEO in the merged company – because the two companies were equal? What a preposterous notion, yet among those who play-talk as advocates of peace, but who really pursue a terribly misguided, peace destroying Palestinian advocacy, this is a new argumentative tactic: the negotiations are unfair because the Israeli polity is stronger, more united, and actually wants to negotiate an end to the conflict, while the PA comes to the negotiating table with none of those attributes. The Palestinians and their Arab “friends” lost the war they started in 1948 (should Israel offer a do over?), frittered away six decades playing the cards of abject victimhood  and preening as Third Word revolutionary freedom fighters, instead of building a society (look always in comparison at the Iraqi Kurds), and still are not clearly committed to contending with reality – and their advocates want to proclaim that this weakness is unfair.

Palestinian views are well known. There is little to no distinction between their public, opening and final positions. Yet no one truly knows the Israeli stance. Netanyahu can start with maximalist positions and then climb down, exuding flexibility next to what inevitably will be couched as Palestinian obstinacy. Palestinians are likely to be frustrated, the atmosphere poisoned, and American bridging proposals – likely falling somewhere between Palestinian bottom lines and Israel’s negotiating posture – risk being skewed.

One must get this, truly. “Palestinian views are well known. There is little to no distinction between their public, opening and final positions.” Translation: the Palestinians – the poor, weak Palestinians – won’t make concessions. They won’t negotiate. “Netanyahu can start with maximalist positions and then climb down.” In other words, Israel will negotiate, will make concessions from what it would like if its position were really so powerful that it could have it all its own way. The Israelis will be “exuding flexibility next to what inevitably will be couched as Palestinian obstinacy.” But that is exactly what the authors just told us the circumstances actually will be!

Palestinian negotiators have logged countless hours on final status questions since the 1990s. The reverse is true on the Israeli side. From Netanyahu down, only one leading figure has seriously tackled permanent status issues, and it is unclear what role defence minister Ehud Barak may play. This disparity should favour the Palestinians – the experienced trumps the novice. But they will also be prisoners of their well-worn outlook, whereas the Israelis will be free to introduce new ideas. Yet again, Palestinians will confront the maddening task of beginning from scratch a process they have undergone on multiple occasions.

Let’s see if we can get this straight. The Palestinians will be the more experienced negotiators, but this is bad because they will be “prisoners” of their own “well-worn outlook, whereas the Israelis will be free to introduce new ideas.” This is to say the Palestinians will not budge off the square they have inhabited for so long with such great results, while the Israelis will think creatively to pursue solutions. Dastardly villains!

Neither Israel’s mounting isolation nor its reliance on US assistance has jeopardised its ability to make autonomous choices, whereas the Palestinian leadership’s decision-making capacity has shrivelled. Most recent Palestinian decisions have been made in accordance with international demands, against the leadership’s instinctive desires and in clear opposition to popular aspirations. Despite such deference, Palestinian leaders cannot count on international support. They feel betrayed by Arab allies and let down by Washington. In contrast, Israel has defied the Obama administration without endangering close ties to Washington. Palestinians will have to take into account the views of Arab and Muslim states; Israel can negotiate by and for itself, without reference to an outside party.

What happens should negotiations fail? The status quo, though sub-optimal, presents no imminent danger to Israel. What Israelis want from an agreement is something they have learned either to live without (Palestinian recognition) or to provide for themselves (security). The demographic threat many invoke as a reason to act – the possibility that Arabs soon might outnumber Jews, forcing Israel to choose between remaining Jewish or democratic – is exaggerated. Israel already has separated itself from Gaza. In the future, it could unilaterally relinquish areas of the West Bank, further diminishing prospects of an eventual Arab majority. Because Israelis have a suitable alternative, they lack a sense of urgency. The Palestinians, by contrast, have limited options and desperately need an agreement.

The Palestinians “desperately need an agreement,” yet the authors have spent an essay telling us why they will not make one and how unfair that is. One reason that negotiations may bear some kind of fruit is that one of the parties, in that weaker position, is desperate for a resolution that, far from that party’s ideal, will offer conditions better than those it faces without the agreement. Most people make the agreement. That the Palestinians for sixty years have not is a study in political pathology.

In any event, Abbas will return to a fractured, fractious society. If he reaches a deal, many will ask in whose name he was bartering away Palestinian rights. If negotiations fail, most will accuse him of once more having been duped. If Netanyahu comes back with an accord, he will be hailed as a historic leader. His constituency will largely fall in line; the left will have no choice but to salute. If the talks collapse, his followers will thank him for standing firm while his critics are likely in due course to blame the Palestinians. Abbas will be damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Netanyahu will thrive if he does and survive if he doesn’t. One loses even if he wins, the other wins even if he loses. There is no greater asymmetry than that.

The authors have described over these final three paragraphs the essential conditions of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, varied facets of Israeli social and political strength and Palestinian weakness, almost all of the latter, in fact, fairly represented as manifestations of Palestinian and Arab disunity and intransigence. Yes, we know, these emerge from the driving animus against Israel and Jews, but animosity is what fuels, if not what guides, all conflict. It is what peace negotiations, in strength or in weakness, must always overcome. Supposed sympathizers who shape arguments to further rationalize failure are not forces for peace, and as we see here, quite transparently, they don’t make very good arguments either.

AJA

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