Israel Diminished?

By Feingold, Henry L. | Midstream, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Israel Diminished?


Feingold, Henry L., Midstream


Should it prove impossible to have some kind of modus vivendi between Israel and the Palestinians, it is safe to say that a low-level conflict between them will persist for years to come. I call it modus vivendi rather than peace because the claims the Palestinians have against Israel are too deeply felt for there to be anything more than establishing ground rules to permit minimally living together in adjoining space. Clearly there are Palestinian elements intent on waging a civil conflict whose rules of engagement are particularly advantageous to the realization of their goal and, by the same token, threatening for the normal development of Israel's economic life.

Unlike civil wars, with which they are sometimes confused, such conflicts occur when a sizable minority of resistors to state authority both within its area of governance and a so-called "occupied" territory, mount a low-level war against the established government authority. It is most frequently associated with a drive for statehood to crown real or imagined national kinship that has somehow been thwarted. Sometimes, as in the case of Ireland, the "struggle" is couched in terms of reunification. But behind it all is a drive for nationhood that is experiencing difficulty in being born. The rules of engagement of such a conflict, not to be called war, usually feature a uniformed military force opposing an organized civilian force some of whose members may be armed. Virtually any tactic that promises to disrupt the flow of normal life, arson, bombing and other forms of sabotage, and of course stone-throwing by children, is acceptable. Thus, because such actions are mostly aimed at the civilian population, this can develop into a particularly cruel form of warfare.

Most people are unable to imagine to what depth such conflicts can sink. There is only the war in Algeria, the recent conflict in East Timor, and the war for Kurdish nationhood, all of which were and are characterized by horrendous atrocities to the civilian population, which may serve as an imperfect example. The use of poison gas by Iraq against a Kurdish civilian population is probably the high point of the atrocities such wars can generate. It should be noted that the three models we have cited occur in an Islamic realm but are not precise comparisons for the Middle East conflict.

Judaism, of course, is a competitive religion that has established a beachhead within an Islamic area. That gives the conflict an added ingredient of bitterness and irreconcilability. Nevertheless, some picture of the character of such wars, especially their excessive violence, can be drawn. In the Algerian conflict, for example, the violence rose to such a level that occasionally bloody face to face battles persisted for days. When such warfare was carried to an extreme, not only were the institutions of organized civil society severely damaged but so was the connective tissue provided by the linkages of its families, its organized places of worship, its voluntary societies, its hospitals and schools. Not easily unlearned, violence continued to be a currency in the political affairs of contemporary Algeria. On both sides the hardest men came to the fore. Once established, the conflict becomes so intractable that it may take years before a way can be found to end the killing. It might still be going on had De Gaulle not withdrawn the French army. In such wars there are no winners, and its violence has a tendency to linger.

That is the primary reason why any modus vivendi is infinitely preferable to allowing things to deteriorate to an endless war that has the potential to seriously damage both belligerents. Mutual communal disintegration could be the most serious consequence of an unwillingness or an inability to negotiate what admittedly would be an imperfect arrangement for living side by side. For Israel, the alternative to such an arrangement is to wage a highly destructive war against the Palestinians, who can at any juncture be joined by its more belligerent neighbors, like Iraq, that perhaps still possess lethal weapons and, like Iran, seek any means to get at Israel which they view as an agent of "the great Satan. …

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