One thing sticks in my mind particularly from the various news reports I have read recently about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the unequal casualty figures. No doubt these keep changing, but one figure I heard was 5 Israeli deaths and 150 Palestinian deaths. No doubt this is because the Israelis are better armed and protected, with American aid, whilst Gaza was described by one reporter as a slum – a vulnerable slum inhabited by desperate Islamists with rockets, as well as a squalid density of innocent civilians. The original David was an Israelite, and Goliath a Philistine, but now the roles seem to have been reversed.
What can I, sitting comfortably thousands of miles away, not in danger of being killed by rockets, what can I usefully say about this conflict? That it seems the most dreadful, intractable, and also absurdly unnecessary conflict? That has surely been said before. But if Middle Way Philosophy is to be of universal use, it must be applicable in these situations, not just to those meditating or thinking in comfort and security. I can only give my own limited and fallible account of what I think Middle Way Philosophy has to offer, even though I imagine that it may provoke unintended antipathy.
One obvious point to start with is the roots of the conflict in metaphysics. Both sides invoke absolute perspectives, whether these are religious or ethnic. The roots of the conflict go back to Biblical times, to claim and counter claim over the same land. Whenever there is a claim to an “original” and secure perspective from which the position can be judged, there will be an earlier or stronger counter-claim. It is not just that we cannot determine who has the prior claim: we should not try, as being the first and having the true word of God on your side cannot be the basis of anything but indefinite conflict. So it is not a question of “Israel’s right to exist”, which even moderate British commentators seem to accept without debate. I hear much less about Palestine’s right to exist, but that too is not a useful object of debate. As long as there are claims like this, the argument is metaphysical and irresolvable. As long as the aim is to win and to eliminate the other side, the repressed other will still be there, whether it is out there in Israel or Gaza or merely in the minds of those who want to win.
If we lay all this aside, there remains experience and acceptance of what seems to be the case. There is an incredibly defensive and apparently fragile people, the Israelis, whose every second word to those beyond their borders seems to be demanding recognition of their “right to exist”, because they obviously do not feel secure in that right. They are people who not only had to fight their way into nationhood within living memory, but have since invaded and settled lands beyond their original borders, persisting with those settlements despite international condemnation, and building a massive fortified wall around them. There could hardly be a stronger image of egoistic illusion and over-confident fragility than that wall. In the meantime, the Palestinians, crowded into ever narrower and harsher conditions, are shot at by settlers if they venture out to pick their own olives. In understandable but impotent rage, they turn to an extremism of their own, to Hamas, which fruitlessly tries to beat Israel through force of arms.
Then let us trace back the conditions that support this scenario. Israel would never have got away with its actions without massive US support – financial, military, and diplomatic. The US could end the conflict in a moment by withdrawing all support, condemning Israeli actions and forcing them into a two-state peace settlement. But both candidates in the US presidential election, like the vast majority of other mainstream politicians in the US, expressed unequivocal support for Israel. At least one necessary source of the conflict, then, it seems, lies with US voters. US support for Israel depends not only on Jewish voters but also evangelical Christian ones, who assess the situation, from a distance, almost entirely on the basis of metaphysical beliefs.
In Northern Ireland, an intractable conflict began to shift towards peace both because those involved in the conflict started to let go of their dogmatic metaphysical conceptions of it, and because those who supported it from outside – including Libyans and Americans but primarily the British government – shifted their priorities. As early as the 1970’s, in the Sunningdale Agreement, the British government started to seek a power-sharing compromise that would involve both communities in Northern Ireland, rather than the direct or indirect repression of Catholic communities that had preceded. That made a difference, but this intention could only slowly and haltingly start to succeed when both communities had also begun to loosen their identities and dogmas, perhaps indirectly supported by the openings created by increasing secularisation of Irish society.
In the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, the same process has to happen for peace to be possible. Not only do both sides have to relax their dogmatic attachments, but the indirect repressors from overseas, the Americans, also have to change their policies and actually want to treat the two sides even-handedly. That will be far harder, because the American electorate evidently cares (whereas most of the British electorate couldn’t care less about Northern Ireland).
I don’t want to take sides in the conflict. Peace will not come without concessions from the Palestinians too: but nevertheless, the conditions for the conflict appear to be overwhelmingly in the hands of the Israeli and US side. The Palestinians really don’t have a lot left to concede in any case. We cannot recognise the conditions or address them if we do so with false neutrality of a kind that assumes the two sides are equally responsible for the situation. It distresses me to hear most politicians both in the UK and the US adopt that false neutrality, and not to face the facts of their own degree of responsibility. Where were the sanctions against Israel for the illegal settlements, or for developing the nuclear weapons now condemned in potential Iranian hands? Politicians in both the US and Europe are responsible for the degree of double-standards that have been applied to Israel, along with those who elected them.
The Palestinians are the repressed desires of the Israeli, and ultimately the Western, ego – an ego that can only gain long-term security by recognising that it does not have the whole picture and does not know the whole truth of the situation. Like any ego it tries to limit and possess and absolutise, when the only way towards objectivity is to start letting go. In this respect the Israelis, and the Palestinians, are like every one of us.
Please note that no comments will be approved on this, or any other, topic, that appear to be an expression of hatred.
picture – David and Goliath by Ilya Repin (public domain)