The war in Gaza is in our consciousness, yet it seems so difficult to write about. Almost all the writing on the subject, in English at any rate, seems to wear its futility on its sleeve. Writers are performing their duty: some bear witness, some provide historical perspective, some make impassioned pleas. Others add their two bit jingoism, obscuring complex realities by their easy certainties and abstractions. But in all that writing, you get a sense of a narrative that is going nowhere. Gaza, at the moment, seems be a spectacle, not just of dead bodies but also of dead ends. There are no narratives of liberation, no solutions in sight, and no fundamental transformations that can break this vicious cycle of violence.
Think of all the narratives that are now dead ends. Liberal Zionism, the political creed that sought to combine liberalism with nationalism, now seems to have collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Sometimes there is, indeed, as the Mahabharata reminds us in the context of war, a contradiction between choosing one’s side and choosing humanity, and liberal Zionists seem to be struggling with this contradiction. But even the more jingoistic nationalism now seems to be a cause without a purpose.
Nationalists trot out the narrative of self-defence, and there is something to that argument. But the scale of the response, the mismatch between ends and means, the disregard of the likely future effects of such a war, suggest not so much a sense of purpose but a kind of nihilism. If reliable scholars in Israel are to be believed, the scale of coarsening of Israeli politics this war has occasioned is quite unprecedented. Even the exercise of power and self-defence might be more credible if it were combined with a political narrative about a just and workable solution for Gaza. But, instead, the only proposal really on offer has been a kind of eternal occupation; a security strategy premised on nurturing the sources of permanent insecurity.
Palestinians have been confined to a permanent nether zone of world politics. The depth of political tragedy they have experienced is hard to fathom. The two-state solution seems to be an impossible dream. Some modicum of democratic self-government seems always to end in a subversion of democracy, both from within, but especially from the outside. There is, at the moment, no organisation that could be a powerful, sympathetic and effective carrier of Palestinian aspirations. The Palestinians have always been more of a pretext in the complex vortex of Middle East politics, a weapon to be rhetorically deployed, rather than a people whose problems need to be addressed. But the depth of their marginality has only been reinforced by the geo-strategic fault lines being redrawn in the Middle East.
The prestige of the US in the region is probably at its lowest. It was never, to put it mildly, an honest broker in the politics of the region. But its changing energy needs do not give it even a modicum of interest in stability. The premature application of Responsibility to Protect in Libya not just delegitimised the idea, but also left it with few resources when it really mattered. The US has proved to be no friend of democracy. Every intervention, from Iraq to Libya, has left never-ending violence and worse regimes in its trail. The sum total of its contribution currently is, like that of many Gulf states, to supply more weapons and money in forms whose net result is the escalation of violence. The West is, in strategic terms, quite content to see the Muslim world unleash horrific violence on itself on sectarian lines. The Gulf states are more preoccupied with Iran than anything else. Their relative silence is telling. And all the other great powers are too irrelevant or too transactional to really care. So there really is a free for all possible. Palestine has reached a point where, except for Hamas, it now does not even have an obvious use. It truly is at a dead end.
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Of course, we know the arguments: Hamas is, to put it mildly, an unsavoury organisation that uses civilians as a shield; Israel has a right to self-defence. Can we even imagine what it is like to live under threat of rocket attacks? There is the predictable back and forth about who has stood in the way of a solution: the Palestinians, who, in one narrative, are always unreasonable, or Israel that has never offered a just and workable solution in good faith? But the very success of these self-justifications in the eyes of adherents clouds the reality rather than illuminating it. Since we cannot solve a problem, we might as well try and win the argument.
The obvious truths bear repeating because of the oversimplification of the issue in India. Being a friend of Israel cannot mean condoning actions that cannot be justified on any measure. Nor can it mean shying away from pointing out the long-term consequences of Israel’s strategy that condemns it to be an occupying power with all the moral burdens that brings. Some of our most enduring friendships are in and with Israel. But Israel’s friends should worry more about what Israel has done, because this will make it more vulnerable. Israel’s real enemies are exulting in glee. On the other hand, the Palestinians have been under a form of siege we can scarcely even imagine; a kind of geo-political prison, which cannot be the basis for a minimum level of dignity or self respect. But the challenge is that there is, at the moment, no obvious political voice that can convert this immense suffering and tragedy into a political movement of dignity and moral force. It is easy to condemn the horror being unleashed in Palestine; it is harder to pick a political side that is not deeply compromised.
So there is a kind of futility to so much of the writing. In the Jewish diaspora, it is about a belated recognition of the complex ways in which America has helped give the problem a form which can neither be endured, nor be solved. In Israel, the jingoistic strain is now about the exercise of pure power without object; more reflective strands of thinking are trying to salvage a modicum of humanity from the closure that being an occupying power brings. But no one seems to believe that Israel’s occupation can end, or geo-politics can change enough (via an Iran-US rapprochement, for instance) for a solution to be possible. Or for anyone to even really care.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’