Tell me, how much can you take?

The blogs I read regularly have changed a little since I started blogging, but not the blogs I avoid. I can think of a few right-wingers whose frame of reference is so different from mine that, if I did read them, I’d spend all my time responding to them – I mean the kind of people who not only use ‘socialist’ as an insult but apply it to Blair. Fortunately there aren’t many of them (I’m speaking only of British bloggers here) – and besides, depriving myself of Tory blogs isn’t much of an effort. Unfortunately there are also some left-wingers whose frame of reference is so different from mine that, etc, and they’re harder to avoid.

All of which is prompted by one of my very rare visits to the Normblog; I was genuinely interested to know what Geras would say about Gaza. What he said about Gaza was this:

No government could ignore them.That’s the Qassam missiles that have been fired from Gaza into Israel; and who is saying it is today’s Guardian leader. From that you might infer that the Guardian thinks Israel is justified in taking retaliatory action of some kind to put an end to these missile attacks, as well as to kidnapping incursions into its territory. Forget about it.

No, ‘the distinction between preemption and retaliation [is] now bloodily blurred’, there’s a ‘harsh cycle of attack, retaliation and vengeance’, and everything’s too much of a mish-mash to be able to discern anything clearly about actions and responses – I mean too much of a mish-mash in that Guardian leader.

The fact remains: no government could ignore them, and no other would be expected to.

No government could ignore them; ergo it’s hypocritical to argue that Israel should ignore them, and the only debate to be had is about ‘how’ rather than ‘what’ (let alone ‘why’). Some form of armed response can be justified; or, if we can’t justify it, perhaps we can condone it; or, if we can’t justify or condone, we should recognise that it was inevitable and stop carping. In effect we bracket the morality of the Israeli armed response, taking it as read that armed response is the kind of thing nation states do. What we can legitimately discuss is the scale of the Israeli armed response and the choice of one set of targets rather than another.

But something’s wrong here. I can concede the premise that No government could ignore them – any government of any nation state would respond in some way to missile attacks and an abducted serviceman – but not that we have a duty to put ourselves in the offended government’s position, trading off our moral instincts against interests of state and the logic of military expediency. Even the Guardian leader which offended Norm goes down this route:

Bombing bridges may have some military logic, but the destruction of a power station seems intended solely to intimidate and inflict collective punishment.

Unsurprisingly, a commenter promptly weighed in in support of bombing power stations as a military tactic.

I keep remembering a grotesque image from children’s literature – E. Nesbit, perhaps, or C.S. Lewis in a darker moment – of a friendless giant: he wants someone to play with, but every time he finds somebody and picks them up they break and then they’re no good for playing with any more… Israel’s intentions with regard to the Palestinians aren’t playful, as far as we can see, but the government’s actions and its self-image remind me of that giant’s endless, unstoppable destructiveness and his undentable innocence.

But they were killing our people – of course we dropped bombs on bridges and a power station and a university and the Prime Minister’s office! We had to do something!

Or, for that matter,
But they were living on our land and they said it was theirs – of course we blocked their roads and ploughed up their orchards and closed their shops and bulldozed their houses and shot at their children! We had to do something!

There comes a point, I would argue, when quantity becomes quality: when the disproportion between the two parties to a conflict becomes so huge, so glaring and so consistent as to make it impossible to treat them as interchangeable (But he hurt me, says the giant sitting amid the smoking ruins, I had to do something). There comes a point when the question is not “After this provocation, could any government do nothing?” but “Whatever the provocation, should any government do this?” I can’t think of many governments which have gone in for forcible demographic re-engineering as heavily as has Israel, under Right or Left. Ceausescu springs to mind; Pol Pot, of course, and Mao for that matter; Saddam Hussein, maybe. It’s not what you’d call a Hall of Fame.

This relates to a minor but telling weakness in the Euston worldview. The Euston Manifesto’s seventh paragraph didn’t get much sustained attention at the time, perhaps because everyone was still boggling from the sixth (“Opposing Anti-Americanism”), perhaps because it didn’t seem to do very much apart from committing signatories to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. Personally I’ve been a single-secular-democratic-state person for some time – I remember a friend asking me, all of twenty years ago, why it was that the same people who denounced the bantustan system in South Africa seemed to want to create bantustans for the Palestinians. Euston paragraph 7 nicely crystallises my doubts about the two-state solution:

We recognize the right of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples to self-determination within the framework of a two-state solution. There can be no reasonable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that subordinates or eliminates the legitimate rights and interests of one of the sides to the dispute.

Or, as I parodied it at the time:

Palestine. Ah yes, but Israel. Palestine: Israel. Israel: Palestine. We can’t have a settlement that the Palestinians don’t like, but that also means that we can’t have a settlement that the Israelis don’t like, because that wouldn’t be fair. Palestine: Israel. Israel: Palestine. You see my point? It’s a tough one, isn’t it?

The problem is that, for as long as Israelis define themselves as ‘the Israeli people’, whose self-determination is a distinct issue from the self-determination of a ‘Palestinian people’, the identities of ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ will be perpetuated; and those identities are the identities of the perpetrator and the victim of a great wrong. A great and continuing wrong, but one specifically excluded from the professed universalism of the Euston project. Ellis:

Three of the greatest propaganda achievements of the Israeli state are the concealment of the origins of that state, the construction of an image of Israel as a state much like other states, and the representation of Israel as the victim rather than as the aggressor. The violence, terrorism and injustice of what happened in 1948 are written out of history. And Israel is not in any sense like, say, Italy, or Britain, or the USA. The condition of Israel as an institutionally sectarian state which comprehensively discriminates against its Arab citizens and which for 58 years has been engaged in seizing more and more Palestinian land and water is rarely acknowledged.

One Comment

  1. Martin Wisse
    Posted 5 July 2006 at 13:42 | Permalink | Reply

    hear hear!

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