Monday, June 9, 2008

Intractible Conflict

Intractable conflict is a subspecies of “cultural persistence”, that is, cultural patterns that recreate themselves across time over extraordinarily long periods.

Intractable conflict is especially interesting since there are real costs to the protagonists. Nevertheless, certain conflicts seem to go and on despite the obvious disadvantages and pain that they cause those closely involved. The Israeli-Palestinian stand-off is a current example. It has been going strong for a century or so and resolution seems elusive.

There are a number of obvious factors contributing to the longevity of this particular conflict. For instance, despite a number of military losses, the Palestinians have not been decisively defeated in the full sense of the term. They have not been dispersed and incorporated into the populations of other nations but exist in substantial numbers on the borders of Israel or as enclaves (refugees) within the boundaries of a few host nations like Syria and Lebanon. Their numbers have substantially increased rather than diminished. Thus the two protagonists still stand eyeball to eyeball, and elements within both camps still hope for the decisive victory for which they have striven.

Then, of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been incorporated into the agendas of various regional and global groups. For some regional players the conflict has strategic value of various kinds by mobilising public opinion behind a specific party or individual or by deflecting popular criticism or serving as a bargaining chip in dealings with other powers and rivals. In the web of regional interpersonal, intergroup and interstate rivalries the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has instrumental value over-and-above its direct emotional significance for their neighbours.

As much as this is true regionally, it also holds at a global level. Israel plays a significant part in the American presidential election for instance, and the candidates take great care in establishing their support for the Jewish state. This deeply riles those, like Mearsheimer and Walt, who resent the concern for Israel displayed by mainstream politicians and their supporters. They attribute this to the devious machinations of the “Jewish-Israeli Lobby” and, while this lobby has certainly been effective, their success is based upon many shared values as well as strategic concerns between the USA and Israel.

There is little doubt that the conflict has also played a role in shading the relationship between America and her allies. This is difficult to quantify since it is but one strand in a host of differences between the Old World and the New as well as between the Third World and the West. The conflict is certainly outweighed by other more direct strategic interests and differences, but can play a complicating role.

Besides these obvious factors which make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so convoluted, I would argue that a significant part of the problem is that it has become widely institutionalised and woven into the very fabric of institutional and individual lives, both at the local and global level.

Locally it is obvious. The IDF exists primarily to defend itself from the threat posed by the Palestinians and their backers. The IDF is a major and constant factor in Israeli life. Quite apart from its military function it serves to integrate and unite the very diverse elements which go to make up Israeli society. Similarily in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon, as well as elsewhere in the region, specific organisations (eg. Hamas, Hizbollah and may other lesser groups) receive their justification and validation through the role they play in the so-called “resistance” to Israeli aggression. This provides a cover for self-advancement and enrichment through a host of borderline or outrightly criminal activities.

Similarily, at a global level, many leftwing (and a few rightwing) groups justify and define themselves through their stance in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian question. Personal advancement and self-publicity can be achieved through an activist posture relative to the conflict. Such groups become part of a de facto network of pro-Palestinian organisations and in this way become self-perpetuating. They also block resolution by polarising debate and by encouraging extremist postures.

Besides opportunities for status, prestige and even material advancement (and I have not even mentioned the importance of economic activity associated with what may be broadly termed the “military-industrial complex” according to Eisenhower) offered to protagonists on both sides of the conflict, the dispute also serves various psychological needs. These include the need for meaning and purpose, for self-validation and for venting personal frustration and anger into acceptable channels of social activity. This probably plays an important role in creating recruits for terror groups and for motivating both the vociferous leftwing opponents and, to a lesser extent, even the defenders of the American-Israeli axis.

This brief survey both understates and overstates the nature of the “institutionalisation” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would be possible to advance many more examples of its influence and involvement in economic, political, social and personal spheres than I have offered here. But at the same time it is often just one, sometimes a small, component of many other causal factors and does not always play a determining role in deciding the course of events. It may also be argued that the same analysis could be applied to any conflict or political issue of some magnitude. I would not dispute this- see for example, Tibet, China, the Sudan and so forth.

But it would be hard to argue that the intertwining of the Middle East conflict with the existence and fates of individuals and collectivities of various kinds, both regional and global, does not add to the difficulty of resolution. Thomas Friedman (in the Sunday Times this week) and others also point to the fact that the whole Israeli-Palestinian situation has acquired a kind of emotional inertia and is in danger of simply perpetuating itself unless sufficient energy is devoted to its resolution, notably by the USA. Be that as it may, I believe it is more than simple inertia - that the conflict suits the agendas of many people and groups on both sides of the divide and also that resolution is feared for the unexpected and anticipated problems which could follow in its wake.

In the long run intractability cannot be good. The conflict is a potential longterm existential threat to Israel, it is a recruiting tool for extremists and terrorists, it creates misery and hatred amongst millions of Palestinians, it distorts Israel’s foreign and domestic policies and is a polarising force in global politics. We should not give up on Peace.

Mike Berger