Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Israel's dove and hawks: How can we explain the differences?

I like analyzing issues cognitively. It helps me master and understand things that bother me. I have always been intrigued by a particular question: How can intelligent, educated and experienced Israelis, in their analysis of Israel's predicaments, come to diametrically opposing views and conclusions. Although the right/left divide in Israel and shifted over time and takes various forms, the basic world view and plan for what needs to be done remains the same. These positions can be summarized as follows:

For the left, Israel needs to make peace with the Palestinians, at the cost of extensive concessions (giving up land), and this peace is within reach if Israel were to only make the correct moves.

According to the right, peace is currently not achievable with them, even with land concessions, and we need to fight them with toughness, until such time that they give up on trying to throw us into the see, then make peace with them on our terms.

I think that for many people, political views are a function of their temperament and emotions. They have a basic belief about themselves and the world around them, in terms of trust and human nature. Subsequesntly their attitude towards a particular issue will be colored by this. The right/left divide encompasses a wide range of issues beyond the Arab Israeli conflict, and people tend to align themselves among fairly consistent lines. This collection of positions is a function of their basic world view.

In cognitive behavioral science, we know that in many cases, emotions and reactions follow thoughts, and not vice versa. In reaction to a particular event, a person will have particular automatic thoughts about the situation, which subsequently evokes certain emotions-- such as anger, disgust, sadness or fear. These automatic thoughts are dependent on the person's upbringing, experience and personality. They aren't necessarily based on a well thought out, objective analysis, but rather a reflex perception of the situation.

Another related factor is the person's system of values. These values reflect a person's basic priorities in terms of importance. Issues such as life, family, nation, health, spirituality and economic well-being are important to all of us, but we all weigh them differently.

Beyond emotions and values, what are the basic assumptions and thoughts inherent in the rightist or leftist positions? I will try to sort them out in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

1. The nature of human beings.

The leftist believes that most humans are inherently good, if only given the proper opportunity. When they behave badly it is for a reason (bad things happened to them), and if this bad thing is corrected, these people will be good.

The rightist believes that there are alot of bad people out there, who need no excuses for their evil. This people will be bad no matter what you do for them.

In the case of the Palestinians, the leftist says that terrorism is only a result of good people doing bad things because of Palestinians poverty and displacement, which needs to be corrected. According to the rightist, among the Palestinians are lots of evil people who will continue to be evil whatever we give them, and therefore must be fought.

2. Good Will

The right believes that when facing evil, gestures and concessions are interpreted as weakness and only encourage bad people to do more evil things. Thus, in their lexicon, concessions are appeasement.

The left would say that the evil is not really evil but some good people doing bad things, and that concessions are needed in order to get them to stop doing (or supporting) bad things.

The implications of this debate are clearly reflected in our conflict with the Palestinians, when a concession is a "gesture" or "appeasement" depending on your point of view.

3. The future

I heard a telephone call on a talk show yesterday, in which the caller was exhorting the Israeli government to talk to Hamas to stop the rockets. When asked what to talk about, she answered that we need to offer more land. When the talk show host pointed out that we in fact handed over Gaza to them in its entirety, and all we got back were rockets and terror, and that Hamas openly states that their goal is to get rid of us entirely, she answered that she can't imagine that her children and grandchildren are going to have to go on fighting for many years. I think that this gets to the crux of the matter-- the leftist, emotionally and cognitively, finds it too painful to acknowledge that there might be no end in sight to the conflict. This goes against his basic belief in human goodness. He therefore pretends that it is within his power to solve the problem. It is a form of denial from fatigue.

The right states that there will only be a solution to the conflict when the evil people are defeated, however long this takes. Concessions at this point may bring very short term quiet, but will not solve the problem and only exacerbate the problem later. If it takes another generation, so be it. (Interestingly, it is this long term thinking that governs many Palestinians, who are willing to suffer tremendously in the past, present and the forseeable future, for some far-off goal, rather than take what they can get now.)

Monday, March 10, 2008

Hamas in Gaza-Good or Bad?

For almost 2 years, in the wake of Israel's disengagement, the Gaza strip has been ruled by Hamas, the fundamentalist Islamic organization, considered a terrorist group by most of the international community. This is commonly seen as a victory for extreme Islam, with Iran and Al Qaida at the forefront. Israel now has a client state of Iran on its southern border.

Certainly Israel and the west would prefer a moderate, pro-western regime bordering Israel which could negotiate peace with Israel and be a member of "moderate" Arab or Muslim countries. This has not happened, and, prior to Hamas' coup, it was also not the case. While nominally the Fatah-ruled PA was sovereign, on the ground the PA had very little control, in the face of armed resistance from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and a host of other radical groups.

Notwithstanding political and military maneuvering, Israel had very little influence on the internal political developments among the Palestinians.
Like most situations in real life, the issue is complex, and each of the various scenarios entails threats and opportunities. Rarely in the international arena does one see an outcome that is purely "good" or "bad". With regards to Gaza, what are the pros and cons of Hamas rule in Gaza, in relation to the alternative scenarios? Let us start with the negatives:

1. Hamas ideology is uncompromisingly anti-Israel and anti-semitic, and it will not ever recognize Israel nor make permanent peace with it. This is unquestioningly a big "bad" on this side of the scale.

2. Hamas, with the support of Iran, Hizbullah and other extremist states, will continue to build up its military capability. It is gradually acquiring the abilities of Hizbullah. Although it may take some time, it is conceivable that in the future they might succeed in acquiring tanks, long range missiles and warplanes. This strengthening is occuring primarily via smuggling through the Egyptian border, both above ground and through tunnels.

3. They pose a immediate strategic threat, not in conventional military terms, but in their ability to harm civilians and civilian life by firing short range rockets at will. This is similar to Hizbullah's capability, although somewhat lower in intensity at this time.

4. Any and all "gains" made by Hamas, real or imagined, (in terms of terrorist attacks, abilities, continued rule) will have the psychological impact of being seen as a victory for extremist forces. This perception forestalls any tendency to surrender or make peace. Furthermore it helps gain support among the population, who see these forces as the "winning" side, as opposed to the moderate "losers".

All of this points to a very undesirable situation. At the same time it has to be viewed in contrast to the realistic alternatives, and not those that we fantasize about fashioning with our own hands. Since Fatah/PA is a weak organization (and has been for some time, even in the peak of Arafat's power), it is extremely unlikely that they would be able to govern Gaza effectively and to our liking. This was in fact the situation prior to the Hamas takeover. In this scenario, you essentialy have a "failed state" like Somalia, Sudan, pre-war Afghanistan, etc. In relation to this situation, what can be seen as some of the "positives" of Hamas rule?

1. Being the sole and strong rulers in Gaza, Hamas de facto becomes an address, diplomatically and militarily. Thus any institution of the government or armed forces becomes a ligitimate target. This avoids the untenable situation of having to distinguish between "good" and "bad" Palestinians (in the eyes of the world) when fighting them. More than any, that scenario forces Israel to fight with its hands tied.

2. Hamas is unquestionably in control of the security situation in Gaza and is able to control, almost entirely, attacks on Israel. Thus, when dealing with them, and attempting to manage the conflict, we have someone to deal with who can actually control the situation (and are to some degree subject to deterrance). This is like Syria or Egypt before the peace treaty. In contrast, with a powerless PA in charge, there was nobody to deal with, and worse, the extremist organization were always out to prove that the PA was not in control. We would have has security chaos, as in Southern Lebanon during the civil war. This is an undesirable and unstable situation for Israel.

3. The entire international community has backed an embargo and blockade of Gaza, in the face of terrorist activity. This would never have been possible if the PA where in charge.

4. The PA/Fatah, while not a fundamentalist Islamic organization, is still a bitter enemy and also propagates anti-semitic and anti-Israel sentiment among Palestinians and actively fights us. Yet, hiding under the veil of international legitimacy, they are successfully able to employ the "good cop/bad cop" technique with us. They are in fact doing this in the West bank-- in the form of demands for unilateral gestures and concessions and small scale terrorist attacks, while constantly threatening that Hamas will take over if we don't give in. This problem tied our hands

How do we weigh these factors against one another? While in the long term we all hope for comprehensive peace, it is important to remember that in the short term the Palestinian problem can only be managed, not solved. The fringes of the left and right forget this. The ways of managing it are varied, with advantages and disadvantages to each approach. In the long term nobody knows precisely how the current scenario will play out. It seems likely that Hamas will strenghthen itself in Gaza and become a bigger security challenge, among others that Israel faces now and have faced in the past. In the context of history, each one of these threats have been managed, not neutralized, and so will the current one in Gaza. Israel has been successful at managing threats, but much less so preventing them (with a few notable exceptions such as the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear facility). This failure to anticipate and prevent threats requires examination, in the context of Israel's military, financial and diplomatic assets and limitations.

In an ideal world, a major power would intervene in Gaza by completely occupying and rehabilitating the area, until such time that the people living there could govern themselves, Marshall-plan style. But the geo-political situation makes this unlikely to happen. There is nobody both willing and capable for the job. Certainly not Israel. Therefore, in the current reality we are forced to deal among less desirable alternatives, over which we have very little influence. Imagine that we enter Gaza and remove Hamas from power. Than what? They would continue to fire rockets, under the guise of Fatah.

We should do whatever we can militarily to stop the rocket fire, but we should carefully consider the goal of the removal of Hamas.

Monday, March 3, 2008

'It's a Holocaust' and Palestinian Muslim Psychosis

One of Israel's less bright ministers Matan Vilnai (a former reserves general), commented last week that Hamas's policy of firing rockets and terrorism are bringing a "shoah" upon the Palestinian people. The correct intepretation of the word 'shoah' is "catastrophe" or "disaster", and this is what the minister obviously meant. However, we all know that it is the commonly used term for the Nazi holocaust. The English language press translated the word this way, and, predictably, the Arabs seized upon this theme, exhorting the Arab masses, the international community, and the UN to stop the new Israeli "holocaust" and extermination of the Palestinians. They were referring particularly to the recent military operations in Gaza, and in general to Israel's existence for the past 60 years.

Now we are all familiar with the unending stream of Palestinian propoganda and lies which are used to recruit international condemnation of Israel, and this is not a new story. It is not the first time that they have called the Israelis 'Nazis' and it won't be the last. But we don't need an Israeli minister, with the assistance of Israel's English language presss, providing them with convenient excuses.

Speaking of excuses: Have you read about Hamas's version of events in Gaza? It was a heroic 'victory' for the Palestinians and a 'humiliating defeat' of the IDF. The same Hamas news report lamenting the extermination and destruction of the Palestinian people goes on the celebrate the exit of the IDF forces (a planned end of a limited operation) as a victory. We all know that Israel and the IDF are planning a series of unspecified actions to stop the rockets, and the most recent operation was limited to specific military goals, including intelligence gathering and preparations for other operations. So here's the absurdity: If we're killing the terrorists, its a massacre/holocaust/extermination (even its just one terrorist). If we leave and stop killing them, it's their heroic victory and our defeat!! This is very similar to the delusional thinking of a schizophrenic.

This bespeaks two aspects of Palestinian (and more generally, fundamentalist Islam) psychopathology, to which I have referred in previous posts:

1. Palestinian lives, both civilian and militants, are worth very little in their society. They are used as fodder for the struggle, and no matter that 100 or 1000 or 10,000 are 'sacrificed' for some insane or hopeless cause. This is part of the Muslim emphasis on martyrdom and the well known afterlife that awaits Muslim males. So no matter how bitter their actual defeat, they 'won'. If they win they win, and if they lose they win. What a great way to run a society!! It's hard to know how many Palestinians actually believe this, but the fact that their leaders use these lies to perpetuate the conflict indicates that it works. Just like Hizbullah's "divine victory" over Israel in Lebanon. I suspect that the 1967 war set the victory bar too high. Anything short of a stunning and humiliating defeat over the Arabs is a victory for them.

2. Issue #1, and the aformentioned 'holocaust' issue reflects a broader psychic illness in Palestinian (and in many Muslim) societies: a refusal to recognise reality and accept a sober appraisal of their situation. There are many reasons for this--political, cultural and religious. This has nothing to do with intelligence. It is primarily emotional and psychological. It is not an overstatement to say that the Palestinian society suffers from national psychosis. Psychotics are capable of doing alot of damage to others as well as themselves. Maybe there's not much consolation in the fact that in the end most psychotics who are not treated self-destruct. This indeed has been the tragic story of the Palestinian Arabs- of one disaster to the next, fed by a pathological misinterpretation and prediction of events. This is also what is happening to their imploding national movement. It seems that the American and Israelis are more enthusiastic supporters of a Palestinian state than the Palestinians themselves. In the meantime there is no indication that the Palestinians are sobering up- in the contrary, their psychosis seems to be getting worse, encouraged by the ever-psychotic Iranians. Lets hope that when they collapse they don't bring down too many of us with them.