Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Existential Crisis

Isn't hyperbole fun?

It is especially fun when you talk about Israel because it takes about four seconds of online debate before Godwin's Law roots itself permanently in the conversation. (Godwin's Law: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.")

Gaza is the Warsaw Ghetto; Israelis are Nazis; Hamas is Hitler... To quote George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" for the n'th time: "[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts... If one gets rid of [this] habit one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration."

That would be a good first step, indeed. The more discussion of Israeli-Palestinian grievances and goals remains steeped in the hollowed out terminology of World War II-era genocide jargon, the stupider everyone in proximity to those comments becomes.

So how's Israel's war going? I think we will realize in the end that Israel is winning their Gaza War the same way the United States won the Vietnam War; in casualty comparisons only. 950 or so dead Gazans to 13 Israelis. A kill ratio of 73-1. Israel may diminish the capacity of Hamas to launch rockets for a time, but it cannot expect to obliterate it. Israel cannot decapitate Hamas, because its leadership is tucked safely away in Damascus where it issues delirious, apocalyptic threats on the Israeli army/people that it has yet to personally raise a weapon against in this war.

On the New York Times Debate Blog, David Newman, a professor of politics at Ben Gurion University wonders aloud, "The question remains, will the residents of Gaza realize just how futile the armed struggle against Israel is or will the present war simply create a new generation of potential fighters ready to bear arms against Israel?"

Well, if Khaled Meshal, the leader of Hamas is to be believed, and is able to influence those who follow him, then the latter seems more likely. Said Meshal after Mossad agents tried to assassinate him ten years ago, "Israeli threats have one of two effects: some people are intimidated, but others become more defiant and determined. I am one of the latter."

But whether Hamas' leadership, whose survival is already assured, retains its power and wins more power in the upcoming (aka, now perpetually postponed) elections for the people of Gaza is probably irrelevant. Israel is soon to have much larger problems than Gaza.

The Israeli invasion of Gaza has reinvigorated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reelection prospects in Iran. Until the Gaza War, Ahmadinejad looked like a moribund candidate in control of a slumping economy thanks to oil's price collapse and the success of sanctions on his country. Now, he can run on the anti-Israel ticket and, just like Osama Bin Laden's reverse-psychology endorsement of George W. Bush the weekend before the 2004 election helped Bush to victory, Ahmadinejad can thank his arch-rival for electoral success, if he achieves it.

Of course, Israeli hawks may actually want this scenario to unfold. If Ahmadinejad were to lose in June to a reform candidate like Khatami, it would give the Obama administration a much more willing leader to negotiate with on the Iranian nuclear issue. Israeli hard-liners don't want negotiation and engagement, they want Ahmadinejad in power and Iran close to a nuclear weapon that will, in their view, legitimize an Israeli military response. There are apocalyptics on both sides of this...

Closer to home, Egypt and Jordan have Arab populations unhappy with their government's tepid response to the Israeli invasion. The Egyptian and Jordanian governments are glad to see Israel counter Hamas - an organization affiliated with rise of Iranian power in the region - and, by extension, Iran. But the governments in both countries are in precarious postions. Egypt is a democracy in name only; its president, Hosni Mubarak, has ruled since 1981, is 84 years old, and is grooming his son, Gamal, to replace him when he dies. Though it is formally at peace with Israel now, and even moreso as it tries to counter the rise of Iran, the country is likely to be a political disaster when Mubarak dies.
In the longer term, Israel has this fact to face up to, as written in an Op-Ed piece in the Times at the end of 2008 by another Ben Gurion professor, Benny Morris:

"The fourth immediate threat to Israel’s existence is internal. It is posed by the country’s Arab minority. Over the past two decades, Israel’s 1.3 million Arab citizens have been radicalized, with many openly avowing a Palestinian identity and embracing Palestinian national aims. Their spokesmen say that their loyalty lies with their people rather than with their state, Israel. Many of the community’s leaders, who benefit from Israeli democracy, more or less publicly supported Hezbollah in 2006 and continue to call for “autonomy” (of one sort or another) and for the dissolution of the Jewish state. Demography, if not Arab victory in battle, offers the recipe for such a dissolution. The birth rates for Israeli Arabs are among the highest in the world, with 4 or 5 children per family (as opposed to the 2 or 3 children per family among Israeli Jews)."

Israel's war in Gaza can only acclerate the process of Arab-Israeli disassociation from the Jewish state and sympathy towards groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Christopher Hitchens, in a recent Slate column, concluded that Israel is probably "bombing for votes" as the incumbent government tries to fend off the pending challenge from the hawk Netanyahu. This may work well for some Israeli politicians in the short term, but the wave of anti-Israeli fervor these weekend wars arouse in places like Iran - where non-messianic politicians had hopes to make real-world progress that doesn't include the return of the 12th imam or armaggedon - only exacerbates the threat to Israel's teetering existence.
Israel is winning the PR war in the United States - an all important aspect of any Israeli military operation - by taking advantage of the perfect storm of the American holiday season, change of presidents, and Obama inauguration. But the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the radicalizing portions of the Egyptian Arab population; Hezbollah and its 40,000 qassams; Iranians and their votes tipping back toward Ahmadinejad, are not as distracted. Unleashing the region's most powerful military force on the most densely populated area on earth, Gaza, is something only an even more powerful and militaristic nation would be blase about. Israel drops pamphlets warning Gazans to evacuate their neighborhood due to "imminent Israeli military action" and cites it as an example of their humanitarian efforts. But as one father noted in an NY Times article the other day, the borders are all sealed, and "I have nine children, where will I go? I would rather die at home."

In response to her controversial New Yorker article on the Eichmann trial in Israel, Gershom Scholem criticized Hannah Arendt - who in that article coined the term the "banality of evil" describing Eichmann - for not having "a love for the Jews." Arendt responded, in a letter that ended her frienship with Gershom, "The greatness of this people was once that it believed in God, and believed in Him in such a way that its trust and love toward him was greater than its fear... And now this people believes only in itself? What good can come out of that?"

The more fiercely Israel clings to its nationalism and its borders, the more they slip away.