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Middle East Violence: Neocons' Fantasy

Though the neocons' dream of American global empire has failed, they're still pushing for an expansion of the conflict in the Middle East.
 
 
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The champions of American global empire are using the latest upsurge of violence in the Middle East to give new life to their discredited plan to extend the war in Iraq to Syria and Iran. The neo-con Weekly Standard has taken the lead in its July 24th cover issue, proclaiming that the current violence is "Iran's Proxy War" against the West.

As Standard editor William Kristol puts it, "It's our war." America's, that is.

"What's under attack," Kristol argues "is liberal democratic civilization, whose leading representative right now happens to be the United States." The logical conclusion of this "war of civilizations" analysis is Kristol's advice to the Bush Administration: "our focus should be less on Hamas and Hezbollah, and more on their paymasters and real commanders -- Syria and Iran. And our focus should be not only on the regional war in the Middle East, but also on the global struggle against radical Islamism."

Progressives have no sympathy for radical Islamism, if that means those who have systematically denied the rights of women and gays, imprisoned those insisting on human rights and civil liberties, and sponsored campaigns of terror against civilians in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, India, Bali, Spain, England or anyplace else in the world.

But even many who might have forgotten the lesson before the Iraq war today rally around the cry to "Bring the troops home" rather than the neo-con appeal to extend the war into other nations. Most of us have come to the conclusion that violence is not the solution to our problems.

Which is why many of us have been sickened and saddened by the recent escalation of the struggle after Israel decided to use the capture of one of its soldiers by Hamas an an excuse to reenter Gaza and destroy its pathetic infrastructure. This punitive measure left one million of the world's poorest people, living in the world's most densely populated area, without electricity -- i.e., without refrigeration or water -- and can only be construed as an act of collective punishment for the deeds of a small group of people (the elected Hamas government which actually made a public plea for the release of the prisoner, though that did not prevent Israel from moving in and arresting a significant portion of the Hamas elected leadership).

Perhaps seeing the moment as one requiring solidarity, or perhaps instigated by its patrons in Syria and Iran, Hezbollah broke its previous pledge to respect the Israeli border, crossed it, killed a group of Israeli soldiers and captured two. In turn, Israel again resorted to collective punishment, holding much of the Lebanese civilian population responsible, bombing the civilian airport and many other civilian installations, and surprisingly finding that Hezbollah was able to respond with a barrage of missiles which killed and wounded Israelis in several northern cities.

It's ludicrous to try to establish "blame" in the sense of who did what first. Incidents of violence on the part of Palestinians and their allies cannot be separated from the constant violence of the Occupation, the continual kidnapping by the IDF of Palestinian civilians who are held in prison camps without charges or trial for as long as six months, often enduring torture as documented by the Israeli Human Rights Organization B'Tselem.

Nor can the violence of the Occupation be separated from the misguided policies of many Palestinians who have never been willing to unequivocally acknowledge the legitimacy and right of the Jewish people to the same kind of national self-determination in the land of Palestine that Palestinians rightly demand for themselves; nor from the equally misguided fantasy that peace and prosperity will come from violence rather than from the non-violent strategies used by Gandhi, MLK Jr., and Mandela in his later years.

In my books Healing Israel/Palestine (North Atlantic Books, 2003) and The Geneva Accord and Other Strategies for Middle East Peace (North Atlantic Books, 2004) I show that both sides have a legitimate narrative that needs to be heard and recognized by the other side; that neither side will ever prevail through violence, and that each side needs to acknowledge that it has been unreasonably cruel and insensitive to the needs of the other.

Yes, of course it's clear that in the last forty years Israel's had the upper hand and has used its power in an immoral way. But these are peoples with long historical memories, and Israeli partisans are as unlikely to convince Israelis whose families escaped oppression in Arab lands that there was no Arab oppression of Jews as Palestinian partisans are to convince the Palestinians that they never really lived in the homes in Palestine from which they were expelled by the wars from 1947-1967.

Nor are we likely to get to peace by trying to discount the fears of Israelis and Jews who face a stream of violence -- from terrorist attacks to Hamas-launched Qassam rockets to physical assaults on random Jewish people from Paris to Moscow -- than we are to convince Palestinians that Israel is merely being sensibly defensive and exercising its right to protect itself. These kinds of triumphalist narratives must be abandoned.

But they won't be as long as Bush and his advisors in the neo-con camp see in the current violence yet another opportunity to reframe the Middle East struggle as one that will provide ex post facto justification for the war in Iraq and enticement for new militarist adventures to destabilize or overthrow oppressive regimes in Iran and Syria.

Instead progressives need to begin with a new discourse, one that demands from both Israelis and Palestinians -- and their Arab supporters -- that they reject violence and crimes against humanity on all sides (e.g. Hezbollah's current bombing of civilians in Haifa and Tsfat as well as Israel's punishment of whole nations), and realize that their only path to peace is one that starts from a place of atonement for their own sins, and a new spirit of open-hearted generosity toward the other side, recognizing it as the only way that either side will achieve what they want in terms of social justice, peace and security.

But since there are no signs of this happening, in the short run we should be asking the international community to step in, impose a settlement on all sides that includes a return of Israel to its pre-67 borders with minor border changes (as defined in the Geneva Accord of 2003), reparations for Palestinian refugees and for Jews who fled Arab lands from 1948-1967, iron-clad security arrangements enforced by an armed international force on the restored borders, and a Truth and Reconciliation commission that is empowered to expose all acts of human rights violations on both sides -- and to impose punishment accordingly.

While partisans on all sides of this struggle must abandon their fantasy of ultimate justification of their claims, a clear first step is to dismiss the neo-con fantasy of a global war of civilizations, with its accompanying notion that this is the best way to reframe the globalization of capital and American corporate domination of the world as a path to expand democracy and human rights. That fantasy is dead -- the Iraq invasion and subsequent tragedy has removed it from any level of plausibility. Let's not let the neo-cons use the violence between Israel, Palestine and Lebanon as an excuse to try to revive that which ought to be put to eternal rest.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is the editor of Tikkun and author of, most recently, "The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right." He is co-chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives .