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The Weekend Read
When The Hell That Is War Loses Its Power

“Between Sovereign states there can be no last resort except war; if war no longer serves that purpose, that fact alone proves that we must have a new concept of the state.”

—Hannah Arendt, in an interview with Adelbert Reif, 1970.

Published on: July 19, 2014
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  • I won’t write the endlessly long comment required to address all the flaws of this essay; instead, just 2 points: throughout its history, the Arab-Israeli conflict has so far been the least bloody of the Middle East’s many conflicts — and as an Israeli, I have to say thankfully so. This is of course entirely due to the fact that Israel is the stronger party; but when Israelis imagine what would happen if it were the other way round, I can assure you that war has lost none of its power, or indeed its horror. Even as it is, we abhor war, because in such a small country, there’s nobody who hasn’t been touched by the heartbreak and loss it entails.
    However, if we can for a moment ignore the obsession with Israel and acknowledge the ongoing carnage in the region, I’m doubtful that the hell that is war has lost its power for the many millions of Middle Easterners who currently try to somehow survive the ongoing wars in their countries.

    My second point relates to the misguided claim that the so-called one-state solution is nowadays promoted by utopian idealists. One of the loudest promoters of this idea is Ali Abunimah of the Electronic Intifada — an outlet that openly favors Hamas over Fatah. Abunimah and his many fans regard Zionism as “one of the worst forms of anti-Semitism in existence today,” and equate Zionism with Nazism (see http://brandeiscenter.com/blog/ali-abunimahs-orwellian-definition-of-anti-semitism/ ) What is “well-meaning” and idealistic about that escapes me.

  • Anthony

    Years ago in grammar school, a teacher of mine always told the class: small minds discuss persons; average minds discuss events; great minds minds discuss ideas. The author quarries for new ways (for sovereign states), arrangements, ideas to address man’s age old problem – in-groups and out-groups. Where author states “the prejudice that there must be a solution to the mess in the Middle East assumes that one even knows what the problem is that is to be solved” ought to give pause and reflection in light of the phenomenon of nationalism (definitely an interaction between psychology and history). Wisdom can be described as knowing/contemplating (even when”there are, as little as we like to admit it, times when unreason, distaste, and hatred emerge victorious over reason, love, and friendship”) what to do next – the more you know, the more you know you ought to know (current system of sovereign states).

  • War is always the background of civilization. It will never go and cannot be transcended. Thomas Hobbes stuff.

    As to Nusseibeh despairing of Israel, I would hazard a learned guess by proposing that it reflects the cultural pessmism of the kind of Israelis he meets. Possibly, these are of the Amos Oz and David Grossman types, the so-called old elites with a worldview that froze around the year 1992 or its whereabouts.

    The Israel I know is not what Haaretz’s opinion page would have you believe it is (divided between a nationalistic hoard, mostly religious, mostly non-European, and the besieged keepers-of-the-gates in Tel Aviv). It is a lot more variegated, with democratic norms, including is such matters as gender equality, trickling down and outward, to second-generations children of immigrants from Russia, the Caucasus, and Africa.

    It is totally the case that Israeli Jews – and a small but growing number of Arabs within Israel – have totally despaired of the Palestinians and of the surrounding Arab world. They no longer have any faith in that civilization being able to accommodate any democratic or liberal solution. They are also losing their faith in the supposedly free world, seeing that it is not really committed to its own values, but instead seeks hedonistic enjoyment at any price. So yes, Israeli Jews are less friendly towards Arabs and Europeans. Can’t blame them.

    However, I do concede that this country has a troublingly ugly side, and Nusseibeh is correct in pointing it out. His criticism would be more valued, however, if he showed a frank readiness to have a look at his own society (understood widely), and subject it to the same critique.

  • Avi_in_Jerusalem

    I would recommend that after you read Roger Berkowitz’s article you have a look at this article http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/178540/luttwak-zionism-history.

    I am not sure that Hannah Arendt is a worthy guide to anything much as a thinker. She was wrong about so many things and did not see to relate to the experiences of others around her, especially other Jews.

    IMHO, the strength of the Jews over the centuries to retain our identity and of Israel in particular, is to gain strength and resilience by internal argument and disagreement within an broad framework of agreement. Real self criticism is what makes the difference I think. Have a look at this article too if you want to see the complexity of views http://www.timesofisrael.com/the-tragic-self-delusion-behind-the-hamas-war/

    • Anthony

      Tablet essay fine read; thanks for sharing Avi.

  • ShadrachSmith

    The problem in the Middle East is that Islamist kill innocents, religiously. They support a culture where the state can punish unauthorized thoughts with death. It is the unmitigated evil of state authorized killing of innocents that makes the Islamic state itself, on balance, evil: and very bad neighbors.

    • Zolicon

      The real problem is Man-kind has adopted the philosophy of ‘ I want what I want and I will do who ever it take to acquire it.’

  • Fat_Man

    Oh Dear, So much error so little time and space. Here are just a few problems with the above:

    1. Never believe a word from any high ranking Palestinian that is spoken or written in English. It is all agitprop designed to appeal to Western Leftists. All the garbage about dreams of universal peace and prosperity are so much eye wash. In Arabic, they speak the truth. They despise Jews, hate Israel, and seek genocide.

    2. Never believe a word in Haaretz. It is all agitprop written by leftists for consumption by leftists, sort of like the NYTimes. The Israeli left is a sad, despairing bunch of cranks. They are bitter because they lost control of the government, and have been marginalized in contemporary Israeli political life because of their feckless inability to cope with the Palestinians, and their laughable economic policies.

    3. “The hope for a non-denominational multi-ethnic single state—a dream that … [Saint] Arendt thought possible in the 1940s” was always twaddle. They did not comprehend the Arab mentality of Honor-Shame and the political logic of rule or be ruled. Muslims cannot be faithful Muslims and accept political equality with non-Muslims. Arabs are dishonored by not ruling. The only way that honor can be restored is by homicidal violence. They treat their own daughters that way too.

    Nor, did your leftist idols accept that Judiasm is based on the covenant between the Jewish people and the Creator and Sustainer of the cosmos. And they did not understand that Zionism is the translation of Judaism into the language of 19th century European secular nationalism.

    4. The Arab Muslim world is dying. They know it. And that knowledge produces their suicidal violence. See: “Hamas Is the Norm, Israel Is the Exception” by David P. Goldman http://pjmedia.com/spengler/2014/07/15/israel-is-the-exception/

    If they can’t force Jews and Americans to kill them (suicide by cop), they will kill each other until they are no longer a viable people. Syria is the future of the Arab Muslim world.

  • Pete

    Nusseibeh says this, Nusseibeh says that. Who cares what Nusseibeh says?

    As to the root cause of the problems in the Middle East, it is the dysfunctional Arab.

    • Breif2

      In his article, Nusseibeh puts forth his proposal (based on Israeli concessions, of course), and follows up with the supposedly rhetorical questions: “Will Palestinians go for such steps? Who wouldn’t? And why wouldn’t they?”

      Up steps Breif2, answerer of rhetorical questions.

      1. “Will Palestinians go for such steps?” No, they won’t. How do I reach such an extraordinary conclusion? By noting that Israel has repeatedly implemented similar proposals, only to be rebuffed by the Palestinian Arabs. And by “rebuffed”, I mean “murdered”.

      2. “Who wouldn’t?” Palestinian Arabs, duh.

      3. “And why wouldn’t they?” Well, why don’t you direct your piercing intellect towards your own people, Dr Nusseibeh? My answer: because too many Palestinian Arabs are simply not willing to accept any Israeli state, regardless of its borders.

    • EllenO

      Exactly the same thought struck me. Nusseibeh is quoted as if he has some deep understanding that us lesser mortals are not privy to. I have spent time in Israel (I am not Jewish) talking with both Israelis and Arabs. Israelis, I found would dearly love peace and were prepared to go far in accommodating Palestinians if they could trust them. But they cannot trust the Arabs and who can blame them.

      Arabs, on the other hand, at least the ones I have spoken to although admittedly no one as hallowed as Nusseibeh simply saw it as a religious war. They felt deep shame in having a non Islamic states in the ME.

      All this Nusseibeh posturing is just so much liberal waffle.

      Here is the best insight I have ever read on the root cause of the mess in the ME. IMO it goes to a deeper level than almost everything I have read on the conflict.


  • FriendlyGoat

    OF COURSE we know “what the problem is” in the Middle East. Not that we know HOW to solve it, and not that people with reputations will even mention it, but the obvious PROBLEM is that a billion or more people in the world are mentally captured in a totally false and fraudulent crock of baloney called Islam.
    It happens that MANY of them are concentrated in that part of the world.

    If there was no Islam, the neighboring countries would be busy being as prosperous as Israel and they all might well have relationships as cozy as the United States and Canada. The Palestinians would have long since been absorbed into Israel and neighboring countries with compensation for anything they lost—-with no “territories”. Israel would already have the one-state solution WITHOUT the demographic problem of internal Arab citizens trying to vote it into Islam—–because, duh, no Islam. The sooner we Westerners stop pretending that there is going to be peace with a colossal falsehood, the better.

    • Arkeygeezer

      Sadly, I think you are right. In Matt. 15 Jesus said “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits.” The fruits of 21st century Islam have been chaos, terror, suicide bombings, and ethnic cleansing.

      In the middle east we have a religious war, not a secular war. It’s Muslim against Jew and Muslim against Muslim. There is not much that diplomacy can do with a religious war. It has to wear itself out with all the bloodshed that that involves.

      Maybe the Biblical prophesy of Armageddon is coming true.

  • Daniel Nylen

    The Israeli’s conduct limited war because they feel secure and believe that small amounts of violence can achieve their aims. War is not obsolete, ineffectual, nor outmoded. It still exists and is used when one people feel it is necessary. Ethnic cleansing, mass genocide and other tools of war are still with us. The world has mode the price high for use of war– just ask the Serbs– but obviously the price is still being paid in many ravaged areas.

    • Breif2

      To put it cynically, Israel is secure enough to be able to be restrained. Ironically, all the “peace plans” involve Israel putting itself in a much more vulnerable position. The pushers seem oblivious to the fact that if the peace fails, the resulting conflict will be significantly bloodier than its predecessors, for both sides. (This round itself is evidence for this thesis.)

  • ljgude

    A meta-comment. I have checked here repeatedly for some reaction to the events in Israel and Gaza, but have seen nothing until this article. My fellow commenters have disposed nicely of the article itself, but my point is this. We seem to have an apparent lack of interest on the part of The American Interest in Israel followed by a civilized, but wistfully leftist pro Palestinian ‘weekend read’. Is that all? I say this against the background of the many articles on the Ukraine situation including this weeks excellent AI podcast which was recorded pre Malaysian Airlines shootdown but genuinely advances our understanding of the strategic context into which that unfortunate airplane crashed. Again, to go meta, your commenters here have done a better essay on the current events in Israel/Gaza than the one you offered, which demonstrates that even when you drop the ball you have accumulated a strong readership that can, and does, contribute to this new form of journalism. Why don’t you get like Jonathan Spyer of the Gloria Centre who can discuss the strategic considerations to do a piece for you. http://jonathanspyer.com/2014/07/16/the-fire-this-time/

    • Breif2

      Other aspects of this latest outbreak which could be covered are the radicalization of some of the Israeli Arabs, the intra-Muslim conflict regarding Hamas between Qatar and Turkey on one side and Egypt and others on the second, and the perceived support by the US for the first side.

  • Ramone Love

    Why is it always the Israeli’s who must offer something acceptable to the Palestinian’s? When have the Palestinian’s ever offered anything acceptable to the Israeli’s? Gaza is a prime example of the perfidy of the Palestinian state of mind. Handed over, lock, stock and barrel by Israel and turned into a base to launch indiscriminate rocket attacks against civilians. The Palestinians do not want a two-state solution. As long as they, collectively, choose that course then there will never be stability and peace. Palestinians choose to have as leaders the thugs and thieves who enrich themselves instead of giving a damn about improving life for them. They are the instrument of their own misery.

  • LarryD

    Short form: The “Palestinians” want the annililation of Israel and extermination of Jews. Of course Israel cannot accept this. There was never any hope for a two state solution because the “Palestinians” wanted Israel destroyed far more than they wanted a state.

    The only Arabs willing to live in peace with Israel are the ones who stayed in place during ’67, and have been living in Israel ever since.

    As for the rest of the Middle East, we can now see clearly that only a tyrant’s fist can keep the factions and tribes from slaughtering each other, with the exception of the Kurds.

  • gvanderleun

    Dear Mead,
    You haven’t seen total war yet. But it’s coming. And you’ll know it when the sky over your head bursts into flame. Don’t forget to use those precious moments to post.

    • Please note that this is not a Walter Russell Mead essay.

      • wigwag

        Perhaps not, Damir, but it was undoubtedly Professor Mead who recruited his dimwitted Bard colleague to the American Interest, so Professor Mead deserves some of the blame, even if only indirectly, for the idiocy of Professor Berkowitz’s essay.

  • Fifty Ville

    The Arabs are not peacemakers. Imagine what they and Israel could have built by today had they started in friendship in 1948.

    If the Arabs wish to be the Carthaginians of the modern age, so be it.

  • David Heller

    You said:

    “It is nearly inconceivable that Israel and Palestine would fight a war to the end in which one side was defeated—imagine the unthinkable horrors that defeating either side would require.”

    I say:

    After 9/11, you should have learned that the “unthinkable” can be thought, and acted upon. Upon until 9/11, it was “unthinkable” that people would use airliners as airborne missiles in suicide attacks against cities, but it’s no longer unthinkable at all. “Unthinkable horrors”?? Those horrors are entirely thinkable — they’re called “Tactical and Strategic” nuclear weapons, wielded either by Israel, or Iran, against Jews or Muslims.

    People who wander around mindlessly muttering about things being unthinkable, are going to get a rude awakening when gravity takes over, and they impact the ground. Sleep-walking through history is foolish.

  • Whitehall

    You made me chuckle with

    “But war today is increasingly impossible, at least wars with clear victors and losers.”

    Then I realized that such self-delusion is dangerous. In fact, we’ve only increased the stiction in power realignments and made meta-stable situations more unstable.

    Really big wars tend to run in 80 to 100 year cycles. These decide who will be the world hegemon for the next cycle. Israel and Palestine will be but a side show although I think the Israelis are smart enough to be a side player and a winner no matter who the hegemon for the next side will be. Of course, it looks like China challenging the US in the next battle royale. Already Israel is cozening up with China.

    In retrospect, handing the Gaza over to the Palestinians was a big mistake. I suspect that Israel will now over-run the place and install a Vichy type government there after purging the place of any and all Hamas, Hezbollah, or PLO actors.

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