As you know, everybody sees the Middle East through his or her own narrative. Conservatives see it through the “front line in the war on terror” narrative and defend Israel’s actions on the Gaza border fence this week. Progressives see it through the “continued colonialist oppression” narrative and condemn those actions.
I see the situation through the “extremism corrupts everybody” narrative. My narrative starts with the idea that the creation of the state of Israel was a historic achievement involving a historic wrong – the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians.
For two generations, in what we can call the Yitzhak Rabin era, the leaders of Israel and of Palestinians tried, sometimes dysfunctionally and bloodily, to address this wrong and find two homelands around the pre-1967 borders.
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But sometime in the 1990s, a mental shift occurred. Extremism grew on the Israeli side, exemplified by the ultranationalist who murdered Rabin, but it exploded on the Palestinian side. Palestinian extremism took on many of the shapes recognizable in extremism everywhere.
First, the question shifted from “What to do?” to “Whom to blame?” The debates were less about how to take steps toward a livable future and more about who is responsible for the sins of the past. The central activity became moral condemnation, with vindication as the ultimate goal.
Second, the dream of total victory became the only acceptable dream. In normal politics, certain long-standing debates are never really settled; competing parties instead reach an accommodation that works in the moment. But extremists stop trying to win partial victories, insisting that someday they will get everything they want – that someday the other side will magically disappear.
Third, extremists over time replace strategic thinking with theatrical thinking. Strategic thinking is about the relation of means to ends: How do we use what we have to get to where we want to go? Theatrical thinking is both more cynical and more messianic: How do we create a martyrdom performance that will show the world how oppressed we are?
Palestinian politics has shifted. It shifted from 1967 thinking to 1948 thinking. If you read the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ April 30 speech or much of the commentary published over the past week, it’s clear that some powerful Palestinians now believe that the creation of the state of Israel is the wrong that needs to be addressed, not the expansion and occupation.
They rejected incrementalism. After Israel withdrew from its settlements in Gaza, the Palestinians could have declared a new opening, taking advantage of the influx of humanitarian aid. Instead, they elected Hamas, an organization that lists the extermination of the state of Israel as an existential goal. They expended resources that could have improved infrastructure to fund missiles and terrorist tunnels.
Finally, they lost any strategic consciousness. Yasser Arafat was once a terrorist, but at least he used terror to win practical concessions. The actions today – the knife attacks, the manipulation of protesters to rush the border fence – are of little military or strategic value. They are ventures in suicidal theater.
When faced with an extremist, you have two choices: counter the extremist mindset with your own or reject that mindset and double down on pragmatism.
By and large, Israel has taken the former path. The shift from the politics of Rabin and Shimon Peres to that of Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman is a move from pluralism to ethnocentrism, from relentless engagement to segregation. It’s a shift from tough realism to the magical thinking that Palestinians are somehow going to go away.
It is clearly in Israel’s interest to maneuver the Palestinians away from extremism and to weaken the extremists in its own ranks. And yet sometimes Israeli policies seem callously designed to guarantee an extremist response.
Take the events of this week. For months Israeli security forces had been warning the prime minister and the defense minister that Gaza was in crisis mode and bound to blow. Hamas had long signaled that it would do exactly what it did at the Gaza fence on Monday, inciting a massive border invasion. There was plenty of time to figure out how to handle the crowds without bloodshed.
“And so the main question,” Amos Harel asked in Haaretz, “is what did Israel do to prevent this blood bath before it happened? The answer is, almost nothing was done.”
That’s the problem with extremism: It is a flight from reality. It makes you stupider. Instead of cleverly working to advance your own interest in a changing context, you end up shouting your own moral justifications into a whirlwind. Instead of restating your own values – for pluralism, for a compromise, for peace – you end up another soiled part of the climate.
My narrative doesn’t absolve the Palestinians from responsibility for their choices. But it doesn’t let the Israelis off the hook for their failure to properly confront extremism.
Extremism is naturally contagious. To fight it, whether at home or abroad, you have to answer the angry shout with the respectful offer. It feels unnatural. But it’s the only way.