The Asymmetric Fallout of Operation Protective Edge

Collateral damage‘ and ‘friendly fire‘ seem to be two euphemisms with which we–as a civilization–are doomed to be persistently reacquainted. Especially if war continues to retain its popularity as an instrument of foreign policy or even law and order maintenance.

Which brings me, of course, to Israel, Gaza, and Hamas. Cycle of violence narratives are wearisome, and the Israeli-Palestinian one is no exception. Now again, there is violence against Israeli citizens, and then violent retaliation, which as on too many previous occasions, kills innocent men, women, and children. The discourse triggered by this latest eructation in the Middle East unsurprisingly follows a familiar pattern. Here are Israeli talking points: Israel is locked in an existential battle for its survival by any means necessary; Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel; no nation can tolerate indiscriminate violence directed against its citizens; Hamas uses civilians as human shields’; the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) does the best it can, scrupulously limiting harm to civilians; the real blame rests on Hamas. The public relations disaster this latest episode seemingly engenders–accusations of war crimes and the use of disproportionate force, the gory images of dead children, the gap between Israeli pronouncements and their actions–mean little to Israel’s minders: they know news and commentary flowing out of Gaza does little to convince or sway anyone. Most minds are already made up on the Israel-Palestine ‘conflict.’

Which is not good news for the Israelis, but it’s worse for the Palestinians. Certainly, there is ample worldwide rhetorical support for their cause, but the material circumstances of their being and the imbalance in the reckoning of Israeli and Palestinian resources–the former backed up by the not inconsiderable economic and military might of the US, and by its reluctance to exert its diplomatic will to bring a halt to the fighting–mean this conflict, and the others like it that will follow, will weaken the Palestinian cause further. If Hamas’ hope is that by firing rockets–remarkably poorly directed and carrying little explosive punch–into Israel, it will provoke Israel into the kinds of actions that will increase Palestinian resentment and find more recruits–worldwide–for its cause, then it has reckoned accurately but perhaps not too wisely. (Its refusal of a ceasefire shows further lack of clear thinking.) There is diminishing support for the Palestinians in Israel, especially among those formerly undecided; Israelis themselves–as the retaliatory lynching of Palestinians and social media evidence demonstrates–are becoming increasingly radicalized and descending into a rhetorical space marked by bloodcurdling calls for genocidal acts against Palestinians. Indeed, they may even count on criticism of Israel as provoking a useful defensiveness and circling of the wagons.

The radicalization of resistance to Israel does not have the same implications for Israel as the radicalization of Israel has for Palestine. Once–perhaps in some mythical time–Israeli liberal and progressive factions could be counted on to mount some rhetorical and active resistance to that nation’s actions against the West Bank and Gaza; now, those same groups have shrunk and have ceded the discursive space to those of Netanyahu’s ilk. For two parties locked in war, extremist tendencies in the polity of the more powerful one can only have worse consequences for the other.

A pox has already fallen on both houses; one bears the brunt just a little more.

The Campaign Trail: Where You Go To Say Dumb Things

Could there be a stupider foreign ‘policy’ decision than the one to strike Iran, ostensibly to disrupt its nuclear weapons program? (If the strike ‘succeeds’ it will: encourage Iran to build a nuclear weapon for, as its rulers are likely to notice, only nations with actual nuclear weapons don’t get attacked by the US; consolidate ‘mullah power’; unite the Iranians, current radicals and mullahs alike, against the US; destabilize the region even more as new, possibly more radical alliances than the current Hamas-Hizbollah ones are formed.)

That such a move is even being considered, is being lightly tossed around, by supposedly responsible statesmen, should be cause for some consternation. But viewed from another perspective, the casual trafficking in this threat is also unsurprising when we notice the venue of its proclamation: the election and campaign trail. Where else would something this stupid be said? The invocation of armed power as a solution, indeed, the only viable one, for dealing with a foreign policy problem that requires instead finesse, patience, and a great deal of nuanced, region-specific, historically and culturally sensitive knowledge is a reminder, once again, of how utterly divorced from reality the campaign season can make politicians. And it raises again the question, always worth keeping handy, of the pernicious effect on politics and democracy that the business of elections, electioneering and campaigning can have.

It is now April, the fourth month of the year, and Election Day is almost exactly twenty-eight weeks away. Till then, election-related material will blanket the air waves, newsprint, and the various physical media that bring us the Internet. There will be many more campaign gaffes and ‘gotcha’ moments (Etch-a-Sketch will be reincarnated in many forms; Obama will, in all probability, be asked to backpedal on ‘race issues’; and so on); and more often than not, candidates desperate to rouse the faithful will reach deep into the bag of Dumb Things and pull out one grand exhibit after another. (As it would only be honest to note my political biases, I should point out that I expect more Dumb Things to be said by the Republican candidate than by Obama; the latter seems less relatively inclined to shoot from the hip in these matters.) But none of these differences between candidates will obscure the central issue that the extended election season and the length of the campaign trail are increasingly conducive of the production of a coarsened discourse combined with the  technological efficiency, scope and reach of the modern election’s media apparatus. Sure, there is ‘airing of the issues’, but there is also time and space enough to air half-baked thoughts and pander relentlessly.

A persistent confusion about democracy arises in assigning elections disproportionate importance over and above the creation, maintenance and sustenance of the rest of its crucial economic and political infrastructure; the extended election season with the ample opportunities it provides for Quality Not Quantity, for the production of Things Better Left Unsaid, is the worst, most dispiriting instance of this misplaced priority. Here, the election, supposed centerpiece of democracy, seems more like a malign interruption, a gigantic roadblock to quality political discourse, which, I have been assured, is a rather crucial part of a dynamic polity.