Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Logic Of The Nation State


This has been the toughest blog I’ve ever written, not just in terms of the huge amount of research, writing and revision, but also in trying to apply rational intellect to a problem that screams (with the voices of wounded children) for outrage, anger and tears. In the end, after much deliberation, I’ve decided to post it as an honest attempt to make sense of an appalling situation. I’d ask that you read it in that spirit.

The Logic Of The Nation State

Among the harsh lessons of the Holocaust are two that are critical to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today. They’re probably going to be relevant for generations to come.

The first is this. When political leaders constantly repeat that they are going to destroy you, all of you, and wipe you from the face of the earth, they are serious. They may sound hysterical. They may look demented, unbalanced, even comical. Others (non-Jews usually) may say it’s merely inflammatory rhetoric to unite their followers and keep their positions of authority, but if you’re a Jew, you’d better believe it. Because no-one will rescue you when it turns out to be true. Oh, there may be well-intentioned hand-wringing and sympathy, but that won’t make a difference when you’re dead, already.

And if they happen to be religious leaders as well as political ones then it goes double. People with God on their side don’t go in for half measures. The Jewish experience is that Jew-haters mean what they say, and will not only preach genocide they’ll do it at the first opportunity. Ethnic cleansing, pogrom, ghettoes, cultural imperialism run amok, whatever you call it, it all adds up to genocide, whether by degrees or by mass-murder it’s all the same in the end.

Israel is the only state where Jews know that
the government will put their safety first

The second lesson is this: A nation without a homeland cannot survive. No ifs, no buts, no unique status as an honoured and cherished minority, no shirt, no shoes, no service. If you don’t have a patch of land to call your own you cannot guarantee the survival of your family, your children, your children’s children. The Evian Conference of 1938 proved this conclusively. When Nazi persecution of the Jews became so obvious it couldn’t be mistaken, thirty two nations sent delegates to come up with ways to help, of which they could manage none. As Australia’s delegate famously put it, “We have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.” The Jews of what was then Palestine were allowed only observer status, prevented even from speaking about the fate of their own people.

And so, out of the Shoah came Israel. No country helped Israel to become a country; many either stood in its way or actively fought it. There has never been a time since then that leaders in the region haven’t vowed to kill Jews wherever they were, called for Israel to be destroyed or launched wars to achieve that end. Israel has been surrounded by enemies from day one and that hasn’t changed in 60 years.

But once you have a nation state you are bound by its logic, chained like Samson to two pillars that support and define the nation state: Maintaining territorial integrity and state monopoly of violence.

Maintaining territorial integrity.

In April 1982 Argentina’s military regime invaded the Falkland Islands, a British possession of negligible value, under the impression that Britain was a toothless post-imperial nation without the will or capacity to respond. The invasion was intended to boost domestic popularity for Leopoldo Galtieri's murderous military dictatorship. The British were left with a stark choice. Accept the invasion and negotiate, which would confirm the ‘toothless post-imperial’ tag, or use military power to retake the islands and confirm the strength of the British nation state both at home and abroad. The bellicose Thatcher government chose the latter. 907 soldiers died, the south-Atlantic rocks were retaken, and Britain’s status as a world power determined to maintain its borders was confirmed. The heated anti-British backlash largely faded when Thatcher left office. But the image of a bare-knuckled, warlike Britannia did not.

State monopoly of violence.

However questionable the morality of wars between states may be the state’s monopoly of violence within its own borders is more complex still. A national army may inflict violence on hostile states with relatively straightforward justification, within a state control of violence is the province of law and the police. The safety of the population from random or organized violence and intimidation is the single most important factor in the internal stability of the state itself.

A state which can protect its people from the violence of the mob, the thug and organized crime is a successful state, right up to the point at which the powers of the police become an intimidating force that stifles free speech and the rights of assembly and dissent; even necessarily violent dissent. Rarely do politicians understand this, lobbied as they are by the police for ever greater powers, and pandering to the fears of the populace to stay in power.

The men who composed the American constitution understood it well, and tried to enshrine the rights of the individual to maintain his freedoms, through the force of arms if necessary. But the best intentions don’t always work out so well. 200 years later America’s gun culture is one of the world’s worst, with 30,000 dead and 60,000 injured by guns each year in a free and civilized society.

Germany’s Weimar government was so ‘liberal’ and weak that it was impotent in the face of Nazi brown-shirt battalions who ruled the streets and dished up violence against any and all who stood in their way. The Jews weren’t the first to suffer by any means. Communists, socialists, nationalists, Royalists, democrats - all were beaten into submission by a political force outside government control.

For Israel in recent years both issues are ‘hot-button’. Rather than facing invasion by a neighbouring state, a situation she has proven more than capable of defeating, Israel has been under persistent ‘pin-prick’ attacks by violent, extremist political parties and groups outside of government, but located on her self-declared borders. The Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon in 2006 was universally condemned as an extreme over-reaction to years of indiscriminate rocket attacks, kidnappings and guerilla attacks by Hezbollah on the Israeli Army. Over 1,000 civilian Lebanese died, but large parts of Hezbollah’s military force were destroyed. If the war had been between an Israeli Army and a Lebanese Army there would have been less moral condemnation given the long record of murders, kidnappings, suicide bombings and rocket attacks.

Hassan Nasrallah and Iran's President Ahmedinajad

Behaviour like this by one country to another would be considered an ongoing war and Israel’s military response would be seen as legitimate, if necessarily a terrible thing. If Hezbollah were a government it’s parallels with Nazi Germany would be clear (including both its extremist rhetoric and popular social welfare programs), and the almost hysterical, bloodthirsty rhetoric of Hassan Nasrallah, it’s leader would clearly be seen as astonishingly close to that of Adolf Hitler, even outdoing him.

Christmas Rockets from Gaza.

Hamas militants with shiny new toy

The current invasion of Gaza is clearly a direct successor to the 2006 Lebanese war. It’s timing is most certainly driven by Israel’s internal politics (elections are due next month) and hard-nosed calculation about the prospect of a new American President; attempting to do as much damage as possible to Hamas before negotiating a new ‘peace process’. The question is, is Israel counter-attacking an attacking army, or is it invading a neighbor in pursuit of a terrorist threat? People are dying no matter which definition you use. But to make some sense of it decide you must.

Palestinian or Israeli mother protects her child.

Gaza (and the West Bank) exists in its current form due to Israel’s accepting the “A nation without a homeland cannot survive” principle applies to the Palestinians too with the 1994 handover of land to the Palestinian National Authority (with the tacit understanding that it could become the government of a future free Palestinian state). It owes its shape to Israel’s Unilateral Pullout of troops and settlers (destroying Israeli homes in the process) in 2006.

Also in 2006 free elections resulted in Hamas defeating the more moderate Fatah party. Hamas, a Sunni equivalent of the Shiite Hezbollah is as bloodthirsty, anti-Semitic and nihilistic as Hezbollah, it’s slogan declaring “Jihad is its path and death for the sake of God is the loftiest of its wishes.” It has a political arm and a terrorist arm, the latter responsible for vicious attacks that have continually derailed the peace process when it seemed that a lasting peace was possible.

In 2007 Fatah, backed covertly by Israel, began open warfare with Hamas to overturn the election results. The conflict was one of the most vicious ever seen in the Middle East and ended with Fatah in control of the West Bank and Hamas in control of Gaza, from whence it’s rocket attacks on Israel have continued ad nauseam. They continue now as raison d’être and signifier of the open conflict in Gaza.

Tzipi Livni & Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (right)

The logic of the nation state clearly backs the Israeli position. In part because there is no Palestinian state with which to compare positions. Is Israel fighting a neighbour, a nation, Hamas the terrorist group, Hamas the legitimately elected government, or a renegade bunch of criminal terrorists? Logic clearly isn’t enough. The face of Tzipi Livni says no while her mouth says it must.

The Israeli Acting Prime Minister and Kadima Party (the most progressive pro-peace Israeli political party) Leader has publicly declared the Israeli position often enough, that the rockets must be stopped, that no other options are available. But her face undermines her words, and she looks more and more like a woman trapped in a tired role that just prolongs the endless cycle of violence, misery and hatred which she hopes to end.

Politics is part of the problem, how can it be part of the solution? Israeli politicians know that hawkish rhetoric backed up by the invasion increases their popularity just before the February election. When a coalition government is the most likely outcome electoral popularity may be the key to real power.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Labor Party) has seen his personal polling increase by as much as 10 – 14% since the invasion. To what extent do you think his willingness to shed Palestinian blood is affected by the coming election? I’d say about 10-14%. It’s certainly easier to make the case for war when it will improve your own position.

The efficiency of the Israeli military response (in the grotesque terms of body count and wholesale destruction) skews the picture too. Are the Israelis the aggressors, or more at fault, because they kill more Palestinians than vice-versa? Do we condemn Israel because it’s army is simply better at murderous violence than Hamas and their campaign of violence? Do we think that if Hamas had the weaponry of the Israelis they would be suddenly less violent, less murderous, less bloodthirsty? Is the blood of innocents worth more than the blood of soldiers? Is more blood ever going to wash away the crime of first blood?

The history and genesis of Israel also skews things. I have heard it reported that Israel should know better than to do this because of the Holocaust. Can we really hold them to a higher level of morality than we do the rest of us? Does previous victimhood demand future saintliness? Can we not accept that Jews can be just as stupid, bloody-minded and violent as the rest of us?

Hamas throws vile genocidal rhetoric at Israel along with its Qassam rockets every day. It also accuses Israel of genocidal hatred, yet it’s Israel that has given over the land which Gaza occupies, Israel that has given up territory conquered in war, Israel that has traded land for the prospect of peace. Meanwhile Hamas demands that its hair-splitting over cause, effect and right to bloody revenge be part of the solution as well as a legitimate reason for mindless violence and murderous stupidities. Palestinian children have died this last week from the rockets of Hamas. They were treated, in full view of the international press, by an Israeli hospital. Does this ugly propaganda coup mean anything?

Clearly it will require the wisdom of several Solomons to untangle the web of hatreds, miseries and tragedies still unfolding.

Barack Obama, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni in front of
a heap of spent Palestinian Qassam rockets in 2008


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