“Bad idealism” and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict

[Much of this post is inspired by Michael Neumann’s analysis in his book, “The Case Against Israel.” Tidy and eloquent, if you read one book on the P-I conflict, make it this one.]

American and Israeli thinking about the P-I conflict is a great example of what might be termed “bad idealism” in politics. By this I mean a preoccupation with “telling facts”—as in, “It must be very telling that x is the case.” Idealism uses a prestanding theory to show, by inference, how the world must be when we could just look at how it is. Recalling the Democratic debates, Obama must be unpatriotic if he doesn’t wear a flag pin—no matter what the man has ever done. Similarly, many socialists of the “third camp” persuasion refuse to lend political support to the Cuban revolution because of Fidel’s bourgeois background, or bourgeois participation in the revolution, on the Marxist specification that the working class is the “motor” of the revolution. This, instead of looking at what the actual character of Cuba looks like, wherever it “came from.”

Regarding P-I: There is an idea that getting the Palestinians (Hamas) to “accept Israel’s right to exist” is important before meaningful negotiations can proceed. Notwithstanding that Israel’s refusal to declare its own borders means that it is unclear just what “existence” Hamas would be agreeing to—there are deeper issues.

For one, no matter what Hamas says, they know that Israel’s existence is a fait accompli. We know this not only because (a) they are not stupid, but more importantly because (b) they are not fighting against the “existence of Israel”—again, no matter what they say they are doing. This (b) is an important point if you are of the view that the negotiations and the violence are connected, or rather, that the preparedness of Hamas to accept Israel’s “existence” and its preparedness to cease violence against Israel, are connected.

The position amounts to “bad idealism” for two reasons. For one, Palestinians can perfectly well negotiate with Israel without renouncing violence. In fact, a sincere renunciation of violence against Israelis would make meaningful negotiations impossible—precisely because the Palestinians have nothing with which to negotiate except for violence. If they renounce this, the Israelis can simply do what they want to them. They might treat them well or poorly, for all we know, but the Palestinians will have conceded them all the power of deciding.

Second, for precisely the same reason, a solution to the P-I violence can be met without anyone’s even negotiating at all. Again, it isn’t Israel’s “existence” that Hamas fights against, but rather their settlements into Palestinian territory. These settlements, begun in the 1970’s, are fatal to Palestinian lives, homes, culture and sovereignty. The settlement policy has maintained, and the settlements themselves deepened, across every Israeli cabinet since their beginnings, and, all things being equal, Israel intends to spread them across the West Bank as far as they can. The most unsavory Israeli actions in the territories—roadblocks, detainings, and the like, are geared toward protecting and supporting these.

Given Palestinian options, a violent response on their part is rational and, I think, moral, if a violent response to anything is ever warranted. It also shows why a Palestinian renunciation of violence would be worthless: They have to resist the settlements, and whatever they say, so long as the settlements remain it will always be the case that somebody will. In this way, the settlements block peace even if they aren’t the cause of the fighting.

(Note: The fact that the fighting began before the settlements does not change this assessment. There is no amorphous P-I “violence” to speak of. The establishment of Israel prompted one wave of Palestinian violence in 1948; the settlements, a distinct action, prompted a distinct response that continues to the present day as the settlements maintain and spread.)


Israel could withdraw from the Occupied Territories without striking any agreement with Israel. This unilateral action would lessen the violence by removing its chief cause. It would have the added effect of allowing Israel to firm up its borders, now indefensibly jagged and porous due to the settlements. A secure border would enhance peace even if Hamas, inexplicably, remained more ravening to murder every Israeli than they (allegedly) are now. Defining Israel’s borders would ipso facto define the Palestinian borders, making a way for genuine Palestinian statehood. This would aid any subsequent negotiations by providing a “legitimate” party for Israel to negotiate with, and would, again, give the Palestinians something to lose. As of now, the Palestinian leadership lacks the resources, the authority—and again, the real incentive—to police the anti-Israeli “terrorists” in their midst. Sovereignty in the Territories would change all that. Not to mention the support of the world that would result from a good faith withdrawal.

Against this ready prospect, only a bad idealism could cast what Palestinians think, or say they think, as the more important consideration.


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