Me and My Shadow
About the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon warAugust 2006
In the relative quiet following the recent war in Lebanon, a potent fermentation is bubbling up. In the war we saw an orgy of accusation and projection, in which inaccuracies, judgements and propaganda noise fatally obscured the picture. In the shock following the war, all parties – close-in and more distant – ringing ears are giving way restored hearing. Attention is curving back like a boomerang on all contributors to this devastation. We're back to Bertrand Russell's truism that 'war isn't about what is right, it's about what is left'.
It was all too much, disproportionate, mad – the sledgehammer was far too big, and the nut could have been cracked by other means. The message was 'there is no other way', but there is another way. Problems existed, and now there are new ones. But this, this was the stuff of nightmares, of personal dramas fatefully dumped onto others.
Why do we project our fears, ambitions and nightmares on others? To avoid looking at our own sludge-heaps of unprocessed anxieties and unresolved questions. For the future, one message has emerged: this cannot go on – it leads not to resolution but to deepening consequences.
So, Israelis are now distraught over the failure of their military prowess. Their horrors, usually outwardly projected, are increasingly internalised, aimed at their political and military top brass but exposing a deep, dark, heaving morass underneath. Hezbollah can claim a kind of victory, and Nasrallah has said they had not anticipated such a strong Israeli response to its capturing of two soldiers – this might be sincere but it excuses nothing and exposes a confusion of sense and priorities. The people of Lebanon, cruelly reminded of the shadow of their 1980s civil war, are under extreme strain, their patience and perseverance sorely tested. Palestine faces collapse, contemplating yet also doubting the value of resorting to its repeated strategy of inviting punishment on itself in the hope of attracting the world's support.
USA faces hiatus, having again proven the futility of its ill-considered geostrategic impositions on other countries. Europe faces its sitting-on-hands tendency, trying to be the Good Samaritan while exposing itself as the one who passed by on the other side. Middle Eastern countries utter mixed messages, trying not to invoke the wrath of Israel and USA but possibly as guilty as the West of double standards. Iran puffs up its chest, worthy of greater respect than it gets but not as much as it believes it deserves.
Some awkward truths
What a mess. Will everyone learn and come clean? Or will this all be stuffed down yet again for another day? Are we heading for further conflict, or have we had sufficient lessons by now? This all depends on the extent to which all these parties, and the international community, are willing to lift the carpet and look underneath at their own dust and demons hiding there.
Here come some awkward truths. They illustrate how the war's consequences are greater than anyone would like them to be. We'll start with my own country.
Britain sits on a time-bomb. It thinks it's bigger than it is and that its wealth and comfort will go on forever. Its armed forces are tainted by Iraq, it stays dreadfully quiet about its enormous weapons industry, it has an affluence it doesn't know what to do with, and a profound lack of direction. Most of its European partners suffer a similarly hollow comfort, stability and quiet hypocrisy which they maintain at great cost, for want of anything better to do. Europeans have relatively fine and humane values, and genuinely get upset at seeing Lebanese bombed to bits, but our attachment to our comfortable status quo makes us seek change as long as nothing really changes. This will one day tip over and cause a landslide. Everyone quietly knows it, hoping it won't be soon, affecting our pensions and property values.
USA has had its time and passed its peak. It has developed enormous armed might and indebted, leveraged prosperity to protect its status, but these make it vulnerable too – it's Chairman Mao's classic 'paper tiger'. When Ayatollah Khomeini called it the 'Great Satan', Americans gave it a Christian interpretation (Satan as the Evil One) when the Muslim Satan that Khomeini referred to is a Great Deluder – a master of appearances and falsities. Addicted to an increasingly obsolete, oil-dependent technology, it resorts to superpower dominance to keep that oil flow guaranteed, against growing odds.
This is selfish and short-sighted, but there is a more genuine fear here too. The international community, such as it is, has not pulled together to make the necessary global decisions we're faced with today, so America feels obliged to lead, as if to save the world from itself. The problem is that this leadership tilts at windmills, over-fills its belly, favours false friends and tries to prove its point by creating diversionary crises like the 'war against terror', insisting it knows what to do. It doesn't. America is struggling to stay up.
The international community reluctantly plays along with USA while bluffing, furtively heading in other directions and hoping America won't notice. So busy is USA with its own movie-script that it hardly does notice. This co-dependent avoidance is gutless, though there's some wisdom to it: first, individual countries don't want to be singled out by America as the enemy and, second, the world fears plunging into a heated community-building and global squaring-up process which would be inevitable in the absence of superpower domination.
There are so many global questions to sort out that the international community doesn't know where to start. So it holds things back to a manageable, damage-limiting trickle, applying band-aid where possible and muttering about USA when things go wrong. But a gaping, hidden crevasse is close, and no one really wants to take the initiative or catch the blame for rocking the boat. So the UN, WTO and other transnational organisations hobble along, hoping nothing big will happen, while perhaps secretly wishing it would, just to loosen things up. It's a mutualised game of omission and commission, a false calm and an unwritten treaty of denial.
Arabic nations, meanwhile, keep their heads down. Their governments depend on maintaining a status quo, anticipating that Islamic social movements could bring chaos and bloodshed rather than a new order. Deeply regretting what Israel has done, they feel impotent against Israel's virulent sense of rightness and punishing rage. Arabic countries try to keep the temperature down, yet pressure builds for change – not just for a return to the good old days before the West started interfering, but for an entirely new formula. They're stuck: traditional Islam resists insidious Western amorality and domination, but it is itself a thing of the past, needing social and cultural re-evaluation. This is too long delayed, too held back and too large-scale, so, like Europeans but for different reasons, Muslim countries tend to want change as long as nothing really changes. Yet a tipping-point is close.
This is embodied in social movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah, but they have a problem too. So embroiled are they in resisting Israel and the West that initiating and guiding a new social fermentation has become difficult, thanks to the risk of foreign interference. Hamas is intent on reforming Palestinian society but, refusing to recognise Israel or make concrete peace-building overtures, it has lost foreign funding, thereby hobbling itself. Hezbollah seeks to benefit Shi'a Lebanese, but it has inadvertently devastated them. The Islamic movements must carry their constituency of support with them, yet loud interests in their midst are stuck in an oppositional position, diverted by a notion of jihad that has gone rather wrong.
Jihad is a purificatory spiritual struggle to root out the demons and shadows in ourselves that create difficulty in the world, but an oppositional mentality leads people to see it as a struggle against the bad guys over there, a role amply filled by Israelis and Americans (but it could be anyone). Jihad is a self-correcting quest which brings us to the truth of our situation, in our own lives, societies and terms. It concerns our own behaviour – only secondarily that of others. This pinpoints the deep transformation Muslim society is yet to make. Instead of blaming Israel and the West, they need to outclass and overtake them through self-generated reform and effort. But Israel and the West must reciprocate, re-examining their part in the much-vaunted 'clash of civilisations', otherwise Muslim countries make themselves vulnerable to yet more foreign manipulation and intervention. It's a loop.
Then we come to Israel. The path it has followed since its founding around 1948 is ending, though many Israelis fail to see this. The recent war has, like a heart attack for a fiftysomething, rudely stopped it in its tracks. Israel has fallen upon a big truth: imposing its will on others gains little except the need to impose more. It's Macbeth's dilemma, and it leads to disaster. The possible collapse of Palestine after decades of hardship means that Israel might have to rescue it, killing the two-state solution, undermining Israeli democracy and society, costing vastly and reinforcing military dominance of Israeli life. This is a lose-lose situation.
Israelis are a hotchpotch of people from diverse origins. Jewish individualism and exceptionalism mean that national unity exists only when there is something to unite against, not necessarily because of durable, shared social love and consensus. National unity is therefore conditional and can turn ugly. Tribal tensions between Israel's different communities of faith, interest, politics and origin are complex and dissonant – and this small nation has only one third of the population of Cairo.
Without external conflict and victory, domestic conflicts tend to emerge. This is avoided by a kind of societal truce but, when things heat up, vehement mutual cross-fire can lead either to self-harming or to a paralysis in which too many questions are shelved. Israel has no constitution – at its founding, disagreement over national purpose meant that a constitution was set aside for another day that never came. Other issues – social welfare, settlement-building, the Palestinian occupation, international law and the nation's future – lie there festering. This is dangerous.
It leaves a heap of unattended issues which, at times like now, risk escalating into pyroclastic torrents, relentlessly burning everything in their path. This is Israel's domestic nightmare and, in the strange psychology of nations, the habit of fighting Palestinians and Arabs, or accusing gentiles of anti-semitism, takes over as a diversionary mechanism. This no longer really works – it has gone on sixty years. It demands a deep soul-searching for a new national spirit and attitude. Fear of Israel's demise drives this forward – a demise which cannot really be done by Israel's enemies, only by Israelis themselves.
The current bogey-man is Iran, dangling its threat of developing nuclear weapons. This threat is part genuine, part bluff and part misunderstanding. Iran is assertively Muslim. Jerusalem is one of Islam's holiest sites and the Palestinians' preferred capital. Israel is a small nuclear target, with millions of Muslims living in it or nearby. Would Iran nuke such a target? Doubtful, unless it breaks with its faith and reason. Iran knows that, if Israel went down, it might take down others with it, using its own nukes. Israel's massive response to Hezbollah's border provocation suggests this: in a fit of madness, we now know Israel can go wild.
So Iran probably isn't quite as dangerous to Israelis as they anticipate – except through proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Yet both of these would really prefer to concentrate on their social agendas and are stuck in a dilemma – they value Iranian support because no one else really seems to care, but this support charges its price and could also evaporate. Whatever is the case, Israel needs seriously to re-examine its approach to its neighbours, gradually developing its much longed-for security by making friends with them.
Then we have Lebanon. Roughly half of Lebanon's non-Shi'a population is critical of Hezbollah, but national unity rates higher. This is positive in general, but tricky. The Lebanese cannot force Hezbollah to scale down its armed militancy, so a resolution of national tensions will be slow and risky. But the Lebanese have developed some immunity to civil war – and Israel can no longer easily provoke domestic conflict in Lebanon to protect itself. The Lebanese have had enough of foreign interference. Lebanon is thus paralysed by its national consensus for peace and also blessed by it. Depending as it does on international visitors and business, it is caught in a fix. But its future chances are more promising than those of most of its neighbours.
Hezbollah, meanwhile, has emerged victorious yet troubled. Is it a social welfare party or an armed militia, a proxy for Iran and Syria or a guardian of its long-suffering people? Has it gained or lost respect? To resolve these questions it must now be socially and democratically minded, yet it relishes its military power and the options this offers. It enjoys getting back at Israel, and many Arabs, hurt by the past, rather enjoy it too. But this is like a gall-stone, manageable perhaps for now, but potentially deadly. Irrespective of pressures from outside, for its own sake Hezbollah must resolve its inherent contradictions – or stumble and die.
Palestine has gained nothing. Humbled Israel is less willing to talk than before. The international economic blockade is crippling Palestinians, and the relative merits of resisting and outlasting all presented hardships are wearing thin. The Palestinian Authority could collapse, inviting either Israeli re-occupation or foreign intervention, and neither option is rosy. The prospect of a third intifada is uninviting – Palestinians just want a decent life and to work out their future, in their own way. They have the skills and people but no funds and materials. Israelis take Palestinians' hapless fate to constitute proof that they cannot manage their own affairs, but this is untrue since Palestinians have never had a fair chance to do so.
A reconciliation of the old order, Fatah, with the newer order, Hamas, has been set aside yet again thanks to recent Israeli bombardment. Fatah holds many of the business and diplomatic strings that keep the nation ticking – but with this come the preferential inequalities and corruptions of the past. Meanwhile, Israel's recent incursions into Gaza and the West Bank have strengthened Hamas' position and the logic of its programme of resistance to Israel, social reform and elimination of corruption. Yet Hamas' resistance is judged abroad to be terrorism – whatever happened to freedom fighters? Reform is much needed, but this means loss for some people, systemic change and the end of old habits. So Palestine is stranded, unsupported. Lebanon can rebuild itself, but Palestine cannot. It's tragic, and it is everyone's fault.
So it's all a big mess. The easy option is for everyone to continue as before. But this isn't an easy option: it means hardship for Palestinians, pariah status for Israelis, continued conflict and delay for Arabic neighbours, and the uneasy sound of ticking detonators for the rest of the world. This mess, like a secret mass grave, cannot be buried once again: the 'easy' path of avoidance is really a difficult path with the highest costs and damages. Taking the 'difficult' path is not just a matter of moral principle: it's a pragmatic issue. But it involves a restoration of truth and integrity by everyone, and root-and-branch self-correction.
The poison has to come up and out, sooner or later – it won't go away. It will happen by choice or by accident. If by choice, it involves taking a pause to let the dust settle, then making a new start and engaging in a genuine peace-building process lasting a generation – each nation willingly raising the rug on its hidden agendas. Soul-searching is painful: it means all nations confronting their ghosts and ghouls. But it is less painful than the alternative. There is no choice, except on the timing and whether it is voluntary or forced by further doses of devastating truth.