Toward a tofu theory of our conflict

A resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict cannot be disconnected from the Greater Conflict.

Fatah-affiliated gunman (photo credit: AP)
Fatah-affiliated gunman
(photo credit: AP)
For generations, numerous do-gooders, some of them the best and brightest minds of the century, have dedicated themselves to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Operating out of a combination of boundless optimism and vanity they believed that with charm and skill they would succeed where previously those of no less stature had failed. But "top-down analysis" demonstrates that there are severe limits to what could be done. Such analysis is a useful tool for those who harbor illusions of endless possibility. It forces a discipline of thinking that crystallizes the limits of the possible. A classic example comes from growth forecasts for businesses. Starting from the bottom, every year highly-priced analysts in a wide range of industries engage in forecasting, using what they believe are reasonable and even careful growth assumptions. Many of these analysts are invariably wrong. Aggregating all the growth forecasts, it becomes evident that they can't all be right. All carmakers cannot grow by 10% in an industry that grows by 1%. There is a limit for the industry as a whole. Therefore, for at least some of the forecasts to be right, others would have to be wrong. LIKE THEIR industry counterparts, most analysts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict engage in bottom-up analysis. They examine the minute details of the interactions between the sides to the conflict, looking into who said what to whom, who made which gesture and who started which skirmish. It is almost mind-boggling to discover that even the most high-level foreign policy meetings engage in detailed discussions of the security arrangements at a border crossing, the size of a specific barrier and whether a certain mound of dirt deserves to be labeled a road-block. The endless attention to detail stems from an implicit assumption that resolution of the conflict is a matter of will and that if only this or that leader had taken this or that action, things would be different. THERE IS vanity in these assumptions. As much as we like to believe that we are masters of our fate, there are limits to what we can do; and in the case of the current conflict, severe limits. Over the decades the conflict, like tofu, has assumed the flavor of its environment. Rather than shaping its surroundings, it has taken on the character of whichever global conflicts were raging at the time. In the early stages, the conflict took on the flavor of colonialism. Whether it was Herzl appealing to the kaiser and the sultan and their colonial aspirations to grant the Jewish people a homeland in their empires, or Chaim Weizmann wresting the Balfour Declaration from the newly instated British colonial power, the early stages of the conflict, as well as the Middle East's map, were shaped by the colonial powers. The struggle of the Arabs and Palestinians against the Zionists was, in their minds, that of the colonized against their colonizers. WHEN WORLD WAR II and the Suez war brought the colonial era to an end in the Middle East, the conflict took on the flavor of the Cold War. The same Jews and the same Arabs were now engaged in a conflict of a different nature, serving as one of the many fronts of the Cold War, engaged in repeated tests of Soviet and American weapons and doctrines, and sometimes even goaded to wage war. With the end of the Cold War and for a brief shining moment, the conflict assumed the flavor of global openness and resolution. The 1990s were a time of Pax Americana, a new wave of democracy, a sense that morality is a force in foreign affairs, and a global mood of reconciliation and rationality. For that decade, and for that decade only, peace with the Palestinians might have been possible. During that decade, when the global opportunity from the top-down opened up, the details mattered greatly. IN RECENT years the conflict has assumed the flavor of the global existential struggle, which some call the clash of civilizations, and others, such as Bernard Lewis, see as the third wave of attack of Islam against Christianity. It is a battle between belief-systems which, by its very nature, is not amenable to resolution. It is a conflict in which the triumph of one way of life is viewed as necessarily coming at the expense of the destruction of the opposing way of life. In this global environment, the Israeli-Palestinian and even broader conflict has assumed an existential nature, in which resolution through compromise might no longer be possible. The likely disappearance of the Palestinian national struggle is but a local manifestation of the global transformation from national struggles to existential ones. SO WHY is the tofu of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so amenable to environmental flavors? Going beyond old favorites such as the historical value of the region as the center for three of the world's main religions, the conflict is irresistibly big enough to serve as fertile ground for global powers and movements to test new weapons, doctrines and ideas, but small enough to contain the damage to "manageable suffering," all of this while offering center stage in terms of global attention. A victory in the conflict offers a high pay-off for success at a relatively low price. It is easier and more tempting for radical Islam to take over Gaza than it is to bring down the regime in Saudi Arabia. To the world, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a game in which winning is a source of satisfaction and losing carries only limited risk. The conflict is not "the" cause of global conflicts. It is but one of the stages where they are played out. Efforts at resolving the conflict that are disconnected from a top-down understanding of the limits of the possible are wrong and misdirected. Rather than thinking that resolving the conflict would bring peace to the world, it is far more likely that the conflict would move toward resolution only when the world itself is moving in the same direction. The writer, a doctoral candidate in political science at Cambridge University, is author of My Israel, Our Generation.