After the genocide: What's next for Gaza and the hope for Middle East peace?

Nearly 2,000 are dead and a cease-fire brings little peace of mind. But there may be glimmers of hope after tragedy

Published August 6, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Nir Elias)
(Reuters/Nir Elias)

Now that Israel has finally let up on what looks like a genocidal campaign in Gaza, I cannot think of when else in my lifetime the cessation of violence against innocents has brought so little peace of mind.

Look at this disaster one way and nothing has changed — cause for despair. Look at it another and nearly everything has — our one reason, very slim, to draw hope from this pockmark on human history.

Nearly 2,000 Palestinians, most noncombatants, are dead. So are 60-odd Israeli soldiers and four Israeli civilians. The only way to imagine that these deaths are not altogether in vain is for us, we the living, to take it as our shared responsibility to alter the course in the Mideast conflict decisively.

After 60-some years of suffering without let-up, it is time to take the Israel-Palestine question out of the hands of the belligerents. Anyone who still thinks they are capable of a solution by themselves has a very well-developed capacity to suspend disbelief. This also means puncturing the fiction of America as the “honest broker” between the two sides. A lot of people saw through this charade years ago, if ever they bought into it, but the reality of the U.S. role must now, post-Gaza, be addressed straightforwardly and in high places.

Readers will immediately judge these thoughts so impractical as to be beside the point. And they are right. In reply I draw attention to a thought Bergson gave us in the early-1930s: “Most great reforms appear at first sight impracticable, as in fact they are.”

Paraphrase: All new ideas come over as strange by definition; if they do not, they are not new ideas. And anyone not now persuaded that the Mideast is in need of new ideas fails to grasp the gravity of what we have just witnessed.

This is hardly a new idea, but we can now be dead certain that violence, or “terror” (as perpetrated by either side), or a military solution of any kind, or a perverse wall — any variety of forced solution, in short — is fated to be fruitless. We need a new consciousness in and about the Mideast more than anything else. Are we going to see some outbreak of imaginative thinking brought to bear in response to this reality?

The early evidence suggests this remains some way off in the distance, to put the best possible face on it.

The planet sighs with relief that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally ordered the Israeli Defense Forces to withdraw from all positions inside Gaza and now sends officials to Cairo to negotiate a theoretically lasting truce. But you have to see this as cold calculation, nothing more, in the war Netanyahu appears committed to continue by other means.

Netanyahu is covering a drastic miscalculation here, maybe the worst in a long political career not short of them. The Gaza campaign has dramatically altered public opinion toward Israel and its treatment of Palestinians across the globe. This is among the two or three positive outcomes we have so far.

Confounding opposition to Israeli policy with anti-Semitism has been a tiresomely overplayed hand for years. It has been effective, certainly, in inhibiting genuine, detached comment, notably but not only on Capitol Hill and in our media. To push past this now will be a significant step toward an honest conversation, in my view. One vicious weapon in the arsenal of American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the infamous AIPAC, will be neutralized.

As Salon contributor Deepa Kumar astutely analyzed while the Gaza campaign was full-throttle, presentation and propaganda are primary preoccupations in Netanyahu’s Israel, and Gaza stands now as a critical defeat. It is more than a question of regaining lost ground, or rewinning hearts and minds, or whatever gloss one prefers. I would like to see the turn in global opinion as one step beyond the point of no return.

There is a danger in this that must be acknowledged. I have mentioned previously in this space an odious tendency among us to make what scholars call “national character” arguments. Meaning, very briefly, Arabs or Germans or Chinese or, in this case, Jews do what they do because they are Arabs or Germans and so on. The best word for it is “essentialist” — behavior is essential to a given identity.

We have to look at a paradox, an irony, and then the danger in this context.

Frequently enough, when AIPAC or one of its mascots accuses someone of anti-Semitism for objecting to Israeli conduct it is an accusation that this someone deploys the national character argument. This is the paradox. The national character position is precisely the perspective of many strong supporters of Israel.

The irony is that the Gaza crisis could tempt many who have been offended by the carnage on their television screens into the national character argument so often and unjustly alleged. And this would open up the danger — the danger being a rise in anti-Semitic sentiment and gesture in the Arab world but also in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere. There are already reports, none yet quantified, of a disturbing revival of anti-Semitism here and there on the Continent.

Netanyahu’s next moves will have a considerable impact in this respect. I am not hopeful just now that he will do the right thing. One is pleased enough that opinion has shifted, not sanguine about the possibility it is wrongly aimed.

Not quite a year ago, when Netanyahu was clamoring for confrontation as the Obama administration began considering a rapprochement with Iran, I termed the Israeli leader the most dangerous man in the Middle East. Hardly will I step back now. In my view, the savagery of the Gaza campaign betrays a view of the Mideast crisis (and of Arabs, and of Iranians) that has a strong undercurrent of irrationality.

This is what makes Netanyahu dangerous.

The roots of this in Jewish history are obvious and to be respected. But when it computes into the kind of conduct we witnessed in Gaza, well, let us say it is a very poor memorial to the 6 million.

Example: At writing, Human Rights Watch just reported incidents of Israeli soldiers deliberately firing on fleeing Palestinian families. “No Palestinian fighters were present at the time and no firefights were taking place,” added the HRW rapporteur, Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson.

So the question of a genocidal campaign arises. This charge cannot be leveled lightly, but keeping it on the table and deferring to experts is exactly the kind of thing that must be done in the post-Gaza environment. All free passes are to be withdrawn.

A thoughtful reader in Australia forwards a paper written by one possible expert. Luke Peterson holds a Cambridge doctorate in Middle Eastern Studies and appears to have a thorough grasp of the legal and technical questions at issue. Peterson’s lead sentence: “Yes, Israel is committing genocide.” The definitions and criteria are there. Readers are invited to consider them.

This culture of irrationality, as I think we can call it, suggests the Israeli posture is unlikely to change post-Gaza. Certainly it will not so long as Netanyahu remains in office; it runs too deep in the prime minister’s consciousness. This is a big reason the Mideast question should be taken out of Israel’s hands. It is time to identify Israel as a combatant, a designation it has earned.

Another reason, this one straight-ahead political, concerns the extreme-right constituents in Netanyahu’s coalition. These are groups to the right even of Likud, Netanyahu’s party, whose 1999 platform rejects without qualification the establishment of a Palestinian state.

It is not a secret that Netanyahu must remain responsive to these parties, notably on questions such as Gaza and West Bank settlements. In effect, the Gaza tragedy lifts these small factions of the Israeli right out of the domestic political shadows to give them a powerful voice in international politics. This is flatly dangerous.

One cannot, in any kind of default position, stand unambiguously with Hamas. The Gaza crisis reveals a serious deficit in its inventory of good minds — an incompetence problem. Its multiply contradictory statements during the siege reveal unworkable divisions. Its charter rejecting Israel’s existence is 25 years old, OK, but the intellects in Hamas have not changed it — at an obvious cost. The question now is whether this organization is the right technology for a very new Palestinian environment. Long term, I doubt it.

I come out here, post-Gaza: The two-state solution was never right and must now be declared dead. It has to be a one-state cause now, as the late Edward Said argued many years ago .

Never right: Nations cannot successfully rest on ethnic or religious identities, as I have asserted (citing Ernest Renan, the 19th century French thinker) in this space previously. They are secular constructs by definition. Declared dead: To stick with a two-state solution any longer condemns Israeli Jews and Palestinians to a future that references these identities more or less permanently. As Said pointed out, the peace process as we have it now “has in fact put off the real reconciliation that must occur if the hundred-year war between Zionism and the Palestinian people is to end.”

Count this a new-old idea.

How to get there, then?

In my view, the distance to be covered is not so great as we may assume. One key to the journey is removing the U.S. from the role it now claims but has no right to. One nation of chosen people is not going to do much good working with another nation whose problem is its idea of itself as chosen.

The Europeans have sought a greater place on the Mideast question more or less persuasively, ebb and flow, for years. Not to glorify the Europeans, mind you, but give them one. It would be an improvement.

Then, of course, the U.N. It is a compromised institution, make no mistake, but again, an improvement. Israel should no longer be permitted to block the U.N. from involvement. At the very least, this would elevate the Palestinians to an international standing they deserve and expose the issue to the scrutiny of the full General Assembly, notably the non-Western majority, more substantially than it has been to date.

Not to be overlooked are the strains evident in ties between Washington and Israel since the run-up to the Iran talks last year. As anticipated in this space at the time, the Iran opening signaled a period during which Washington would have to choose between the established relationship and an innovated policy in the Middle East — the latter urgently needed. This period is now underway.

Much is made these days of U.S. loyalty to Israel throughout the Gaza crisis. “I think the United State has been terrific,” Netanyahu said last weekend. Two days later Obama signed into law a $225 million aid deal to finance Israel’s missile shield. Public opinion in America, the New York Times advises us in Tuesday’s editions, is “solidly behind the Israeli military’s campaign against Hamas.”

They all protest too much, in my view. Netanyahu’s appreciation is attenuated to put it mildly. Congress and the White House remain cowed by AIPAC for the time being; best now to watch beneath the surface to the extent this is possible. As to American public opinion, the assertion tips into the realm of the fictional.

Somehow, Americans are supposed to be isolated from world opinion in their views on the Mideast. Washington is, and this will emerge now as a potentially critical source of strain. But demonstrations against the Israeli campaign in Washington, New York and elsewhere have been the match of those across Europe and say more than congressional votes as to what we think.

The Gaza crisis tells us we have a new responsibility. We need a functioning political process to discharge it, and the crisis also tells us we do not have one.

“This is a moment where you really have to say ‘enough is enough,’” Jan Eliasson, the U.N.’s deputy secretary-general, said at midweek. The comment burned its way around the world. No surprise: Eliasson said it all in three words.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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