Sado-masochistic rituals in the Middle East

2009-01-10 00:00

Little evidence is required of humankind’s talent for mindless cruelty. It is a trait not only of mass political, racial and religious bigotry. Its pervasiveness at a mundane and personal level can be seen in the abusive nastiness of much of the anonymous reader comment elicited on Internet sites.

But for pernicious hatefulness, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict takes the cake. With the recent military action by Israel in Gaza, the world is experiencing one of its ritual flurries of hand-wringing, blame and counteraccusation. The international community’s search for a solution is futile. Both protagonists have a vested interest in continued crisis.

In a way, the Jewish-Arab conflict is the perfect political equivalent of a sado-masochistic relationship. Despite appearances of the contrary to the befuddled outsiders, there actually is neither monster nor victim.

The militarily puny Palestinians prod and provoke Israel with a drip-feed of suicide bombers and rocket attacks. When Israel, predictably, is goaded into thumping them, they go crying to the large anti-Israeli — and often anti-Semitic — bloc of nations. In turn, Israel is so confident of the support of the United States that its arrogance knows no bounds. It is the school bully bludgeoning a first-grader about the head with a cricket bat for having the temerity to trip him or her in the corridor.

Both sides derive emotional sustenance from ritualised roles. The Palestinians have made a study of helpless victimhood; the Israelis have created an entire mythology around being the plucky David standing up to a Goliath-like alliance of hostile neighbours.

Neither side could get away with it were it not for the complicity of their friends. Hamas is supported and armed by militant Islamists, fighting a proxy war against forces that have dominated, tormented and humiliated them for centuries. Israel relies on the influence in Western nations of the immensely influential Jewish Diaspora.

However intractable this pathology might be, there may be hope. It is no coincidence that the Israeli strike against Gaza happened when it did.

Israel would have been acutely aware that it would not help its cause in the West to be blowing women and children to smithereens during the Christmas period. The carnage among innocents during this festival of familial love and reconciliation might make queasy the stomachs of some of its strongest supporters.

Israel, nevertheless, took the risk of blowing up school children because it had only a small window in which to unleash a big strike. It is skittish about whether the incoming administration of president-elect Barack Obama will continue the tradition of unflinching, unconditional support for Israel.

It is not yet clear which way Obama will go on the issue. He appears to find merit in the Palestinian cause but at the same time much of his support-base is fervently pro-Israel and he will have to tread lightly.

If he can break the template of U.S. policy in the Middle East, use both carrot and stick with the two sides, he might achieve a great foreign-policy triumph. Certainly, the self-righteous, hypocritical condemnations of only Israel, upon which many governments rely in the absence of any desire to confront the culpability of both sides, will not change an iota.

Destructive behaviour has to be dealt with even-handedly, both in the Middle East and closer to home.

It is risible of South Africa’s Foreign Ministry to threaten sanctions against Israel when it is an article of faith of the African National Congress government when dealing with Zimbabwe, that sanctions are futile and counterproductive. It is risible to condemn Ehud Olmert’s killing of civilians in Gaza but not Robert Mugabe’s killing of civilians in Zimbabwe.

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