Of Pride, Paranoia and Peace (Ideas #37)

Now that the war in Iraq is behind us, we can stand back and gain some insights about the nature of the conflict here in the Middle East.

As the standoff between Saddam and Bush was building up, I kept on wondering about Saddam's calculations. Up until only a few months ago, he could have easily saved his regime by complying with arms inspectors and/or destroying whatever controversial weapons he was holding. Doing so threatened neither his person nor his nation's security. He was not asked to step down (until the very brink of the war) and was not told to cede territory. No one even questioned his tyrannical practices. Like many other tyrants the world over, he was allowed to do almost whatever he wanted, as long as he didn't threaten other nations. As for the alternative to compliance with American demands, Saddam probably realized that his chances of winning a war against the US were about as great as his winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

If I was correct in the cost/benefit analysis presented here, I continued to wonder, why did Saddam not decide to do the overwhelmingly rational thing? I had similar thoughts not too long ago about Yasser Arafat's handling of the peace process. Why is it that Arab leaders flaunt clear self-interest, as if doing so were a way to prove one's true worth?

While I'm not an expert on Arab culture, it does appear that Arabs have an extreme aversion to admitting defeat on any scale. To be forced to present oneself to the world as a man or a nation who has acquiesced is simply not an option. Granted, all nations have such issues, but none behave in such an unpragmatic way, wherein not giving in seems to become the central value. And so Saddam would rather lose everything than show himself to have caved in to the only superpower in the world. And Arafat is also willing to lose everything rather than admit the need for more far-reaching compromise with a militarily strong Israel. For Arafat and the Palestinians, giving up on the right of Palestinians to return back to homes lost to Israel in 1947 and 1948 means admitting that they were clearly defeated in the very first Arab-Israeli war. Apparently this is a true challenge to the Arab nation.

It appears that Henry Kissinger understood the Arab psyche better than most. He understood that the Arabs would have to regain their sense of national pride before they could properly negotiate with Israel. He foresaw the need for an Arab "victory" in the Yom Kippur War, in order to bring the Arabs to the negotiating table. Even as Kissinger tried hard to bring about a limited Arab victory for the benefit of all, Arik Sharon, some brave Israeli tankists (and of course, G-d) had something else in mind. In the end, the Arab armies were routed, with Israeli forces hours away from entering Cairo and Damascus. Kissinger, however, was able to make "something from nothing." The Egyptian army, although totally surrounded and a sitting duck, was still physically on our side of the Canal. As such, an Arab victory could be proclaimed and the Egyptians could now think rationally, opening the way for a peace treaty with Israel four years later.(1)

While the Arabs have their cultural peculiarities, it would be incorrect to believe that we Jews are not without our own. The recent conflict in Iraq also revealed some of our own shortcomings. Shortly before the American strikes into Iraq, we Israelis were sent to secure our sealed rooms, prepare our gas masks and the like. This cost the Israeli economy millions of dollars, not to mention the opportunity for Jerusalemites to sleep off the Purim festivities (instructions to prepare gas masks were given the night immediately following Shushan Purim). While you can say that hindsight is 20/20, I wonder about my own government's calculations. Why did the Israeli government so readily expend so much effort and money on a civil defense program, based on the atmittedly slim chance of any significant attack coming against Israel?

Here I turn to what I overheard from a couple of bus drivers in the holy city. One asked the other why the fight against traffic accidents is not taken as seriously as the fight against terror. His thinking went something like this: Compare the number of traffic fatalities here with the number of terror-related deaths and then compare the amount of material and human resources devoted to these two problems -- while there have been very few weeks with more terror casualties than traffic fatalities, there is not even a fraction of the resources allocated to fighting terror devoted to redressing the issue of traffic deaths. One will be hard put to explain the discrepancy. (It is certainly not out of lack of possiblities. Only one example of a high-price solution to road carnage would involve radically restructuring permissable use of private vehicles and filling the vacuum with more and better public transportation) While all sorts of justifications might be proffered, pointing to the importance of national security and morale, they will ultimately fall short of completely accounting for this phenomenon.

Perhaps more enlightening is the response of an Israeli policeman recently questioned for his unusually aggressive response to Israeli Arab rioters at the beginning of the current intifida. He told his questioners that he saw Israel's very existence threatened and that he was thus involved in a fight for life or death. While we may identify emotionally with such a statement, we must realize that these riots were no more threatening to national survival than those experienced in Los Angeles only a few years back. Scary, disturbing, but not a threat to our existence.

As a student of Jewish History, I find it hard to remember any period in history when we Jews have been as secure on a national level as we are now. Yet, the threat to our survival -- both spiritual and physical -- is a theme we hear over and over again. Not only do we hear it, we Jews feel it as well.

There is no question that the repeated persecutions have made us see everyone else as a potential enemy. Having being threatened with complete extinction just sixty years ago, Jewish paranoia is understandable. It may even have been justified at the onset of the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. Generally, however, as in the case of the Arab riots, it is a skewed perception of reality.

When the irrational pride of the Arab world is matched by our own sense of paranoia, it makes diplomatic arrangements tricky indeed. Simply put, the Arab side cannot see itself as giving in on any point, whereas the Jews must force the Arabs into concessions that will allow us to assuage our sense of imminent mortal danger. I believe this is a major reason why Barak failed with Arafat. Both leaders went as far as their national psyches would allow. What was touted as the end of the road did not bring an agreement. That being the case, I am not optimistic that Sharon and abu Mazen will do any better. More than facts on the ground, the emotional starting points for what each side needs to gain from a peace agreement are contradictory.

I am not sure if there is a way out of this impasse. I doubt that the answer is simply for us to put down our sense of paranoia. While skewed, it does balance our propensity for empathy (as per Yevamot 79a), which often pushes us away from pursuing our national interest in the ruthless contemporary world of Realpolitik.

One direction is to take a more theological view of the conflict. A cab driver pointed out to me that he thinks of the Arab leaders in the same way that he thinks of Pharaoh. Just like G-d hardened Pharaoh's heart, so too He has manipulated the Arab leaders. In the opinion of this cabby, G-d wanted to expand the borders of Israel, so he made Arab leaders provoke wars against their own interests, which allowed Israel to conquer more land in 1948 and again in 1967. So too, he told me, G-d does not allow the Palestinians (and Syria) to understand what is in their best interest, so that Israel will not have to cede the land that it has offered to them. While I am not sure if this is what G-d has in mind, it is important to see G-d's hand in contemporary Jewish history. The first step toward peace may well be asking ourselves what does G-d want.

One thing that does seem clear to me is that G-d has made peace through human efforts almost unattainable in our region. While we are obligated to use human efforts to insure our greatest level of national security, there are no easy options. We have to realize that if Oslo has been a failure, so were the pre-Oslo policies of occupation. That being the case, there may be nothing that we can do politically or militarily to bring about lasting peace and security, even as we are obligated to try. Those of us who believe that G-d is involved with the national destiny of the Jewish people need to consider the obvious: Can religious Jews honestly expect G-d to grant us our land, peace, and prosperity given our lackluster behavior. Do we really expect quasi-messianic times to be given on a silver platter? It is a wonder that we have it as good as we do!

During this time of year, it is incumbent upon us to realize that the destruction of Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago was not brought about by political mistakes. It was brought on by ethical and religious errors. Ultimately, lasting peace and security will not be ours until G-d wants us to have it. Thus, if we can just expend the same amount of energy and passion on our religious lives as we do on our political lives, we might be in much better shape, *politically* as well as religiously.


(1) see Conner Cruise O'Brian "The Siege"