Political leaders and the infotainment industry that pretends to try to inform the American public loves simple narratives. Us vs them, good vs. evil, that’s the ticket to success. There’s just one small problem: the world very rarely works that way, especially in geopolitics. The conflict in the Middle East is a classic example of how hideously complex, nuanced situations are over-simplified to create emotional, divisive narratives that makes the politics more straightforward, but renders the problems themselves even more impossible to solve.
If you are “Pro-Israel”, you probably start your narrative with the most recent Hamas outrage. But if you are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, you only need to start the narrative a few days earlier, when Israeli forces and radical Zionists transgressed on the temple mount and Al Aqsa mosque (something not widely reported in the US). The process by which you decide where to start your narrative, when relevant history begins, is called periodization, and virtually controls the outcome of your analysis. But with a complex region with thousands of years of history, who started it?
Did it start Saturday with Hamas attack, the previous Thursday with the incident on the Temple Mount, Hamas winning the 2006 elections in Gaza? The Oslo accords? 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union? 1973, 1968, 1956, 1948, Fall of Ottoman Empire and League of Nations mandates? 1897 (1st Zionist Congress), the Crusades, the 70 AD diaspora after the Titus got tired of all the turmoil? 63BC and Pompey, who also got sick of all the crap? Or do you go even further back, and cite religious texts like the Torah/Old Testament to claim a right to the land? Where you draw that line and start history largely controls who you root for – so who is “teaching” you history and how they spin it are more important that the facts.
That raises an even more important aspect than history: theology and religion. This is a topic many are uncomfortable with, and will offend some but it must be raised. Religion is a key driver of the present conflict and renders it even more intractable. After all, if G-D is on your side, what is there to discuss? Religion is often blamed on the Muslim/Palestinian side, but if we are neutral and honest it is as much if not more a problem on the Israeli side. And, of course, there are more than a few fundamentalist Christians who support Israel not out of any love for the Jewish people, but out of a cynical effort to try to help bring about the end times. “What kick-starts the end times into motion is Israel’s political boundaries being reestablished to what God promised the Israelites according to the Bible,” Pastor Nate Pyle told Newsweek in 2018. Um, ok.
Leaving religion aside, the situation makes one despair even if not emotionally committed to one side or the other. Israel is in a catch-22, they feel they have to act with overwhelming force, but even they recognize that will just set the stage for the next round of violence, be it next week, month, or year. And the people of Gaza and the generations of refugees from the decades of lack of serious solution to the overall crisis are just desperate, and gravitate to destructive and violent ideologies such as those expressed by Hamas. It does seem a truly impossible situation.
So what can be done? What do you do when both sides are the victims of history, and are lashing out in response? Like most complex situations, any solutions will be unpleasant for some if not all. And it will likely require the use of force to control or suppress the crazies on all sides (and there are plenty of those to go around). It will require patience, serious multi-lateral engagement, and decades to even begin to create the groundwork for a long-term solution. I have some ideas but like Ukraine the hatred and propaganda are so intense all around to even suggest them would result in a deluge of opprobrium. So it isn’t going to happen: current systems of Governance in the West, especially the US, are totally incapable of doing anything about a crisis like the Middle East or Ukraine except exploit them for short term, cynical gain in the next election by playing to emotion with comic book level depictions. My guess that is what we will see tonight in the US President’s speech, supposedly a $100 Billion supplemental request for money for weapons for both Ukraine and Israel. That will definitely help (eyeroll).
Assuming this doesn’t spiral into a broader, longer term conflict (and it seems to be headed that way at the moment), my guess is this spasm of violence will pass, and the region will lapse back in to the neglect, low-level tension, and violence that has characterized the conflict for the last 30 years, until it explodes again.
I don’t have a lot of personal memories of the Middle East; too many TBI’s. But one thing I do remember is crossing the “green line” in Beirut and passing a pile of rubble. It was clear from the smell there was one or more bodies underneath, but it was in range of sniper fire from at least three different parties so no one had cleared it. A child’s toy and a woman’s shoe further made it clear what had happened there.
I don’t know if those victims were Christian, Muslim, or something else. And it doesn’t matter. Those responsible are damned – along with the rest of us, for ignoring the region when it’s convenient, caring only when we have to, and not doing the hard work of trying to put an end to it.