Whether you look at this summer’s 50-day war against Hamas as a win or a loss, I think there is little doubt that it revealed several unpleasant facets and consequences of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. Just to name a few: anti-semitism roared back onto the global scene unapologetically as if it had never gone out of fashion; the United Nations reinforced the evermore pervasive reality that its sub-organizations can be manipulated by specific people with specific agendas; the United States demonstrated that its support for Israel is absolute and unequivocal…except for when it’s not; the full spectrum of Israeli life was disrupted and what was once a border issue has now become a country-wide issue; and, Israel found its standing in the arena of public perception degraded and undermined by the increased perception that it is the aggressor and not the defender.
While each of these points deserves investigation and analysis in its own right, the conclusion they all point to is even more worthy of focus: in this war of attrition with Hamas and various other Palestinian factions, Israel will suffer significant losses regardless of whether it is crowned the victor of any given battle. While I know that those more hawkish than me may pound their chests in the face of this reality and yell out ‘Let them come!’, I prefer a different response. I would rather spend my time and energy trying to understand why a lasting peace agreement has been so elusive and moreover, trying to determine how those problematic dynamics can be addressed.
There are a multitude of reasons why peace has not yet occurred between Israel and the Palestinians. You can simultaneously point to borders, resources, refugees and a host of other matters and be correct that they all contribute to an unresolved equation. At the same time, these are not insurmountable issues. Several US administrations have restarted the peace process over the past 20 years along condensed timelines, generally boasting that peace talks could be “completed within one year” to bring a lasting, final and comprehensive agreement. This is because if you put willing decision-makers into a room surrounding a map, they will likely find a resolution. That resolution will inevitably follow the long established model for a partition that would be reasonable and viable to all those but the most right wing on either side. In fact, previous Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert both made proposals to Arafat and Abbas, respectively, which were very close to that final solution and both proposals ultimately went nowhere. So why isn’t there peace? It literally boggles the mind of the Western thinker. Well, to understand it, maybe the key is to stop being so Western and start understanding the particular dynamics of the Middle East.
Tablet Magazine came out with an article over the summer that highlighted the often overlooked role that honor plays in the Arab psyche (if you have not yet seen this article, I strongly encourage you to read it before proceeding further). The article highlights the extent to which the founding of the State of Israel sullied the honor of the Arabs more than anything in recent history, even moreso than the subjugation they suffered in the early 20th century at the hands of the British and French. At least the British and the French were great military powers with overwhelming global presence. But who were the Jews? And how did this tiny nation set up shop in what the Arabs perceived to be their backyard?
In our discussion, it is the absence of that honor (i.e. shame) that is most relevant. Arab shame is an extremely potent motivator for reckless behavior that the Western world cannot fathom nor process. The preservation of Arab honor and the avoidance of shame is of primary importance in the Arab world, contrary to the western world’s absolute priority: the preservation of human life. In the Arab world, taking a life for the preservation of honor is an exchange that makes complete sense. This is the reason that honor killings, the stupefying custom of a family murdering one of its members for having brought shame upon it, is accepted and continues to be implemented even in modern times. This is the reason that Palestinian mothers callously encourage their children to become martyrs and then express their pride upon their deaths.
The Arab psyche views the establishment and perpetuation of the State of Israel under the banner of the indescribable shame of the Nakba (literally, the ‘Catastrophe’). That humiliation was only amplified further after 1948 with every loss that the Arab nations suffered in their attempts to destroy Israel militarily. When you consider that no life is too valuable to avenge that shame, then the elusive nature of the peace process begins to come into focus on different grounds: one of the primary reasons that peace doesn’t exist is because it doesn’t resolve the shame of the Arab world. Quite to the contrary, it permanently solidifies that shame by acknowledging that the Arabs have capitulated to the Jews, a perceived inferior people who for centuries accepted 2nd class stature throughout the Arab world. That is a reality no Arab leader can stomach and from which every Arab leader seeks to distance themselves.
Even those Arab countries that have forged some form of a peace agreement with Israel (i.e. Egypt and Jordan) regularly lambast Israel publicly to maintain their pride. Even though Syria and Israel have not been engaged in any direct conflict for 40 years, a peace agreement cannot exist between them because peace is equivalent to an Arab loss. Most recently, just weeks ago when the final ceasefire took hold in Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri proudly exclaimed that Hamas had done what “no other Arab army [had] done. [They] had defeated” Israel. In contrast to the losses and resulting humiliation that every Arab army has faced since 1948, Hamas sought to optimistically depict themselves as winners who had had beaten Israel and reclaimed Arab honor. And it worked! Even though Gaza suffered tremendous physical destruction, rampant executions of suspected collaborators and extensive civilian deaths from rocket launchers being located in their backyards, they now support Hamas and its armed resistance against Israel far more than they did before the Hamas ‘victory’.
The concept of the honor/shame dynamic is well known in Israel and in my opinion, is a large component of the hesitation to forge a peace agreement. From the Israeli perspective, no peace deal can be trusted because organizations like Hamas would use the calm of peace as a springboard to bring an end to the Jewish State and vanquish their shame once and for all. However the borders may look and wherever the capital of each country may be, no peace agreement will eliminate Arab shame because Israel would continue to exist. So, no peace agreement would be viable.
Until a process is determined to deal with that shame, peace will continue to elude Israel and while it may remain the superior power in the region, its losses will continue to mount.