Pakistan and Iran, a War on Two Fronts

The lackluster and mildly bizarre performance of President Bush in this, the last of his 47 presidential press conferences, puts the muted period to a failed presidency that began with constitutional fireworks and cultural exclamation-points. It was a strange show. His attempts to be gracious with the press fell flat, his professions of commitment to the ideals of liberty and free speech were scarcely plausible, his self-deprecating attempts at humor elicited not so much as a smile.

It was his simplistic assessment of the current situation in Gaza that was most striking, however, and worrisome. The situation is simple for Bush; it always has been. Israel’s battle is America’s battle, and vice versa. It is framed as a battle of Israeli democracy against the anti-democratic forces surrounding her, and it is thus another front in the War on Terror that has always had a theological echo in this president’s biblicist mind.

There can be no peace so long as Hamas is lobbing rockets into Israel, the President concluded. That is very true (though not absolutely so). The statement needs a supplement. There can be no peace so long as many things continue to be permitted—like the flow of illegal weapons into Gaza, like the building of illegal settlements in the West Bank, like a de facto Israeli blockade of the Gaza strip, etcetera. There are no heroes in this conflict, and that is what this president’s simplistic and one-sided reasoning always failed to comprehend. Why did he not do more? Because someone is always lobbing a rocket or detonating a bomb, and this invalidates any and every gesture toward peace, in his simple view.

Barack Obama famously noted that a president rarely has the luxury of dealing with one crisis at a time. The standard litany of current crises is well known: the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression; two wars with staggering expense accounts; ongoing security concerns, etcetera. And well before being sworn in, the troubles of the President-elect have multiplied: Bill Richardson’s withdrawal of his nomination to a Cabinet post; controversy over seating certain Senators; debates about the economic stimulus package he proposes; debates about the appropriateness of inviting Rick Warren to the presidential podium.

Now two new battles are brewing, and we did not directly anticipate either one. But we need to find a way to think them together. Pakistani troops are massing on the Indian border, and Israel has mounted a punishing ground assault on Gaza. In fact, the Israelis have just brought up their reserves, indicating that they intend to be at this for some time.

There is something almost surreal, and supremely depressing, in hearing poignant phrases uttered for the hundredth time. The faces of the politicians change; the well-meaning professions of care do not. So we are told that they will apply themselves with new urgency to the Mid-east peace process. And yet the US president, when asked today why his attempts to move that process along never made any headway, noted rather lamely that “they’ve been fighting there for a long time.” It was clear from his subsequent remarks that he was thinking at least as much about biblical history as about the post-1948 era.

And yet 1948 provides one interpretive key to the whole mess.

Israel, India and Pakistan are all three creatures of the post-colonial break-up of the British Empire at the end of World War 2. And India provides a cautionary tale for Israel today. The terrifying moral they provide is that “two-state solutions” do not work, if we imagine working as the creation of stable borders and relatively peaceable neighbors.

When it was clear in 1946-7 that the British would leave the Indian subcontinent, then the great post-colonial question emerged: how many countries should be created out of what were previously vast colonial holdings? Gandhi, it may be recalled, was state solution (and he was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist, not an Islamist). Gandhi envisioned a thriving multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy, one that laid claim to its proud history of productive Hindu-Muslim coexistence. His Islamic counterpart, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, disagreed, insisting that the Muslim minority on the subcontinent needed a country of its own. Hence the emergence of the two-state India-Pakistan solution.

Yet Pakistan was an almost surreal construction from the beginning. It was a bizarre non-contiguous territory: East and West Pakistan, separated by over one thousand miles of India. Unsurprisingly, the two halves of Pakistan fell to bickering, then fell apart, their quarrels supported by an Indian regime that was interested in maintaining a weak neighbor to its north, and the predictable civil war that began in 1971 resulted in the creation of an independent Bagladesh. Since then, India and (West) Pakistan have fought two major wars of territorial dispute (primarily over the status of Kashmir), one minor war, and have skirmished almost constantly.

The moral of this strange tale is two-fold. First, the arbitrary construction of a country composed of two non-contiguous parts is doomed from the start. The second lesson is even more troubling: “Two-state solutions” do not work. Built into the model at its inception is the premise that these potentially hostile groups cannot co-exist peacefully. What is taken off the table at the start is the possibility of peaceful coexistence and the creation of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, genuinely cosmopolitan society. If you assume at the start that you need two separate countries because the relative populations cannot coexist, then you should not be surprised if these two countries fight periodic wars from then on. Conflict, after all, was the very premise that named the problem for which two states allegedly provided a solution.

We have the makings of this same situation in Israel today. The nominal Palestinian “state” is an even more bizarre non-contiguous territory constituted by the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Since Hamas’s victory in the most recent elections (they won a plurality rather than a strict majority, but that is beside the current crisis), we have been moving toward an Israeli-sponsored civil war between the two parts of this quasi-Palestinian state (the two Palestinian parties involved, Fatah versus Hamas, have come to symbolize the conflict, and the stakes). Israel has invested heavily in assuring that this quasi-state cannot succeed. Traffic between the two halves of the quasi-country is well-nigh impossible, exacerbated now by the construction of the West Bank wall. New Israeli settlements in the not-so-sovereign West Bank are deliberate and constant provocations that further de-legitimate this quasi-state. The de facto blockade of Gaza makes the economic viability of the state suspect as well. And to be sure, the neighboring Arab countries have not done much to help either the situation or their Palestinian comrades. The parties on all sides of this conflict that do not want peace have found it very easy to play the current system to maintain a constant state of low-level violence that periodically breaks out into hotter moments, like the one we saw in south Lebanon, and the one we see now in Gaza.

Thus a proposed two-state solution results, in the best case, in the creation of three states, not two, as well as a state of constant conflict and continual alert. And the dirty little secret is that the truces, so often declared and so often violated, are never ironclad and never honored to the letter. The strange reality is that a truce almost always tolerates a certain low level of violence, violence that is voluntarily overlooked by both sides in the interest of accomplishing greater goals. Some peripheral attacks are overlooked. A stray rocket is not blamed on the government. Illegal new settlements are not blamed on the government, either, but assof foreign agitators (most of them from Brooklyn).

And on it goes, as casualties rise and anger festers. Why has there been no progress on the peace front? My increasingly desperate worry is that the initial conditions were set in such a way as virtually to guarantee continual conflict, a constant state of alert, mutual mistrust and antipathy, periodic escalations and explosions of almost theatrical violence.

There is nothing worse than commentary on the Middle East that goes this far, and then either throws up its hands in world-weary despair, or lays the blame squarely on one side, or else suggests a surprising new approach that everyone else has overlooked. I recognize that this commentary runs the very real risk of sounding the same. This is not what I wish to communicate, though my despair is real, and heartfelt.

I recognize that there is no turning back the clock, no possibility of revisiting the question of whether a two-state proposal really was a good solution. It is literally too late to go back to the beginning and to start over, in the Indian subcontinent or in the Middle East. But one change in strategy might accomplish symbolic things, most importantly a sense that the US intends to be not merely an honest broker but actually realistic about finding a way out of the current impasse.

Every peace proposal I have ever heard agrees that the question of the status of Jerusalem must be postponed. It will be the thorniest problem to solve, and every attempt to resolve other disputes will founder on the shoals of the Jerusalem Siren-song.

What if we have this precisely backwards? If no current peace proposal can imagine a peaceable solution in Jerusalem, then of what use are they? They all simply kick the can up the road, knowing full well than any potential breakthrough will be undone as soon as we turn to the long-postponed Big Question. Why, then, not try to do the hardest thing first? Indeed, were the various competing parties ever able to agree, however unhappily, to a political solution concerning the status of Jerusalem, it would almost invariably be a solution that did not permit Jerusalem to belong to any one group, and thus it would model the alternative possibility that two-state solutions normally erase: that of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, cosmopolitan alternative.

I see no real possibility that such an adjudication is possible, certainly not now. But in the long run, this seems a more realistic goal, ironically enough, than the endless hand-wringing that comes from people of good will who wonder aimlessly “why they hate each other so.”