The Attraction of Opposites

My Israeli guru, Uri Avnery, recently pointed out the symbiotic relationship between the settlers in Gaza and the more extreme Palestinian terrorists.

The Palestinian extremists constitute an important faction within Hamas and dominate the more extremist Islamic Jihad. These fanatics never recognized Oslo, and still don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. They know that most Palestinians are sick to death of the struggle and want only a chance to live in peace, under a regime that gives them a chance to rebuild their shattered lives. They know that if Abbas succeeds, they fail. So they keep lobbing shells into Israeli settlements in Gaza, knowing that the Israelis will respond in kind, keeping the flames of conflict alive. Their strategy is to plant an unending series of mines along the road to peace. It has worked so far, and they can see no reason to think it will fail them now.

The settlers in Gaza, at least the ones making all the fuss these days, are cut from the same cloth as the Islamic Jihad. The labels are different but they are equally fanatic, equally opposed to compromise. They too know that if Abbas succeeds, they fail. They probably know that they will soon be turfed out of Gaza, but they also know that the name of the game is now the much larger settlements in the West Bank. They will continue to disturb the peace as much as they possibly can while they leave Gaza, the better to ensure that the settlements in the West Bank will endure, and even expand and flourish. So, as Avnery suggests, they probably welcome the occasional mortar round that lands in their midst, in that it keeps the pot boiling and justifies their hanging on as tenaciously as they can.

Sharon, as usual, is skillfully playing a double game. He cannot outright oppose the President of the USA but he can probably outflank and outlast him. Gaza is not, in his view, a step forward on the road to peace. It is a tactical withdrawal to manage the US pressure in less than vital ways. His strategic goal remains that of absorbing as much as possible of the West Bank into Israel, with the remaining bits and pieces, and most of the Palestinians, going to Jordan. Like the extremists on both sides he knows that if Abbas succeeds, he fails. He uses the bruhaha raised by the Gaza settlers to cover his continuing full speed ahead with the wall and related absorption policies in the West Bank. He exploits the alleged, highly inflated costs of resettling the settlers to get Americans thinking of the possible bill they will be footing if the much larger numbers of West Bank settlers have to leave. And he responds with righteous wrath, and disproportionate force, every time an Islamic Jihadist lobs a mortar shell onto his people. The net result is to make Abbas’s task, already difficult, virtually impossible.

I believe that if an honest poll could be taken there would be solid majority support on both sides for a peaceful settlement along the lines of the Oslo formula. But neither majority is solid, in the sense of being animated by the fire and discipline that drives the radical fringes. It is divided and incoherent, preoccupied with other issues, and confused by the spin coming from the radicals. In this sense it is not unlike our own domestic situation.

In my lifetime, I have seen a radical group of fundamentalist Christians, who always existed at the outer edge of the mainstream Christian community, greatly expand their power and influence, to the point they now have a key role in choosing our national leadership. They got their start by exploiting widespread popular distress at the libertarian, agnostic, irreverent behavior displayed by a transient pop culture, that of the so-called hippies. Hippie culture had its day, and the pendulum swung back, but by that time the bluenoses had tasted power and there was no stopping them. Look at the fuss they made over President Clinton’s minor ethical lapse! And then 9/11 came along and saved the day for them. They were a radical movement desperately seeking the oxygen of another radical movement to oppose, and they found it in Usama bin Laden and the so-called terrorist movement. I need hardly describe the excesses that followed, including the misbegotten war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, and the national disgrace of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

To sum up, the settlers in the West bank and Gaza, and their Machiavellian leader Sharon, have developed a symbiotic relation with Palestinian terrorists. In a similar but even more disturbing way the same thing has developed between the fundamentalist Christian right, led by George Bush, and al-Qaeda. In each case the sensible center needs to bestir itself and take charge. But how?

Carl Coon 7/17/05

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