Zero Sum

Intifada Kid’s Letter From Ramallah sparked an interesting response and debate at Devil’s Kitchen. I’ve had this draft sitting around for a couple of days – updated to take in some of Katy’s comments.
Another aspect of the conflict between Israel and Palestine which annoys me, is the universal insistence on treating it as some sort of zero-sum game. It is as if there is some kind of kudos, a finite substance which travels back and forth accross the mythical and derided Green Line, which both sides try to win back from the other. Perhaps points, or “political capital” would be a better analogy. Acts of violence lose you points, while any kind of olive branch or positive manoeuvre will gain you points. At present, the Israeli Government is ‘up’ (Gaza withdrawl) but the Palestinians are ‘down’ (Hamas voted into power).
The concept of ‘political capital’ or points scoring operates widely in Westminster and Washington (indeed, anywhere with a recognisable leglislative district, I assume), but it is essentially an unjust system that bears no relation to the way the world actually operates. Indeed, just like global warming, it creates a sort of ‘positive feedback’ which actually makes a situation worse, and serves to keep the problem burning.
Consider the situation in Israel and Palestine. Ultimately, the two sides have mutually exclusive dreams on what should come to pass, in the Holy Land they reluctantly share. Since Hamas are branded terrorists, this bizarrely increases Israel’s political capital, and they will soon begin to spend it, moving towards their own vision of a shrunk-in-the-wash West Bank. They move away from reconciliation with the Palestinians, and thus the cycle continues.
And it is retaliation, vengeance, which dominates the region (An Eye For An Eye?). It is this desire, something that both sides have in common, which is the destructive force in the region. I saw the Israeli Ambassador to the UN interviewed on the BBC earlier this week, engaging in a very undignified and slightly sickening numbers game with the news presenter. “But the 4000 we killed were terrorists you know” or some such flawed logic to moralise state sponsored death.

Build bridges not walls

How much better if the conflict was not considered a zero-sum game at all. A vote for Hamas, with covenant couched in fervent fundamentalism, reflects poorly on the Palestinian populous. That should not mean that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank gains extra credence, but somehow it does. Conversely, bulldozers in townships or the death of another stone thrower reflects poorly on the Israelis… but its not an excuse for blowing up a Tel Aviv omnibus. Far better for the two sides to play for the same team – humanity – and shoot towards a common goal. “We will not deal with Hamas” will achieve simply nothing. “How may we help you?” might be a better response. “Your problems are our problems” must be a mandatory mantra.
This is frightfully idealistic, of course. Many will say that neither side has the ability or the desire to have those kinds of conversations. The Hamas covenant certainly precludes this, as do the fundamentalist conceptions of a Jewish state. I agree, and I weep, but merely point out that the political game being played is a flawed one. The exchange of political capital may continue, but the only score that rises is the number of dead bodies on the borders and buses. I am reminded of the tagline for the 2005 box-office gore-fest Alien versus Predator: “Whoever Wins, We Lose”. Humanity cannot win the game being played at present.
Changing the rules of the game must be the answer, because it is the only answer. Everyone must be transferred over to a single team, a single political group called homo sapien. Giving priority to a common humanity, rather than balancing the competing needs of two or more religions, is indeed an idealistic dream. But it is the only possible game that humanity has a chance of winning. Negotiations must begin from this position. Nothing else matters – not religion, not terrorism, not retaliation.

13 Replies to “Zero Sum”

  1. I agree entirely. My point, which may have been lost in my comments, was that people spend too much time pointing the finger when they should be working out how to move forward. As a Jew, I find that a lot of people who don’t actually know very much about the Middle East like to collar me and ask for “my view” on the conflict, by which they really mean “let me list all of the reasons why Israel is 100% to blame for the current situation and put you in the position of defending them”. Their views come straight from newspaper opinion pages and, if they’ve really exerted themselves, perhaps a glance at Wikipedia. I find myself caught between the desire not to get caught in a “Israel did this – the Palestinians did that” conversation and the instinct that if someone is factually wrong or doesn’t realise that there is another viewpoint, then they should be made aware of what the true situation or other viewpoint is.
    My viewpoint is:
    1. Israelis want peace.
    2. Palestinians want peace.
    3. Raking up the past gets no one anywhere.
    4. Let’s get on with sorting everything out.
    If the Palestinian people want peace, and it seems clear that they do, then I agree that Israel should continue to negotiate with them. I am not going to pretend that the Hamas covenant doesn’t scare the shit out of me, because it does, or that I think it doesn’t matter or that they don’t mean it, because I think it does and they do. But I accept that most of the Palestinian people don’t subscribe to all of it, or perhaps any of it. I hope that Hamas will administer a true democracy and listen to the views of the people who elected it.

  2. My impression is that it is not vengeance and retaliation that motivates the Palestinians, but simply the right to live peacefully in their own land and be left alone and not be occupied. I thought the thing was about land boundaries, and Israel seems to have been a rather shameless and aggressive boundary-pusher in that regard, albeit the name of their own security. I mean, if there are suicide bombers in the name of illegal occupation, it seems rather self-destructive, arrogant and malicious for one’s response to be *more* illegal occupation. And terrorism after all seems to be the last resort of the underdog. I suspect if we didn’t have underdogs, we wouldn’t have terrorism. Then I think of animal rights protesters and I think I might be wrong.

  3. The “zero-sum game” point is an important one I think, and its frustrating that everyone, not just the US and UK but even Muslims/Jews etc in this power play look at things that way…
    And please, do not equate us animal rights protestors with terrorists 🙂
    There are some idiots, but the vast majority of us are just veggie hippies.

  4. Oh, don’t get me started on veggie hippies 🙂 I hope you’re not wearing leather shoes…
    I was thinking of animal rights, or any “protesters” who use violence and intimidation, or indeed any form of protest on private individuals who are not breaking the law, rather than following the proper channels for their protest. Pro-life people and hunt saboteurs fall into this bag too. Bullies.

  5. Clarice, your comment is a good example of what I was talking about in mine. You yourself clearly feel that you don’t know enough about the dispute to have more than an “impression” about what Israel “seems” to have done, but you’re quite happy to conclude that it’s all Israel’s fault. I know it’s terribly old-fashioned to expect people to have properly researched opinions about sensitive political issues of global importance, but I can’t help thinking that people who demonise Israel without bothering to look for themselves (i.e. further than reading opinion pages) to see if their opinions are borne out by the facts are doing no-one any favours.
    I mean, one conclusion that people might come to that is borne out by the history is that both sides have contributed to the situation at different times over the last 100 years and it’s time that someone found a solution to it that stops people dying.

  6. Hi Katy
    Part of the reason I am cautious about having anything more than an impression is that the “facts” that I read seem to be presented very differently depending on who is presenting them, and where and when. Even the bbc has changed its tune in recent years (in favour of Israel, I might say). I am therefore not convinced that any impression I get is accurate and not a result of propaganda. I consider it only intellectually honest to be open about that.
    I do not think it old-fashioned to expect people to have properly researched opinions, but I do think it is unrealistic. Even people who do take the trouble to try (within the limits of the commitments of their daily life) are subject to biased presentations of “the facts” by the various media, and not everyone has the time, even if they have the inclination, to critique and police the output of all the various media channels on the subject. It is not so much that I lack info (although I’m sure I do), but rather that I lack faith in its accuracy, and time to check it.
    I am sorry that you feel my opinion (whatever it is based on :-)) is that “it is all Israel’s fault”. That is not my opinion at all, and that is not what I said, either. I just do not happen to think that it is all the fault of the Palestinians. I think it’s a shame (though quite understandable) that a comment which is positive towards the Palestinians is interpreted as necessarily entailing a total blame of Israel (and presumably vice versa).
    I also feel quite strongly that just because it’s not all Israel’s fault, it doesn’t mean that Israel should act with impunity in its aggression towards Palestine, despite the fact that it has been allowed to for too long. To my eyes, taking into account everything I have read from both sides, one thing I feel is that Israel looks like rather a bully (among other more positive things) To some extent, the accuracy of that part of my view (and it is only a part of my view) is not the only point here. One could take the view that one doesn’t need to engage with what people think, if it’s not based on 100% accurate and balanced info, but in that case nobody would carry out opinion polls, or worry about pr, and we wouldn’t have spin and biased media.

  7. It wasn’t just a comment that was positive towards the Palestinians. It was followed by a description of Israel as a shameless and aggressive boundary pusher, self-destructive, arrogant and malicious. I notice that you still haven’t said anything positive about Israel in your second comment, although you have said that you feel “other more positive things about it”. (That was after you said that Israel looked like a bully, presumably in a non-negative and entirely positive way.)
    If you don’t mind me saying so, I still think that you seem very keen on apportioning blame between the Israelis and the Palestinians and I still think that you consider the Israelis to be at least more to blame than Palestine. Most people who I speak to think so. Why, exactly, do you think that? What, exactly, in what you did have the time to read and hear, leads you to believe that Israel is worse than the Palestinians? And do you think that blame apportionment is what a peace process should be trying to accomplish? I am genuinely interested in your answer.

  8. It all depends on what you’re blaming them for. If its suicide bombing, then clearly the Palestinians are more to blame than the Israelis. If its building walls through people’s houses, I’m perfectly happy to lay the blame for that right at Sharon’s bedside. That’s not some armchair opinion. I’ve seen the wall and its shit. The point of my post, however, is that the wall does not lend legitimacy to the bombings, and the bombings do not lend legitimacy to the wall. Yet both sides declare these ‘false lemmas’ to be true.
    Note this is different from blaming one side or another for the problem in general. I think they’re both to blame, because of their approach to diplomacy, and because of the part religion plays in sealing off possible avenues of reconciliation.

  9. Robert, you and I continue to be in agreement. I have never said that the Israelis were blameless and I don’t think they are, not by a long shot. I think both sides have become entrenched in their respective positions to the point where they can’t see the wood for the trees and it infuriates and scares me. Everyone has to move forwards, not backwards, if we are going to find a solution, and I lose sleep wondering whether that is possible.
    Each side is to blame for different aspects of the history that led up to the situation today, as you say, and that is different from blaming one side or another for the general problem. I read Clarice’s comments – both of them – as meaning (whatever “other positive things” she may feel about Israel) that Israel was to blame for the problem in general. She is entitled to that opinion. I would just like to know where she thinks that will get anyone in terms of a lasting solution to the Middle East crisis.

  10. “Everyone has to move forwards, not backwards, if we are going to find a solution.”
    Katy – I agree entirely with the above statement. The PLO have recognized the right of Israel to exist on 78% of historic Palestine. They remain committed to negotiating a two-state solution with Israel. Their position on all the supposedly intractable final status issues (Jerusalem, refugees’ rights, etc) is available for all to read on the website of the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Dept.
    During 1993-1999, at the height of the so-called ‘Peace Process’, the population of Israeli settlers/colonists in occupied Palestinian territory nearly doubled from just under 200,000 to just under 400,000. The colonisation is continuing today. Under the cover of ‘disengagement’ in which Israel removed 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip and 500 from 4 small colonies in the north of the West Bank, the Israeli govt was accelerating its settlement construction in the West Bank – especially in and around E Jerusalem, which the PLO considers critical to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Last year alone, Israel made room for approximately 30,000 more settlers in the West Bank.
    Meanwhile, Israel has been repeating the mantra that under the presidencies of both Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, Israel has no negotiating partner. This was most striking in relation to Mr Abbas, who was elected PA President on a platform of peace and the resumption of negotiations. No, we are given to understand that because Hamas were elected to the PLC, there is no partner. (This despite the fact, as I have repeated elsewhere, Israel is obliged to negotiate with the PLO, not Hamas/the PA/the PLC on conflict resolution).
    Let’s be honest here: this is about the balance of power and the lack of international intervention in defence of Palestinian rights. Israel has no wish to negotiate with Palestinians and reach a final settlement with Palestinians at present. The Israeli government believes that, as the stronger party to the conflict, it can enforce its will on Palestinians and unilaterally determine the eventual borders of the state of Israel. The way to persuade the Israeli govt that a lasting peace can only be reached through negotiations is by applying pressure on the state of Israel to reject unilateralism, change the route of the Wall so that it is entirely in Israeli territory (80% of it is on occupied Palestinian territory) evacuate its West Bank colonies, and – most immediately – return to negotiations.
    The PLO is ready to move fowards, but it can’t reach a peace agreement unilaterally. Now it is time for Israel to move forwards by returning to the negotiating table. In this respect (at least), the state of Israel is truly more culpable for the continuation of the conflict than the Palestinians – a people who remain displaced, dispossessed, stateless and occupied.

  11. Incidentally, AP published the below article yesterday, which may be of interest. I am assuming that the article and report discount the cost of colonies/settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, since Israel attempted to annex E Jerusalem in 1980 and now considers both parts of Jerusalem the capital of the state of Israel – a move not recognized by the international community. In fact, all West Bank territory captured by Israel in 1967 – including E Jerusalem – remains occupied.
    Certainly the figure the article provides for the number of settlers in the West Bank excludes those living in occupied E Jerusalem. Today there are over 400,000 Israelis living in colonies on the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem.
    Israel Tab for West Bank Settlements $14B
    By MARK LAVIE, Associated Press Writer Fri Feb 3, 11:29 AM ET
    More than $14 billion has been spent on Israel’s West Bank settlements during the past four decades, according to a study released Friday, one of the most comprehensive attempts to assess the total expenditures for the communities.
    An exact figure for how much money has been spent on the settlements since Israel captured the West Bank in 1967 has been nearly impossible to obtain, since spending for them is spread throughout numerous areas of the budget and not identified as specific funding for the communities.
    The Israeli Research Institute for Economic and Social Affairs, an independent body, used retroactive cost estimates and aerial photography of the settlements to come up with its figure. Other studies have come up with similar figures.
    In 2003, the Haaretz daily did a study of budgets and expenditures and determined that Israel had spent $10.1 billion on the settlements up to that time.
    Neither study included military expenditures. The new report also did not take into account expenditures on education, welfare and social services.
    The main expenditures, according to the new study, were $9 billion for housing, $1.8 billion for public institutions and schools, and $1.6 billion for roads.
    A year after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war, Orthodox Jews took over a hotel in the West Bank city of Hebron, starting Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
    The creation and expansion of settlements continued unchecked until last summer, when Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip and four northern West Bank settlements, destroying 25 settlements.
    Government figures showed about 244,000 Israelis were living in West Bank settlements at the end of 2004.
    In the study released Friday by the Tel Aviv-based institute, researchers figured the cost by evaluating the value of the materials and planning, adding the cost of roads and other infrastructure, said institute director Roby Nathanson.
    He said the institute spent the first six months of the 18-month project trying to get official figures, “but then we invented another methodology when we didn’t get cooperation from any side.”
    “The value of the buildings constructed in the West Bank, in current values effective June 2005 and based on calculations of cost only, equals about $14 billion,” the study concludes.
    Nathanson said the database that resulted from the exhaustive study can be used for future planning regarding the settlements, whether it means evacuation and compensation or turning them over to the Palestinians.
    The institute is funded primarily by the German Friedrich Ebert Stiftung foundation, which also backs Jewish-Arab dialogue projects and the Mossawa Center for Civil Rights for Arabs in Israel.
    Among the findings, the report determined that the Israeli government contributes twice as much proportionally to settlement local budgets as it does to local budgets inside Israel. Also, settlers are much younger than Israelis inside pre-1967 Israel.
    The institute prepared the report in secret to avoid political pressures, spokesman Nissim Duek said. He said it would be presented to acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the coming days.

  12. Hi Katy
    I do not believe that “Israel is to blame for the problem in general”, and I’m sorry you read my words that way (though I can see how).
    I do not believe either that blame apportionment is a terribly helpful thing in taking a peace process forward, but in trying to understand, I do believe it is important to take into account the actions and motives of both sides. If Palestine feels threatened by Israel, what is the basis for that feeling? Equally, if Israel feels threatened by Palestine, what is the basis for that? I agree with Kathy’s point regarding both sides claiming to want “peace”, that wanting to feel safe is likely to be a very important motivating factor for the electorate on both sides, and understanding why people don’t feel safe is a good way to go towards changing that.
    You are right though, I do feel to some extent that Israel is somewhat more to blame than the Palestinians, and I suppose my main reason for thinking that is that Israel is, as Intifada Kid says “the stronger party” in this conflict. If both sides’ weapon of war was suicide bombers, that would be different, but the aggressive colonisation, the wall, the checkpoints, if it is all “justified” by palestinian violence looks a) disporoptionate and b) disingenuous to my outside eyes. It *appears* that Israel is not looking for a “fair” solution, but for domination of the Palestinians, whereas the Palestinians appear to be looking for an end to occupation. That’s just what it *looks* like. Perhaps my “facts” are wrong. I remain open to that possibility.

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