Israelis and Palestinians Confront the Leviathan

 If you will allow me to wax a little philosophical and academic, I’d like to compare the current negotiation impasse between Israelis and Palestinians to the existential question posed by Hobbes in the Leviathan. In other words, is this difficult and intractable conflict destined to end up a Hobbesian nightmare of all against all? Is Hobbes correct that human beings can just never abandon their self-interest and their will to power? Is life destined to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, as Hobbes declares? Is it inevitable that coercive power is the only way to keep individuals in check?

 If so, then negotiations and deliberations are naïve and futile. The only thing we have to look forward to is more of what happened in the settlement of Itamar last week were children were literally slaughtered. This image of children’s with their throats slit forms, for me, a collage that includes images of thousands lynching two soldiers, of the Park Hotel massacre, and rockets firing on innocent citizens from Gaza. All of this goes on against a backdrop of ethnopolitical hate that is either primal and hence untouchable, or socially constructed and potentially manageable. If this conflict is primordial and the inescapable result of ancient hatreds that cannot be placated, that cannot be reframed, that cannot be forgotten, then even Hobbes will turn his head away in shame. But this is how conflicts such as these are communicative and symbolic. They are not outside the influences of human interaction – they are not inevitable. Such conflicts are stimulated by words, meanings, and interpretations. Again, it establishes the lie in the children’s rhyme about how “sticks and stones can break your bones but names will never hurt you.”

 But Dore Gold writing in Isranet explains how the accomplished diplomat Richard Holbrook began to understand that the Bosnian conflict was stoked and inflamed and deliberately stimulated; it was not an ancient hatred that was too deep to be controlled. Incitement by ethnopolitical entrepreneurs who have a stake in the conflict is a bigger problem than the general public thinks. Most of the time when you read that the Palestinians are encouraging their own citizens to fight Israel it is termed “incitement.” But when the Israelis described the situation to their own population is termed “education.” This is a perfect example of the incommensurate worlds that these two conflicting populations live in. One man’s education is another man’s incitement.

 It strains the imagination to try to conjure an image of what sort of beast bubbled up out of the earthly goo to kill a family in their beds and slit the throats of three children one of which was three months old. Such a horror cannot be legitimized, but it comes from somewhere, something explains it. I understand that the IDF is often cast in the same role by the Palestinians and Fayyad and Abbas have equated the Itamar murders with IDF behavior. Yet the IDF never intentionally targets innocents. But this is the definition of the conflict: extreme behavior accompanied by mirror images of one another regardless of facts or defensible arguments. Each side sees the other as violent and itself as a victim, and every behavior and action reinforces the perceptions. It’s an endless cycle that you cannot escape; it’s the definition of interactive hell.

 It remains the case, however, that this conflict is not doomed to failure because it is so deep-seated. Difficult and messy as it is, it is possible for the Israelis and the Palestinians to manage, if not completely control, their problems. It is possible to escape Hobbesian logic.

 One interesting approach to this, and I encourage the reader to find a book titled The Deliberative Impulse  by Andrew Smith, is to not assume that people are competitive and mistrustful. Smith uses some Hobbesian assumptions to assume that people can be cooperative and drawn together or at least engage one another in a civil manner. For Hobbes people were attracted to a powerful leader so they could avoid living in fear and vulnerability. Smith suggests the same thing can lead people to cooperate and to deliberate publicly in order to solve problems. Self-interest can result in cooperation. There is certainly evolutionary theory supports such is contention.

 This sounds a little contradictory but it really is not. Smith refers to it as the “deliberative impulse.” Smith takes the unusual stance – and I will take it up again in a later post – that things like conscience, morality, and commitments to community are equally motivating. Even in fractured societies and fractured conflicts such as that between the Israelis and Palestinians there is a deliberative impulse, motivation to act morally and in accordance with conscience. True, there are many barriers to deliberation which include structural barriers as well as limitations on communication, skills, and resources. But these roadblocks can be overcome by the promotion of certain types of solidarity. I will detail these in the next post.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on March 20, 2011, in Israel. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Israelis and Palestinians Confront the Leviathan.

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