Israeli soldiers walked on a road near the Lebanese border Friday. Four days into a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, there was still no firm date for a deployment of an enhanced international force.
Fire at the well head
The rift between Israel and Palestine is one of survival and culture, not politics
THE PROBLEM in the Middle East is not the lack of gun- barrel democracy. The problem is that Arabs and Israelis are locked in a thousands-of-years continuum of dispute over land. That dispute poisons relations between Muslims and non-Muslims around the globe. Through religion and its manifestation in culture, the symbiotic relationship between peoples and their land defines basic identities that are more powerful than the desire for life itself. The Bush administration has neither a sense of the origin of this dispute nor its strength of motivation or endurance. It has no counterpart in America and the West.
About the author:
Dr. Llewellyn D. Howell is director and senior research fellow at the Asia Pacific Research Institute, College of Business Administration, University of Hawaii at Manoa, and International Affairs Editor for USA Today Magazine.
The United States needs to be central in an Israeli-Palestine solution, not just a backer of Israel's effort to douse the fire with kerosene. There is no other problem that requires such a U.S. contribution, including Iraq.
The Israeli-Palestinian fight is about the fundamentals of the international system and has repercussions for every state in the global political structure. The concept of the sovereign state, with permanent borders, that was imposed on the rest of the world during the European colonial era, is of relatively recent origin even for Europeans. In ancient history, the nation was a people with a common identity, a visual one. In a nation, everyone looked alike, they could identify each other and knew who was an outsider.
The idea that there was a "nation-state" with permanent borders was only introduced outside the Christian world as colonial powers sought to expand their own borders in the 15th century. Efforts by Germany and Japan to remake the colonial borders during World War II were rebuffed and the United Nations was formed by the winning side in the war, in part to firmly establish the Western concept of the state.
The concept of the state as we hear it being professed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in recent months is a function not only of modern Judeo-Christian thinking but specifically of Protestant thinking in the post-Reformation era. The concept of governance as defined by the Roman Catholic Church a millennium ago bears significant resemblance to that of Islam today, especially Shia Islam -- unitary, hierarchical, patriarchal, authoritarian. And it is not manifestly different from the Chinese notion of the state, as symbolized in the character for "king," which positions the king as the only intermediary between heaven and the people on earth.
Indeed, even in Western Europe we see the pre-Reformation nation-state still as vestiges in the merger of roles of king or queen as heads of both church and state. England and the Anglican Church are but one example. As a state founded as a function of escape from religious hierarchy, America is particularly vulnerable in seeing others through the prisms of our own eyes. As a multicultural state, the United States expects to see in all others conformity to its own vision of governance and the land and peoples that are governed. But seldom is it so.
IN THE Middle East, Africa and Asia, culture still defines the nation, not politics, not geographical surveys, not military conquest. Religious belief dictates the spiritual relationship between land and people, not international law or an army's reach. What works for Texas doesn't necessarily work for Muslims in Palestine or Jews in Israel.
Secretary Rice makes frequent reference to Hezbollah as a "non-state actor." That's a correct characterization. But the International Relations literature of the last 40 years is full of studies on non-state actors and their pervasive role in international politics. They have been critical players in regional politics from the Middle East to Colombia to the Congo, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. We can't make them go away.
BEFORE addressing any solution to the continuing crises in the Middle East, we have to recognize some simple facts.
» First, religion and culture set human identity, not politics.
» Second, religion is inherent in land, whether reflected in belief in spirits in the trees or in the bodily magnetism of sources of water or in the earthen cradling of the dead.
» Third, both Arab Muslims and Jews are of one culture. They both rightfully claim the same land.
» Fourth, the land claims for Israel/Palestine long predate the Western state system. The state system cannot be superimposed without cultural change.
» Fifth, this has nothing to do with "democracy." Democracy is a cultural matter, not a political one. It involves religious beliefs about the relationship of the individual and the state that can't be altered in adults except over multiple generations.
» Last, there isn't any negotiable or diplomatic solution. You can't negotiate adherence to cultural beliefs for either the Israelis or the Arabs.
THE Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the core of most of the world's conflict today. It is a simplifying human proclivity to divide into sides, in-group and out-group, friend or enemy. At the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, the world redivided around the issue of Palestine. Concerns about possible Iranian nuclear weapons, about sources of energy and about the rapidly expanding power of small cells of terrorists all hinge on the invidious infection that is Palestine. With well more than a billion and a half Muslims, the vast majority of whom support the Palestinian cause, there is no more urgent issue facing the global community.
This is not a question of anyone's national sovereignty. This is a systemic problem of human survival and it needs to be addressed systemically.
SO, WHAT is to be done? We need to be prepared to take the bitter pill. Or, actually, four bitter pills.
» One, Palestine needs to be established as a formal state in Gaza and the West Bank, and it would be policed by an international police force.
» Two, there needs to be an internationally controlled border between Israel and Palestine and their Arab neighbors. That border needs to be enforced by capable troops who are willing to face both ways to keep the two sides apart. The border would be the 1967 border. The force would have to occupy the Golan Heights to protect Israel. Hezbollah and Hamas will have to sacrifice with the presence of the international force. Israel would have to give up all West Bank settlements, huge sores in the prospect of an independent Palestinian state that are unnecessary for the defense of Israel.
» Three, the multicultural city of Jerusalem needs to be internationalized and policed so that Jews, Muslims, Christians and secularists can all operate there effectively and practice their religions. The notion that every piece of land has to be controlled by a sovereign state is outdated. Israel will have to sacrifice current control and the Palestinians and Arabs will have to surrender their hopes of control.
» Four, a unified and integrated economy for Israel and Palestine needs to be created and managed by an international commission. Water sources, land use, capitalization and labor are already all shared. That sharing has to be systematized with nonpartisan guidance. The United Nations has the capability, if it has the will.
AS I'VE suggested before, the U.N. headquarters needs to be moved to Jerusalem. For the future that involves global dependence on oil, Jerusalem is the center of the world. New York is a setting that is reflective of post-World War II power distributions and a set of global problems now a century behind us. As time and technology progress exponentially, U.N. representatives have to be forced to stop fiddling. The world, not just Rome, is burning at the well head.
It will take foresight and courage on the part of the United States and the United Nations to implement these steps. If they aren't taken, then we are doomed to keep repeating history. And human history is already very bloody. With nuclear weapons that we know Israel and maybe Iran possess, it has the potential to be even bloodier.