Gallery of art and thoughts

The cartoons and contemplations of a twentysomething copy editor.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The civilization of clashes

Got back from Israel last Friday to discover that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very much in the news (see previous post). There have been quite a few op-eds on the subject of the Palestinian elections, with both Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal and Natan Sharansky expressing cautious hope. This, however, came before the violence in the Gaza Strip.

It's possible to be pessimistic about the elections. Some sources say turnout was low, although others describe it as heavy. Ironically, both of these articles use different explanations for the same result: that voting was extended for two hours. Still, the Post's story seems likelier. Israelis probably wouldn't want Palestinians voting in East Jerusalem -- which was shown the last time Palestinians voted for a leader. And there are other problematic signs. Hamas and Islamic Jihad both boycotted the election (although Hamas may have urged voters to choose Moustafa Barghouti as a means of cutting into Abbas' margin). How long can the Abbas government last? Will it be impotent, corrupt, or both?

On to more fundamental matters. Josef Joffe, writing in Foreign Policy, poses a fascinating question: How stable would the Middle East be if Israel did not exist? His answer is equally compelling: The region would remain in turmoil, and might be worse off. Joffe notes that Muslims have fought Muslims as often as they have battled Israelis -- for instance, in the cases of the Iran-Iraq war and in Saddam Hussein's repression of the Kurds. He cites other problems that cannot be explained away by blaming Israel: Sixty-five million Muslims who are illiterate, governments that deny women equal rights, a profusion of mukhabarat (secret police) states. The Palestinians would still lack a state, and the US would still be loathed.

Is this all wishful thinking? Joffe's argument largely makes sense. The region has always been troubled. The Jews of the Bible were a feisty group -- they battled to regain their land following the exodus from Egypt, and they battled to retain it. But the instability in the region did not end following their dispersal after the Bar-Kochba revolt. In later centuries, the area was a battleground between Muslims, Persians, and Byzantines; and in the age of the Crusades, Muslims fought each other as often as they did Franks and Mongols. Even when the land was ostensibly united under what was arguably the greatest Muslim empire of all, the Ottomans, disunity still created problems -- most notably during the revolt of Muhammad Ali in Egypt in the mid-19th century. Joffe may be on to something, something that could silence the yammering of European anti-Semites, Noam Chomsky, and the Socialist Worker. Then again, nothing could silence that troika.


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