Sunday, 3 August 2014

Empathy: a solution to the "Palestine/Israel problem"?

I don't pretend to have the solution to the Palestinian "problem", or indeed any other long running disputes in the world.  But I agreed with Ed Husain, who wrote recently in the Times that none of us can afford to turn our backs or hide our heads in the sand.  I did not agree with him that the United Kingdom has an obligation due to our earlier involvement in earlier times, because too many problems are caused by looking backwards and referring to history.  The UK should help if it has the competence to help, otherwise not.

But the reason for this blog is that it seems to me that peace will only come about when Israelis and Palestinians are able to look with some sympathy on the plight of the other.  Each side has developed its own version of history, with itself as the oppressed and the other as the oppressor.  Each is justified with its own coherent story which is reinforced over time, and the gap between them becomes an abyss.  Steven Pinker in his extraordinary book "The better Angels of our Nature" described this as "The Moralisation Gap".  To resolve problems like that in the Middle East you have to find a way to close the gap.  There is a lot more to this than the lack of empathy implied in the blog title, but Pinker provides the detail so I shan't.  But the bottom line is that peace is not possible so long as each side thinks:
a) it is the oppressed, the other is the oppressor (this may be true, but equally be a political construct created by politicians to keep their population behind them, even to the extent of provoking the other side to get a  response, so that they can say "I told you so");  
b) if you hit the other guy enough, eventually he (or she) will give in.  This is politics of the playground and surely there is enough evidence now that is is not going to work.  

Contrary to some, the United States cannot police the"free world", or it would not be free, but it has the luxury, through wealth and a certain amount of respect, to be able to stand to certain principles; democracy, truth, individual freedom, etc.  Of course it mainly acts in its own interest; the objective of all foreign policy is almost always self-interest, but this should not be incompatible with the broader principles that are shared in the "free world".  However its strategy not only for the Middle East but also elsewhere (as with the Soviet Union and now Russia for example and the Ukrainian crisis) invariably seems to be to weigh in on one side or the other.  This is notwithstanding the routine appointment of big-hitting politicians/diplomats as regional "peace negotiators".  Alternatively, they adopt an isolationist position and turn the other way, to let people "solve their own problems".  The cynic may argue that the only driver for foreign policy is national self-interest (or, in a democracy, political survival come the next election), and in the Middle East oil supply and the pro-Israeli vote at home, seem to be key interests.  But neither of these approaches addresses the gap in historical narratives, or closure of the abyss that exists between warring parties, and the longer this situation prevails, the firmer, and more extreme, those positions become.  

The UK, unlike the USA, despite often being seen as in the pocket of the "Great Satan" and despite its colonial past, seems to be respected and trusted.  We are generally principled, law abiding, honest, and have some humility (well with our history, a great power brought low, we better be humble).   This puts us in a strong position to be the honest broker.  The process may be slow and may take a generation, but it is surely better than allowing sores to fester (In the case of the Middle East today that does not mean I think Tony Blair is the man for the job though. Surely he carries far too much baggage).

But what of a solution for Palestine?  The politics of Hamas are truly obnoxious as regards Israel; it cannot seriously believe that a permanent peace is possible until it recognises the right of Israel to live in peace.  On the other hand we have seen the dark side of some Israelis too these past few weeks; not just totally disproportionate responses by the military and government, but some right wing politicians effectively calling for the elimination of Palestinians altogether!  Perhaps the West should start by being a little more even handed between these two extreme positions and stop rewarding the leaders on both sides for bad behaviour, starting with the money.

In the last 20 years or so, huge amounts of aid have been pumped into the Middle East.  The Palestinian Authorities have received USD 500 million money (give or take) per annum from a range of national and international organisations, but most recently from the USA and EU, mainly for social infrastructure and bureaucracy.  On the other hand over the same period Israel has received between USD2 and USD3 billion per annum, of which 2/3 is military aid.

Someone tweeted recently (sorry but I have not got the link) that if Hamas disarmed it would never get what it wants, but if Israel disarmed it would be annihilated, or words to that effect.  This is a good reason to support Israel's self-defence, but favouring one side is not the way to bring people together.  And money counts because if people have a house to live in, can earn a living, send their children to school and benefit from reasonable health, why would they want to fight?  But if they live in poverty, with no hope and fear for their lives,then why should they not fight, especially if their narrative tells them they are the oppressed.

So perhaps the USA could encourage this by more even handed use of its huge financial resources.  And perhaps the UK can play a part in helping both sides to see the world from the other's perspective a little more; if they don't see that they are all human, then peace is impossible.

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