Middle East Logic

One form of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again…and expect a different result.

There are two kinds of people – or so the old joke goes – those who categorize people and those who don’t.

The truth is we human beings just naturally categorize things.  It is one of the survival mechanisms of our species.  We recognize patterns and file them away.  Hmmm, that big animal looks just like the one that ate Fred; better be careful.  Or, the last time I put my hand on that stove, it hurt; maybe I’d better not do it again.

Whatever the evolutionary origin, it is just something we do.

Which is about as good a reason as I can think of for people who like to categorize ghosts.  They collect all the ghost stories they can, dissect them, and carefully sort each spook into the right box.

Let’s see now.  There are poltergeists (noisy, generally harmless spirits), doppelgangers (your Uncle Harry drops by for a nice chat – you later find out Uncle Harry is still in Omaha), and banshees (female spirits who howl to announce an imminent death).  Then you have your demons and entities, which are quite different from elementals (spirits of earth, air, fire, etc.).  You have dumb ghosts and you have smart ones.

That last may be a bit confusing.  Turns out that the folks who categorize such things have noted that some ghosts seem to be here to interact with us (“smart”) while others seem to be completely unaware that we even exist (“dumb”).

Personally, I have always found this last group to be terribly sad.  They are condemned to repeat, night after night, some crime or horrible trauma.  Completely lacking will or awareness, forever locked in a single moment, they experience it each time as the first time.

I don’t know why that type gives me the grues.  Maybe it is the fact that these phantoms are so blindly committed to what they are doing.  There is an ultimate lack of free will in their plight.  Believing themselves to be empowered actors, doing things that will have impact and meaning, they are really impotent shadows who can affect nothing and change nothing.

Maybe, too, they remind me of real, living people I have known.

Have you ever had the dreadful experience of having to witness one of those arguments couples long overdue for their divorce sometimes have?    In the beginning, when things are just starting to go bad in a relationship, most people are careful to keep up appearances in public.  Their squabbles and misunderstandings are kept private.  Later on, when they can no longer see how they appear to others, they often give themselves free rein, convinced that the other person is revealing just what a miserable excuse for a human being he or she really is.

What is truly terrible is that the rage and pain are as real as can be…but routine.   They know which words can hurt and dredge them up with predictable drama.  You, the listener, can tell every word they say to each other has been said many times before.  Somewhere along the way they have lost the ability to change, to do or say anything different.

Watching them, I have thought that they, too, have begun to lose their reality, just like those poor ghosts.  They, too, believe they have free will, but they do not.  They have worn ruts so deep in their minds that they can no longer deviate, or even try.  The walls of the ruts have become so high that they can no longer look out and see there could be another way.

Insofar as I can judge, this is simply one of the patterns human beings display under stress.  The greater the stress, the less free we are improvise.

It seems to build like this:  Someone confronting you has the power to hurt you.  The closer they are and the better they know you, the greater the danger.  If you want to lessen the threat to your well being, then this person’s power over you must be reduced.  The easiest way for one person to decrease the power of another is to belittle and shame them.  An intimidated person is not a threat.

In an act of inverted self-preservation we find ourselves slapping at the other with every single thing that we can think of to disparage, to ridicule, and to humiliate.  They, of course, also finding themselves confronted with someone once near and dear who is trying to harm them, make the same defensive choices and respond in kind.

I say “inverted self-preservation” for two reasons.  First, because what looks and feels like rage and all-out attack is really a naked expression of fear.  Second, because the tactic we have chosen virtually precludes any effective solution that actually makes us safer.

That not too clear?  Okay, let me compare this personal disaster to the situation with the Israelis and the Palestinians.  Specifically, let’s look at the Israeli position.

The Israelis’ greatest desire is to feel secure.  For one thing, they want to be able to walk their streets free from the fear of some Palestinian lunatic blowing them up.  For another, they want to be able to exist as a nation without the continual fear of their borders being violated.

The key to all this, of course, is the Palestinians and their leader, Yasser Arafat.  The Israelis too often describe him simply as a terrorist and say all his people want to drive them into the sea.  They see Arafat and the possibility of a unified Palestinian state as inherently dangerous.  The rise of Arafat or any of the PLO institutions to positions of coherent strength is the clearest embodiment of that danger.  Hence it is the fixed policy of the Israelis to keep all the PLO institutions as weak and divided as possible.  As a part of that effort they constantly remind the Palestinians at large that they exist under the guns of the Israeli armed forces and any rights they enjoy are really privileges conditionally granted by the Israeli government.

So the Israeli government insures its security by rendering the Palestinians, their government and their leader as impotent as possible.  They spread division within the macho Palestinian society by constantly reminding everyone of how subordinate and powerless their so-called leaders really are.  The guiding rule is that the Palestinians must never grow strong enough to become a real threat to Israel’s existence as a nation.  Therefore they see themselves as being secure in direct proportion to how insecure the Palestinians feel.

Sound like one of those couples I was talking about?

Let me take the analogy further.  I said the Israelis’ greatest desire is to feel secure.  Since their most frequent attacks come from the Palestinian terrorist groups, they wave their big stick and demand that Arafat and the PLO stop the terrorists.

Arafat, having been daily humiliated and shown to be something close to powerless by the Israelis, lacks both the power and the inclination to become Israel’s agent in attacking groups of his own people.  In the long run he knows that these groups are a threat to the Palestinian state he is trying to create, but that is irrelevant in the short run.

In the short run he knows it will be fatal if he is seen as bowing down to Israeli threats.  In the short run he knows that his people are too divided to create institutions strong enough to combat the terrorist groups.  In the short run he knows that he lacks the personal power to accomplish what the Israelis demand, even if he wants to.

In other words, Arafat and the Palestinians are far too weak and humiliated to give the Israelis what they so desperately want.  And they are kept so weak and humiliated because their strength is what the Israelis are afraid of.

The result is Israel’s fear is standing squarely in the way of their own desire.  But just like those couples I talked about, they are so locked into the rut of how they have always acted towards the Palestinians that they can see no alternative.  They too have become unreal, incapable of trying anything new.  The only tactic that seems available to do more of the same, but harder.

Which clearly doesn’t work.

To solve the problem, then, the Israelis have to do two things.  First, they have to build up the Palestinians to the point where they are strong and unified enough to give the Israelis what they want, trusting in Israel’s own (overwhelming) strength and unity to keep that effort from ending in disaster.

Second, they have to make it a matter of Palestinian self-interest for Israel to be secure.  The Palestinians are clearly not going to work for Israeli security out of some sudden love for the Israelis.  But Israel is far wealthier than the Palestinians, has far more power, and has as their primary ally the most powerful nation currently on the planet.  There is a great deal that they can offer the Palestinians to make them see Israeli security as highly useful to their nascent state.

In short, to get what they want and to assuage their fears, the Israelis are going to have to start treating the Palestinians with the respect that we give normal, self-interested people we feel are necessary to our well being.

Naturally, a real solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma is not going to be as simplistic as all that.  But the variables are, I would suggest, essentially those outlined above.  It is the same basic human pattern.  Ergo, our private brawls are subject to the same dynamic:

Out of our own fear, we try to render those who appear to threaten us harmless by humiliating them into powerlessness.  But this perfectly logical syllogism, repeated again and again, somehow fails.  Each episode actually leaves us feeling less secure rather than more.  The result is a natural urge towards escalation.

My argument is that, just as with the Israelis, the only real solution involves a sort of mental jujitsu.  We have to invert things and allow the other person to be strong enough to help break the cycle.  This, of course, feels like total lunacy.    The difficulty seems to be that we somehow have to trust in the good intentions of the other.  Let me suggest that this is not the real obstacle.   The real problem is that it requires a considerable faith in our own strength and in our own ability to survive whether this innovation works or not.

Not easy.

But I think that the thing to keep in mind is that the old pattern not only doesn’t provide a solution, it actually precludes a solution.  “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.”  Of course sometimes it is hard to even remember that a solution was the original goal.


A fanatic is one who loses sight of his objective and re-doubles his effort.

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