In the Middle East, Despair Is Not an Option

09 November 2023 13:00:00 - Last updated: 09 November 2023 16:42:08

By David Remnick

In an era of darkness and blood, it is nearly impossible to remember that, from Moscow to Jerusalem, there was once a time of promise. Not resolution, not paradise, and certainly not the end of history––but promise. Between 1989 and 1995, the following things happened: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of Eastern and Central Europe; the collapse of Soviet Communism and the (seeming) end of the Cold War; the brief, but startling, appearance of a pro-democracy movement in Beijing and other Chinese cities; the end of South African apartheid; and the signing of the Oslo Accords by the Israeli leadership and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In other words, in many nations, political leaders, dissidents, and social movements, having exhausted so many rotten ideas and endured so much oppression and tragedy, began to push the world in a direction of decency, democracy, and compromise. Of course, there is much that is oversimplified in that sentence—euphoria and triumphalism obscured some of the dark currents that persisted in those countries and in human nature itself—but the promise was real, and it ran deep.

Now we live in ominous times, with Vladimir Putin’s Russia laying waste to whole cities and towns in Ukraine, and the death count mounting in the Middle East. Rarely a day passes when there is not a new threat of broader conflagration. Will Putin deploy the worst weapons in his arsenal or extend his forces to other former Soviet republics? Will the Middle East conflict expand to Lebanon, Syria, and Iran? Only the hard of heart do not mourn the loss of life and work to stop it; only a fool does not recognize the possibility of worse days to come. Yet despair, though a temptation, does not constitute a vision. In 2016, when a bigoted authoritarian won election as President in this country, despair was not an option. It is not an option now.

It is almost a certainty, though, that, at least for some time, the forces of reaction, of furious radicalism, will persist. Two vivid examples among many: recently, a senior Hamas official, Ghazi Hamad, declared that Israel can expect “a second, a third, a fourth” attack, until it is eliminated from the map. “We must annihilate that country,” he said, “because for the Arab and Islamic world it constitutes a disaster.” In Hamad’s view, there is no need to regret the brutalities of October 7th. “We did not want to harm civilians, but there were complications on the ground,” he told Lebanese television. “Everything we do is justified.” At the same time, in the Israeli parliament, Zvi Sukkot, a radical settler with a long record of disgraceful provocations against Palestinians in the West Bank, has been appointed to lead the subcommittee on West Bank issues. Israeli authorities were previously so wary of Sukkot that they deemed him unfit to serve in the Army. Merav Michaeli, the leader of the Labor Party, called him “one of the most dangerous people in Israel, a racist, pyromaniac, terror supporter,” capable of igniting a “second front” on the West Bank. (In the past, Sukkot was repeatedly arrested and expelled from the West Bank, on suspicion of committing arson and perpetrating violent attacks, which he denied.)

The forces of hatred extend well beyond the region. The director of the F.B.I., Christopher Wray, testified in the Senate that levels of antisemitism are at “historic levels” in the U.S. and warned that extremists could “draw inspiration” from Hamas and assault Jews on American soil. Wray also said that Jews, despite representing just 2.4 per cent of the American public, are targets of “something like sixty per cent of all religious-based hate crimes.” The wave of antisemitism is arguably more pronounced in Europe, where the German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was so alarmed that he told a rally at the Brandenburg Gate that it was “intolerable that Jewish people are today once again living in fear in our country, of all places.” And, as Rozina Ali writes in the Times, fears of Islamophobic attacks in the Muslim American community are also on the rise; one of the more appalling examples is the recent stabbing death, in Illinois, of a six-year-old Palestinian American child, Wadea al-Fayoume, by his family’s landlord, who, according to the boy’s mother, shouted before attacking them, “You Muslims must die!”

Israel was created precisely out of a sense that a tiny and persecuted population, following centuries of violence culminating in the Holocaust, could no longer endure the precarity of exile. More than any event in Israeli history, the massacre of October 7th shattered the country’s sense of protection. At the same time, the Palestinians of Gaza, after years of Israeli siege and blockade, and immiserating misrule by Hamas, live in a state of excruciating loss and fear; the Palestinians of the West Bank continue to live under an unbearable occupation that has lately grown so intimidating and violent that there is frequent talk in the territories of a “second Nakba.” And any attempt to establish a landscape of security and human dignity will wither if the likes of Ghazi Hamad and Zvi Sukkot go on playing leading roles. Any world in which Hamas and an increasingly reactionary Israeli leadership dictate the policy and the temper of the region is doomed to more injustice, confrontation, and death.

President Biden’s challenges are immense. Facing a likely reëlection campaign against an increasingly manic Donald Trump as well as the Russian assault on Ukraine and the constant challenge of China, Biden must also find, day to day, ways to press for peace and security in the Middle East, while encouraging the positive participation of complicated regional powers, including the U.A.E., Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. The standard practice of embracing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in public and pressuring him in private has long proved to be a mug’s game. He has been in the business of deceiving American Presidents since the nineteen-nineties. “I know what America is,” Netanyahu once said. “America is a thing you can move very easily.” Moreover, the man who advertised himself as “Mr. Security” presided over the biggest security failure in the history of the state.

It may take years for a new political culture to take hold among the Palestinians and the Israelis. It may be many years before the psychic wounds heal. Right now, to most ears, talk of a “two-state solution” is nostalgic fantasy and a “one-state solution” a recipe for instant civil war. With all eyes blurred by rage and grief, an absence of vision is the reality. But, as the Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh put it to me recently, “People have to be shown or given options. We don’t have the option of being pessimistic.” At least one source of inspiration is that era of history, not so distant, when leaders and movements, for all their flaws and failures, agreed to agree, and fought for the rights of ordinary human beings to live in freedom and without fear. That is a process that is never fully achieved anywhere, but it cannot be relinquished to a state of despair.