Thursday, August 03, 2006

It's the Story, Stupid

Steve Erlanger reports in the New York Times on Israelis' concern that the war with Hizbullah can be spun into a narrative of Israel’s military victory and power. Different Israelis weigh in on what outcomes would make for a good narrative, as if they had all become literary critics. Most believe the narrative needs to be so unquestionably obvious that Arabs will accept and be deterred from future attacks on Israel, but almost nobody believes a basis for that can be achieved. Olmert, nevertheless, adamantly rejects any cease-fire now in the hope further fighting could secure that basis. (A sociologist friend Gordon Fellman suggests Olmert's persistence is due to more than wanting to tell a good story and, incidentally, save his political skin. He is also succumbing to the worst influences of normative masculinity -- the compulsion to win. This compulsion may flourish in Israel,as in many other places, in both the individual psyche and the collective ideology. The Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin has critiqued Zionism for its unreflected incorporation of such vainglorious masculine ideals.)

The dean of Washington pundits, Washington Post columnist David Broder questions the assumption that an inarguable win for Israel in Lebanon or for the US in Iraq is needed to create deterrence. As counter examples, he cites the US draw in Korea, in the 1950s, and the loss in Vietnam in the 1970s. North Korea in the last half century has not attacked South Korea. Vietnam has been self-contained over the past decades. True Broder overlooks Vietnam's short war with China which might have encouraged its subsequent self-containment. But his approach does suggest a wider variety of stories for how peace or stability can be reached than the Israelis imagine.

The simplistic narratives that Israel political and military elites continue to tell about their conflicts with the Palestinians and other Arabs, like the stories Arabs tell about Israel, do contribute to the conflict. Despite the efforts of Israel’s new historians to demythologize the past and Israel having some world class novelists (all doves, by the way), the political leaders espouse terribly one dimensional views of their enemies’ motivations and goals. (Rabin and Shimon Peres were major exceptions to this generalization.) The current view is that the enemy is motivated by a fanatical, religiously inspired transcendental hatred of Israel that can only be satisfied by the destruction of Israel. Only the knout can curb it. (Several decades ago the motivation was a fanatical, pan-Arab inspired, transcendental hatred.) However U. of Chicago Professor Robert Pape in today's New York Times tells a more interesting story about the Lebanese "terrorists" that gathered around Hizbullah in the 1990s. Many of them were not religious, some were not even Muslim, but they shared a burning desire to free their homeland of a foreign occupier. Hizbullah gave them the needed organizational framework.


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