On the middle east and legitimating your enemy

On IntentBlog, Rabbi Lerner wrote about former President Jimmy Carter’s recent talks with Palestinian leaders and how we should be thanking him, not scorning him. I agree with his points. They are not going to get to peace anytime soon if Israel is not even willing to talk to Palestine. One paragraph in particular stood out to me and highlights what I think is at the core of the problem not only with Israel and Palestine but with the United States and the middle east in general:

Ostensibly, the reason for Israel refusing to talk to Hamas or Hezbollah is the same as that of the U.S. refusing to talk to negotiate with Iran or Syria-talking, they insist, involves legitimating these terrorist-supporting-states. Just as for decades many Arab states talked of Israel as “the Zionist entity” rather than acknowledge that Israel was really there in the Middle East and unlikely to go away, and the U.S. refused to talk to Communist China until President Nixon reversed a policy that he himself had championed for decades, so the U.S. leadership imagines that talks will strengthen the regimes they wish to overthrow. Yet there is little evidence that terrorist groups or terrorist-supporting-states have been significantly weakened by being ignored by their enemies.

It seems clear to me that the U.S. and Israel, in being unwilling to talk to their enemies because it means legitimating the states, do not actually want to come to peaceful resolutions. Because in order to reach a state of peace in which the two parties are no longer antagonistic and fighting each other, they necessarily have to talk to each other. Not only that, legitimating the other party is a crucial part of reaching a solution to their differences. Each side needs to see that the other side has a valid point of view in the conflict – getting people to do this is one of the steps in mediation – and it’s pretty hard to do that if you won’t admit that the other side even has a right to exist.

I think the phrase “terrorist-supporting-states” plays right in to the us versus them dichotomy, allowing us to ignore the complexities of a government and boil an entire state down to one thing that we disapprove of. Not that I condone terrorists or the actions of a government supporting them, but I think there may be more complexity in these governments than this phrase allows for. Not only that, but the U.S. is not exactly innocent of being a terrorist-supporting state (e.g. U.S. support of Afghanistan in the 1980s).

At the end of the quote, Lerner states that “there is little evidence that terrorist groups or terrorist-supporting-states have been significantly weakened by being ignored by their enemies”. Indeed, this does not surprise me. It is not as if we are totally ignoring these groups and allowing them to exist in peace (yes, I realize that the terrorists are not allowing us to exist in peace, but we do tend to rather egg them on); rather we are waging war against them and denying their right to exist as independent states. If anything, I would expect this to make them stronger, as they pull together against their common enemy.

Once again, it boils down to the dangerous and prevelant us versus them mentality. There is not going to be peace in the middle east until our leaders can see beyond this dichotomy. As Lerner concludes, “This may not change until the larger dysfunctional policy of ‘not talking to our enemies’ is rejected as fundamentally irrational by a majority of Americans.”

So, like Lerner, I applaud Carter for taking a step towards talking instead of fighting. I do not think his step is going to be enough, because I doubt that Palestine is committed heart and soul to ending the fighting, and clearly Israel is not at all committed to such a thing, but it is a step in the right direction.

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One Response to On the middle east and legitimating your enemy

  1. fjd says:

    I listened to an hour-long NPR interview with President Carter (evidently ex-presidents retain the title) the other day. I’ve been an admirer of his work and his foundation for several years, and now I admire the man himself. Might be interesting to read some of his books.

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