August 04, 2014 Issue
By David Remnick
Because memory, particularly historical memory, fails unfailingly, this summer feels like a uniquely horrific season of dissolution and blood. “You name it, the world is aflame,” Gary Samore, a former national-security aide in the Obama Administration, told Peter Baker, of the Times, the other day. “We always have a mix of complicated interests. That’s not unusual. What’s unusual is there’s this outbreak of violence and instability everywhere.”
The supposed tranquillity of earlier seasons is almost always an artifact of distance. And yet Samore’s “everywhere” is forgivable hyperbole. In eastern Ukraine, where hundreds of corpses, and a dozen or so planes, lay shattered in fields of wheat and sunflowers, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear his intention to base his legitimacy at home on defiance abroad. In Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, President Goodluck Jonathan’s government appears powerless to stop Boko Haram, which has kidnapped hundreds of girls to demonstrate its pious opposition to the values of secularism and education. The men of ISIS, a radical Islamic force with origins in Al Qaeda, have planted their black flag over swaths of eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. Earlier this year, when President Obama was asked how he could claim that Al Qaeda had been “decimated” when jihadi flags were now aloft in Falluja, he resorted to a blithe formulation. “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” the President told this magazine. The tone at the White House is no longer quite so unalarmed.
Then there is the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. How to locate the source of the most recent explosion between the two sides? The kidnapping and the murder of three Israeli youths––Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach––led to the revenge murder, by bludgeon and fire, of a Palestinian teen-ager named Muhammad Abu Khdeir, which led to a barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, which led to an Israeli assault, from air, ground, and sea. The way you order and make sense of this brutalizing conflict depends on who you are. As Bernard Avishai wrote on our Web site last week, “You can unspool this vendetta back to the Balfour Declaration, in 1917.” What no one can do is look away.
It is impossible to ignore the cynicism of Hamas, which rules Gaza and knows what fear and retribution it provokes by firing thousands of rockets into Israel and hiding its arms in mosques and schools. Those rockets have increased in range, if not yet in accuracy, and have managed to terrorize Ashdod, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Eilat, and, crucially, Ben Gurion Airport.
Nor is it possible to ignore the bloodshed that Israel has exacted in Gaza. There are, at last count, eight hundred and fifty-seven Palestinians dead—a hundred and forty-nine of them children—and thirty-seven Israelis. The shelling of the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza City alone left more than ninety Palestinians dead, including at least twenty-one children. On Thursday, a school run by the United Nations in Beit Hanoun was hit, killing sixteen civilians and wounding around a hundred and fifty. And yet Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, suggested last week that the Israel Defense Forces should be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for the “restraint” and the humanity of their assault––their “knock on the roof” warning shots, their text messages and phone calls alerting homes, hospitals, and schools. The Bakr family of Gaza City, which lost four children to an Israeli strike on the beach, will likely decline an invitation to Oslo.
The politics are as disheartening as the casualties are heartbreaking. Last year, Secretary of State John Kerry cautioned that if the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, did not find a way to make serious progress on ending the occupation and creating feasible borders and mutual guarantees, the outlines of which have been clear for decades, the consequences would likely be catastrophic—from a third intifada to the end of a two-state solution. Moshe Ya’alon, Netanyahu’s Defense Minister, made plain the leadership’s attitude toward the peace talks by telling associates that Kerry was “obsessive” and “messianic.” “He should take his Nobel Prize and leave us alone,” Ya’alon said.
Meanwhile, the most malign and extremist elements within this conflict––Israeli and Palestinian—grow in strength and deepen their conviction that there is no chance of accommodation. Childhood memories of terror and death accumulate, and cripple the moral and political imagination. Abbas, who, for all his flaws, really was Israel’s most promising partner for peace in this saga, is seventy-nine, weak, and threatening retirement. Netanyahu, who voiced support for a two-state solution in 2009, appears to be reversing himself. Members of his ruling coalition, like Naftali Bennett, say bluntly that their peace plan is the annexation of much of the West Bank.
Last week, Reuven Rivlin, the scion of an old, right-wing Jerusalem family, took the oath of office as Israel’s President. The post is largely ceremonial, but there was meaning in the occasion. Rivlin was replacing Shimon Peres, who was a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1994, for his role in forging the Oslo Accords. Peres, who is ninety, is a champion of the two-state solution. Rivlin is a champion of the Israeli settlers. As he has put it, “I wholeheartedly believe that the land of Israel is ours in its entirety.” Tragically, it is Rivlin’s absolutist view that is in the ascendance for so many, both in Palestine and in Israel. ♦