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How primeval and modern forces conspire to make the Israeli-Palestinian dispute intractable

A tit for tat cycle and spiral of violence is taking hold again in occupied territories in Palestine and Jerusalem. Seven Israelis and 31 Palestinians, including assailants, children and protesters in violent anti-Israeli demonstrations, have been killed in two weeks of bloodshed. According to news reports, the violence has been partly triggered by Palestinians’ anger over what they see as increased Jewish encroachment on Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, also revered by Jews as the site of two destroyed Jewish temples. There is also deep-seated frustration with the failure of years of peace efforts to achieve Palestinian statehood and end Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Amidst this melee of violence and counter violence, there is talk of a ‘third intifada’. The overall context to this is the descent of the Middle East region into anarchy and disorder; the putative drift towards some kind of ‘loose multipolarity’ in international relations and Russian activism in the region. Whilst this could be significance for other regions and flashpoints, but in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, it may not have any real salience. (The use of the term Israeli-Palestinian instead of the Arab Israeli one dispute is deliberate here; it has now been a while since Arabs have chosen to disavow themselves from this primeval dispute. The Palestinians are, for all practical purposes on their own).

The Israeli Palestinian dispute defies the twists and turns in the nature and structure of international politics; it has effectively been frozen. The dispute also defies resolution because of its nature and character: it is a primeval in the sense of dating back into the mists of history and emotively instinctual and defying reason. The conflict or dispute stems from an admixture of religious wars overlain by nationalism. Both render it difficult to resolve to the satisfaction of either party-Israelis or Palestinians. Will the conflict correspond to type? That is, will Israel as the regional power with clear cut support from the power of the day (Great Britain decades ago and the United States now) maintaining the status quo or expanding through settlements and Palestinian resistance putting their case in the court of international opinion be the default and enduring condition of the dispute?

I think so.

The reason pertains to partly the structure of the state system and the religio-nationalistic nature of the dispute. The international system is comprised of states; states are defined by sovereignty and are possessive about their respective territories. States , once formed as juridico- sovereign entities do not yield to separatism or arguments that can potentially split them. The concept and idea of self determination is then anathema to states. This applies to Israel’s stubborn refusal to yield anything of substance to the Palestinians.  The religio-nationalistic character of the dispute lends another layer to the dispute. Religion and nationalism in combination pertain to the emotional and psychic universe of the contenders to the dispute- Israelis and Palestinians and make it rather apocalyptic. Under conditions of stress and strain- heightened security risks to Israelis and conditions of ruthless occupation of Palestinians by Israel- these emotive and emotional themes gain in salience- rendering the dispute intractable and even more difficult. The knife attacks that are occurring on a quotidian basis these illustrate this point eloquently. Ruthless occupation by Israel fractures the psychic universe of vulnerable Palestinians who then take recourse to this David versus Goliath tactic (this makes Israelis more insecure); Israel responds with killings and collective punishment while as Palestinians take their case to the court of global public opinion. Attitudes harden and the region slides into a spiral of violence and counter violence. This pattern is, by now, a familiar one and for all intents and purposes will endure.

The prosaic and the profound reality is that the world has lost interest in the dispute. Given more pressing issues in the region (the rise of the ISIS, Iran’s potential nuclearization and Russia’s interventionism), powers of the day (read the United States) do not really care about the dispute. The United States appears to be content with the status quo occasionally ‘leaning’ upon Israel when things spiral out of control and become embarrassing for the superpower. Israel knows this and expends energy in maintaining a threshold of violence that does not escalate beyond a point. The Palestinians, to repeat, bring their narrative of being a victim to the international community.

I dare say that it is this pattern that will endure and hold. The state form while it stems from self determination itself stifles the self determination of other groups and religio-nationalism makes each side or party believe that ultimately it will triumph regardless of the price. The only way out of the Israeli Palestinian morass is the dissolution of the sovereign state form and respect for plurality; the former will probably never happen and the latter is not one of Middle East’s outstanding features. The dispute will then endure. This , in the final analysis, is the tragedy of the region and its peoples.

Author is Associate Editor of the Kashmir Observer

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