Sunday, August 27, 2006

In popular mythology, the ostrich is famous for hiding its head in the sand at the first sign of danger. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder is noted for his descriptions of the ostrich in his Naturalis Historia, where he describes the ostrich and the fact that it hides its head in a bush. There have been no recorded observations of this behavior.


Thursday, August 10, 2006

Saturday, August 05, 2006

the samson option

one of the strengths of agnosticism is that it comes with no preconditional hatreds. unlike the adherents to any of the historical faiths, I am not obliged, as an agnostic, to regard any grouping of non-adherents as despicable scum whose souls - damned for their apostasy - I might safely regard as worthless, and whose bodies are a hateful shell of sinful iniquity. as an agnostic, I am allowed to regard everyone as potentially decent until or unless their behaviour proves otherwise. I am, not, in other words, condemned to believing that everyone who doesn't believe what I believe is my mortal enemy, and to believing that any harm I cause to them is good because it is in a good cause - the cause of their subjugation.

one of the weaknesses of agnosticism is that it comes with no capacity for empathy with the passionate self-righteousness of those who do believe the above. I can bring the full weight of my liberal understanding to sectarian-nationalist violence, but that comes at the price of denying an equal weight of furious scorn for those whose behaviour is driven by ancient, superstitious, tribal hatreds that have as much place in the twenty-first century as the alchemist's alembic.

whereas, as a reluctant scion of the British Empire, I have to accept my share of historic responsibility (the Balfour Declaration, the Palestinian Mandate) for what's happening currently in the Middle East, it's only fair to point out that the British were only the more recent of a multi-millennial succession of landgrabbing empires - from Assyrian to Babylonian to Egyptian to Roman to Byzantine to Ottoman - to have capitalised on the inherent tribal volatilities of that region. that the Israelites' claim to their patch can be substantiated by a promise made to Moses by Jahwe Himself circa 1000 BC could be - and probably is - matched by several other nationalistic groupings descended from one of the other contemporary pre-Diaspora tribes, but whether such contentious three-thousand-year-old myths constitute a constructive contribution to or a seriously unhelpful distraction from the ongoing dilemma is moot.

with the wisdom of hindsight, few now disagree that it was a catastrophically inept act of political hubris on the part of the fledgling United Nations to establish a western-dependent non-Muslim state at the heart of an Arab nation, to evict the incumbent population and then re-populate it with semitic immigrants. whatever long-term political and economic strategies underpinned this miscalculation - predicated on the cynical realpolitik of the time, which was more about supervising the final controlled demolition of the Ottoman Empire than about finding a home for the survivors of the Nazi holocaust - were ruinously scuppered when it came to light, during the fifties, that one of the richest oilfields in the world ran under and was accessible to almost every state in the region except the one which was meant to be the dominant one. there followed a frantic period of political bed-swappings and manoeuvrings for advantage that resulted in some strange alliances indeed - not least the pre-emptive arming by the US of one Saddam Hussein's Iraq against the perceived Iranian threat - and has resulted in the establishment of a nation state the same size as Wales not only having had to evolve into the most heavily fortified and most ruthless on the planet, but also having, with covert western connivance, developed a secret (officially unadmitted but undenied, and strangely exempt from any kind of international oversight) arsenal of at least 400 nuclear weapons.

it can't be much fun discovering - once you've finished your compulsory military service and started travelling - that you belong to a pariah nation, one that everyone - apart from God's America - despises. why don't they understand? how would they like it if they too had neighbours who behaved like rabid dogs, suicidally intent on driving them into the sea? what other choice do we have than to defend ourselves with unflinching determination from such racist aggression?


the survival of the Jews, as a coherent religious unit, throughout so many thousands of years of forced displacement and persecution, is one of the marvels of human history. all cultures arise from a religious root, those roots themselves having always played, historically, with the exploratory tendrils of neighbouring cultures and neighbouring religions, and few modern cultures are exempt from substantial Jewish influence. those who deduce from the current conflict that it represents an irreconcilable gulf between Muslim and Jew have misunderstood the nature of the conflict. in fact, the Jews' historic relationship with the Muslim world has been largely peaceable and constructive. the five hundred years of settlement in Spain under the Moorish occupation from the eighth to the twelfth centuries are regarded as a golden age in Jewish history. hence 'Sephardic' Jew from the Hebrew for 'Spanish'.

the present desperately dysfunctional relationship between Israel and its neighbours, and, as a result, between Israel and the rest of the world, is primarily a territorial, not a religious conflict. sixty years is long enough to have established that the Palestinians' grievances over the perceived thefts of their land are not going to subside, and that no amount of brutal collective punishment of the civilian populations of Gaza and Lebanon for their respective militias' armed resistance is going to starve Hezbollah and Hamas of its grassroots support. the chilling Roman efficiency with which Israel kills ten Arab civilians (reprisal or self-defence? you decide!) for every one of its own killed has spawned a militant culture of resistance wherein every massacre spawns a whole new brigade of recruits to martyrdom. few on either side remembers - or even cares - how this all started. all they care about now is killing the other.

there is far too much support - not only material, but spiritual and racial - invested in the continuing survival of the Jewish State of Israel for there to be any question that it will survive. already, however, that survival has been achieved at the cost of a grievous expenditure of moral capital. the longer this intifada continues, the more Israel is obliged to respond with less and less concern for the political consequences, and less and less concern for the worldwide outrage at the brutality of its behaviour. this could continue indefinitely, were it not for the single outstanding problem of America's sponsorship. even with the deep-reaching influence of the Zionist lobby on Capitol Hill, there are serious signs of stress already beginning to show, not only on the budget, but on the political will available for this endeavour. this 'New Middle East' that's begun to be talked about is a neo-con fantasy that will not manifest in actuality beyond the terms of the Haliburton reconstruction contracts in Iraq and the medium-term profitability of the reconstructed and re-assigned Iraqi oil wells. America is in a crisis of denial and self-bamboozlement about what this so-called War on Terruh is all about: it is confusing every issue of foreign policy, outstandingly in the Middle East (where the bogeyman Al Qaeda, for example, has no part to play at all, and is regarded with contempt - as a bunch of irritating dilettantes - by most of the engaged Muslim parties) and costing her dear, whilst the world's next emergent superpower, China, is slowly slowly - in its own sweet time - making up its mind on what the terms of the big bail-out will be at the coming global spring clean.

one of the essential sites to visit on the package tour of Israel is the fortress of Masada - a vast ruin on the eastern edge of the Judaean Desert that was the site, in 72 AD, of the Zealots' last stand against the occupying Roman army under Lucius Flavius Silva. after holding out under siege for three months, the leaders of this thousand-strong resistance movement, recognising that their situation was hopeless, and that surrender to the fifteen-thousand-strong Roman legion would only result in either slavery or execution, made a decision that rings through the centuries as one of the tragic cornerstones of Jewish history. when Lucius Flavius finally entered through the breached walls of the citadel, he discovered that everyone - every man, woman and child - was already dead, having chosen to die at their own hands rather than submit to the Roman triumph.

the other definitive suicide in Jewish history was, of course, Samson, whose final act of revenge against his Philistine captors was to summon his legendary strength one last time to grasp the pillars supporting the roof of the temple of Dagon and bring it crashing down on his - and his tormentors' - heads.

word has been out for some time in the independent media that a policy of last resort in relation to the development of Israel's nuclear arsenal was devised by the Israeli government way back in the days of Moshe Dyan, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War: this policy is known, chillingly, as The Samson Option.

however intractable this conflict might seem, it is both intolerable and unsustainable. endless war in the Middle East is not an option. Armageddon is not an option. diplomacy and arbitration have to succeed. clearly, however, as long as America is the only active instrument of both, no progress towards a peaceful resolution is ever going to be made, since, as far as a substantial part of the Arab world is concerned, America is perceived as the great Satan, and any deal it tries to broker will only be at the Arab world's expense. somehow, this suicidal deadlock has to be broken, and this will only happen with the collusion - direct or indirect - of Israel's neighbours, people who, themselves, have learnt to live with such internal conflicts as those between Shi'a and Sunni, Druze and Maronite, and whose culture is a thousand times better equipped to negotiate amongst tribal factions than that to which even the most well-intentioned American foreign secretary (and that combination of words has been a definitive oxymoron for quite some time) owes allegiance.

although a sustainable accommodation has been achieved in recent years between Israel and its southern neighbours in Jordan and Egypt, the leading regional candidate for a mediator acceptable to all parties in the conflict is Turkey: Muslim but firmly secular, Turkey has close economic and security ties with Israel (which regards Ankara as a valuable ally in the region), but has also traditionally supported Palestinian aspirations to statehood, thereby inspiring its trust as a mediator. true, Turkey is no angel of peace (let's nobody mention Armenia or the Kurds), but in a situation such as this where the only cards currently on the table are a busted flush and a pair of dog-eared jokers, beggars can't be choosers - radical substitution time - out with the preppy wankers of Washington and in with the bouncers from Istanbul.

anybody got a better idea?