No Boundaries: Israel's Reluctance to Fight Palestinians

"Arguing in My Spare Time," No. 6.01

by Arnold Kling

January 6, 2003

Healthy Anger

This essay discusses what I see as the unwillingness of Israel to fight Palestinians. It seems to me that Israel is unable to summon anger, and this inability to summon anger relates to the absence of natural boundaries.

John Bradshaw, a self-help guru whose star rose and fell about a decade ago, was a champion of the concept of dysfunctional families. For Bradshaw, an example would be a family in which everyone takes on a role that is adapted to enable the family to get along with a member who is alcoholic.

Bradshaw wanted to make a distinction between unhealthy rage and healthy anger. Rage, which he considered analogous to alcoholism, is out of control and destructive. Rage is disproportionate to any provocation, and rage can arise with no provocation whatsoever.

On the other hand, Bradshaw would argue, anger can be healthy. He would say that "Without anger, you have no boundaries." Anger is a natural response to an attack on what is rightfully yours. Without anger, you lose the ability to protect yourself against sexual abuse or other violations of your rights. Bradshaw's insight is that anger serves to maintain a decent sense of your self as an autonomous human being that can say "no" when necessary.

In Israel, I believe that there is a correlation between an absence of anger and an absence of boundaries. However, it may be that the causality runs from the lack of clear boundaries to the lack of anger, rather than the other way round, as in Bradshaw's view of the role of anger in maintaining personal boundaries.

No Natural Borders

If one's knowledge of Israeli geography were limited to the impression that one gets from reading the newspaper, you would think that "the occupied West Bank" is a contiguous piece of land located on the opposite side of Israel's well-defined, natural border. In this mental model, the "settlements" are situated on the wrong side of this natural border.

In reality, "the occupied West Bank" is as artificial as a gerrymandered Congressional district. If you were trying to draw a clean, straight border around a Palestinian state, then you would give the Palestinians all of Jerusalem, including neighborhoods that have been Jewish for over a century and areas that have been controlled by Israel since the founding of the state. Alternatively, you would give Israel the interior land within the triangle between Haifa, Tel-Aviv, and Jerusalem, which would mean that Israel's territory would include Ramallah, Jenin, and other well-known Palestinian centers. In neither case would all of the West Bank "settlements" fall outside of Israel's natural boundaries. If being in "Israel proper" were to be measured in terms of distance from the seacoast, then some of the settlements are closer to Israel proper than are many long-established Israeli Jewish communities.

Gaza, in contrast, is a contiguous piece of territory that can be given a natural border. The Gaza settlements can in fact be viewed as being on the other side of a sensible boundary.

On the West Bank, with or without the settlements, Israelis and Palestinians are like two men, each with a finger up the other one's arse. Unless they get along extremely well, it is hard to imagine how they can function.

To grasp the situation, imagine that Philadelphia and New York were thought of by the international community as legitimate Israeli cities (like Tel-Aviv and west Jerusalem), but several counties along the New Jersey Turnpike were considered part of the occupied West Bank. There simply is no natural border that can be drawn under those circumstances.

Given the geography, a security fence is probably a chimera. In Israel, there are some construction projects, such as the expansion of Ben-Gurion airport, which are started in order to boost morale, even though there is no realistic hope of completion. The security fence seems to me to be a similar project. It has symbolic value to suggest that Israel is doing something about terrorism. However, in fact, the security fence probably is destined to remain effectively in a state of suspended animation for years.

Absence of Anger

After September 11, most Americans felt genuine anger. In fact, I believe that in some ways this anger remains unresolved. I believe that part of the reason that President Bush has strong support for a war against Iraq is that many Americans instinctively feel that we have not killed enough people in response to the September 11 atrocity. In this context, I do not think that most Americans care one way or the other about the technical issue of weapons of mass destruction. I think that Thomas Friedman and others get it wrong when they say that the difference between Iraq and North Korea is oil. The difference is that hitting Iraq would be viewed by Americans as showing the world that we are still outraged about September 11.

Most Americans took the September 11 attacks personally. We took the view that "we are all New Yorkers." We identified with the victims, regardless of how different they may have been from us in terms of location or lifestyle.

In Israel, the absence of borders leads people to deny their relationship to the victims of terrorism. When settlers are killed, you do not hear Israelis say, "we are all settlers." Instead, a few days ago in Haifa, I saw Israeli demonstrators chanting and waving signs which said that no soldiers should die protecting settlers.

Even with yesterday's double suicide bombing in Tel-Aviv, the Jerusalem Post made a point of reporting that the bombs went off in a neighborhood that houses many guest workers, as if this somehow means that the attack was on someone else. I am sure that from the terrorists' point of view, the significance of the location was that it was the central bus station, not that it was near a neighborhood that houses guest workers. But Israelis do not want to think about terrorism as something to take personally.

What I am suggesting is that Israel, the country without a recognized border, is also a country without healthy anger. Israelis try to dissociate themselves from the victims of terrorism, rather than seeking to avenge them. They refer to the relentless attacks as "the situation," not as a war.

Not an existential threat?

Unable to summon sufficient anger, Israel's military response to terrorism is limited to its "pinpoint attacks." This is like trying to deal with a hornet's nest one hornet at a time. Israeli military tactics have reduced the ability of Palestinians to carry out terrorist attacks, but they have not achieved victory in the war.

After September 11, I wrote that terrorism would be like German U-Boats in World War II--at first it seems impossible to stop, but eventually we would learn to overcome the problem. However, a subsequent review of the history of World War II leads me to realize that the U-Boat problem never was fully solved--only the overall defeat of Germany served to wipe out the U-Boat menace.

Similarly, my guess is that only an overall defeat of the Palestinians will bring security to Israelis. An overall defeat probably would mean that many Palestinians would be driven out of their current homes, after which Israel would establish a clear, contiguous border around the Jewish state.

I do not mean for this essay to be a brief for "greater Israel" as envisioned by religious extremists. I do not care so much what is included inside the territory of Israel. I am not an advocate of settlements. If a reasonable border gives the Palestinians Hebron, for example, so be it. What I am saying is that Israel needs a border--any border, as long as it is clear, contiguous, and easy to recognize. I am not intimate enough with the history and geography of Israel to know the best way to draw the border. I just am very doubtful that the 1948 cease-fire lines (Israel's pre-1967 border) represent a solution.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that most Israelis believe that eventually there will emerge a Palestinian leadership with which peace can be negotiated with something like the pre-1967 territorial divisions. Meanwhile, they view terrorism as an unfortunate fact of life, not an existential threat.

But my opinion is that in the absence of recognized boundaries and without healthy anger, Israel is existentially threatened. The current equilibrium rests on the one hand on the inability of Israel to summon anger against the Palestinians and on the other hand on the inability of the Palestinians to summon the military strength to defeat Israel. My concern is that if Israel does not find the will to win, then the Palestinians will find a way.