There is a lot going on in the Middle East right now, all of it deserving of attention. This will hopefully be the first in a series of posts over the next few weeks on issues and news focused on that region. One of the major events in the region recently, actually overshadowed by major uprisings in other countries, is Al Jazeera’s release of The Palestine Papers. For anyone who maintains any interest in the backroom dealings of ambassadors and politicians, these are fascinating releases in their own right and highlight much of the disconnect between what the public is told on the record and what goes on behind closed doors. Both Al Jazeera and The Guardian have a lot of good coverage of the contents of these documents and pretty decent analysis.
One takeaway that seems to be making the rounds in some form or another, and articulated fairly well in this Seumas Milne editorial, regards how these papers shows that what’s needed are the “right” kind of leaders, the proper constellation of powers and authority. From the editorial:
But simply to point the finger at Palestinian leaders is to miss the point. What has been highlighted by the documents is not a picture of genuine negotiation and necessary compromise, but of a gross imbalance of power that can’t deliver peace, let alone justice. What’s more, it’s one where the western powers repeatedly intervene to tilt the scales still further against the victims of the conflict.
What has become clearer from the confidential records is that the talk of “partners for peace” is a fantasy. A far more mainstream Israeli leadership than is now in power was not even close to accepting an offer that would anyway have been almost certainly rejected by Palestinians if they had been consulted.
And why would Israeli negotiators do anything else when their rejection was backed to the hilt by the US government? Reading the transcripts of the talks, they often seem to be simply going through the motions.
For Palestinians, the priority has to be to start to change that lopsided balance of power. That will require a more representative and united national leadership, as the story told by the Palestine papers has rammed home – which means at the very least a democratic overhaul of Palestinian institutions, such as the PLO. In the wake of what has now emerged, pressure for change is bound to grow. Anyone who cares for the Palestinian cause must hope it succeeds.
There’s a lot that the article gets quite right. It is obviously true, and well documented in these papers, that there is a major disconnect between the Palestinian “leadership” and the people they supposedly represent. By the same token, Israeli and U.S. leaders have been extraordinarily reluctant to engage in any actions which would seriously change the power dynamics in the region. Where I would part ways with this analysis is in the proposed remedy. All the problems described in the editorial aren’t bugs in the system that can be fixed with The Right Leadership, they’re features that are intrinsic to a system of government power. Because, ultimately, the state has nothing to do with the people it supposedly represents. The problems are not simply a matter of getting the “right” leaders in in charge of a state, the problem is with the nature of the state itself.
Murray Rothbard makes some relevant points about the nature of the state in his essay The Anatomy of the State. On what the state is not:
We must, therefore, emphasize that “we” are not the government; the government is not “us.” The government does not in any accurate sense “represent” the majority of the people. But, even if it did, even if 70 percent of the people decided to murder the remaining 30 percent, this would still be murder and would not be voluntary suicide on the part of the slaughtered minority. No organicist metaphor, no irrelevant bromide that “we are all part of one another,” must be permitted to obscure this basic fact.
If, then, the State is not “us,” if it is not “the human family” getting together to decide mutual problems, if it is not a lodge meeting or country club, what is it? Briefly, the State is that organization in society which attempts to maintain a monopoly of the use of force and violence in a given territorial area; in particular, it is the only organization in society that obtains its revenue not by voluntary contribution or payment for services rendered but by coercion.
And on what the state is:
The State, in the words of Oppenheimer, is the “organization of the political means”; it is the systematization of the predatory process over a given territory. For crime, at best, is sporadic and uncertain; the parasitism is ephemeral, and the coercive, parasitic lifeline may be cut off at any time by the resistance of the victims. The State provides a legal, orderly, systematic channel for the predation of private property; it renders certain, secure, and relatively “peaceful” the lifeline of the parasitic caste in society. Since production must always precede predation, the free market is anterior to the State. The State has never been created by a “social contract”; it has always been born in conquest and exploitation. The classic paradigm was a conquering tribe pausing in its time-honored method of looting and murdering a conquered tribe, to realize that the time-span of plunder would be longer and more secure, and the situation more pleasant, if the conquered tribe were allowed to live and produce, with the conquerors settling among them as rulers exacting a steady annual tribute. One method of the birth of a State may be illustrated as follows: in the hills of southern “Ruritania,” a bandit group manages to obtain physical control over the territory, and finally the bandit chieftain proclaims himself “King of the sovereign and independent government of South Ruritania”; and, if he and his men have the force to maintain this rule for a while, lo and behold! a new State has joined the “family of nations,” and the former bandit leaders have been transformed into the lawful nobility of the realm.
When we speak of getting the “right leaders” in charge of a Palestinian authority or getting the “right people” in charge of the Israeli state, we fail to recognize that the problem isn’t that the people in power now simply are the “wrong” people but that the struggle of power playing out is simply the powers involved – disconnected from the concerns of the people – struggling to preserve and expand themselves. Any actions to securing the liberties or sercurities of the Palestinian or Israeli people will happen only insofar as it is necessary to secure the maximum power possible for the Palestinian and Israeli powers. Since, frankly, the Israeli state isn’t meaningfully threatened by the conditions of the Palestinian people either way, it has absolutely no incentive to do cede any of its power. And even if some kind of Palestinian state did emerge, it would only improve life for those under it enough to expand and secure its own ability to steal and exploit as much as it could from those it controls.
All these deals and and power plays, of course, have precious little to do with the actual opinions “on the ground” of Palestinians and Israelis. A fairly comprehensive roundup of polling data paints a picture of Israelis and Palestinians who are generally supportive of the existence of each other, and willing to work on a give and take to coexist peacefully. The linked article points out a decline in faith in democratic institutions and the democratic process, a reaction which seems justifiable given the complete lack of interest these institutions have shown in pursuing peace or equality for anyone up to this point.
Israelis and Palestinians have nothing to gain by replacing their leaders – who, the recent Palestine Papers show, have little interest in pursuing justice or peace for their peoples – with different leaders, which will just lead to more of the same. Because, you know, it’s structural, man. States and leaders do as states and leaders do, and a fair and equitable resolution to issues like this aren’t gonna be on the docket. So, put the power in the hands of the people who actually have a vested interest in peace (and have already demonstrated that they want it): the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. It’s not actually rocket science, yo.