On Israel, the Palestinian territories and the doubtful project of liberal peacemaking
I’ve had a bit of self-imposed writer’s block recently. There are things I want to say about the discourse around the Hamas attacks and the Israeli response that are very delicate and which, I fear, will earn me few friends. So, until this morning, I’ve tried very hard not to write them. I’ve now given up on that plan – after all, there’s little point in running an anonymous blog if you can’t say what you think. Before you get angry, note that I am only trying to speak of things as they are, and not as I want them to be. I’ve written this as neutrally as I can.
Most of us live inside liberal (or, increasingly, post-liberal) political systems, and especially since 1990 there is no unified, credible alternative in sight. In consequence, it becomes easy to mistake many contingent ideological constructs for moral principles universal to all of humanity, or even for features of reality. A cluster of these constructs attach to that universal human activity we call war.
Liberalism at least claims to have a deep distaste for war. It has called into being an entire international system of diplomacy and peacekeeping to head off armed hostilities and stop them once they have started. It deplores aggressors and aims to impose an international criminal code on the activities of belligerents, which is designed above all to spare civilian populations and confine armed conflict to soldiers and military infrastructure. Whenever a conflict breaks out, we have long arguments about which party is the aggressor, which party is entitled to defence, which attacks by which party might be justified or excessive, and what kind of peaceful solutions we can impose.
However strange it may be to contemplate, ancient peoples and even many today outside the liberal West thought and think about armed conflict much differently. Specifically, the unspoken assumption that there can be stable political alternatives to war in most or even all instances has become an intriguing Western preoccupation, as is the general notion that war is a thing for international institutions to adjudicate and manage away.
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