International Affairs

Boughs of Folly

December 09, 2016

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Boughs of Folly

It’s more than forty years since Barbara W. Tuchman published her best-selling book The March of Folly, with its subtitle, “From Troy to Vietnam.” For her, folly was “the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their interests.” “Why,” she asked, “do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”

These are good questions, good because they’re hard to answer. One explanation may be that men and women do not act in accordance with reason but are swayed by irrational beliefs and irrational passions. Hitler’s decision to break his nonaggression pact with Stalin and invade the Soviet Union is a case in point. It wasn’t reasonable. His most intelligent generals thought it a rash gamble, unlikely to succeed, yet didn’t dare to oppose it. Nevertheless, they were right and he was wrong. The invasion of the Soviet Union was the principal reason why the Thousand-Year Reich lasted only from 1933 to 1945.

There have been conspicuous examples of folly since Tuchman wrote her book. One indeed was contemporary with her writing: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, an irrational enterprise that was a prime cause of the collapse of the USSR. Since then, we have had the Iraq War, an act of egregious folly that has led directly to the present discontents in the Middle East. Others would add the creation of the euro—though, arguably, the jury is still out on that one.

“It’s a difficult balancing act, even for many who are instinctively pro-Israel.”

Rereading Tuchman has, however, got me thinking about Israel and its continued occupation of the West Bank. Has this been an act of folly? Many Israelis think it is, but successive Israeli governments have not been deterred. In their defense, one should say that, folly or not, the occupation continues, scarcely challenged. Next summer it will have lasted for half a century, a long time in history. In comparison, the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe endured for some 44 years.

In this half century the Israeli grip in the occupied territories has tightened. Settlements have been built, appropriating what had been Arab land, and there are now so many settlements that disengagement and withdrawal have become, if not impossible, politically difficult. The two-state solution, approved (in theory) by Israel’s friends and allies in the West, and supported by liberal Israelis, looks more unlikely every year. Meanwhile, control of Arab movements and daily life in the West Bank has become more stringent by the year, and the Palestinian authority has very little in the way of authority. It is scarcely even the shadow government of a shadow state. The occupation has been condemned by the United Nations, but the U.N. resolution 242, requiring Israel to withdraw from territories seized in the Six-Day War of 1967, is blithely ignored.

Can it last? Why not? Nothing threatens it at present. Israel did return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and withdraw from Gaza, both moves being in its interest. Meanwhile, the upheaval and chaos in the Muslim world strengthen Israel’s position. Arabs and Iranians, Sunnis and Shias, are so busy fighting and destroying each other that Israel is under no real pressure from them. Palestinians may be “Muslim Brothers,” but the Islamic world is thoroughly engaged in fratricide. Consequently, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, temperamentally risk-averse, can happily stall, meanwhile allowing settlement building to continue, as inconspicuously as possible. Logically this leads to the one-state solution, a Jewish state with a subject Arab underclass. The situation is frozen, and as long as the U.S. continues to back Israel, which it will, no change is foreseeable.

And yet the occupation has damaged Israel, or at least its standing in the world. Fifty years ago people in Western Europe and the USA were almost all pro-Israel, wholeheartedly so. Now they aren’t. Boycotts of Israeli goods (or at least of any produced in the occupied territories) and the boycotting of Israeli speakers and performers have become more frequent. They are not very effective, no more than pinpricks, but they show the way the wind is blowing. More worrying is the reemergence of anti-Semitism in the West, a virus that one thought had been eradicated. Anti-Semitism makes for an unholy, if unacknowledged, alliance between Islamists and far-right groups. Moreover it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between dislike of the policies of the Israeli government—dislike and opposition one may think legitimate—and dislike and intolerance of Jews. Rationally there should be no connection between the two, but the connection is undeniably there.


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