January 13, 2009

Gaza War Diary IV - Can people die of ambivalence?

Ambivalence (noun) - Simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action.

Can people die of ambivalence?

In the short term, the war seems to have proven that they cannot.

Were ambivalence a lethal condition, the resulting epidemic would decimate Israel. The depth of ambivalence is such that only a handful might survive the plague, perhaps no one, beside, say, Uri Avneri and Avshalom Kor.

The reasons for the ambivalence go to the complex heart of the Israeli psyche. The compartments there include well-insulated cells for past and future attempts at annihilation of Jewish people (adorned with posters of the Holocaust and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad); well-justified disgust with Hamas as a barbaric, cynically mercenary, murderous agent of the ideology of extermination; and the dread that accompanies the sinking suspicion that whatever action one takes to fight radical Islam in this region, radical Islam seems to profit from it.

Another distinct cell contains images of the Palestinian civilians killed in Israeli air strikes and artillery shelling in the Gaza Strip. Dedicated revilers of the Jewish state - who themselves occupy another distinct cell in the Israeli psyche - will doubtless dismiss this out of hand as crocodile tears, but news footage of Palestinian casualties, infants, women and the elderly killed and wounded in Gaza, causes tremendous emotional pain to Israelis.

No civilian casualties are ever justifiable, on either side.

In recent days, however, Israeli moderates and the center-left have been faced a new and bizarrely troubling thought: What if this most denounced of wars actually does some good?

Lurking at the margins, are signs that this war may have positive downstream effects for Israel, and for Palestinian peace prospects as well. Much of this hinges on the effect it may ultimately have on Iran and its satraps. In fact, viewed against the report that the Bush administration forbade an Israeli air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, the war, as horrible as many of its direct results have been, may actually serve to break the momentum of the Iranian juggernaut. What can safely be assumed, is that if Iranian influence continues to grow in the Holy Land, peace prospects will be extinguished for years to come.

As if to emphasize the ambivalence that Israelis feel, polls have shown a large majority supporting the war, but only a tiny percentage believing that the offensive will achieve even the limited goal of ending Palestinian rocket fire into Israel.

The right, along with its supporters abroad, suspects that Israel will not go far enough, fight fiercely enough, see this through to the bitterest of necessary ends. "The question," concludes Chales Krauthammer in the Washington Post, "is whether Israel still retains the nerve - and the moral self-assurance - to win."

The left, along with its supporters abroad, suspects that the war could and should have been avoided altogether. The cover of Time Magazine leaves no room for second thoughts, headlined, as it is, "Why Israel can't win."

Inside, the coverage takes a turn for the apocalyptic. Correspondent Tim McGurk asks "Can Israel survive its assault on Gaza?"

To truly appreciate the bottomless Israeli capacity for ambivalence, one has only to understand the unpronounceable, indispensible expression hafuch al hafuch al hafuch (roughly, "the opposite of the opposite of the opposite"). The idiom describes a situation in which an action causes an equal and opposite reaction, which, in turn, may reverse again and, in the most convoluted of paths, achieve something akin to the original intention.

Everyone, all the experts, seem to agree that this cannot happen, and that the war will be a colossal waste of human life without a shred of positive outcome.

But such a consensus of expert opinion often makes Israelis, well, ambivalent. They just might have it right.

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