There are (for the purposes of this post, at least) two types of war. There are wars that start suddenly and unexpectedly, seemingly with little or no warning. World War I is perhaps the best example of this. On June 27, 1914, the day before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Europeans were planning their summer vacations. By early August, in all the major European powers, they were marching to war.
The second type of war is foreshadowed for years before the actual fighting begins, and move towards actual hostilities slowly and agonizingly, with the major contenders marshaling their forces, heightening their rhetoric, and counting their grievances before blood is spilled. World War II, or if you prefer to keep Hitler out of it, the American Civil War are the best examples of this type of war. Whatever other emotions people had on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, or when General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard (love that name!) commenced shelling Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, surprise was low on the list.
The ways in which a war starts effects how the war is perceived in retrospect. World War I has become the model for the preventable war, blundered into by fools and idiots. In its aftermath, a generation learned the lesson of war’s stupidity. World War II, on the other hand, has become the model for the inevitable war. In its aftermath, a generation learned the lesson that against some evils, war cannot be shirked or evaded.
In their long history of wars, quasi-wars and semi-wars, Israel and the Arabs and the Palestinians have engaged in both sorts of conflicts. This summer’s Gaza War was a World War I type of war, blundered into by blustering leaders and deliberate provocations on both sides, leading to a war that no one really wanted. What is going on in East Jerusalem, on the other hand, seems like a World War II war, something foreordained, a gathering storm, something everyone on all sides are increasingly resigned to, and a confrontation that people on all sides, increasingly want, or at least think they can no longer avoid.
The reasons for this are many. At the center of the current dispute is the fight over the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary (hereafter TM/NS.) This is usually seen as a religious dispute, but it is only one more example how, in the modern Middle East, religion has become the most convenient of fighting for other, more materially significant matters. The paradox of the TM/NS is that it has remained, since 1967, the only part of Greater Israel that Israelis cares about, over which Palestinians, and Arabs more generally, retain near complete control. The reason for this anomaly, is, of course, Israel’s justified concern that changing the status of the TM/NS will lead to a full-scale Palestinian revolt; and Palestinians know that the only thing that might stop Israel from asserting a “Jewish right to prayer” on the TM/ NS is if the threat of Palestinian revolt is credible.
Let me say, in passing, how utterly fraudulent this supposed “right” is. There is no history of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. The rabbis forbade it long ago, to discourage the fervent messianic speculation that a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount engenders, and which is flourishing today. The whole cult of the Western Wall is relatively recent, playing little or no role in Jewish sacred geography until the sixteenth century. The late religious-political thinker Yeshayahu Leibowitz felt that worship at the Western Wall is a form of idolatry. For 2000 years observant Jews have respected the Temple by reading about its ceremonies in the many tractates of Mishna and Gemora dedicated to its rites. There obviously is one reason, and one reason only, for the renewed interest in praying on the TM/NS: to force Israel to wrest from the Palestinians their last iota of sovereignty in Jerusalem.
And of course, when Israel pushes, Palestinians push back, often in stupid and horrific ways, as in the senseless murders of five Israelis this past week in a Jerusalem synagogue. And both sides are resigned to a new war. The question of the week is, “is it an intifada yet?,” and the consensus answer is “maybe, stayed tuned for later developments.”
The dominant mood is that the possibilities for peace have evaporated and that it’s time to finish the preliminaries and go to the main bout, to annexation of some sort, or to the war against annexation, and enough palaver about coexistence. And if a war is inevitable, why wait?
A sense of historical inevitability, the belief that history is on one’s side, has often been a spur to action. And in East Jerusalem both sides are convinced of the inevitability of their eventual victory; most Israelis of the permanence and finality of the occupation, and increasingly, the need to make formal and legal what has been “temporary” for the past 47 years. And on the other side, a conviction of the increasing instability of the occupation, and the need to maximize the instability now, before Israel’s control becomes even more irrevocable.
And the tragedy is that both sides seem to be right. The occupation is apparently permanent, and gaining in permanence all the time, and at the same time, profoundly and irremediably unstable. I wish there was some reason to end this little meditation on a note of optimism, of hope that the two sides will find a way out of their current dilemma, but if there is, it is not visible to me. These are two trains on the same track, going full throttle, trying to collide with each other at top speed. There is every reason to think the situation will get worse, perhaps far worse, before it gets better. And whatever happens– except for the outbreak of peace– no one will be surprised.