Whose war is it anyway?

The projection of the West’s Culture Wars on to the Middle East turns it into a permaconflict, depriving all sides of an incentive to compromise.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

Why, when other conflicts of the Cold War era have long since subsided, does the conflagration in the Middle East remain defiantly flammable? The anti-Israel lobby will put it down to Israel’s ‘expansionist frenzy’, its desire to ‘steal land’ and execute a ‘genocide against the Palestinians’. Pro-Israel observers will blame the ‘genocidal terror’ of Israel’s enemies, who apparently won’t be happy until they’ve brought about ‘the destruction of the Jewish state’ (1). In truth, it is not any innate, genocidal madness on the part of the protagonists that keeps this conflict alive and tragic, but the cynical actions of outside observers. The relentless internationalisation of the stand-off in the Middle East – more than that, the projection of the West’s Culture Wars on to Israeli-Palestinian tensions – has turned it into something like a permaconflict, in which neither side has much incentive to agree, settle or compromise.

The latest outburst of violence in Gaza is especially disturbing, where a cut-off section of the divided Palestinian people has been subjected to awful assaults. However, the reaction to the violence exposes the deeper, underlying problem: international exploitation of Middle Eastern tensions, and the hijacking of a complex conflict by international elements desperately seeking a simplistic sense of moral purpose. However desperate is the situation in Gaza, there is little justification for the widespread discussion of it as an ‘apocalypse’, ‘Holocaust’, or – amongst pro-Israel observers – as a ‘courageous’ invasion by Israel to ‘uphold freedom and enlightenment’ (2). Rather, such hyperbolic, histrionic and pseudo-historic language reveals the extent to which the West’s own existential crisis – over morality, meaning, purpose – has been exported to the Middle East. Israel/Palestine has been turned into a laboratory for working out Western angst. And this has placed an intolerable burden on a local conflict, deepening its divisions and prolonging its violence.

Of course, there has long been a powerful international element to the conflict in the Middle East. During the Cold War era, the US bankrolled and armed Israel as its gendarme in the Arab world, while the Soviet Union backed the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Arab nationalism more broadly. Those days, however, are long gone. The Soviet Union is no more, and while America still describes itself as a ‘friend of Israel’ it has, over the past 15 years, become far more critical of its former ally and is the driving force behind the creation of a ‘viable’ Palestinian state (3). The internationalisation we have today is far more desperate and reckless than that of the past. It is driven not by clear political or tactical objectives, but by their absence. It is political disarray in the West, a dearth of meaning and vision, that underpins contemporary interventions in the Middle East. The Western political and media classes are increasingly projecting their search for purpose – their defence of or disdain for Enlightenment values, and their political positioning in the Culture War itself – on to the clash between Israel and Palestine, and in the process are imbuing an increasingly degraded conflict with a profound, historic, fin-de-siècle momentum that makes compromise near impossible.

It is extraordinary the extent to which the conflict has been internationalised over the past 15 years. Virtually every government on Earth has created for itself either a direct or indirect stake in the stand-off between tiny Israel and the even tinier Palestinian-controlled territories. For example, the Roadmap for Peace of 2003 was overseen and enforced by a so-called ‘Quartet of Powers’ consisting of the US, the UN, the EU and Russia – in other words, every state in the world. The ‘peace process’ itself, instituted by Washington in the early 1990s, has been based on the idea that more and more outside observers are required to ‘fix’ the Middle East. The names of the historic signposts in the ‘peace process’ – the Madrid Conference, the Oslo Accords, the Washington Handshake, the Camp David talks – speak to the profound transformation of a local conflict into an international crisis, where the decision-making momentum is continually taken out of the hands of the people of the Middle East and placed at the table of supposedly neutral bureaucrats across the globe.

However, for all the talk of the ‘international community’ working together to bring peace to the Middle East, the global nature of the ‘peace process’ has masked the transformation of the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off into a bearpit of Western competitiveness and one-upmanship. If in the past America’s backing of Israel was an expression of the Western camp’s fairly clearheaded determination to face down Soviet-backed Arab nationalism, then increasingly the ‘peace process’ has exposed intra-Western tensions and disagreements. Through the issue of the Middle East, Western governments jockey for influence and power. Most strikingly, the cynical politicisation of Israel/Palestine has been bound up with burgeoning tensions between the US and the EU – in other words, with the political fallout from the end of the Cold War. Washington, though more willing to criticise the Israelis these days, continues to describe Israel as an important buffer in the international war on terror; EU officials, by contrast, are more likely to complain that Israel stokes international terror and to emphasise the importance of funding and recognising a Palestinian state in order to secure ‘world peace’ (4).

In particular, American-French tensions have been projected on to the Middle East. French officials’ description of Israel as a ‘shitty little country’ that is the cause of all the world’s problems, and President Sarkozy’s intervention at the weekend in which he called upon Israel to desist from assaulting Gaza, are motivated less by a desire for peace or commitment to anti-colonialism (what, in Paris?) than by an ongoing transatlantic spat with the US (5). Meanwhile, around the Middle East itself, Arab elites continue to exploit the conflict as a means of winning some legitimacy. Arab states that are illiberal and crisis-ridden try to appear progressive and possessed of vision by supporting the ‘forward march’ of the Palestinians to statehood (6). Even Arab elites that in the past have clashed violently with Palestinian forces, or which today secretly desire the destruction of Hamas and the mainstreaming of Fatah, loudly condemn Israel and champion the ‘Palestinian cause,’ as a means of placating their own populations and offsetting political crises at home. Such elites benefit more from the continuation of the conflict, the extension of the aggressor-victim war through which they increasingly define themselves, than they would from the realisation of a Palestinian state.

The cynical politicisation of the Middle Eastern conflict is perhaps most clear amongst the Western media class. The Israeli-Palestinian clash is being used as a proxy war for Western thinkers’ and commentators’ political hang-ups. Increasingly, those who define themselves as pro-West and even pro-Enlightenment fantasise that Israel is the final line of defence against radical Islamist ‘barbarism’ (7). Some of those commentators who spent the 1990s raising legitimate concerns about the rise of relativism and the denigration of ‘Western values’ have now cut-and-pasted their ‘defence of civilisation’ on to the Middle East; for them, Israel is, in Ruth Dudley Edwards’ words, a ‘corageous little democratic upholder of freedom and enlightenment’ (8). Meanwhile, more liberal-leaning and formerly left-wing observers use the conflict in the Middle East to express their sense of distance from traditional Western values, and more broadly a feeling of collective victimhood. For them, Israel is poisonously representative of apparently outdated and dangerous values: commitment to sovereignty; militarism; a desire to self-defend; Western arrogance itself.

Melanie Phillips, a pro-Israel zealot, captured the end-of-days elevation of a local war into a Culture War when she wrote in response to last week’s violence in Gaza: ‘The moral dividing line in this battle is very clear. Those who stand with Israel are on the side of morality, justice, and civilisation. Those in the media and public life who denounce Israel for having the temerity to defend its people are the fellow-travellers of barbarism.’ (9) This is what the Middle East has become for lazy, confused and mission-seeking Western thinkers: a super-simplistic morality tale through which you can define your entire political outlook, personality and purpose in life. This is one reason why the reaction to Gaza has been so hysterical and shrill: a great number of people have invested their entire sense of purpose into the Middle East; they fantastically and narcissistically believe that an attack on Gaza is an attack on them (‘We’re all Palestinains now’, declared anti-Israel protesters in London yesterday), or, in the case of the pro-Israel lobby, that disrespect for Israel is disrespect for their way of life, their project, their commitment to Enlightenment values, which they imagine Israel is defending.

Of course, none of this corresponds to reality. Israel is no clearheaded defender of freedom and enlightenment but an increasingly directionless and divided state, which has abandoned its ‘Greater Israel’ plans of old in favour of bunkering down behind a wall or lashing out against its various enemies. And despite what the anti-Israel lobby claims, there is no singular ‘Palestinian people’ facing down ‘Israel’s genocide’: the Palestinian camp, too, is deeply divided and increasingly leaderless, with some reporting that Fatah in the West Bank implicitly supports the harrying of its political competitors in Hamas in Gaza. But then, this is not about reality – it is about the projection of the Western crisis of meaning on to the Middle East. The end result is further internationalisation of the conflict; further deepening of divisions between enemies that apparently represent utter opposites on the political spectrum; and further difficulty in ever reaching a compromise or settlement. So much is now cynically invested in the Middle Eastern conflict by the international community that it is hard to see how it can be settled in any kind of satisfactory way.

There are some first steps that can be taken, however: first, in the short term, an end to the violence in Gaza; second, in the long term, an end to the transformation of the Middle East into ‘everybody’s war’, which only divides and disempowers the people who live there while replacing real politics in the West with fantasy war games over freedom and enlightenment.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

War without ends?, by Mick Hume

The first Twitterwar, by Nathalie Rothschild

‘We’re all Gazans now’, by Tim Black

Read more at spiked issue: War in Gaza

(1) The new anti-Semitism, Melanie Phillips, Speech to London Society of Jews and Christians, 29 April 2004

(2) Brave Israel has every right to bomb Hamas, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Sunday Independent (Ireland), 4 January 2009

(3) A viable Palestinian state, New York Times, 25 May 2006

(4) Israel outraged as EU poll names it a threat to peace, Observer, 2 November 2003

(5) ‘Anti-Semitic’ French envoy under fire, BBC News, 20 December 2001

(6) The Trend of Palestinian and Arab Inversion towards the Two State Solution, Reut Institute, January 2008

(7) The moral battleground, Melanie Phillips, Spectator Online, 4 January 2009

(8) Brave Israel has every right to bomb Hamas, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Sunday Independent (Ireland), 4 January 2009

(9) The moral battleground, Melanie Phillips, Spectator Online, 4 January 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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