Losing is Winning

by zunguzungu

Lots of people have made the following basic point, but Kotsko puts it more pithily than most, so let me quote him:

“Israel does not want “Palestinian” to be a political identity or rallying point – you can hear this desire in the old propaganda points along the lines of “there’s no such place as Palestine on the map” or “there were no ‘Palestinians’ until after Israel existed.” They want the Palestinians to just shut the fuck up and stay in their little areas. I’d say that this is an understandable, if callous, desire. At the same time, it’s hugely naive. It’s true that the “Palestinian” identity only emerged in response to the foundation of Israel and the previous residents’ (entirely true and justified) view that they were being oppressed by the new arrivals. The corollary is that as long as Israel continues oppressing those people, that identity is going to be a rallying point for resistence. There’s just no way around that! The way to eliminate a political identity based on, for example, the idea that “the Israelis have stolen our land” is not to keep stealing more and more land! The way to convince people that they’re wrong to think that you don’t view them as fully human and as possessing valid rights is not to retaliate to every provocation with orders of magnitude more violence. If an identity was forged through persecution, you can’t dissolve it through more persecution!”

Absolutely true. But the thing I’ve learned from James Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine is that sometimes failure can be success, that we shouldn’t make the mistake of taking people’s stated and heartfelt desires at face value in thinking about the consequences of their actions. Sometimes there are structural reasons why “failure” only reproduces the conditions which necessitate yet more failure. This is the case, as he argues, within the “development” industry, which can only continue to exist as long as places like sub-Saharan Africa fail to ever be developed. As he puts it:

“development institutions generate their own form of discourse, and this discourse simultaneously constructs Lesotho as a particular kind of object of knowledge, and creates a structure of knowledge, which, while ‘failing’ on their own terms, nonetheless have regular effects, which include the expansion and entrenchment of bureaucratic state power, side by side with the projection of a representation of economic and social life which denies ‘politics’ and, to the extent it is successful, suspends its effects (xv).

In other words, it is naïve to expect development agencies to ever correct their mistakes; “failing” projects will, instead, be given a second chance to fail again and again into perpetuity, because while they fail to do the things they claim they will do (like reducing poverty or whatever), they are quite successful at effecting a different set of (more politically important) agendas, what Ferguson calls “depoliticization,” taking issues like land redistribution or struggles over governance off the table.

With that in mind, I read with interest Richard Crary’s paraphrase of some stuff from Naomi Klein’s Shock Therapy, which, regardless of what one thinks of it as economic argument, sheds some interesting light on why Israel might not have an endgame:

Klein discusses Israel, and the breakdown of the Oslo Peace Accords and collapse of subsequent peace agreements. She identifies two little-discussed factors “that contributed to Israel’s retreat into unilateralism”, both related to this global neoliberal program:

One was the influx of Soviet Jews, which was a direct result of Russia’s shock therapy experiment. The other was the flipping of Israel’s export economy from one based on traditional goods and high technology to one disproportionately dependent on selling expertise and devices relating to counterterrorism. [. . .] [T]he arrival of Russians reduced Israel’s reliance on Palestinian labor and allowed it to seal in the occupied territories, while the rapid expansion of the high-tech security economy created a powerful appetite inside Israel’s wealthy and most powerful sectors for abandoning peace in favor of fighting a continual, and continuously expanding, War on Terror.

The mass exodus of Soviet Jews into Israel amounted to “roughly 1 million” Jews entering Israel throughout the 1990s. One of the factors leading to the Oslo agreement had been the widespread feeling within the Israeli business community that enough was enough. But this changed with this major demographic shift (Soviet Jews now amounting to up to 18% of the Jewish population of Israel):

This demographic transformation upended the agreement’s already precarious dynamic. Before the arrival of the Soviet refugees, Israel could not have severed itself for any length of time from the Palestinian populations in Gaza and the West Bank; its economy could no more survive without Palestinian labor than California could run without Mexicans. Roughly 150,000 Palestinians left their homes in Gaza and the West Bank every day and traveled to Israel to clean streets and build roads, while Palestinian farmers and tradespeople filled trucks with goods and sold them in Israel and in other parts of the territories. Each side depended on the other economically, and Israel took aggressive measures to prevent the Palestinian territories from developing autonomous trade relationships with Arab states.

Then, just as Oslo came into effect, that deeply interdependent relationship was abruptly severed. Unlike Palestinian workers, whose presence in Israel challenged the Zionist project by making demands on the Israeli state for restitution of stolen land and for equal citizenship rights, the hundreds of thousands of Russians who came to Israel at this juncture had the opposite effect. They bolstered Zionist goals by markedly increasing the ratio of Jews to Arabs, while simultaneously providing a new pool of cheap labor. Suddenly, Tel Aviv had the power to launch a new era in Palestinian relations.

In addition, Israel’s economic reliance on high-tech further lessened its labor needs. So, though business leaders had felt that peace was necessary for prosperity, in fact during the 1990s the Israeli economy performed well, independent of the state of the peace process. Then when the tech bubble burst in 2000, Israel was hit very hard, prompting the government to drastically increase military spending and the tech industry to move into security and surveillance. In the post-9/11 homeland security boom, Israeli firms have emerged as major players. Klein provides a variety of statistics showing how well Israel has fared in this counter-terrorism market; the upshot is you have a situation where elites not only no longer have much use for Palestinian labor, but also directly profit from the avoidance of peace. Combined with the imperial-racist ideology of Zionism and an American sponsor with its own grandiose ambitions in the Middle East (and its own related booming security/surveillance complex), and the prospects for peace and justice seem remote indeed. As Klein puts it, where war has always certainly been a money-maker, it has been a temporary solution, with stability seen as necessary for business prosperity; now the “incentive for peace” for these players has been eliminated. As she says, the War on Terror is “not a war that can be won by any country, but winning is not the point.” Israel is a country-sized version of the Green Zone in Iraq, or the rebuilt, wealthy enclaves in post-Katrina New Orleans:

[A]n entire country has turned itself into a fortified gated community, surrounded by locked-out people living in permanently excluded red zones. This is what a society looks like when it has lost its economic incentive for peace and is heavily invested in fighting and profiting from an endless and unwinnable War on Terror. One part looks like Israel; the other part looks like Gaza.

It’s also worth noting that the unwinnable War on Terror (which has had quite obvious restructuring effects on American governance) rhetorically echoes the unwinnable “War on Drugs” (which has had the effect of restructuring our civil liberties in a few ways which Radley Balko details here). You don’t need an endgame when perpetual failure is the endpoint.