I and thou and death

The “Two State Solution” is a slogan not a solution.

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By David B. Kanin

Washington has defaulted to the tried and failed idea of carving a small, stunted Palestinian state out of whatever territory Israel and aggressive Jewish settlers leave for it and encumbered by whatever limited authority over its own security Israel will permit. International supervision likely would be in the mix but would struggle to deal with conflicting dissatisfactions with whatever the new map looks like between and within both sides in the conflict. A two state agreement would produce something like the unresolved, simmering disputes still existing in Bosnia and Kosovo decades after the fighting that took place in the wake of the collapse of Yugoslavia.  New rounds of violence might not immediately break out but would be a longer term likelihood.

The current US approach to Gaza reflects a pathology inherent in American diplomacy. Secretary of state Anthony Blinken says the two state solution is the only way forward even though the history of the idea raises doubts as to whether it is a way forward at all.  When the US decides on notional end goals to security problems it often tries to close off discussion of alternatives.  Whatever problems exist with a US initiative can and must be worked out.  Whatever problems come along with any idea not made in Washington automatically are deemed massive enough to scuttle those ideas.

Any durable solution to the deeply embedded and multi-generation dispute between two peoples over one land will require critical feeling as well as critical thinking.  Party of the reason we Americans have so much trouble doing this involves a problem with the way we characterize the second person in the English language.  Some languages distinguish between how we address people with whom we are intimate and everybody else.  “Tu” and “Vous” in French, “Du” and Sie” in German – you get the idea.  We actually have words like these but never use thee or thou to distinguish those with whom we have a personal relationship from those with whom we do not.

100 years ago the philosopher Martin Buber’s discussion of human relationships had to be translated as “I and Thou” to make any sense.  Buber assessed the importance of extending compassion to the other in any relationship so empathy and kindness became more than a transactional activity involved with doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Buber was concerned that unless this sense of compassionate intimacy became a default human behavior others would become “its,” objects existing largely in relation to our calculations of personal interest or personal danger.

Emmanuel Levinas put an important caveat on this thinking.  He stressed the importance of the presence of the third party at the table of a dual I-Thou relationship.  Without consideration of everyone outside the dyad the two protagonists would merely build up a set of insider baseball favors, gifts and obligations precluding the extension of compassion outside the narrow I-Thou framework.

To understand conflicts like the one being fought out in Gaza it is necessary to turn I-Thouness on its head.  I know thee intimately because I hate thee.  Thou hatest me as well and we agree that each of us exists for the sake of destroying the other.   Anyone outside our intimate dance of destruction is not a Levinasian Third Party but rather a Buberian It.  I know and Thou knowest how to flatter, threaten, resist, coopt, and otherwise manipulate representatives of powers considering themselves great and organizations characterizing themselves as civil society.   I share with thee the knowledge that the only question that matters regarding the outsiders is whether their words, actions and money serve thy interests or mine.  Each of us will speak of peace when necessary but will remain intimately connected by our mutual resolve to destroy the other.

Of course, many people on each side of a conflict do not share this vicious I-Thou connection.  But too often enough do to dominate the struggle’s trajectory.  The horrifying trauma infesting Israel, Gaza and the West Bank since October 7 deepens communal convictions regarding self-victimhood and the monstrous nature and behavior of the Other.  If anyone forgets this Iran’s Hezbollah and Houthi proxies are ready and willing to remind them.

A two-state arrangement would not make a dent in the emotional depth of the AI-Thou enmity at the heart of Palestinian-Israeli enmity.  Asking what we should do instead would be the wrong question.  There is little evidence public, private or civil society international actors are capable of crafting and implementing security solutions anywhere outside the north Atlantic world (this includes those who speak languages with personal second person pronouns).  

The first step toward a more helpful international approach would be to ask instead how we can help anyone on either of the warring sides who has the courage and respect of their own community to seek out and engage partners on the other side.  Only arrangements made under the lead of credible insiders might produce something other than a continuing series of violent outbursts in the I-Thou context.  Such veteran combatants also would be best positioned to manage the ambitions and interests of radical insiders seeking unending violence or outsiders interested in furthering their country’s interests and personal ambitions no matter their impact on the local situation.

It cannot be overstated how much danger these peaceseekers would put themselves in. They instantly would become Thous, traitors to their causes and targets for assassination.   So it was for Yitzhak Rabin.  The guess here is that Yassir Arafat pulled out of an emerging two state deal because he feared a similar fate.  Anyone worth taking this on would deserve not only international protection but a commitment on the part of international partners to resist the instinct to seize control of a negotiating process that can only come to fruition if homemade.  Make no mistake, if something like this does not develop then this conflict will be to the end of our shared existence, thine and mine.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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