Overtime in the Middle East

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The war between Israel and its neighbors looked to be over back in 1993 when Rabin and Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn. For 46 years the little slice of land carved up by England, the US and the UN as a response to the Holocaust had been the playing field of war in a game that now looked to be heading into the two minute warning.

No sport is more like war than American football. Football is about acquiring possession of land; the team (army) is made up of individual specialists, determined by size and skills. It has special teams, an offensive squad and a defense. It has a field general (quarterback) and it has a commanding chief and hierarchy of power (the head coach and his aides). Strategies are designed to react to constantly changing positions and situations, including at times, the concept that if you cannot gain yardage, better to give the ball to the other side in bad field position than to risk being backed up too close to your own end zone. The psychology of football is analogous in many ways to that of war.

In Israel and Palestine today we are late in the fourth quarter, but the game is not over and we seem to be going into overtime.

Israel, with its coaching changes over the years has alternated between playing defensively and offensively. Rabin was tiring of the game and looked forward to the Hall of Fame. A Fundamentalist Israeli fan killed him, wanting the game to never end. Bibi Netanyahu wanted to be the winning coach, and beefed up his bench with settlers. Barak believed in defense, presumably to go to Hall of Fame himself as the man who brought that elusive peace with security, but in the end was compelled to go to the air game. Israeli fans, tiring of errant Palestinian bombs decided to call in the Vince Lombardi of Israeli politics: Ariel Sharon. A head coach who believes that it isn’t how you play the game that counts, it’s winning.

Palestinians have had the same coach all along. But their team isn’t unified, its strategy is all over the place. The coaches aren’t working in unison, in the vague hope that one of them might pull out the play that gets them back in the game. But for every yard gained they lose two, and the fans have no idea how to change the coaches. Lesser educated fans gravitate toward cheering the quarterbacks who toss long bombs, in spite of their real lack of impact on the game, simply because they are more spectacular and when completed bring some satisfaction and hope for victory. But Arafat, in spite of his claims to also want to call off the game and make a deal, has no real control over his team and watches form the sidelines, screaming and yelling, but reduced to hit or miss calls and no strategy whatsoever.

Back in 1993 Arafat and Rabin appeared to want to compromise, to call it a game, to start a new season in some other sport called peace.

But the game (the war) has proven to be a series of games, and it has not ended or been called off, and the two teams are locked in a slow motion replay where we see a yard gained here and there by one side or the other, but neither team close or even likely to score that final TD that would give them the victory.

In fact this is a series that no one can win. The Israelis cannot win because the Palestinians will not just go away and forget their suffering and accept forever being second-class citizens in a land their forefathers grew up in. The Palestinians can’t win because the world will never sit by and watch Israel be overrun by its Arab neighbors, nor will it accept the still harbored pan-Arab dream of Israel disappearing as a state entity, replaced by a new Palestine, a secular democratic country made up of an Arab majority and Jewish minority. The Holocaust made sure that the Jews would not be a diaspora anymore. The Intifada 2, the latest game being played, seems unlikely to lead to the same hope for the Palestinian diaspora.

Even if one team or the other manages a field goal, no matter how many innocents are blown up by suicide bombers, no matter how many buildings Israel occupies or razes or blows up with missiles, no matter how many PLO leaders are assassinated, no matter how many young children are born into poverty in Gaza, there will be another game to play until they get off the field once and for all.

The sooner both sides realize they are in the wrong sport, in a series that cannot be won, pointless games in a never-ending season, the better off everyone will be.

Both teams are now locked into some last minute bravura é the Palestinians throwing up Hail Marys and Israel sending out its big guns. Israel, after its strategic decision to let the clock run down and go into overtime following the discothéque bombing, knew that come the next Palestinian long bomb they would intercept the ball and charge back up field. Once this latest deadly bomb attack came, they did just that, including the occupation of PLO headquarters in East Jerusalem. They have moved across the fifty-yard line and are digging in for a slow ground game. They are fine with going into overtime as long as they have better field position.

Spokesmen for the Israeli government were quick to assert that these latest reactions were pinpoint assaults, specifically aimed at individual people or sites, in no way all out war. In other words they crossed the fifty, but their strategy is still to bottle up the Palestinians, rather than risk their defenses by making an all-out attack on the Palestinians end zone. They are happy for the moment with a slow and steady game of nickel and dime plays. They don’t really care about the clock, since they’re ahead in the standings. This game can go on forever.

Meanwhile, Arafat has his side retreating, his team bottled up behind its own twenty yard line, once in a while going long with the bomb. The bomb may hit its target, but the Palestinians gain no yardage – it is called back by a penalty, or it goes out of bounds into the crowds, and the Israelis just go right back on the offense.

War is worse than football, of course, and not only because it isn’t a game. It’s pointless, it doesn’t even have the one thing football brings its audience: appreciation for talent and performance. War brings out the worst in us where sport brings out the best. The Palestinian fan who cheers when Israeli fans get hurt or killed has lost his humanity. The blind rage that has set into the hearts and minds of those who cheer civilian deaths doesn’t only turn souls rotten, it also leads them into all the wrong strategies. The Israeli, even a former peacenik, finds him or herself just as blinded nowadays by fear and by history, into counterproductive and hot-headed strategies. For the Israeli fan the best thing that could happen is for the game to be called off. Instead, when the game gets fierce, the blood begins to boil even among non-fans and the Israeli crowds start to crave big plays and big gains. Angered by the other team’s scrappy play they would rather play on than give it up.

As a Jewish-American born of 1st generation Eastern European immigrants’ children é who’s great uncles and aunts disappeared in Nazi Europe é I hear opinions of many liberal Jewish American people all the time. I have often argued with some of my relatives about Israel and the positions it takes and the positions of US Jewry in respect to the issue of Palestine. Since the early 80’s I have argued at Passover seders that the Palestinians had legitimate rights that needed to be addressed, that they weren’t going away, that if you were on the other side you’d feel the way Palestinians do, always trying to infuse my otherwise bright and liberal cousins and uncles and aunts with a direction of thought that would bring their Israel views into line with their other liberal, fair-minded political views and stop ignoring the bitter irony of Israel’s destiny, meant to represent social justice and a haven in the desert, turned sadly into a repressive force against an even weaker people.

It was hard going; people who lived through the 30’s and 40’s were very aware of how the Jews lacked the means to defend themselves and how the world é in what was seen as a predictable, cyclical way é always came around to blaming the Jews for everything. With Israel existing, this would never happen again. So whatever flaw Israel might display now, no matter how difficult it is to rationalize Israeli occupation of Arab territory and the whole issue of settlements, these same people who voted Democratic their whole lives, who fought with Blacks for their civil rights, who pride themselves for liberal open-mindedness on most social issues, when it came to Israel, their sense of fair play seems to vanish. Once they saw their team as the underdog é the worst kind that everyone always beat up on édespite the subsequent fact that their team has become bigger and tougher, the fans will always feel threatened by the other teams, ganged up on, a sentiment not entirely unjustified given all those long bombs thrown into the crowd and the opposing fans cheering lustily. Many of the liberal American Jews of leftist leanings bought into the claim that Arafat’s refusal of a sweet deal at Camp David followed by the second Intifada was proof that Arafat did not want to make a deal. That he was no longer a serious “partner in peace”. That it was a fraud, that he is still the same old terrorist, unable and unwilling to make a deal.

Over twenty years passed since those polemic seders when I was seen as a trouble-maker, and many of my cousins and uncles and aunts have come around to accepting some of the things I was saying back then. Most of them came to accept that a Palestinian state is inevitable and the right thing to see happen. The question then arose: what kind of state and where? How can we trust these people to keep their word?

Most US Jews probably hope and dream that Israel and its neighbors can become a sort of Middle Eastern Benelux, developed, sophisticated, economically successful. But there is a disconnect between that dream and the ideas of how it should happen (in my view it could happen but not the way things are going). The Benelux model presumes that the neighbors are all on equal footing, economically and socially. This is far from being the case now, and would have been unlikely to happen even had Arafat accepted Barak’s offers at Camp David. Someone made the analogy that the deal Barak proposed, decried by Israeli fundamentalists as giving away the house and painted in the world media as an incredible deal that Arafat was foolish to refuse, was in fact more like letting the Palestinians stay in a hotel. They could live in the rooms and decorate them how they wanted, but the Israelis controlled the hallways.

You don’t make a Benelux with unequal partners.

Israel, being the home team and occupying force, has the responsibility to make the first moves to call off the game. With its air and ground superiority, its bankroll and its field position it has the power to send the fans home and call it a day. It is the only way a future partnership can come about. The Palestinians, playing an away game (in their own territory), cannot however continue with the same game plan if they want the game to end. To maintain hope of actually winning the championship is living in dreamland. The Palestinians have to get a new game plan together.

I fear that a giant opportunity was already missed. Arafat did not need to get all he desired at Camp David last year to further Palestinian aims. He could have come back with a counter proposal, asking for more land, more contiguousness, a better deal for the refugees. He could have laid it out é a counter offer! An end reverse! And the fans around the world would have been on his side, had he pointed out the official errors, had he challenged the call by arguing clearly what was wrong with the Israeli offer everyone deemed so great. But he did not. Arafat, coming from the school of football that teaches an offensive strategy reliant on long bombs, has never really mastered coaching a professional squad or dealing with his fellow coaches around the world, coming from scrappy games in the street where no one had a uniform. So it didn’t occur to him to be shrewd, to fight with legal remedies at his disposal, to inspire non-violent protest, to learn how to conduct a ground game, where you pick up a few yards here, a few yards there and march up field. Martin Luther King would have been a good role model. No, instead he came home from Camp David to a heroes welcome for NOT making a deal. His fans wanted all or nothing, they maintained their faith that one day somehow a new quarterback would toss the bomb that would go for a TD.

Arafat himself helped stir the fires amid his own people. In spite of playing in the big leagues, he was still stuck in the street game, unable to win, but also knowing that not striking a deal would be more accepted among the angry fans than making a deal which would result in compromise and the end of the real but clandestine Palestinian dream é the dream of the day when Israel would no longer exist as a nation. By signing on to any deal, that dream would die and Israel would forever be a team to reckon with.

Arafat, in spite of his personal desires to remake himself and his legacy from terrorist to freedom fighter to world diplomat and founder of his people’s new country, never learned about orchestrating a ground game. Always going for the bomb.

Hoping for a call from the officials for pass interference, or a huge gain, or more yards gained after the toss. But Israeli defenses and resilience, its deep bench and wealthy owners were always ready to charge back in the other direction, stoic in their acceptance of pain é no pain no gain é ever vigilant after a history of terrible losses in past seasons, withstanding all the bombs, sending in new men, making coaching changes, and alternating between the defensive and offensive game in order to ensure simply that they don’t lose.

No matter how egregious the Israeli occupation is in the minds of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians é no matter how humiliating or dangerous or frustrating or unfair, there is no justification for cheering the deaths of teenagers, children or civilians in general. If you are fighting a war of liberation, to get out from under occupation, you fight the team on the field. The only bombs that work are the ones caught in bounds. Throw those bombs into the stands and you don’t advance. It is not only counterproductive morally, it is useless strategically. Make advances on the field, hurt your opponents according to the rules of the game if necessary, but play by them or get nowhere.

It is time the Palestinians thought out a new strategy. In football this happens for a team normally when the head coach is replaced, or at least his staff. Team Palestine has been coached by the same men for quite a while. They haven’t won much, in fact they continue to be backed up, well under .500 and in the current game the Israeli end zone gets further away all the time. They keep throwing bombs into the crowds and getting nowhere up field. It is time for team Palestine to find new strategies that understand the advantage of small gains, a few yards at a time, making first downs, moving steadily back to the 50 yard line.

This game looks to be going into overtime. Unless Israeli strategists decide to go for all out war. Which could happen if Arafat’s squad keeps hurling long bombs into the crowd.

If that happens Israel may win this war. But they will not be champions, because the season has a long way to go; there are many teams ready to take it on, cheered on by millions of fans around the Arab world. The best thing that could happen to Israel is for it to stop playing and for its neighbors to stop playing. If Israel really wants this season to end, their best hope is to move into that new sport called peace with the new expansion team called Palestine. All of this seems unlikely to me as long as both teams keep the coaches they’ve got. More likely, sadly, is that we are going into overtime, and they are turning off the clock.

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