Is it rational to believe that peace is possible in the Middle East? Sometimes it seems not. A good friend in New York, a long-time Middle East peace activist, confided that the Israeli use of deadly force against the Gaza-bound flotilla had brought her close to despair. Yet historian Tony Judt in an op-ed today sees some form of peace as inevitable:
As American officials privately acknowledge, sooner or later Israel (or someone) will have to talk to Hamas. From French Algeria through South Africa to the Provisional I.R.A., the story repeats itself: the dominant power denies the legitimacy of the “terrorists,” thereby strengthening their hand; then it secretly negotiates with them; finally, it concedes power, independence or a place at the table. Israel will negotiate with Hamas: the only question is why not now.
I respect Judt’s historical certainty — he’s right, of course — but do I believe it? I should, since I know how blindly mistaken despair can be.
I was close to despair when Menahem Begin was elected prime minister of Israel in 1976, yet just a few months later came the phone call from a well-informed friend telling me to turn on the radio for the next newscast, since Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was about to announce that he was coming to Jerusalem to visit Yad Vashem and talk to all 120 Members of Knesset. I thought he was joking . Sadat? The arch-enemy? No way. And then I turned on the radio.
I remember staring at the plane as it landed in November 1977, as the door opened and then, for a long while, remained blank: an empty black space against the white of the airplane body. An unwanted part of my mind whispered that Egyptian commandos were about to burst out and gun down all of Israel’s leadership gathered on the tarmac at the bottom of the stairs. Or that worse still, nobody at all would appear — that the opening would remain blank and empty, and it was all a cruel hoax.
I remember the heavy sinking feeling of September 1978 when after so much hope, it sounded as though the Camp David summit convened by Jimmy Carter between Begin and Sadat was going nowhere. There was a blackout on news of the negotiations, and as they dragged on, commentator after commentator confidently declared that they were doomed. Yet the Camp David accords were signed, and the following year, a full peace treaty.
So I need to remind myself that if even I can’t muster Tony Judt’s certainty, hope is not irrational. In fact it may be the only rational response to the seemingly ever-worsening mess in the Middle East.
My model is Pascal’s wager, an early form of game theory applied to the existence of God, and on my mind right now because I recently rented Eric Rohmer’s classic 1969 movie My Night at Maud’s, which includes the kind of Pascalian discussion that could only take place in a nouvelle vague French movie (worth a look, if only to instantly burnish your artsy credentials, let alone your philosophical pretensions).
Since the essence of the divine is “infinitely incomprehensible,” Pascal argued in his Pensées, reason can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. Basically, it comes down to a coin toss: on the one side, reason, and on the other, the possibility (given that he was in Catholic France) of eternal afterlife happiness.
(This doesn’t quite work for me, of course, since eternal life seems to me at best a nightmare and at worst a curse — as it was for the creators of the legends of the Wandering Jew and of Dracula and of Frankenstein — but I’ll bear with Pascal for now.)
To believe in the existence of God, he argued, demands no cost (sic) but results in high possible gain (the infinite happiness bit). That is, the reward for belief is infinite if it turns out to be justified, and there is no penalty if it does not. It makes no difference how slim the possibility of that reward might be. “If you gain, you gain all,” he concluded, “and if you lose, you lose nothing.” Thus the only rational option, per Pascal, is to be irrational, and believe.
Why focus on this when the whole idea of betting on the existence of God seems to me an exercise in absurdity? Because while I may not be a big fan of Pascal when it comes to God or not-God, the principle behind his thinking strikes me as extraordinarily apt when the subject is Middle East peace. So let me try it out here — a kind of minimalist Pascalian argument, as distorted by myself, for hope:
If you give up hope and assume that peace in the Middle East is impossible, you essentially render it impossible. That is, you stop envisioning peace or anything remotely approaching it. You accept the status quo, which is in fact not a status quo, but an ever-downward spiral. This appears to be the assumption of the current Israeli government, and the use of deadly force in the assault on the Gaza flotilla is yet another result of such an assumption. It is the penalty for not believing in the possibility of peace.
If you follow Pascal’s logic, this is irrational. Deny all possibility of peace, and you doom yourself to unending conflict. To assume that peace is possible, no matter how slim the chance appears to be, is thus the only rational option. (And yes, this applies as much to Hamas as to Israel.) The fact that you cannot see how to make peace does not mean that it’s impossible. It may merely mean that you can’t see.
In those months leading up to Sadat’s announcement of his visit to Jerusalem, when everything seemed so dark and no rational observer would have predicted anything remotely resembling peace, quiet negotiations were going on far from the public eye. Does that mean such negotiations are going on now? I seriously doubt it, though I obviously don’t know. Nevertheless, for my own sanity, let alone for the future sanity of the Middle East and everyone in it, I have no option but to believe not only that negotiations could be going on, but that they should be — to believe, that is, in improbability instead of impossibility. Or hope instead of despair.
Next post: what peace really looks like.