Howard Jacobson: A sentimental history of the Middle East usually means Israel is to blame for it all

So ingrained is this that you will even find 1967 enshrined in textbooks as the year it all began
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The Independent Online

How does anything start? I suppose that's at the heart of the war raging between believers and scientists - not how should we live but where did we begin. Heads, in the mind of a creator; tails, in the bacterial slime released by cosmic accident. Neither explanation is satisfactory. If in the mind of a creator, who created the creator, and if by cosmic mishap where did the cosmic constituents of such a mishap originate? Because we cannot conceive of nothingness - because, as Lear tells Cordelia, "nothing will come of nothing" - we seek the consolation of an originating something. Another word for which, in politics as in person to person discord, is blame.

I always find it difficult to recall the beginnings of a domestic falling-out. How come we are rowing about towels? Why are we throwing soap? If nothing can come of nothing, who initiated the something that will finish only when one of us has drowned the other in the bath? Blame. Someone made it happen therefore someone is to blame.

There are few advantages to old age but one is realising that in most events, including our unaccountable arrival here on earth, there is no originating agency, and no one it serves any useful purpose either to thank or blame. Things don't start, things just are.

If that's existentialism, then call me an existentialist.

In so far as these stray thoughts had a beginning, it was James Naughtie, speaking on the Today programme last week, whom I hold responsible for them. He was addressing the present crisis in the Middle East which he described as caused by Israel storming the jail in Jericho where Ahmed Saadat was being held. I pricked my ears at "caused". If the BBC orders its journalists to be economical with the word "terrorist" because one man's terrorist blah blah, then I think it should order them to be even more economical with the word "cause", since one's man's idea of a cause is another man's idea of a response. The person Naughtie was interviewing - one Edward Macmillan-Scott, a Conservative MEP and vice-chairman of the European Parliament - seemed to prick his ears at the same moment I pricked mine. Good, I thought, when he said the crisis wasn't actually caused by Israeli troops storming the prison, but less good, I thought, when he gave the cause as the British and American military withdrawing the cover they'd been providing as part of an international agreement.

My understanding of the situation was that Hamas had been promising to renege on that international agreement, because one man's terrorist blah blah, as a consequence of which unconcealed ambition security at the jail had worsened to the point where the Americans and the British had no choice but to withdraw. The cause therefore, if we are to talk of causes, was not the Israeli attack, nor the American and British withdrawal, but Hamas's stated aim of releasing Ahmed Saadat.

Myself, I can see Hamas's point. It has just won an an election and is starting as it means to continue. Why should it keep in prison a person wanted by Israel for killing its Minister of Tourism, Rehavam Zeevi, when killing an Israeli Minister for Tourism makes him a hero? From where Hamas stands, what really started all this was not the Israeli assault on the jail, not the American and British withdrawal, not Hamas's eagerness to see a national hero released, but Israel's insistence on interning him in the first place.

For its part, Israel trumps that causation with an earlier. You can't have people, whether they are terrorists or freedom-fighters, killing members of your government. Since the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine exulted in its killing of Zeevi, why would Israel not want its secretary-general, Ahmed Saadat, to go on trial for his murder?

Because Zeevi was a pig, say those who go back earlier still. Because his assassination was revenge for Israel's assassination of Saadat's predecessor Abu Ali Mustafa, the year before. Because the whole thing is just a ploy, anyway, to strengthen the hand of Israel's interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the coming elections. And of course because Israel exists.

That Olmert was thinking of how the attack on the jail in Jericho would go down with his electorate is widely assumed in the press. That Hamas was thinking of how the release of Saadat would go down with its electorate is a consideration that has received less coverage. Because we are sentimental in our politics, we are cynical about those who happen for the moment to be on top, and idealistic about those who for the moment happen to be at the bottom. That same sentimentality determines our reading of causation: whatever happens in the Middle East, Israel, as the dominant player, must have started it.

So ingrained is this in contemporary liberal thinking that you will even find 1967 enshrined in some school textbooks as the year it all began. Out of a clear blue sky, Israel descended on the West Bank and Gaza and snaffled them up without a thank-you. Before then, nothing. No wars, no one's ambition to wipe Israel off the map, no Arab rejection of a two state solution. Just emptiness. 1967, year zero, the big-bang that explains the mess we are in today.

If I am to honour the logic of my own thinking - that things don't start, they just are - I must wish Israel, if only as an act of magnanimity available to the stronger player, to break the chain of accusations that sites the conflict in a history of dispossession that goes back two thousand years. Something in my bones rebels against conceding there is parity between the killing of an elected minister, however odious his views, and the killing of the head of a terrorist organisation, however desperate the remedies to which he has been driven, but someone must call a halt. If causation is another word for blame, then it's time we all dropped it from our vocabularies.

Which includes those of us who are not combatants, but who in words or reckless interventions, out of self-righteousness, feelgood, or greed for martyrdom, choose to be included in the fight. The knee-jerk, boycott-spraying anti-Zionism of the left is not only an intellectual dishonesty and a moral disgrace, it contributes to the intractability of the situation, confirming one party in its obdurate isolation and the other in its conviction of aggrieved innocence. There is no future in taking sides, and, if we are not careful, no future full stop. We might not know where it all began, but we can sure as hell imagine where it all might end.

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