Alfred Hitchcock and the Zionist plot

What if we’re both right? That’s the gloomy question that events in Gaza have prompted in my mind. What if we’re both right?

When my grandfather returned to his home from the front at the end of the First World War, he plunged into the great political debate among his fellow German Jews. The Zionists argued that the Jews were in mortal danger, that they needed a state of their own. My grandfather was only too aware of the rising tide of antiSemitism. But he was an integrationist, passionate about his German identity. And he also a deep feeling for Arab culture. He thought the Arabs would not accept Jewish dominion in Palestine.

The two sides argued and argued. Back and forth went the pamphlets. And you know what? The great tragedy of the Jewish people is that they both turned out to be right.

I have begun to have the same sinking feeling about the modern argument over Israel, the one that fills the newspapers as the Middle East policy of the neocons is assailed by their (truthfully, if I’m not to crouch behind others, our) critics.

Let me start with Alfred Hitchcock. No Hitchcock film could get going without a MacGuffin. The master explained it thus: “It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is most always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.” What the MacGuffin was didn’t really matter. The characters cared about it deeply, the narrator not at all. It kicks things off, that’s all, provides an excuse for the rest of the action.

The neocon case is this – Israel is a MacGuffin.

Have you ever wondered why everyone goes on and on about Israel? It is a tiny, tiny country, not much bigger than the Canary Islands. From the West Bank to the sea, the width of Israel is nine miles. You could fit the entire country into the state of Florida seven times. In his magnificent work The Case for Democracy the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky provides the neocon explanation of why a local dispute involving a nation the size of a pocket handkerchief is regarded as one of the most important conflicts in the world.

It’s all about the preservation of fear societies. Sharansky describes a fear society as one in which you can’t participate freely and without fear in the public debate. Having elections is one part of being a free society, but the civil institutions that protect free and fair discourse are even more important. And the Middle East is dominated by fear societies – back to back, cheek-by-jowl dictatorships.

To survive in power, the leaders of fear societies need an external enemy. A threat that justifies their policies of control, their emergency laws, their police infrastructure. Stalin needed the capitalists and the Trotskyites. North Korea demanded “ironclad unity under leader-party-nation” to keep the country safe from external predators. Hitler chose the Jews. And so did the leaders of Syria and Egypt, Iran and Libya. Not a particularly original choice, to be sure, but a reliable one, I’ll give them that.

So Israel is the MacGuffin of the Middle East. As all the characters rush around trying to find the suitcase with the Zionist plot hidden in it, the real story goes on. The terrible clash between the tragic failure of Arab nationalism and the dangerous rise of Islamic fundamentalism, that’s the real story.

And the neocon case is that there will be no peace in the Middle East until this is understood. Only when there is democracy and civil freedom, the ability to join one faction without being killed by another, for instance, is there even the slightest chance of an end to bloodshed.

Look at Gaza. We are told that the fighting between Fatah and Hamas is inevitable given their desperation. It’s all the result of years of Israeli oppression. But why, then, is a very similar fight going on in Egypt between the Arab nationalist government and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood? And why are Hezbollah and the Syrians killing Lebanese ministers? This fighting isn’t about Israel. It’s a struggle to the death between two authoritarian forces.

The temptation now is to consider Fatah as the party wronged by the extremists. Fatah, we read, are the moderates, the only people one can do business with. But it is more complicated than that. Hamas came to power because of the corruption of Fatah, who treated the public finances and Yassir Arafat’s personal bank account as one and the same. (And incidentally, this vote didn’t make the Palestinian Authority a democracy. A clash between two heavily armed terrorist gangs isn’t democracy.)

There can be no peace that lasts with Hamas while it remains a violent fundamentalist sect. But there won’t be peace with Fatah either until it embraces democracy and probity and civil order. Even if you let them have their own nation state there won’t be peace.

That, then, is the neocon case. There can only be peace between peaceable democracies. Name me a war between two democracies. Name me a truly peace-loving dictatorship.

To all this the critics have a ready response. The West, they say, cannot force a country to be a democracy. We can’t simply march in with guns and tell other countries how to live their lives. Even if this was moral, it wouldn’t work. How many Iraq debacles do you neocons need to have, before you understand? We have to negotiate, say these critics, with the forces that are there.

This poses as a refutation of neocon thinking, but really it isn’t. For there is this frightening possibility – we neocons argue that only democracies make peace, and our critics respond that we can’t easily create democracies. What if we’re both right?

Daniel Finkelstein