The Arab World Geographer
Forum on Current Crisis in Palestine/Israel
Commentary: Subtleties of Power

Peter J. Taylor
Department of Geography, Loughborough University, Loughborough,
Leicestershire    LE11 3TU   United Kingdom

The world political power structure since 1945 has had a basic triple configuration. At the bottom we find an idealist institution, the General Assembly of the UN, where all states are deemed equal and critical issues of world politics can be discussed and voted upon. In the middle is the Security Council of the UN, a continuation of the idealism, but with a huge pinch of realism added in the form of great power permanent membership and veto. At the top is the realism, for most of the last half-century dominated by the Cold War. Here states, notably the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R, operated their own global policies, calling on UN institutions as and when useful but also ignoring them as and when necessary. Since the end of the Cold War the top level has been dominated by the U.S.A, the “lone superpower”, and Israel.

That such a small state as Israel can command the heights of international politics is obviously a function of its relationship to the U.S.A. Ignoring UN resolutions has become part of its raison d'etat. Its pre-eminence is bought at a price: Israel is also the most dependent state in the world. Is this a price worth paying? For most Israelis as they go from victory to victory, it might seem the answer is obviously yes. But power is much more subtle than brute force. Being beyond the UN creates a state and people with a myopic fear of the outside world that can legitimate the despicable in search of security.  Operating at level three is bad for the U.S. superpower; it is catastrophic for the Israeli regional power, and its neighbours within and without. Whereas the world as a whole has its “America problem", western Asia has its "Israel problem".

The perceptions and descriptions of the Israeli reactions to the Intifada described in the above papers reflect very deeply held feelings and are remarkable for the language used. Israeli forces operate in a world of “pogroms” and “ethnic cleansing,” “bullies” and “psychopaths”, “apartheid” and “Bantustans.” It is a measure of the Israeli state's unfortunate privileged international position that it can have so unlearnt the lessons of its own people's history. The word “holocaust” is missing from this list of words but the process is described—one contributor extrapolates Israeli logic to “kill them all.” In thinking this through, the only metaphor which comes to mind as fitting the conundrum of the Israeli present and Jewish history is that of the abused child who himself becomes an abuser in adult life. But this is a metaphor not a process. What is happening is that, as a third-level state, Israel does not see itself as bound by human rights conventions and practices, just as its superpower mentor does not respect decisions against it in the International Court of Justice and will not sign up for the new International Criminal Court because it would expose the behaviour of U.S. soldiers to non-US scrutiny. This is all what is to be expected of states above the UN.

But the power of being a third-level state is misleading. The realist theory of power is a very limited one: might is right. On this count the outcome of the Israel-Palestine conflict is obvious: the papers above are full of references to an unequal contest: “grotesque power imbalance,” “completely one-sided,” “uneven struggle” plus mouse versus cat— and, of course, David and Goliath feature a couple of times. This is physical power, helicopter gunships versus stones. But there is other power, infrastructural power that cannot be simply wiped out of existence. This is a social power, described by Michael Mann, indicating the capacity of a social group to cohere against outside forces through a mobilization that penetrates to the heart of civil society. The power is in the solidarity. It is this power which is the source of the surprising optimism that can be found in the above papers. Israeli repression has begat a Palestinian nation which the current Intifada is confirming daily. National identities are forged in revolts, movements against repression where the sense of great grievance unifies a people. The rise of the Palestinian nation, now including what were “Israeli Arabs,” is a textbook case of this process. Hence this infrastructural power created by Israel is now fully at the disposal of Israel's enemies. After-the-fact recognition of this is behind the additional scale of physical force unleashed in this Intifada. Like Shakespeare's lady who protests too much, they give their position away by their unwarranted actions.

Nationalism is the source of the most compelling power invented by humanity. It is difficult to identify nationalisms that have been defeated and disappeared from history. The U.S. defeat of the Confederates and the British defeat of the Boers ultimately resulted in the defeated returning to the fold as equals in the larger (white) nationalisms. The elimination of Biafrans by Nigeria and the continuing domination of southern Sudan by northern governments represent rare failed uprisings. But national uprisings usually win in the long run because, by physical repressing them, their would-be destroyer is actually feeding the nation-building. And once an “imagined community” is defined, it becomes a reproductive social matrix that is almost impossible to untangle. In the modern world, according to Benedict Anderson, this national community has replaced the traditional religious community as the source of personal identity, giving reason to our very existence. Hence the “depth” of national feeling, and thus its strength. This formula is a little too simple. Religion remains critical to identity for many and when mixed with nationalism produces a particularly potent mix. This is what has happened to what is described above as the “Palestine people” in the “Muslim nation.” The result is a depth of infrastructural power that is truly formidable.

This particular form of power is very geographical: there can be no nation without a national homeland to be converted into a state sovereign territory. Hence space and place are at the heart of all national conflicts, this is the symbolism identified as the ultimate stumbling block to conflict resolution in one of the papers above. It is a stumbling block because, unlike other political ideologies, nationalism's opponents are their own ilk, rival nationalists. Thus the Israelis possess the very same infrastructural power, refined and honed a little earlier, that I have described above for the Palestinians. Following rebellion against the British (which, in parallel with the Palestinian rebellion, included the lynching of young soldiers), Arab threats to drive the Israelis into the sea simply consolidated their nation. (We might say that while Sharon is a prime candidate for founding father of the modern Palestine nation, Nasser can be viewed as prime candidate for founding father of the Israeli nation.) The point about the current Intifada is that it has brought about a balance in infrastructural power which the Israelis, led by political generals with only a geopolitical sense of power, will be hard put to come to terms with. This is the basis of the paradigm change referred to in one of the papers above; it is a revolution in the western Asian power paradigm that even level-three states will have to take account of. Put simply, it means that, with the ending of the Oslo peace process, the Israelis have just missed the best deal they are ever likely to get.

(Submitted 25 October 2000)

© The Arab World Geograppher

Forum / Editorial / Nolte / Khashan / Mustafa / McColl / Newman / Halper / Schechla / Khamaisi / Taylor

Top of the page  |  Index-page (no frame) | Back to homepage
Contact:  |   Last update: 19 December 2000