Political realism sometimes isn't as realistic as it seems. Underlying its apparent "toughness" lies a faith in the power of military force to provide security in the face of a threatening enemy that is often not supported by evidence of history.
The current situation in Gaza is a case in point. Robert Fisk's acerbic commentary in The Independent makes the point pretty clearly.
The blood-splattering has its own routine. Yes, Hamas provoked Israel's anger, just as Israel provoked Hamas's anger, which was provoked by Israel, which was provoked by Hamas, which ... See what I mean? Hamas fires rockets at Israel, Israel bombs Hamas, Hamas fires more rockets and Israel bombs again and ... Got it? And we demand security for Israel – rightly – but overlook this massive and utterly disproportionate slaughter by Israel.
Quite a lot of the dead this weekend appear to have been Hamas members, but what is it supposed to solve? Is Hamas going to say: "Wow, this blitz is awesome – we'd better recognise the state of Israel, fall in line with the Palestinian Authority, lay down our weapons and pray we are taken prisoner and locked up indefinitely and support a new American 'peace process' in the Middle East!" Is that what the Israelis and the Americans and Gordon Brown think Hamas is going to do?
Yes, let's remember Hamas's cynicism, the cynicism of all armed Islamist groups. Their need for Muslim martyrs is as crucial to them as Israel's need to create them. The lesson Israel thinks it is teaching – come to heel or we will crush you – is not the lesson Hamas is learning. Hamas needs violence to emphasise the oppression of the Palestinians – and relies on Israel to provide it. A few rockets into Israel and Israel obliges. (Leaders lie, civilians die, and lessons of history are ignored Monday, 29 December 2008)
Israel, however – always swift to announce its imminent destruction of "terrorism" – has never won a war in a built-up city, be it Beirut or Gaza, since its capture of Jerusalem in 1967. And it's important to remember that the Israeli army, famous in song and legend for its supposed "purity of arms" and "elite" units, has proved itself to be a pretty third-rate army over recent years. Not since the 1973 Middle East conflict – 35 years ago – has it won a war. Its 1978 invasion of Lebanon was a failure, its 1982 invasion ended in disaster, propelling Arafat from Beirut but allowing its vicious Phalangist allies into the Sabra and Chatila camps where they committed mass murder. In neither the 1993 bombardment of Lebanon nor the 1996 bombardment of Lebanon – which fizzled out after the massacre of refugees at Qana – nor the 2006 war was its performance anything more than amateur. Indeed, if it wasn't for the fact Arab armies are even more of a rabble than the Israelis, the Israeli state would be genuinely under threat from its neighbours.
One common feature of Middle East wars is the ability of all the antagonists to suffer from massive self-delusion. Israel's promise to "root out terror" – be it of the PLO, Hizbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Iranian or any other kind – has always turned out to be false. "War to the bitter end," the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, has promised in Gaza. Nonsense. Just like the PLO's boast – and Hamas' boast and Hizbollah's boast – to "liberate" Jerusalem. Eyewash. But the Israelis have usually shown a dangerous propensity to believe their own propaganda. Calling up more than 6,000 reservists and sitting them round the Gaza fence is one thing; sending them into the hovels of Gaza will be quite another. In 2006, Israel claimed it was sending 30,000 troops into Lebanon. In reality, it sent about 3,000 – and the moment they crossed the border, they were faced down by the Hizbollah. In some cases, Israeli soldiers actually ran back to their own frontier. (The self delusion that plagues both sides in this bloody conflict: Israel has never won a war in a built-up city, that's why threats of 'war to the bitter end' are nonsense, Wednesday, 31 December 2008)
The realism of conversing with enemies, with bitter histories behind them, lies behind the resolution of conflicts, many with deep historical roots - South Africa, Northern Ireland come to mind.
Meanwhile - the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is appalling - Sara Roy in the London Review of Books summarises the situation in horrifying detail.