The Bloody River

Consolidated liberal democracy is the only path to enduring peace.

The Bloody River

If you walk into the hills in the hinterlands of Austria, you will occasionally stumble on small wooden signs nailed to trees. Some explain the local flowers, some explain the local wildlife. Others explain that the vile Italians have "ripped the heart from Tyrol" and that the nation will never be whole until South Tyrol is returned. Venture higher into those hills, cross an invisible line in the earth, and the signs change. So does their language—now, in Italian, they explain the glorious sacrifice of the heroes necessary to return Tirolo to great Italy. Wander higher still and there are no trees left to hang signs to, only barren rock and the concrete and steel fortifications where more than three million soldiers of Italy and Austria-Hungary would become casualties. The larger war of which this largely forgotten front was only a small part would in turn consume more than seventeen million casualties, military and civilian. It in turn is only one of the many wars that once wracked this part of the world, killing more millions than these words can bear.

Today the hills are green, and peaceful, and all that remains of the river of blood that once flowed here is a few old signs nailed to trees, gathering moss. Europe climbed its way out of the bloody river. Two thousand miles to the southeast, the river flows freely, slaughter traded for slaughter in Israel and Palestine. The purpose of this essay is not to pursue an analysis by inches of this or that contour of the present conflict, but to step back and put the war in Gaza into larger historical perspective. What will end this war?  What will bring real and lasting peace to the bloodstained land between the river and the sea?

Let us begin with a simple question: what ends wars?  The history of Europe—and elsewhere—provides an answer. Nationalists of all stripes long fantasized that if the lines on the map were simply drawn just right—so that each people had one state and each state one people—if the spheres of influence were simply divided up according to what is just and proper—then peace and harmony between peoples would follow. Nationalists of all stripes spent the better part of a century trying to achieve this, and for their efforts receiving only blood. "National integrity" did not bring peace to Europe. Democracy did. Democratic peace theory is not so much a theory as a striking fact of history: consolidated liberal democracies do not go to war with each other. France and Germany, ancient enemies who once slaughtered each other by the millions, now act as if they have nothing to fear from each other—indeed, as if there is no possibility at all that each might pose a threat to the other. And they're correct. The temporary peace that comes from awe or terror of superior force is a mirage. Just ask the Europeans how well the "concert of Europe" worked out in the end.

This is not some peculiarity of Europe. Once, Korea was a subject colony of Imperial Japan; once, slaves and "comfort women"—which is to say, sex slaves—flowed out of Korea and across the Japanese Empire. Today that horrible history is mostly confined to writing angry letters when a Japanese prime minister goes and visits the wrong war memorial. But as in the Alps, so in the Korean Strait: not bullets and missiles but shipping and commerce flow across it, and there seems no risk of that changing.

This simple fact is enough to tell us a simple truth about Israel and Palestine: there will never be peace until Palestinians live as free and equal citizens in a democratic and liberal society. A great deal of hay has been made about one vs. two state solutions; even a three state solution has been proposed. The truth is that it doesn't much matter how many states there are or where you draw the borders. What matters is whether what's on each side of the border is a liberal democracy of free and equal citizens. 

So long as Palestinians are not free and equal citizens in a democratic and liberal society, there will never be peace.

Let us also dispense with the flimflam excuses: what is clearly best for the region is a single state. There are obvious practical difficulties in a state formed of two discontiguous microregions, one of them landlocked, one of them lacking any source of fresh water. A secular multiethnic state including all people between the river and the sea as free and equal citizens is the best outcome. Yet let us likewise dispense with the flimflam excuses: there are obvious practical difficulties in arriving at such an endpoint, given the fact that majorities on each side are opposed to it. What seems most practicable is two states, and if they can both achieve peace and liberalism, perhaps someday after hot blood has cooled they will see the benefits and opt for unification. But that is a matter for democratic majorities to decide. Its precondition is peace, today, liberal democracy today.

For this end statehood and reconstruction are necessary for Palestine. A state of permanent poverty and subjection is incompatible with freedom and equality. The transformation of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan from genocidal empires into peaceable nations was predicated on the reconstruction and economic development of two devastated countries. The people of Germany and Japan could see quite precisely that a better future for them and their children was possible under liberal democracy than had ever been possible under fascism.

So long as Palestine remains in a permanent state of enforced poverty, there will never be peace.

However it is likewise an obvious truth that economic development is not sufficient for this end. Just look to China. Decades of explosive economic development, long hoped to lead to political liberalization, have led only to an entrenched Communist Party turning ever more towards revanchist nationalism to legitimize its rule; the free people of Hong Kong ground under heel; Chinese armed forces regularly skirmishing with their neighbors in India and the Philippines; the threat of war in the Taiwan Strait looming ever larger. Economic development is not of itself sufficient to create a liberal democracy. Indeed, even substantial international aid efforts are not guaranteed to lead to economic development—just look to our country's long misadventure in Afghanistan for proof of that. The idea that after Israeli oppression is removed, liberal democracy will automatically spring up in Palestine is a fantasy little different from the madness of George W. Bush and the Project for a New American Century: "simply remove the oppressor and democracy shall spring forth."

Liberal democracy is not some automatic consequence of economic development. It is a choice. Unfortunately, it is not the only choice on offer for the Palestinian people. Instead, Palestinian politics is dominated by a revanchist nationalist project that longs for a one state solution—an explicitly Arab and Muslim Palestine. Today that project is embodied by Hamas, but its roots stretch back to long before 1948. One of the core goals of this project is to kill, expel, or reduce to a condition of servitude all the Jews in the land between the river and the sea. This is its own one-state solution—"One state: Palestine."  It should not need to be belabored that this project is incompatible with liberal democracy.

It should also not need to be belabored that this project has its own direct counterpart in Israel, one embodied by Bezalel Smotrich, embodied by Itamar Ben-Gvir, embodied by a man so desperate to cling to power and keep himself out of jail that he'll uplift the most bloodthirsty maniacs in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. Smotrich, for his part, is crystal-clear that his project is to—kill, expel, or reduce to a condition of servitude all the Palestinians in the land between the river and the sea. Ben-Gvir's faction, the settlers of the West Bank, are that project in action, year by year steadily killing, terrorizing, and stealing land from Palestinians, with the willing complicity of the Israeli Defense Forces and a corrupt Israeli legal system. This is its own one-state solution—"One state: Israel."

While these national projects may mirror each other in aspiration, there is no need to pretend they mirror each other in strength.  Israel's capacity for violence quite plainly far outstrips that of the Palestinians, with well-known results.  But there is likewise no reason to pretend that an Israeli peace movement can succeed so long as the best proximate outcome in Gaza is a terrorist failed state.  "Sit there and take it while your neighbor lobs rockets at you, forever" is no more politically sustainable than "Sit there and take it while your neighbor blockades you, forever."

So long as Israel and Palestine each choose to cling to these blut-und-boden national projects there will never be peace.

And here is another unfortunate truth. We in the West lack the ability to enforce this outcome. The signal lesson of my lifetime and the long misadventure of the Global War on Terror is that America has less ability than we might like to dictate the domestic politics of other nations. There are no miracles to be hoped for. Nevertheless, there are things we can do to bend those politics in one direction or another. Israel and Palestine are, fundamentally, tiny states, and the conflict between them likewise tiny. Single battles in the Russian war on Ukraine have consumed more lives than the entire war in Gaza. The recent war in Tigray consumed ten times as many—to take just one example from a horrifically long list of modern conflicts. Both Israel and Palestine are functionally dependent on a larger system of international support and interconnection, and neither can succeed in their bloodthirsty aims as long as the international community supports the opposing side. This is true in Ukraine and even more true in this exponentially smaller conflict. 

It therefore matters what we in the West choose to support. Unfortunately, we in the West seem to have chosen to uplift the worst of both sides. This is true across the political spectrum. This is most obvious with Republicans, who have gleefully cast their lot in with Benjamin Netanyahu and the larger settler project. One can only assume that the election of Donald Trump this fall would lead to an even more drastic outcome for Palestinians than is currently in process.

But liberals and the left in America have our own sins here. We have been drip-feeding delusions of victory to these bloodthirsty national projects. Treating these projects and their adherents like foolish children who simply need a bit more coddling until they grow up and see the error of their ways, and not as committed adults with their own will to shape the world. The government of the United States has treated the settler project in the West Bank as an unfortunate excess, worthy of some hand-wringing but no real sanction. The murderous rhetoric of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir gets a tut-tutting but no material consequence. This must end. We in the United States must make clear that there will be material consequences to the continued pursuit of settlement, conquest, and oppression.

Meanwhile, the Western left has been happy to sign on with murderous Palestinian nationalism so long as it mouths the right words about decolonization and white supremacy—and to speak in the language of universal human rights one moment and dogwhistle in support of that murderous project the next. When an Israeli official paints the entire land between the river and the sea with an Israeli flag, the message is clear enough; when student protesters do the same but with Palestinian colors the message is likewise unmistakable. When protesters chant "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" in English and "من المية للمية فلسطين عربية" in Arabic, the message is clear enough. When leftists argue that Jews have no culture, no foodways, no history, no homeland, the message is clear enough. Students for Justice in Palestine, the organization behind the wave of campus protests, celebrated October 7th. "Respectable" organizations like Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions view every Jew in Israel as an illegitimate settler and oppose even interfaith and interethnic peace organizations like Standing Together, apparently for the sin of not calling for the destruction of Israel. It is clear enough that Hamas' program of maximizing Palestinian civilian casualties is aimed not at winning the war on the ground but at winning the war for international public opinion; the Western left is only too happy to help them in this task—to provide just enough hope of victory for another generation of Palestinian boys to slam their heads against a wall that will not break.

So long as we in the West provide tacit or explicit support to these blut-und-boden national projects, there will never be peace.

Human history is a river of blood. There is no justice for the numberless dead. Justice is for the living and the yet to be born. It is our responsibility to give not vengeance but peace to those who will come after us. The lesson of history is that it does not matter where you draw the lines on the map. What matters is what kind of society lies on each side of that line. Liberal democracy is the only thing yet discovered that offers a chance for climbing out of the bloody river. Until Palestinians and Israelis both choose liberal democracy, there will be no peace. I do not know how to get there. I only know it is where we must go.

Featured image is Soldiers of an Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade in Chateau Wood in 1917, by James Francis Hurley