Gwynne Dyer – Nov 16, 2023
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. Or rather, don’t, because it’s relevant to the current situation, and we have to bring the people who don’t know the story up to speed first.
It’s about a frog, doing whatever it is that frogs do on the banks of the Jordan River. Along comes a scorpion, and asks the frog for a lift across to the other side. The frog demurs, pointing out that the scorpion might sting him.
“Don’t be silly,” says the scorpion. “Scorpions can’t swim. I’d die, too.” So the frog says, “Okay, get on my back,” and off they go. Halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog.
As they both sink beneath the Jordan, the dying frog gasps, “You’re crazy. Why did you do that? You’ve killed us both.” The scorpion shrugs (as much as scorpions can shrug), and says: “This is the Middle East.”
People in the Middle East hate that story, but still…
Start with the fact that both Hamas and Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have always had the same overriding goal: to thwart the “two-state” peace settlement that would have divided the territory known as Palestine between the Palestinian Arabs and the Zionist Jews.
That was the nightmare prospect that made Netanyahu and Hamas objective allies. Each wanted all the land “between the (Jordan) river and the sea” for their own people—not some shabby compromise that divided it between them. They were enemies, but their prime duty to faith and to history, in the view of both parties, was to stop the two-state solution.
So in 1995 a far-right Jewish radical assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, the former general and war hero who signed the “Oslo accords” that promised a two-state peace settlement.
The newly formed Hamas then helped Netanyahu into power in the 1996 election by launching a terrorist campaign of bus bombings that drove enough Israelis into his arms to win the election. He was “Mr Security”, and he would keep Israel safe from the evil terrorists.
He never said it in so many words, for obvious diplomatic reasons, but Netanyahu implicitly promised Israelis that they could keep all of Palestine forever. No need for a two-state deal—and on that principle Hamas entirely agreed, even if its preferred long-term solution was to drive all the Jews into the sea.
Hamas and Netanyahu never communicated directly, but that provided the basis for a 27-year cooperation between the two sides. Netanyahu was directly in power for only 16 of those years, but the policy never varied: let enough aid through to keep Hamas viable in Gaza while undermining its rival in the West Bank, the pro-two-state Palestinian Authority.
What finally sabotaged this long collaboration was not the occasional outbreak of shooting between the Israel Defence Force and Hamas (“mowing the grass”, the IDF called it), but the fact that Israel was making peace deals with the major Arab states. Without their financial and moral support, the Palestinian cause would eventually wither and die.
So Hamas needed a big war to derail that process: one that “martyred” enough Palestinians to shame the rest of the Arab world out of betraying the sacred cause.
(Dying for the cause, even getting other Muslims killed for the cause, is neither a crime nor a tragedy in the eyes of Islamists. It is a morally praiseworthy act.)
The atrocities of October 7 were intended to goad the Israelis into fury and a “mighty vengeance” (Netanyahu’s words). Hamas wanted 11,000 Palestinians, half of them children, killed by Israeli firepower. It wanted the Israelis to smash up hospitals while trying to get at the Hamas bases beneath them. (Of course they’re there. Where else would you put them?)
This stuff is what they teach in the introductory courses on “guerilla and terrorist strategies” in every military staff college in the world. What they don’t teach—can’t teach—is how much force is too much.
Hamas’s goal was just to kill the drift towards a “settlement” that made Israel an acceptable trading partner for Arab states and left all of Palestine permanently under Israeli control. It has certainly succeeded in that, but in doing that it has also inadvertently awakened the sleeping monster it hates and fears most: the two-state solution.
The Israelis don’t like killing children. (I would have said “obviously”, but some people don’t get it. Not only is it evil; it is totally counter-productive in terms of the propaganda war.) But there is no such thing as precision bombing in urban areas that spares the innocent. It’s a fantasy.
Five weeks of bombing has sickened enough people elsewhere that the idea of two states in Palestine is back on the table. Whether it can actually work is no clearer than it was last time, but it’s certainly not what either Netanyahu or Hamas intended.
Gwynne Dyer — updated Nov 16, 2023
Bertolt Brecht lived in Germany, not in Argentina, and he has been dead longer than he was alive, but his famous question applies to the Argentine election next Sunday: “Would it not be simpler if the government dissolved the people and elected another?”
Argentina has been genuinely democratic since the murderous military regime collapsed after it started and lost the Falklands war 40 years ago. There were intervals of democratic rule even earlier in its history. Yet the country has an almost unique ability to make the worst possible choice in its elections.
Take the current presidential election, which began with three leading candidates last month. The conservative candidate, Patricia Bullrich, was probably the favourite of the International Monetary Fund, because she seems least likely to default on the $44 billion that the IMF is lending the country. (Argentina’s last default was only three years ago.)
But Bullrich fell at the first hurdle, leaving Sergio Massa, economics minister in the ruling “Peronist” coalition, to face a runoff election this month against “anarcho-capitalist” Javier Milei, who is a product of the same bioreactor that incubated Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and assorted other luminaries of the populist hard right.
Except that, this being Argentina, everything political is a bit weirder than elsewhere. “Peronist” refers to Juan Perón, a military dictator who seized power in 1946, was overthrown in 1955, regained power in 1973, and was succeeded by his wife when he died the following year.
His Peronist movement combined old-fashioned socialism with ultra-nationalism in a form that never worked economically but is still the Peronist style 50 years after his death. “Everything for a friend, not even justice for an enemy,” he once said, and that too was an approach that has stuck.
If you don’t fancy Massa’s pedigree, how about Milei then? Like Trump, he came into politics via showmanship on television (tantric sex coach, not pretend self-made businessman). Milei is pro-guns, anti-abortion, he has an amazing hairdo and he says that climate change is “a socialist lie.”
He promises to dynamite the central bank, replace the peso currency with the U.S. dollar, close down free public health services and abolish free public schools. Sometimes he waves a chainsaw as he talks. He calls Massi’s Peronist coalition “a criminal organization” and blames it for the 140 per cent inflation that has plunged almost half the population into outright poverty, but he hasn’t forgotten about the poor. He promises to change the law to enable cash-strapped Argentines to sell their internal organs for cash.
You could never attract large numbers of voters with this kind of vicious nonsense in a normal country, but Argentina left normal a long time ago. People in the United States worry about the future of their country after six years of extreme polarization and division; in Argentina that kind of division goes back generations.
The price Argentina has paid for this kind of politics is very high. In 1895, it was, per capita, the richest country in the world, and even as late as the 1920s it ranked among the top five. Now it ranks 66th, below Mexico and just above Russia and China.
Other poor countries handle their poverty with some dignity and seek rational ways to escape it, but they haven’t fallen so far from such a great height. Argentines are not fools, but many of them are very angry about what has happened to their country — and that traps them in exactly the kind of politics that did the damage in the first place.
The result is they are very likely to vote Milei into the presidency on Sunday. It will probably be close, but recent polls show him ahead of Massa by a margin of around five per cent.
And then, after a couple of years, like all the would-be national saviours before him, he will crash and burn, taking another chunk of the country’s economy and its self-respect with him as he goes. The vicious circle Argentina is caught in must be broken one day, but it won’t be this time around.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.