Magic Thought and Wishful Thinking


Shortly after south Lebanon was liberated and Israeli troops evacuated the area they had occupied for 22 years, I had a discussion of the event with a good friend who works for the Palestinian Authority. When I said that as Palestinians we had a lot to learn from the Lebanese resistance, I was met with a flood of disclaimers and denials. Palestine and Lebanon are totally different, I was told, and to make comparisons is a serious error. When I said that I certainly agreed that the two situations were different, and that ours was indeed a more difficult one, I nevertheless continued by arguing that Hizbullah’s discipline, its willingness to make sacrifices, and its extraordinary, relentless dedication to its objectives were things that applied to all situations, not just to south Lebanon. The response was even more adamant. I was told that we had no alternative but to do what we did at Oslo, and when I said that I could partially understand that, but that I didn’t feel that despotism and corruption, the Authority’s unfortunate hallmarks, were the only alternative after signing so disadvantageous an agreement with Israel, no, I was instructed definitively, you are taking a narrow view: we are passing through a transitional period, and these setbacks are part of that. When I remained unconvinced by all this, I was reminded by my friend that I had no experience in real politics, which were not the province of academics and intellectuals.

Precisely this argument was echoed on 18 June in a column by Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post who when asking Abu Alaa about my criticism of the Authority’s behaviour could only get the following reply (rather a weak one, I must say): “It is not intellectuals who are going to make the deals needed for peace.” This is like saying that only a chicken can tell a good egg from a rotten one. Besides, Abu Alaa’s expertise in peace-making derives neither from education nor prior work (he used to direct the PLO’s factories in Beirut, all of which failed or went bankrupt). One supposes therefore that he was born to make peace deals, just as Louis XIV was born to rule France.

I would call this the first kind of magic thinking, a style of reasoning that blurs the distinction between truth and fiction so as to make a man-made, deliberately constructed disaster seem like a necessary or at least an acceptable thing. Members of the Authority follow their leader in assigning credit for Israel’s shabby withdrawal from south Lebanon to Mr Barak’s desire for peace, not to military defeat, and by the same token they conclude that corruption and anti-democratic rule are necessary stages of history rather than actual choices made by them to be anti-democratic and corrupt. I suppose the main question is: who do they think they are fooling by this logic? No sane person would fail to mark its dreadful lapses or its patent weaknesses. So then we must conclude that they are its victims, very few others.

A second type of magical thought is common to those whose position of great power allows them to be insulated from the facts, to impose on those facts a reading that is at total odds with what anyone else using common sense would see there. For the past seven years I have heard every American policy-maker from President Bill Clinton on down sing the praises of the peace process, extol the new world that was coming into being, waxing ecstatic about the promise of peace and the age of prosperity that was dawning. Palestinians made brave noises about being like Singapore, an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty. Israelis built their rhetoric on equally sandy foundations. They looked forward to being welcomed all over the Arab world, marketing their goods from the Gulf to Morocco, doing business with everyone, and so on and on. Perhaps I should also add that all these effusions came from rulers, presidents, government functionaries, some journalists, in other words, all those people whose position of power allowed them VIP status, men and women who didn’t have to queue up at four in the morning at Gaza’s Erez border, or those whose passports and identity cards in Lebanon, for example, designated them as aliens without rights, or those whose houses had just been demolished. Free of that kind of annoyance, then, these people of privilege could indulge in magical thought and wishful thinking to their heart’s content.

This isn’t just a matter of saying things that have no real connection to ordinary reality, but also imposing a logic on the past that simply spirits it away altogether. I first heard this kind of magical thought when young King Abdullah of Jordan made his first visit to the US last year. While acknowledging all of Jordan’s political and economic difficulties, the king then shifted gears immediately after saluting Ehud Barak’s recent election victory in Israel. Once the peace process is back on track, he said, we can gain the kind of stability that will bring us prosperity and make Jordan a very attractive place for major foreign investment. This is an argument that American policy-makers like to use: once we have “peace,” everyone will be happy and we go on to prosper, invest freely and make money, live happily ever after. I call this magic because it denies the weight of the past any role at all in the future, as if all the years of dislocation, suffering, dispossession and distortion imposed on those millions of Arab citizens who lost their families, homes, means of livelihood, who have lived under military occupation, who have been forced to endure states of emergency in Arab countries with scarcely any democracy or social and economic equality — as if all this with its burden of anger, sorrow, frustration, humiliation and sheer human fatigue would suddenly disappear the moment a peace agreement is signed on Mr Clinton’s lawn.

It is the essence of magical thinking, therefore, to make light of what is in fact heavy, that keeps a formidable pressure on every one in the Middle East. This is not a matter of vindictive memory, but of living actuality. Israeli and American Middle East experts repeat like a mantra that young people have forgotten 1948 and are more interested in the local Internet caf than they are in recovering or returning to their villages. How can that be so? Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria and elsewhere remain stateless aliens and, whether or not they cherish visits to the Internet caf, they are compelled by their intolerably precarious status to recall 1948 and their inalienable right of return.

As for Palestinians who live in Palestine itself, of course they want to lead normal lives, send their children to school, get good medical treatment, travel, and enjoy all the benefits of security. The fact that none of these things is really possible therefore compels them to ask why their situation is unlike that of Israelis, whom they see daily in their much greater freedom and prosperity. Palestinians would have to be stones not to feel resentment and anger at why they must give up ancestral land to Russian Jews like Anatol Scharansky, who not only was born and brought up in Russia, but is now challenging Barak not to give up Abu Dis, an Arab town which as a Russian Jew he feels he can dispose of at will.

These grotesque, not to say, bizarre inequities and distortions suggest something far graver, more mutilating and wounding to the spirit than can be rectified by an imperfect peace treaty between a nuclear power like Israel and a poorly led, destitute people like the Palestinians. Only a miracle of thought — a sort of magic trick — can quickly set things straight, bring back tranquility and peace of mind, restore Arabs to a state of redemptive hope.

Unfortunately, the real world affords no such magic and only an occasional miracle. In the meantime, those who suffer must continue to do so — the mothers whose sons and daughters are in prison, the fathers who cannot cross into Israel for work, the teachers who remain on strike, and thousands more like them — while those who fantasise about the quick benefits of peace, plan more seminars, give more speeches, embark on new projects. But is there any hope at all that magic and reality can ever be reconciled? Alas, no.

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