An Urban's Rural View

The Problem With All-or-Nothingism

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Neither side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wants the other to have a state, and this refusal to accept the obvious compromise has brought perpetual pain to both sides. (Photo by Naaman Omar/apaimages, Palestinian News and Information Agency (Wafa) in contract with APAimages)

An old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon makes a point worth pondering. Calvin asks Hobbes what he would ask for if he could have anything he wanted right now. The tiger scratches his head, then responds, "A sandwich."

That's stupid and unimaginative, Calvin says. He'd wish for a trillion billion dollars, his own space shuttle and a private continent.

In the final panel Hobbes munches a sandwich. "I got MY wish," he says.

Calvin, who didn't get his, fumes.

We live in an age of political maximalism. It's fashionable these days to stand on principle and heroically insist on achieving the totality of one's political goals. In this maximalist age, compromise is not only out of style. It's scorned as "selling out."

One problem with this -- the problem Hobbes points out -- is that maximalism often doesn't pay. The maximal goal proves unattainable. Half a loaf might have been possible but to get it would have meant asking for something more realistic or -- horrors! -- compromising.

In addition to often yielding nothing, an all-or-nothing stance can generate painful and even perpetual conflict. Exhibit A: The 75-year struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which has once again broken out into war, the ninth since Israel was established in 1948.

The two sides are no closer today to the obvious compromise solution, a partition of the territory into two states, than they were in 1947 when a United Nations resolution endorsed it. Over the years there have been times when an agreement to create a Palestinian state seemed at hand but today neither side wants the other to have a state.

Hamas, which started the latest war, makes no secret of its determination to wipe out Israel and establish a Palestinian state. The other Palestinian party, the Palestinian Authority, is open to a two-state solution but it doesn't really speak for the Palestinian people. If an election were held today, there's little doubt Hamas would win.

For Israel's part, the administration of Binyamin Netanyahu wants Israel to continue as the only state. Netanyahu has spent years cynically propping up the party that won't accept a two-state solution (Hamas) and weakening the one that will (the Palestinian Authority).

This allows Israel to say it has no one with whom to discuss a two-state solution, much like the proverbial teenager who murdered his mother and father and then begged the court for mercy because he was an orphan.

The result of this mutual all-or-nothingism is pain and insecurity. The Palestinians endure second-class citizenship in an occupied land, are restricted in their movements and pushed around by Israeli soldiers and worse. The Israelis live in constant fear of the next missile that will be lobbed at them.

Though the Palestinians won't admit it, the odds are heavily against them obliterating Israel. Israel has unquestioned economic, technological and military superiority. It has powerful allies, including the U.S. It's widely believed to have nuclear weapons. Hamas can make life miserable for Israel, but take it down? That seems delusional.

The Israelis' corresponding delusion is that by bolstering their defenses they can maintain the status quo -- a single walled-off Israeli state -- and prevent the Palestinians from making life miserable for them. Step One: Eradicate Hamas. But they probably can't and even if they could the resistance wouldn't end. Another terrorist group would spring up in Hamas's place. The Palestinians may be weak but they're determined to continue fighting.

Since exterminating Israel is probably impossible, wouldn't the Palestinians be better off governing themselves in a state of their own? Surely their lives would be better than under Israeli occupation.

Since ending the resistance is impossible, wouldn't Israel be safer if the Palestinians had their own state? That's a closer call, but with the likely cooperation of Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries and the U.S. in any agreement, there's a good chance it would. Protections could be built into the deal.

The problem with maximalism is that we live in a world with people of differing views, tribes and cultures, and thus differing maximalist views. This is as true in our domestic politics as it is in the Middle East.

Everyone wants their side to prevail, and, yes, there are occasions when one side takes everything and the other side nothing.

But on many other occasions achieving the maximal position is impossible. The choice then is to keep insisting on a trillion billion dollars, even if it means perpetual conflict, or to accept a half a loaf -- maybe even the sandwich. Too often we insist on too much.

Urban Lehner can be reached at


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