Events in Europe and the Middle East in 2023 shattered the idea that history had reached a stable plateau. The world is a more dangerous place at the year’s end than it was at the start, writes Helen Thompson, a professor of political economy at Cambridge University.
This was a year – 2023 – that found new ways to shatter the End of History hope that the nightmarish spectres of the 20th century had been buried in the 1990s under the promise of peaceful change to political borders, and global material advancement across them. What began with the horrors of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine ended with the return of Jerusalem to centre stage as a place for people to take sides in a highly dangerous moral reckoning about the meaning of world history.
In moving to a new defensive stance across the existing line that would appear to foreclose a big strategic loss for Russia, Ukraine is now badly exposed to Western indifference. Even providing the military and economic support on which Ukraine depends simply to protect the territory it retains is contested in European and North American domestic politics. Last year, Ukraine largely floated above democratic conflicts, as if asking probabilistic questions about its future and the sacrifices required to support its independence was a taboo that could not be broken. By the early autumn of this year, Ukraine was mired in the trade-offs of Western politics, before, on 7 October, attention lurched southwards toward Jerusalem and stayed there.
For Israel, Hamas’ pogrom that day brought a reckoning with a prior complacency supposing that transnational economic exchange can eventually ride roughshod over the most bitter territorial conflict.
Behind Netanyahu’s spectacular misjudgement lay two ahistorical conceits. The first assumed that the cause of Palestinian nationhood was politically defunct when the singular history of Palestinian nationhood is its resilience. During the long middle of the twentieth century, the Arabs of British-ruled Palestine were one of many peoples forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands. But alone among all the millions of people across Eurasia who suffered this fate, the Palestinians have never accepted defeat in claiming back the land that they lost, even during periods when their fate has seemed hopeless. Indeed, since the 1960s they have constructed such a potent idea of Palestinian nationhood that it is strengthened externally at the very times the Palestinians suffer most from their political weakness.
It is, this year has emphatically demonstrated, far too late for the Palestinian claim to Israel’s territory in the name of the Palestinian nation to disappear into the history of those other peoples who were in the same time period forced to detach their national or religious identity from their homelands. This does not mean that the Palestinians will one day secure what they want, but rather that Israel cannot make remotely prudent choices as if Palestinian nationhood has been defeated by the long-term absence of a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu’s second fatal mistake came from the assumption that Hamas could be treated as something other than a millenarian sect for whom genocidal violence against the Jews is redemptive and the suffering of Palestinians a tool to realise an Islamic universal history. Hamas’ territorial ambition of overthrowing the Israeli state is inseparable from a religious conviction, evident in parts of all three of the world’s Abrahamic faiths, that divine providence makes Jerusalem the place where this earthly world will end. This apocalyptic obsession was made manifest in Hamas naming its terror on 7 October after the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
2023 was the year when the horror inflicted by Hamas in the name of Jerusalem on Israel to invite unbearable suffering back on the Palestinians in Gaza most viciously mocked the End of History narrative.
But however hard land wars are for twenty-first century states, the world is undeniably a more dangerous place at this year’s end than it was at the start. People across the globe have once again been drawn towards the conflict in the long contested, and still divided, city of Jerusalem. They are bringing to what they choose to see and ignore in Israeli and Palestinian suffering a scarcely understood desire for religious struggle, not least in those societies once deceived by the End of History illusion.
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