It's Scorpion Logic Again in the Middle East

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An Arab businessman in Dubai announces that he intends to dispatch fifty truckloads of stones and 500,000 slingshots for use by Palestinians in the new uprising.

Coals to Newcastle. Palestine is nothing but stones, all throwing size.

But the Middle East is moving beyond the stone stage. An "administration official" quoted by the New York Times uses the phrase "August, 1914." Is this tiny place about to reconfirm the twentieth century's logic of disastrous disproportions, whereby a seemingly miniscule cause (a Serb zealot at Sarajevo; an atom of uranium; an obscure housepainter in Vienna) brings on apocalyptic effects?

It's depressing to have the old business of Israeli-Palestinian war pursue us across time's border, into a new millennium. But in the Middle East, time runs backwards, as this current dizzying reversion proves. Geographically, Israel/Palestine should be an insignificant double exposure. Two cultures play musical chairs, and there is only one tiny chair for both in all the vast Middle East. But that immense space, metaphysical emptiness, is focused in the eye of God's needle. The Jews call it the Temple Mount. The Muslims call it Haram al-Sharif.

One gets sick of so much holy rage — of the conflicts of two peoples, each of whom see themselves as victims, and, being victims, justified in any murderous thing they may do. When the victim's mentality is planted in holy ground, it becomes fissionable material. Maybe it's time for some international authority, some parental presence, to move in and take over.

The Dubai man's idea of importing stones by the truckload comports perfectly with the neighborhood's taste for surreal gestures, for mythomania. The peace process is dying because nothing rational can survive in this physics of rage. Perhaps the peace process has merely been a distraction, anyway, like Sheherazade's stories spun night after night to stave off inevitable execution.

Is the execution at hand? Whose execution will it be?

Bill Clinton is almost out of office, without the Nobel. Is the Middle East too much for even Clinton's resilient and conciliatory shmooze? I think of the shrewd imperialist Kipling: "At the end of the fight is a tombstone white/ with the name of the late deceased./ And the epitaph drear: A fool lies here/ Who tried to hustle the east."

Who hustles whom, how? What's the game? Barak issues a bristling ultimatum: Arafat must stop all the violence by the end of Yom Kippur. Well, Barak does not say it that way; he says, "Forty-eight hours." Or else, Barak makes known, the full weight of Israeli military force will do the stopping.

Yet I wonder if Arafat can stop it. The rage of the boys in the streets, the tanzim, has a life of its own, and it does not listen to Arafat. A new generation has come up, passionately ready for the combat its elders had wearied of. Hamas does not listen to Arafat. Its agenda for years has called simply for Israel to be swept into the Mediterranean sea.

If Barak knows that Arafat cannot stop it, then what's he up to? What are the two of them, Barak and Arafat, up to? What exactly was Sharon's game plan when he steamrollered onto the Temple Mount with a thousand cops and a retinue of television cameras? Agendas within agendas. Was there ever a place more filled with hate? The Balkans, maybe.

There's scorpion logic at work.

Here is a fable: A sleek and prosperous President, a champion political swimmer, is about to cross the river. Two scorpions come to him and beg him to let them ride on his back across the river.

"I would, boys," says the President. "But I'm afraid you'll sting me while we're going across."

"Why would we do that?" the scorpions ask. "If we sting you and you sink, then we die, too."

Impressed by the logic, the President says, "All right, fellas, climb aboard."

Halfway across the river, the scorpions sting the President. As he begins to sink, he turns to them incredulously and cries, " Now we're all going to drown! Why'd you do that?"

The scorpions reply, "Because it is our nature."

Clinton's not the victim, of course. Who is? Israelis? Palestinians? You may choose sides, if you wish. Everyone may be the victim ultimately, one way or another. That would be an immense and criminal stupidity.