Physics and Peace

One way to get back to basics is to return to what we consider the core elements, in physics, the elementary particles, that found the science. However, more recent developments in physics have shifted attention away from the basic elements and the laws governing them, such as the Newtonian laws of motion, to the framing constraints and limitations. In physics, attention in Constructor Theory has shifted from those laws of motion to the laws of thermodynamics which determine the limits to the laws of motion. That is, they establish the impossibility of perpetual motion.  Fundamental laws are not the elemental determinants; the limits on the behaviour of those elements are. The primary focus is what is possible and what is not possible.

One enormous advantage of this gestalt switch is that altogether different spheres of study come into view – such as information theory or the understanding of the mind and even the physics of life. Further, in the search for guidelines for consistently reconciling different patterns of forces rather than focusing on the forces themselves, worlds that were once considered irreconcilable – quantum mechanics versus relativity theory ­– suddenly fall within the same frame. For the issue is no longer their reconciliation but the limitations under which each of them operates.

When I taught at the Hebrew University philosophy department as a Lady Davis Visiting Professor in 1977-1978, a colleague there, Igal Kvart, just published his book A Theory of Counterfactuals which he subsequently extended to an analysis of causes wherein causes were transformed from mechanical pushes to influences and knowing was turned into a probabilistic enterprise based on objective probability. Theoretical physicist Chiara Marletto at Wolfson College in Oxford has used this focus on counterfactuals and possibilities into redefining physics as the science of can and can’t. In other words, instead of beginning with norms and key elements to determine preferences, you begin with constraints to reveal what is possible and impossible to focus on probabilistic outcomes of different degrees. Instead of asking how do we get from here to there – say a state that is both Jewish and democratic – you begin by determining the constraints and limitations to combining the various key elements. The goal – to determine what transformations are possible and the probabilities one might reasonably attach to each.

As Marletto has stated, the science of can and can’t operates at an even deeper level than relativity or quantum theory to elucidate deeper principles at work to bring out different laws of motion and change at work. It permits unarticulated possibilities to come to the forefront. New pathways can then be perceived. In physics, according to the Heisenberg Principle, you cannot measure both stasis and change, position and velocity. A perfect measurer of stability and transformation is not feasible. So instead of concentrating on what is happening and the implied consequences – as I did in my opening to this series of blogs – the focus shifts from what has happened and what is happening to what can happen. What are the options? What are the possibilities of each? Which are demonstrably impossible? Are there new regularities that we can identify at the level of political interactions in conflict situations?

The intention is to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through such a revised shift in perspective in which counterfactuals and theories of possibilities focus on rational choice or agency, on the one hand, and media and mental or ideological representation on the other hand. (Cf. Boris Kment, “Counterfactuals and Causal Reasoning”). To prepare the ground, I begin with an analysis of the concept of peace.

A key element is assessing the conflict is justice. Everyone claims to obey the guiding principle that, “Justice, justice, that thou shalt pursue.” At the same time, the goal is said to be “peace.” But both justice and peace reveal themselves as very different terms occupying competing realms. Humanitarians try to achieve both, as when the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis University organized, “Black Lives Matter Under a New Presidency: What Lies Ahead?” Justice is about egality and distribution. Peace is about reconciliation from places of inequality. The two concepts travel from different starting points and in opposite directions. They are also equivocal terms. I will have to deal with both concepts, but I begin with the analysis of “peace” first and four very different meanings assigned to the concept:

  1. Peace as simply the absence or cessation of violence with no implications for the future.
  2. Peace as having a limited time horizon, the current expectation of the cease-fire ending the recent Gaza War.
  3. Peace as permanently ending the violence between two sworn enemies.
  4. Peace as an eternal state in which, “There ain’t gonna be war no more.”

If we are operating in parallel to particle physics, we must choose how to characterize peace first. Is it simply the bare absence of violence? This is the position of the 138 members of the US Congress who called on Biden to insist on a ceasefire and “to boldly lead and take decisive action to end the violence.” Peace meant the absence of open and violent conflict even if the peace, that cessation of bombing and lobbying missiles, meant not allowing the conflict to precede to a point at which peace might result and betting on the slim possibility, perhaps impossibility, that Israel and Hamas could eventually actually make peace.

Or is peace the second option, something extracted from the battlefield in a very concrete context but with no pretext of any significant sustainability? Peace then is not only the termination of a battle, but a state with a probable guaranteed limited time period? Or is peace the permanent end of belligerency between two enemies. Or, finally, is peace a depiction of some utopian era in which the lion can lie down beside the lamb? There are biblical commentators who take these different positions. They are also reflected in different current political postures.

In Hebrew biblical commentary, Ibn Ezra took the first position, the same as that of the 138 American legislators. Peace simply means avoiding bloodshed. There is no time dimension. It is enough that the launching of missiles and the bombing have both stopped.

The second position is well represented by those who still cling to the Oslo Accords as a peace agreement, even though the agreements arrived at never tackled the core issues. It is best represented in current terms by Israeli negotiators who participated for years in peace negotiations and cling to the idea that eventually the two-state solution will emerge because no other possibility is viewed as realistic. In the case of the conflict with Hamas, where even a two-state solution is not on the horizon, a five-year long-term ceasefire is the goal, shunting aside all other issues – prisoner exchanges, repatriation of soldiers’ bodies, economic arrangements, political conditions. The aim is to buy enough time to rebuild Gaza once again. This doctrine of war did not entail defeating the enemy but only compelling the enemy to stop fighting for a limited number of years based on deterrence. War fought on the basis of such a doctrine does not destroy the enemy’s capacity to wage war in the foreseeable future.

The third position, not peace as the (temporary) cessation of violence nor peace as a longer-term absence of violence in the hope that the interim period can be used to end the violence, but peace as an intended product of war can be associated with the mediaeval biblical commentator, Rabbi Chizkuni. It means that war is not viewed as the polar opposite to peace but as the means by which peace is achieved by, for example, conquering territory as rapidly as possible while simultaneously totally neutralizing the threat.

The problem is that, although the war is truly brought to an end, unless the military victory is also translated into a diplomatic one, the potential for violence just undergoes a metamorphosis and Israel becomes burdened with the long-term weight of administering the territory it conquered, a process that eats away at the very fabric of Israeli society. The conquest of the West Bank and of southern Lebanon both instantiated this general rule. Unfortunately, as one military strategist commented, “Israel’s accumulated experience in times of war shows a disturbing pattern that has become a ritual: a serious gap always emerges between the achievements of the military and the failure of national public diplomacy.”

In the third option, peace is not simply a cessation of violence. Neither is peace the establishment of no war for a limited period. Peace, such as that which the allies achieved after WWII, entails an overwhelming, clear and unequivocal victory such that the enemy cannot rise again to fight another day. The armed forces of one side must rapidly and simultaneously neutralize the enemy’s capabilities. And then, the victor must subdue the enemy without fighting or coercion. (Cf. Sun Tzu)

The fourth utopian view of peace is held by a number of right-wing ideologues as well as Islamicists, including Hamas, and ultra-orthodox, evangelical Christians. For the latter, “A heavenly portal, a spherical opening of light, will soon offer divine protection to the Jews protected from demonic interference by the angels who will then be free to come and go between heaven and earth and deliver perfection.”

If we subject these four alternatives to the logic of “can” and “can’t,” there is easily a consensus that, by definition, the fourth option is not an earthly possibility. But neither is the third in the present context where the international community, especially the Arab and Muslim societies, will not accept the vanquishing of the Palestinians by the Israelis. On the other side, for now, America will not allow Israel to be vanquished. But with a longer time horizon, groups like Hamas hope that this situation will change; when that day comes, Israel will be eliminated from the Middle East. However, given present projections, neither vanquishing the Jews nor the Palestinians seems possible.

Clearly the first choice is possible but is seen as a needed but not a desired outcome. There is a general consensus that the absence of violence is simply a minimal first step, but one in itself unlikely to result in “real” peace. The analysis, therefore, leaves only the second option in the “can” category. So Egypt is active in building upon the temporary ceasefire a longer term solution that will extend well beyond five years. Following its success in arranging the ceasefire, Egypt accepted the leadership in forging a diplomatic agreement for far more than just five years. The goal is peace and stability between the warring parties.

To accomplish that, agreements have to be arrived at for security for both sides and for policies to be laid down which will allow both sides to thrive. The dilemma is that such a prospect seems impossible when the major goal of one side (Hamas) is the elimination of the other. Hamas seems unwilling even to introduce confidence building measures, such as the return of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and the return of two Israeli civilians held hostage. This presumably would be in exchange for Palestinian prisoners or extending the fishing zone or some other quid pro quo.  The more Israel gives, the greater the possibility that Hamas will agree to limitations on its import of missiles that could induce Israel to lift its blockade.

However, none of these moves change the fundamentals. The most important mission of Hamas is the elimination of Israel even if the pragmatic elements in the Hamas camp are willing to enter into agreements that will strengthen its position. That is why the goal of America, Egypt and Israel has emerged to focus on vanquishing and sideling Hamas by diplomatic means to restore the “can” to this option.

This is what diplomacy is about, translating a ceasefire with an estimated time horizon into longer term arrangements which foster peaceful dialogue rather than a resort to violence between the contending parties. That entails establishing communication channels and the input of other parties, such as Qatar and the UAE, to reinforce such efforts.

If utopia and militarily vanquishing one side or the other are ruled out as possibilities and mere cessation of violence is viewed as not real peace, then the focus is on only one possibility, a diplomatic agreement between the parties. But is that possible if one of the parties is represented by a political movement that regards the other as fundamentally illegitimate and if the other party rejects Hamas as a legitimate negotiating partner because of the latter’s position? Diplomacy “can” lead to peace, but, given the leading parties in the conflict at the present time, that would seem to be impossible. Hence the effort to resurrect both Fatah as the leader of the Palestinian cause and, along with that resurrection, the two-state solution.

For the one-state solution is either a utopian unrealistic option or the result of one side vanquishing the other. Thus, although Oslo can be pronounced dead, its resurrection in some form may be necessary if “can” is to be the ruling framework. Hence, Jordan’s King Abdullah’s willingness to put “all its diplomatic relations and capabilities” both in service to the Palestinian cause and the absence of any alternative except advancing “a two-state solution to achieve just and comprehensive peace”. That means strengthening the Palestinian Authority at the expense of Hamas.

Then other possibilities emerge – such as creating joint industrial zones in the Erez and Karni crossings. To do that, Israel requires guarantees from Egypt and the US that international investment will be used, not for the purchase of arms, but to rebuild infrastructure. To explore these realms of the possible, three other conceptions must be introduced and analyzed – justice, empathy and truth.

The analysis from the perspective of “can” to be continued.


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