The power network

Publicly, Israel will not do business with those who do not recognise it. But behind the scenes is a

The seven-and-a-half-year vacuum in Arab- Israeli peacemaking under George W Bush ends next January. Bush refused to play ball, but he wouldn't let anyone else on the field: not the UN, not Russia, not the European Union. The only legacies he leaves his successor to build upon are secret, deniable talks among intelligence agencies and the familiar engagement of violence.

Israel's public posture has always been that it would never speak with those who did not recognise its "right to exist". Putting aside the obvious fact that "right to exist" is meaningless in international law, Israel has talked for years with those who did not recognise it. It had contacts with King Hussein of Jordan, and it warned the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Sudan of plots in 1977 to overthrow their regimes. It sold arms to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and it talked to the PLO for years before Yitzhak Rabin met Yasser Arafat at the White House. It has spoken through mediators to Hamas and Hezbollah. It is now talking to Syria, through Turkey and various independent peacemakers, though Syria assists Hezbollah and Hamas. Nothing will come of this, as the Syrian president now admits, without US involvement. And Washington does not want to get involved.

In Gaza, Israel and Hamas are setting the terms of discussion. "What kind of dialogue is being established?" asks Geoffrey Aronson, an American working to bridge differences between Syria and Israel through Swiss mediation. "The parties are engaged by fighting in Gaza. They learn from each other. They establish their limits and red lines. It's a sophisticated process. Both sides learn what will produce an explosion." Behind the scenes, Egyptian intelligence officers speak to Hamas and Israel about Hamas activists in Israeli prisons, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas, and the opening of a door to Gaza, through Egypt or Israel, that would permit the people of Gaza to receive food, medicine and other necessities.

The discussions are on two levels: exchanges of prisoners and, since the Gazans opened the wall to Egypt at Rafah last June, on a ceasefire and border agreements. For Hamas, as one Pal estinian put it: "A ceasefire must include new border arrangements." A fortnight ago, Hamas and 11 small resistance groups met in Cairo to discuss what the Palestinians would accept on the border. The Egyptian intelligence chief, General Omar Suleiman, presented proposals he had reason to believe Israel could accept. Hamas responded with a few minor amendments, which Suleiman was due to take to the Israelis for their response. Most observers believe that, if Israel rejects the plan, Egypt will have no choice - out of concern for the opinions of its own domestic Islamists - but to open the border with Gaza.

In the meantime, Hamas and the Israelis have to talk about basics such as water supplies to any West Bank town with a Hamas mayor, or the mere survival of a million people in Gaza. "Co-operation on an operational basis on the provision of goods into Gaza could not proceed without co-operation between the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] and Hamas," says Aronson. Left for another day, or another American president, are the big questions: mutual recognition by the Israeli and Pal estinian states, acceptance of the Palestinians' democratic election of a Hamas government, the "security wall" that has robbed the West Bank of much of its best land, Jerusalem and, well, peace.

Hezbollah is the only other guerrilla organisation with which Israel is at war. Israel assassinates its leaders almost as often as it murders those of Hamas, but it talks to Hezbollah as well. There have been prisoner exchanges in the past, and Israel wants back two Israeli soldiers captured in July 2006. It also wants information on Ron Arad, the reservist captured in Lebanon in 1986 by Shia Amal militia. There have been secret discussions, through Germany, that have yet to yield anything: Israel is refusing to release all of the prisoners demanded by Hez bollah, and Hezbollah says it will hold on to the two Israelis until that changes. If Israel wants the men back and a quiet border in the north, it must speak either to Hezbollah or to Syria.

It has, for the time being, chosen Syria. The last time the Syrians and Israelis met face to face, at least publicly, was in January 2000 in Shepherds town, West Virginia. When the two countries were only a few yards from peace - that is, a difference of a few dozen yards of land around the Sea of Tiberias - Bill Clinton dropped the ball at his final meeting in Geneva with the then Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, in March 2000. Bush did not bother to pick it up. Since April 2007, the Turkish foreign ministry has been ferrying "ideas" between Damascus and Jerusalem. "Maybe with the next US administration, we can talk about negotiations," the new Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, told the Kuwaiti daily al-Watan.

The issue between Syria and Israel is the Syrian land occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Syria seems as willing to give full recognition to Israel, in exchange for a return to the 4 June 1967 borders, as Anwar Sadat of Egypt was to get back all of the Sinai in 1979. The Syrians asked Jimmy Carter, when he visited Damascus last month, to take a message to the White House, asking the Israelis to let Syrian farmers in the occupied Golan Heights dig water wells - as Israeli settlers do to water their vineyards. (They probably didn't realise that Bush's White House doors don't open for Carter.) But, for Israel, Syrian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza complicates matters. Would Bashar al-Assad sell out Hezbollah and Hamas for the Golan Heights? The Turks are trying to find out, but so far Syria prefers to use the Palestinian and Leb anese Islamists to put pressure on Israel. If Israel makes peace with Syria, he won't need them.

This is what happens when nothing is happening: secret discussions on prisoner exchan ges, temporary ceasefires, border opening hours and goodwill gestures. For the past year and a half, Condoleezza Rice has made almost monthly trips to Israel. Why? Patrick Seale, one of the best-informed Middle East analysts, wrote for Agence Global on 7 May that Rice "has virtually nothing to show for it. Her diplomacy has been an exercise in futility."

Doing nothing permits Israel to colonise the West Bank, terrorise Gaza and linger on the Golan Heights. Was futility the policy? "Meanwhile, Israel stepped up its programmes of annexation, dismemberment and imprisonment of shrinking Palestinian cantons in the West Bank," Noam Chomsky told Palestine Today in July 2007, "always with the decisive US backing despite occasional minor complaints, accompanied by the wink of an eye and munificent funding." Moreover, Washington's paralysis allows Israel to choose which Arab leaders to talk to, knowing they will sell each other out. What's the downside for Bush?

© Charles Glass 2008. Charles Glass is the author of "The Tribes Triumphant" (HarperCollins) and "The Northern Front: A Wartime Diary" (Saqi)

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood