Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What's REALLY Wrong with the Goldstone Report

(This is not a new blog, but a reposting of yesterday's, which had some glitches, particularly an inability to post comments on it.  I hope this solves the problem.)

The usual rightwing “pro-Israel” circles are gleeful over the reported resignation of Christian Tomuschat, a German jurist who has been heading the UN committee charged with implementing the Goldstone Report. For example, B’nai B’rith International welcomed the resignation, commenting that it would further undermine the credibility of the “odious claim” that Israel deliberately attacked civilians in its attack on Gaza (“Operation Cast Lead”) two years ago. Similarly, Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post chortles (quoting “a friend”) that “the biased UN probe now has no leader, and is in disarray.”

Given the Obama administration’s collapse on Israeli issues and the general reluctance of Europe to confront both Israel and the United States over the damning findings of the Goldstone Report, it is almost certainly true that no significant UN action is likely to be taken. And it is also true that the Report is significantly flawed, but for precisely the opposite reason claimed by the Israeli apologists: the Report was actually too soft on Israel.

No doubt that will seem a startling argument in light of the Report’s finding that Israel carried out “systematically reckless” and indiscriminate attacks in densely populated areas of Gaza, as well as intentionally targeted the Gazan economy and civilian infrastructure and institutions, leaving “little doubt that disproportionate destruction and violence were part of a deliberate policy [directed against]…the foundations of civilian life.” Taken together, the Report concluded, these Israeli actions, “designed to humiliate and terrorize a civilian population” were “war crimes” under established international law, and “could lead a competent court to find that…a crime against humanity has been committed.”

None of the Report’s major factual findings have been refuted. On the contrary, during and soon after the Israeli attack, its nature and consequences were made abundantly clear by many U.S, European, and Israeli journalists. Since then, the Goldstone Report’s major findings have been confirmed by a number of investigations and reports of international and even Israeli human rights groups-- among them those of several UN agencies, the Red Cross, CARE, Oxfam, Israeli Physicians for Human Rights, accounts by Israeli soldiers, and—especially—the highly detailed reports of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

In that case, what are the true flaws of the Report? First, there can be no full understanding of the nature and purpose of Cast Lead without discussing the relevant historical context. While the Report does discuss the Israeli attack on Lebanese civilians during the course of the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, it chose not to examine the full history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which would have revealed the irrefutable evidence that for fifty years Israel has repeatedly engaged in indiscriminate and sometimes even clearly deliberate attacks, not only against the Palestinians but also against Jordanian, Egyptian, and Lebanese civilians. It has done so in order to “enhance its deterrence”(the preferred Israeli euphemism): that is, to intimidate civilians, or punish them for their supposed or actual support of Israel’s enemies and especially to induce them to turn against their own governments or militant organizations.

Consequently, even if there is no current definitive proof that the Israeli government not only “indiscriminately” but intentionally killed Palestinian civilians in Cast Lead--such as, for example, internal statements by the highest Israeli political or military leaders that civilians should be targeted and killed—the previous history of Israeli warfare at the very least justifies the strong suspicion that it did the same in Gaza.

The second problem with the Goldstone Report is that it was unwilling to challenge what might be called the liberal consensus over Cast Lead, namely that while Israel’s methods were terrible, it did have the right “to defend itself” against Hamas rocket attacks. However, this argument rests on two false premises, the first of which is that Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, only to be met by continuing Hamas attacks that gave it the right of self-defense. To begin, there is a wealth of evidence—much of it from candid statements of high Israeli officials--that the real purpose of the 2005 withdrawal of Jewish settlements in Gaza was to consolidate Israel’s continued occupation and ever-expanding settlements in the much more important West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In any case there was no true Israeli “withdrawal,” even from Gaza, for Israel retained control over its borders, coastline, and airspace; refused to allow Gaza a functioning airport or seaport; continued to control Gaza’s electricity, water, and telecommunications networks; and launched a number of military attacks. Consequently, the highly limited Israel “withdrawal” did not end the right of Palestinian resistance, for it hardly met the need for, and the right of, the Palestinian people as a whole for a viable and independent state of their own.

The Palestinians living in Gaza are not a separate nation from those living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; to believe otherwise is the equivalent of believing that if in the 1770s the British had withdrawn from New Jersey but continued to occupy the remaining colonies, the residents of New Jersey would no longer have the right to take up arms in support of American independence.

The second premise of the liberal argument is that the failure of non-military means of ending Hamas rocket attacks left Israel no other way to stop them. In fact, however, Israel had continuously refused to negotiate with Hamas to see if an acceptable political settlement could be reached, even though Hamas leaders had repeatedly indicated they would be amenable to a “truce” that could last ten years or more and which, in all likelihood, would become a de facto if not formal settlement of the conflict.

Moreover, on several occasions Israel unilaterally violated existing ceasefires with Hamas that had ended the organization's attacks on Israeli towns, in particular the six-month truce agreed to by both sides in June 2008.  During those months Israel not only continued but tightened its siege or economic warfare against Gaza, including severe restrictions on Gazan food supplies, medicines, fuel, and repair parts for water and sewage systems.

Even so, Hamas did not retaliate. However, in early November an Israeli attack killed six Hamas men. Following that attack, Hamas fired rockets into southern Israel but announced it would be prepared to renew the truce if Israel agreed to ease its siege. Israel ignored this opening, and a few weeks later it launched its all-out attack on Gaza.

In short, the argument that Israel had a last-resort right to use force in “self-defense” is absurd, for its obvious alternative was to end the occupation and negotiate a settlement with the Palestinian leadership, including Hamas. Put differently, there can be no right of self-defense when illegitimate and violent repression engenders resistance—and that holds true even when the form of resistance, terrorism (a fair description of Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians) is itself morally wrong. In that light, the Israeli attack was a war crime in and of itself—the crime of aggression—even if its methods of warfare had not also been war crimes.

In sum, the uncontestable facts leave no doubt that the Israeli attack on Gaza constituted a grave war crime. Unfortunately, by accepting that Israel had a case for self-defense—even though its methods were unacceptable--and by failing to fully discuss this history of Israeli attacks on Palestinian and other Arab civilians and infrastructure, the Goldstone Report actually understated the full range and import of Israeli criminality and significantly weakened its conclusions over the Israeli attack on Gaza.

Friday, December 10, 2010


I'm going to depart from my normal practice of limiting this blog to Israeli-related matters, in order to take on a broader foreign policy issue. I differ from Steve Walt (and many others, of course) over the Wikileaks issue. I don’t doubt that from time to time the public good is served by the leaking of cables or other secret government documents. In particular, the publication of the Pentagon Papers was surely a good thing, because the country was caught in a mindless war and it was obvious that the government was routinely lying about it.

That said, on balance I can’t see how Wikileaks serves the public interest. If government officials—U.S. and others—come to expect that what they say in confidence may soon be revealed, perhaps very soon, what can be the consequence other than that they will simply talk to each other in private to avoid creating a public record on controversial issues. How can that be good for either rational or reasonably democratic policy making?

Moreover, not only secrecy but outright lying may sometimes be necessary to serve the public interest. Consider a hypothetical but hardly implausible case. Suppose the Obama administration concluded that the war in Afghanistan was lost or at least not worth its various costs, and decided there would be a complete withdrawal of U.S. ground forces within six months. On the other hand, for obvious reasons it did not want to tip off the Taliban that there was a date certain—and soon—for the withdrawal. Therefore, in public the administration would have to deny it had reached this decision—that is, it would have to lie. Would we want Julian Assange to reveal this? What would be good about that? Aside from the consequences on the ground in Afghanistan, it would create a field day for the demagogues and rightwingers in this country.

Anyway, no need for hypotheticals. In 1940 Franklin Roosevelt decided that for both moral and national security reasons, the U.S. could not stand idly by while Britain was in mortal danger from Nazi Germany. However, he was faced with a militantly isolationist Congress and public opinion. So, FDR bypassed Congress, defied public opinion, and took a variety of illegal actions--all the while lying about them--in order to provide military assistance to Britain and to deliberately but secretly propel the U.S. into the war against Hitler. Thank God.

So where does that leave us? Sometimes deliberate violations of government secrecy are necessary and serve the public interest—the Pentagon Papers—and other times they would be damaging not only to national security but to the very cause of more open and democratic control over foreign policy. I don’t feel comfortable about leaving the decision on where the balance lies to Julian Assange, or for that matter to anyone else who has managed to steal or hack into the U.S. government’s computer files.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What's Wrong With A Jewish State?

In the last few months, Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli government have demanded that the Palestinians formally recognize Israel as a “Jewish State.” Depending on the latest iteration, this new demand has been presented either as a precondition for negotiations over a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or as a necessary component of such a settlement. The demand has been strongly rejected by leading Palestinian officials: Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, Nabil Shaath, the deputy prime minister, and Saab Erekat, the PNA’s chief negotiator have all said that while the Israelis can call their state whatever they want, the Palestinians will “never” recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Most of my liberal Jewish colleagues and other critics of Israeli policies also oppose the Israeli demand. There are substantial reasons to do so. First, it is almost certain that Netanyahu has cynically seized on this new precondition as a means of sabotaging any possibility of a two-state settlement which, despite his recent rhetoric, he has always opposed. Consequently, even if the Palestinians accepted the demand, undoubtedly Netanyahu and the even more extremist rightwing Israeli politicians that are part of his governing coalition would have no difficulty in finding other obstacles to a negotiated settlement.

Second, it is argued that even if wasn’t hypocritical, the Jewish state demand would be an unjust one, since its acceptance would require the Palestinians to relinquish their own demand for the right of return of the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars to their former homes, villages, and lands in Israel. Moreover, insofar as Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is an Israeli precondition for negotiations, the Palestinians would have to give up the right of return without serious assurances that Israel would really agree to allow the establishment of a genuinely independent and viable Palestinian state.

To be sure, most Palestinian moderates—including Abbas and other West Bank political leaders—have quietly indicated that in the context of an overall settlement that meets their other goals, they will have to relinquish an unlimited right of return. However, they have refused to publicly and unambiguously state that in advance of negotiations. Somewhat surprisingly, even the New York Times has in effect supported that decision, criticizing the Jewish state demand on the grounds that while the Palestinians will have to compromise on the refugee issue later, “Prejudging it right now is too much.” Jerry Haber has made the same point somewhat more forcefully: “the rapists demand that the rapee not only acquiesce in the rape but its legitimacy.”

A third criticism is that the Jewish state demand is openly racist; as succinctly stated by Gideon Levy of Haaretz, “Defining Israel as a Jewish state condemns us to living in a racist state.”

Finally, it is argued that the demand for a Jewish state is inconsistent with the requirements of democracy, for it would condemn the one million Arab citizens of Israel to permanent political as well as social and economic inequality and marginalization.

These are powerful criticisms, and certainly constitute decisive reasons for the Palestinians to reject the Jewish state demand as a precondition for “negotiations” especially since under Netanyahu they would all too likely go nowhere. However, for the Palestinians to say that they will never do so is a major error. Rather, Abbas and other PNA leaders should publicly state that they would be willing to relinquish their demand for a large–scale right of return and formally recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but only as part of an overall settlement that included the following:

*The creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza that met the legitimate demands—requirements, really--of the Palestinians: territorial contiguity, the withdrawal of Israeli military forces and all or most of the Jewish settlements, the establishment of East Jerusalem as the state’s capitol, Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram-al-Sharif (Temple Mount) mosques and other religiously important Islamic sites, Palestinian control over the crucially important water aquifers in the West Bank, and other components of the international consensus two-state settlement.

*A formal commitment by Israel to accept the Arab Israelis that choose to remain in a Jewish state as full citizens, with equal political, economic, and social rights as the Jews.

           The Criticisms Considered

A Jewish State Would Negate the Palestinian Right of Return. Of course that is the case, but even in principle it is far from clear that a right of return is a good idea on the merits, for the influx of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into Israel might well result in a worsening of the conflict, not its resolution. However, there is no need to puzzle over this issue, since there is no chance whatever that Israel will agree to it.

Moreover, most Palestinian leaders—including Yasir Arafat in the past—understand that the right of return demand is unrealistic. For example, in a widely noted 2002 New York Times oped, Arafat wrote the following: "We are ready to sit down now with any Israeli leader to negotiate freedom for the Palestinians, a complete end of the occupation, security for Israel and creative solutions to the plight of refugees while respecting Israel's demographic concerns.” (emphasis added)[1]

In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the true demand of most Palestinian leaders is a symbolic one--that the Israelis acknowledge their responsibilities for the expulsion or flight of the Palestinians during and following the 1948 and 1967 wars[2]—and that in practice the rights of the Palestinian refugees can only be realized by some combination of a small-scale family reunification return to Israel, perhaps on the order of 10,000 or so; the return of most of the refugees and their descendants, if they so choose, to the Palestinian state; or voluntary resettlement elsewhere, accompanied by major international economic compensation and assistance.

Moreover, it is of great significance that in 2007 the twenty-two states of the Arab League unanimously approved a peace plan that does not mention a Palestinian “right of return” but rather states that “a just resolution of the refugee problem” should be “agreed upon.” And it is hard to believe that this carefully chosen language, effectively granting Israel a veto on the issue, would have received such support if the Palestinian National Authority had objected.

It is often argued that for domestic political reasons no Palestinian political leaders can publicly and unambiguously renounce the right of return, even if conditioned on an overall peace settlement. Undoubtedly that is a real problem, but it is equally or probably even more true that as matters stand now domestic political constraints might well prevent Israeli political leaders from ending the occupation and removing large numbers of settlers from the West Bank and East Jerusalem—supposing, of course, that they really wanted to do so--even in return for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Both sides, then, would face major and perhaps violent internal opposition to a peace settlement, but what follows? Should we throw up our hands and accept that it is impossible to end the conflict? Many years ago George Kennan famously wrote: "History does not forgive us our national mistakes because they are explicable in terms of our domestic politics.…A nation which excuses its own failures by the sacred untouchableness of its own habits can excuse itself into complete disaster."  

In that light, there is nothing to do but continue the efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and hope that wise political leadership on both sides might yet be able to overcome domestic opposition to a realistic, rational, and a reasonably if not perfectly just settlement.

The Rights of Palestinian Arabs in a Jewish State.

Under its founding Declaration of Independence, Israel committed itself to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” However, from the outset Israel discriminated against the Israeli Arabs in a variety of ways, initially in practice though not in principle, but in recent years increasingly by official legislation and executive decrees.

Consequently, it could be argued that even if Israel agreed to full equality for the Palestinian and other minorities in a Jewish state, there would be no guarantee that it would honor its new commitments and no means of enforcement if it didn’t. That is correct, but what is the alternative? It stands to reason that the rights of the Israeli Arabs would have a greater chance of being realized if a peace settlement included a formal commitment by Israel that it will grant and enforce full citizenship and equality to them. And in the context of real peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people, there would be a much greater likelihood that Israel would honor its own declared principles and new formal guarantees, especially if they are structured so that they were commitments not only to the Palestinians but to the international community.

Is the Demand for a Jewish State Racist? In a famous or infamous 1975 resolution (later revoked in 1991), the UN General Assembly stated that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination." Aside from its political stupidity, that argument is untrue on the merits. To be sure, it is evident that many Israelis have racist attitudes towards Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular. Still, it is important to distinguish between Zionism in principle and its increasing corruption in practice, and to consider whether Zionism and the demand for a Jewish state is inherently racist.

If it is to have any objective meaning, as distinct from being merely an instrument of denunciation, the term “racism” must include the belief that other races or peoples are inferior to one’s own. In that sense, Zionism is not inherently or necessarily racist: the driving force behind the Zionist quest for a Jewish state was not the belief that it was imperative because the Jews were superior but the belief that it was imperative because the Jews were vulnerable.

Israel today is increasingly compared with South Africa under apartheid, and there are substantial reasons to do so. However, there are also important differences, among other reasons because South African apartheid was inherently racist, based as it was on the belief that whites were superior to blacks and therefore should rule over them, when necessary by great force and violence. Moreover, South Africa could not claim that because whites were vulnerable all over the world, they needed a state of their own.

To reiterate, by any reasonable definition the Israelis have become increasingly racist. Even so, the argument for a Jewish state is not racist by its very nature, and even in Israel today the predominant driving force behind the demand for formal Arab recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is not so much racism as it is a consequence of a continuing and probably growing sense of Jewish vulnerability in what is believed to be an inherently anti-Semitic world. Of course, this belief blindly equates opposition to the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians with hatred of Jews as such; nonetheless, however paranoid and mindless, genuine beliefs have real consequences, including consequences that the Palestinians have to take into account.

Zionism and Democracy. Whether or not the Jewish state concept is inherently racist, there is a clear tension between a continuing commitment to a Zionist Jewish state and the requirements of democracy in the context of a substantial non-Jewish minority. This is the most difficult issue for defenders of the Jewish state concept, for once the tension between Zionism and democracy is acknowledged, as it must be, the issue of whether Zionism was ever justified or at least is justified today, is unavoidable.

In thinking about this issue, it is important to distinguish between anti-Zionism and “post-Zionism.” Anti-Zionism usually entails the belief that the state of Israel should never have been created--though except for a handful of well-known crazies it does not include opposition to the continued “existence” of that state and its people, despite disingenuous or hysterical Israeli claims and propaganda. Post-Zionism accepts the need for the creation of a Jewish state in the past but holds that Israel today should no longer be regarded as a Jewish state, as opposed to the state of all its citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish alike; indeed, some post-Zionists accept the full logic of their position, in the sense that they would be prepared to accept an Israel in which Jews eventually might become a minority.

It is my view that in light of the long history of anti-Semitism, often murderous anti-Semitism, few if any other nationalist movements have had a more convincing claim to an imperative need for a state of their own than Jewish nationalism, or Zionism. Thus, the anti-Zionist argument, as applied to the founding of Israel, is quite unpersuasive. Post-Zionism today is another matter; even so, in the final analysis it is not convincing, for on what basis can one be confident that anti-Semitism will never again make life difficult—or impossible—for Jews anywhere in the world?

For that reason I cannot agree with my estimable colleague Tony Karon, who writes:

“The majority of the world’s Jews have not claimed a right to self-determination as Jews. On the contrary, we’re very happy that anti-Semitism in the West has been marginalized to the point that we can freely integrate ourselves into the democratic societies in which we’ve chosen to live….most young Jews in the West today are not assuming that their gentile neighbors are going to turn on them.”[3]

True enough—today. However, go back to the 1920s and substitute the word “Germany” for “the West.”

In short, it is historically short-sighted to be confident that the problem of anti-Semitism-- a problem that has repeatedly and with disastrous consequences recurred for more than two thousand years--has now been solved and will not reappear in the future, anywhere. Nor is it necessary to cite the Holocaust to cast doubt on the End of History assumptions implicit in post Zionism--in the last thirty years there has been considerable Ethiopian and massive Russian Jewish immigration into Israel in order to escape growing anti-Semitism and persecution in those countries. In that light, the case for a continued Zionism and the need for a Jewish state remains a reasonably strong one.

All that said, there is no denying that there is inherent tension between the requirements of Zionism and the requirements of democracy, a tension that already is a problem in Israel today and one that could become far more acute to the degree that the Israeli Arab minority becomes larger or increasingly alienated from the Jewish majority. While it is not only the size of the minority that matters, it is worthwhile to consider that issue: if the Israeli Arab minority should become substantially larger, would the tension between a Jewish state and a democratic one become irresolvable?

Perhaps surprisingly, Moshe Arens, one of Israel’s most prominent rightwing politicians, has addressed this issue in an interesting and forthright manner:

“Most Israelis are determined to assure the state’s Jewish character...while respecting its Arab citizens. We insist on continuing the mission that the Jewish state has set for itself of providing a haven for those Jews throughout the world who may need one. What happened during the Holocaust can never be allowed to happen again. This requires a substantial Jewish majority.”

“How big a majority? That’s a question that needs to be pondered. Is the present 80 percent Jewish majority sufficient? Would a reduction to a 70 percent Jewish majority be a catastrophe? Is it solely a question of numbers or is it also a function of the degree to which Israel’s minority population has been integrated into Israeli society?”[4]

As implied in Arens’ argument-- but not sufficiently emphasized--the degree of tension between two legitimate goals, a Jewish but still democratic state, depends not only on the size of the minority but also whether it is satisfied to continue to live in a Jewish state. Today the Arab minority is about 20% of the Israeli population; to some degree it is integrated into the fabric of Israeli life (although, of course, not equally so) and to some degree--apparently increasing--it is at odds with it.

In the context of an overall peace settlement with the Palestinians and the Arab world—readily attainable if only the Israelis would agree to it—the size of the minority might well decrease rather than increase because of the likelihood of some voluntary emigration of Israeli Palestinians into a full Palestinian state, especially if it becomes a political and economic success.

Perhaps more importantly, if Israel finally makes good on its commitment to full equality and rights for all its citizens, the “demographic problem,” to employ the Israeli euphemism, would likely become increasingly less important as non-Jewish citizens become fully integrated into the Israeli political system, economy, society, and culture.

The Case for Palestinian Acceptance of Israel as a Jewish State.

Formal recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is hardly a new or radical idea; indeed, the 1947 United Nations partition resolution specifically provided for the division of Palestine into a “Jewish state” and “an Arab state.” To be sure, there is every reason to believe that the Netanyahu government has seized upon what should be regarded as a non-issue as a cynical tactic to torpedo negotiations leading to a Palestinian state. But now that the Israeli government has made an issue of it, there is no doubt that for psychological and symbolic reasons most Israelis genuinely support the Jewish state demand—including many serious critics of the occupation.[5]

There is a growing concern in Israel that the state is becoming “delegitimized”—its very existence supposedly under a coordinated and deliberate “international campaign.” Of course this concern is entirely misplaced: most Israelis, invariably blind to the consequences of their country’s policies and actions, simply deny the obvious, namely that it is not the “existence” of Israel but its occupation and ugly repression of the Palestinians that is regarded as illegitimate, especially since it is clear that in the context of a two-state settlement the Palestinian Authority and most of the Arab world are ready to accept Israel and normalize relations with it.

Nonetheless, for obvious historical and psychological reasons most Israelis apparently genuinely fear “delegitimization,” and for that reason the fear, however unfounded, is a real obstacle to peace. In that light, it could be very helpful if the Palestinians were to reassure the Israelis by agreeing to recognize it as a "Jewish State" and dropping essentially symbolic demands, like the right of return, that are unrealistic and have no chance of being accepted.

Indeed, over the years, Palestinian leaders have often indicated that they recognize the realities, and are prepared to act accordingly in the context of a settlement. For example:

* In 2003, unofficial but high level Palestinian negotiators, tacitly backed by Yasir Arafat (at the time still the unchallenged leader of the Palestinians) signed the Geneva Accord, the most detailed and authoritative plan for a two-state settlement. The Accord recognized “the right of the Jewish people to statehood and the recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to statehood, without prejudice to the equal rights of the Parties' respective citizens.” Mahmoud Abbas—then known as Abu Mazen—was among the Palestinian leaders who have supported the Accord; indeed, he was the joint author of the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian “Beilin-Abu Mazen” statement, which set forth the principles on which the Geneva Accord was constructed.

*In 2004 Arafat was asked in an interview with Haaretz whether he understood that Israel had to remain a Jewish state. Reinforcing his 2002 New York Times oped, and this time talking directly to the Israelis, his reply was: “Definitely.”

*Recently, Yasser Abed Rabbo, the head of the Palestinian delegation that negotiated the Geneva Accord and today secretary general of the PLO, publicly stated that the Palestinians should “recognize Israel under any formula” in return for an Israeli commitment to a Palestinian state with the 1967 borders.[6]

In short, the Palestinians have nothing to lose by publicly and unambiguously stating that they will agree to formally recognize Israel as a Jewish state as part of an overall two-state settlement that meets their realistic and justifiable requirements. To be sure, it is only too likely that such a Palestinian concession would, in the short run, result only in the Netanyahu government and its rightwing supporters finding other pretexts for refusing a two-state settlement—but at least the Palestinians would dramatically be calling Netanyahu’s bluff and increasingly international pressures on Israel. Moreover, continued and even more obvious Israeli obduracy might lead to changes in the attitudes of my fellow American Jews, most of whom continue to reflexively support almost any Israeli behavior, thus enabling their most powerful organized leadership to continue abetting an Israel that is now accelerating its descent into a moral and security catastrophe.


[1]Arafat, "The Palestinian Vision of Peace," New York Times oped, Feb. 3, 2002.

[2]For example, in an October 20, 2010 oped in Haaretz, Nabil Shaath, chief of international relations for Fatah and a member of the Palestinian negotiating team, wrote that “We demand that Israel acknowledges its responsibility for the creation and perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee issue, and work with us toward finding a just resolution to this issue.” (“Does Israel Want Peace or to Play the Blame Game.”)

[3] “Who Made Netanyahu the Leader of the Jewish People?” Email to members of the Israeli-Palestinian List, Oct. 18, 2010.

[4]Haaretz, Sept. 14, 2010

[5] The Israeli centrist Yossi Alpher recently wrote that Netahyahu’s demand has broad support within the Israeli public: “The right wing likes it because it is patriotic and seemingly ‘anti-Arab.’ The left and center cannot easily oppose it because it dovetails with their emphasis on ending the occupation in order to maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in view of the demographic threat.” (“The ‘Jewish State’ Condition,” Bitterlemons, October 25, 2010.

[6] For a discussion, see Alpher, cited in note 5.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Benny Morris, Former Historian


Benny Morris was one of the earliest and most important Israeli “new historians” whose scholarship and courageous truth-telling refuted a number of mythologies about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among other things by demonstrating that the Palestinian refugee problem was deliberately created by the Zionists, who engaged in what we today call “ethnic cleansing.” Morris and others proved beyond reasonable doubt that in 1947-48 the Zionist military forces and political leadership drove a large part of the Palestinian population out of the lands under Zionist control, often by means of massacres and other acts of terrorism against the Arab civilian population.

“Transfer”-- the preferred Zionist euphemism for driving Palestinians from their homes, farmland, property, and villages—sometimes was motivated by revenge for resistance to the expanding Jewish control of Palestine, but more importantly it was deliberate state policy, designed to seize Palestinian land and property for distribution to the new wave of Jewish immigration from postwar Europe, and even more importantly, to ensure that Jews would be a large majority within the borders of what became Israel.

Today Benny Morris can no longer be regarded as a scholar and historian, but merely a propagandist, indeed a particularly shameful one, for he has traded on his former status and reputation as a fearless truth-teller in order to lend credibility to his ongoing series of disingenuous comments on current issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The latest example is a Morris essay in the September 29 issue of Haaretz, “No Love For Muslims, Unless They’re Palestinians.” Morris begins by discussing a metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as recently employed by Jeffrey Goldberg and Christopher Hitchens; it is worth quoting at some length:

“Hitchens approvingly cites (and expands) a metaphor coined (I think) by Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent for The Atlantic: A man (the Zionist Jew), to save himself, leaps from a burning building (anti-Semitic and Holocaust Europe) and lands on an innocent bystander (a Palestinian), crushing him. To which Hitchens adds - and the falling man lands on the Palestinian again and again (the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza, the suppression of the intifadas, the construction of settlements in the territories, etc).”

“But the metaphor is disingenuous, and it requires amplification to conform to the facts of history. In fact, as the leaping man nears the ground he offers the bystander a compromise - let's share the pavement, some for you, some for me. The bystander responds with a firm "no," and tries, again and again (1920, 1921, 1929, the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 and the 1947-48 War of Independence), to stab the falling man as he descends to the pavement. So the leaping man lands on the bystander, crushing him. Later, again and again, the leaping man, now firmly ensconced on the pavement, offers the crushed bystander a compromise ("autonomy" in 1978, a "two-state solution" in 2000 and in 2008), and again and again the bystander says "no."  The falling man may have somewhat wronged the bystander, but the bystander was never an innocent one; he was an active agent in and a party to his own demise.”

To begin, this is laughably bad writing, a consequence of Morris’ lame and increasingly absurd effort to make an extended argument within the confines of a forced metaphor. The far more important point, of course, is that Morris’s three main arguments in the essay are all bad ones. It is not that what he says is flatly false so much as that what he omits—and surely deliberately so, since he knows better—effectively makes the argument a dishonest one.

First, the “leaping man,” the Zionists, never truly offered the Palestinians a fair compromise before Israel was created, despite Morris’s argument, which refers to the several partition plans suggested in the 1930s and 1940s as the best practical compromise to solve the conflict between the Zionists and the overwhelming Palestinian majority, particularly the 1947 UN partition plan that formed the basis for the creation of Israel in 1948. The UN compromise partition plan was rejected by the Palestinians, but supposedly accepted by David Ben-Gurion and the Zionist leadership.

However, that is another part of the Israeli/Zionist mythology that has been decisively and repeatedly shown to be essentially false: the evidence is irrefutable that Ben-Gurion “accepted” the plan and sold it to his reluctant co-leadership, solely as a temporary tactic to allow the Zionists to gain a foothold, from which they would build a state and powerful military forces that could later expand and take over all of historical Palestine—the West Bank, all of Jerusalem, and even parts of Lebanon, Syria, and Transjordan.

Here, in Ben-Gurion’s own words, was his plan. In a 1937 letter to his son, he wrote: 

A partial Jewish state is not the end, but only the beginning. The establishment of such a Jewish State will serve as a means in our historical efforts to redeem the country in its entirety….We shall organize a modern defense force…and then I am certain that we will not be prevented from settling in other parts of the country, either by mutual agreement with our Arab neighbors or by some other means….We will expel the Arabs and take their places…with the force at our disposal.

And in early 1949 Ben-Gurion told his aides: “Before the founding of the state, on the eve of its creation, our main interest was self-defense….But now the issue at hand is conquest, not self-defense. As for setting the borders—it’s an open-ended matter. In the Bible as well as in history there are all kinds of definitions of the country’s borders, so there’s no real limit.”

In Morris’s second argument, he criticizes Christopher Hitchens for “seeming to accept the Palestinians’ definition of themselves as ‘natives’ struggling against an ‘imperialist foreign enemy.’” Actually, he strongly implies, it is the Jews who are the true natives of Palestine, not the Palestinians: “What of Jewish residence in the Land of Israel between the 1th century BCE and the late Byzantine period (5th and 6th centuries C.E? And what of Jewish residence and ‘nativeness’ in Palestine since 1882, nearly 130 years ago? If residence grants rights, surely Jewish residence counterbalances Arab residence in Palestine since 636 C.E.”

In effect, in an only slightly qualified manner, Morris is repeating the standard Zionist argument that Jewish rights in Palestine are greater than those of the Palestinians because the Jews were there first. It is emblematic of the poverty of thought on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that this argument is not immediately recognized as simply preposterous, outside the realm of even minimal intellectual respectability.

What’s Right and What’s Wrong with the Zionist Argument?

In evaluating the case for Zionism, the first step must be to separate the original Zionist argument for the necessity of a Jewish state from the arguments that such a state must be in Palestine. When Jewish nationalism or the Zionist political movement emerged in Europe in the early 20th century, its core belief was that the Jewish people had both an overwhelming need for and a moral right to a nation-state of their own. In light of the often murderous persecution of the Jewish people throughout history, it is hard to imagine any other people who have had a more powerful case for possession of a state of their own.

Where that state should be located, however, was a very different matter. The terrible paradox of Zionism is that while the arguments for the right and need of the Jews to have a state of their own were so strong as to be nearly self-evident, most of the arguments for the right to create that state in Palestine were quite weak.

The founder of the Zionist political movement, Theodore Herzl, initially considered the question of where the Jewish state should be located as an open one, a practical issue rather than an ideological or religious one. Thus, for awhile the Zionists canvassed a number of possibilities. However, the search for alternatives to Palestine was quickly abandoned. The turning point—and the origin of the Palestinian-Israeli and the larger Arab-Israeli conflict—came at the Zionist Congress of 1903, which decisively rejected any effort to create the Jewish state in any place but Biblical Palestine.

From the 19th century to the present, Zionists have made a number of arguments for exclusive Jewish political rights in Palestine. The first is the religious or Biblical argument: God promised the Jews that Palestine would be theirs forever, following which they established a Jewish Kingdom throughout the land, ruling for centuries until they were conquered and later expelled from the land by the Roman Empire. That is not an impressive argument, in the first instance because religious arguments convince only those for whom religious arguments are convincing. In any case, Christianity and Islam have their own religious claims to Palestine.

Moreover, a growing number of Israeli archaeologists, anthropologists and Biblical scholars have concluded that the Zionist argument that purports to rest on the actual history of the land is tendentious and largely mythological, lacking serious historical evidence to support it. Still, for the sake of argument let us assume that those modern scholars who challenge the mythology—the stories of Abraham, Moses, the Exodus from Egypt, the Jewish conquest of Palestine, and the later expulsion of the Jews by Rome--are in error. Assume further that the historical evidence supports the Zionist argument that Jews lived primarily in the ancient land of Palestine for many centuries, over which they established political sovereignty, losing this Jewish homeland only because they were forcibly conquered. Would all these presumed facts establish a modern Jewish claim to the land of Palestine?

Hardly. In no other place in the world is it accepted—in law, moral reasoning, or in plain common sense--that an ancient claim to a land has precedence over two thousand years of a different reality: eight centuries of Christianity, followed by thirteen centuries of an overwhelming Islamic majority. Indeed, nowhere else in the world does it even occur to anyone to make such a manifestly absurd argument.

To elaborate, Palestine has been repeatedly conquered by outside invaders since ancient history: by Assyria, Babylon, Alexander the Great, the Roman empire, the Crusaders, the Arabs, the Ottoman Empire—indeed, if the Old Testament is to be the historical source, in the Biblical era by the Jews themselves! On each occasion, many or most of the previous inhabitants of the land were killed, driven into exile, or subjugated by new rulers, who then held sway for centuries. Who, then, are the “rightful” claimants?

Put differently, by what objective criteria are the claims of one set of victims—the Jews supposedly driven out by the Romans over two thousand years ago—privileged over all other such claims? If ancient victimization is the criterion, then the descendants of the Canaanites (for example, the Syrians!), who lived on the land until the Jews conquered them, must have priority over the descendants of the Jews. On the other hand, if recent victimization is the criterion, then all victims of conquest after the Roman expulsion have priority over the Jews.

There is scarcely any place in the world that has not at one time been conquered, subjugated and populated by previously external forces. Consequently, absent a religious basis (“the Promised Land”) accepted by everyone, including those of different nationalities and religions, the stopping of the clock as it marches backward in time to 20 centuries ago, neither earlier nor later, must be completely arbitrary and self-serving. Thus, a kind of common sense statute of limitations on land claims by right of previous inhabitance has evolved. Of course, there can be no precision in ascertaining the point at which the passage of time has nullified the moral or legal validity of previous land claims, and certainly there are hard cases.

The Zionist claim, however, is not one of them. While the metaphorical statute of limitations is vague, we can at least establish a morally plausible range:

*The passage of a few months or years is not enough to wipe out past rights. Thus, no unbiased observer challenged the moral right of the Bosnians, the Croatians, and the Kosovar Albanians to reverse Serbian ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia—even though force was often necessary and it required the dispossession of Serbs who had recently taken over the abandoned homes and villages.

*The passage of some decades creates a complex problem. Thus, the question of whether the Palestinians have the right to return to their homes and villages in what is now Israel is one of the most vexing issues in the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not easily resolvable, either in practice or in moral principle—except by some kind of fair compromise.

*Two hundred years or so is too long. For example, while there is no doubt that in the 19th century Americans illegitimately and forcibly conquered much of what became the United States from the Native Americans and from Mexico, it does not follow that today’s Native Americans have even the theoretical moral right to reconquer the West, or that Mexico could legitimately drive out the Texans today.

This is not to deny that the Native Americans still have some persuasive legal and moral claims for some forms of restitution. After a century and a half, however, the use of force to assert previous territorial rights would be an entirely different matter. For example, there seems to be no doubt that a couple of centuries ago my home in Buffalo was once on land inhabited by the Seneca Indian Nation—but I don’t think that would give the modern Senecans the right to demand I return it to them, or to violently drive me out if I refuse.

*If this line is reasoning is persuasive, then a territorial claim based on previous inhabitance two thousand years ago is beneath serious consideration. To be sure, even after the Roman conquest there continued to be a substantial Jewish community in Palestine. However, over time most became Christians or Moslems as a result of the consecutive foreign conquests and occupation of Palestine, leaving only a small minority that preserved its Jewish identity.

As a result, by the end of the 19th century, prior to the beginning of the Zionist immigration, only some 15,000-30,000 Jews remained in Palestine, about 3-7% of the Arab population. Different studies have come to somewhat different estimates, but none remotely support Morris’s claim that “Jewish residence counterbalances Arab residence in Palestine since 636 C.E.” (emphasis added)

There is only one good argument for the Zionist claim to have a Jewish state in some part of the land of Palestine, but it is a sufficient one. Unlike the other arguments I have discussed, the fact of centuries of murderous Jewish persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, cannot be dismissed as irrelevant in legitimizing the creation of Israel. To be sure, the matter is complex: the conflict between the Jews and Palestinians long preceded Nazi Germany, and in any case the Palestinians were in no way responsible for the Holocaust or, for that matter, for the earlier history of murderous European anti-Semitism that produced Zionism. As the Palestinians always ask: Why should we be made to pay for evils we did not commit?

On the other hand, the Holocaust made the case for the creation of a Jewish state and a haven for the victims of anti-Semitism not only irrefutable but urgent. And by the late 1930s the die was cast; it was far too late to consider alternatives other than Palestine. In that context, the Palestinian plea of innocence lost much—though not all—of its force. The answer to the “why should we pay” question was this: it had become a tragic necessity, for the alternative, in terms of the human consequences, was worse.

In that case, could the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been averted, or at least settled long ago? Perhaps it might have, if two things had been done by Israel at the time of its creation, or at least since. First, Israel should have jettisoned its untrue, infuriating, and irrelevant “narrative” and simply rested its case for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine on historical necessity in general, the Holocaust in particular, and the absence of a practical alternative to the land of Palestine. And since 1948 the only argument necessary to the Zionist case is that Israel exists, new moral as well as factual realities have been created, and Israelis have the right to live.

At the same time, however, Israel should have publicly and repeatedly acknowledged that the creation of Israel had created a grave injustice to the Palestinian people, that the subsequent Israeli expulsion, occupation, and repression of the Palestinians had compounded the injustice and the pain it has long inflicted on the Palestinian people, and that as a result Israel would do everything in its economic and political power to remedy those injustices and alleviate the pain-- short of abandoning its state.

Even today, it is probably not too late for Israel to do this, and it may very well be the case that such an acknowledgement—accompanied by major Israeli economic assistance to the Palestinians—is the necessary psychological prerequisite if there is ever to be a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But first the Israelis (and their allies in the American Jewish community) must go through a painful demythologizing process; sadly, they will get no help from Benny Morris, despite his earlier work.

Morris and the Two-State Solution.

Morris’s last argument is based on a serious distortion of the fistory of the two-state solution, especially in 2000 and in 2008. Morris simply reasserts the standard mythology: that in 2000 Ehud Barak offered Arafat a genuine two-state solution but that Arafat flatly rejected it, made no counteroffers, walked away from the negotiations, and began the violent intifada. No part of this mythology has survived serious examination. The issue is far too complex to be examined here, but it has been refuted in great detail by a number of scholars, journalists, and former policy makers—most of them Israeli. (For my own analysis, see here)

Here are the most salient points:

*Even as the negotiations were proceeding, Barak was continuing to expand the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, continuing the Israeli practice of creating “facts on the ground” that precluded their return to the Palestinians.

*No one knows for sure what Barak “offered” to Arafat in 2000, since he refused to put anything in writing and even refused to talk directly to Arafat at what was supposed to be a “summit” meeting at Camp David in July 2000. As for what Barak seemed to be hinting he might finally offer, at most it would have left the largest and most important Jewish settlements beyond Israel’s pre-1967 borders under Israeli sovereignty—not least because they had been deliberately placed there to ensure Israeli control over some of the best agricultural land and largest West Bank water aquifers.

*On the crucial issue of Jerusalem, Barak not only continued to insist on full Israeli sovereignty over the entire city, including over the Muslim mosques in the Old City, he actually hardened the Israeli position over Jerusalem by demanding for the first time that Jews be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount plateau, adjacent to the mosques. As many Israelis and others have noted, Barak’s position on Jerusalem alone doomed the negotiations to failure.

*On another crucial issue, the Palestinian refugee “right of return” to Israel, Barak was also completely uncompromising, later stating that no Israeli prime minister would ever accept “even one refugee on the basis of the right of return.”

*Barak continued to demand a demilitarized Palestinian state, Israeli control over Palestinian borders and air space, and even a long-term Israeli military presence and settlements deep within the projected Palestinian state, especially in the Jordan river valley and adjacent mountain tops.

In short, if the Palestinians had accepted Barak’s apparent proposals—assuming that in the end Barak would have formally offered them--they would have gained only a tiny, economically nonviable and water-starved Palestinian “state”—or perhaps, better said, Bantustans--divided into a number of noncontiguous parcels separated by Israeli armed forces, roads, and Jewish settlements, denied a capital in East Jerusalem or even sovereignty over the Muslim religious sites on the Temple Mount.

No wonder that Shlomo Ben-Ami, Barak’s foreign minister, later said that “Camp David was not a missed opportunity for the Palestinians, and if I were a Palestinian I would have rejected Camp David, as well,” and that Barak himself later boasted that he had given the Palestinians “not a thing.” And even then, the overall conclusion of investigations by European, U.S and even Israeli intelligence organizations is that Arafat did not make a policy decision to abandon negotiations and turn to violence; rather he was unable to contain the Palestinian intifada, which at least initially was a revolution from below.

What Happened in 2008?

Morris writes that the Palestinians again rejected a compromise two-state solution in 2008, supposedly offered by Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. The facts are murky, but there have been some indications of what happened. Olmert, who had a long history as a hardline rightist before his election, was prime minister from May 2006 until he was defeated for reelection by Benjamin Netanyahu in February 2009. Throughout his term in office he not only continued but stepped up the expansion of Jewish settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and two months before his term expired he instituted the infamous Israeli attack on Gaza and resisted efforts by members of his own Cabinet to cut short the attack before even more Gazan civilians were slaughtered.

Still, it is true that in the last few months of his time in office—and when there was no longer any doubt that he was about to be decisively defeated by Netanyahu—Olmert made some surprisingly strong public statements about the need for a genuine and fair two-statement settlement with the Palestinians, perhaps including some form of shared Israeli-Palestinian sovereignty over the Old City and other sites within Jerusalem of religious importance to both Jews and Muslims.

There were some preliminary talks between Olmert and high-level Palestinian leaders on the basis of these promising Olmert statements, but there were no official Israeli proposals, no formal negotiations, no public documentary record, and in any case the process was quickly aborted when Olmert authorized the Israeli attack on Gaza and Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister.

And because Morris knows all this, today he is nothing more than a propagandist for the indefensible, and a particularly dangerous one at that, precisely because before he betrayed his calling he had gained great credibility as a fearless teller of the truth. Put differently, while once Morris told truth to power—often described as the highest calling of intellectuals-- now he tells the lies that power wants to hear. So it is hardly surprising that Morris, once a pariah in his country, today is a thriving and celebrated defender of Israeli policies and a close adviser to top Israeli political leaders.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

An Apology

In my most recent blog, on explaining Obama, there are several errors, particularly at least two places where I have left important words out.  I have made similar errors in a couple of other blogs.  In some cases, I have caught them—or others have—quickly enough to remove the original blog and replace it with a corrected one.

The errors have been a result of trying to write something quickly on recent events and, I must admit, trying to rush into print before others do.  That’s my excuse, but it isn’t good enough. I will have to do a better job of proofing in the future.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Will Someone Explain Obama To Me?

During the course of the Obama administration I've been somewhat reluctantly been inclined to give Obama the benefit of the doubt on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  My argument has been that Israel is so hopeless that no solution of the conflict is possible, short of a sustained U.S. policy that denied the country any diplomatic, economic, or military support unless and until it agreed to a fair two-statement settlement with the Palestinians.

If that was Obama's reasoning, he might well have decided that since he had no chance of getting Congressional support for such a draconic change in U.S. policies, and no hope of a settlement without such a change, it would be foolish to push Israel at all, since it would only antagonize Democratic congressmen whose support he needed to enact his domestic program.   If so, he could well end up with the worst of both worlds: no domestic program and no Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

If that had been Obama's logic, however, it would have been better for him to have simply dropped out of the diplomatic process, perhaps with the usual excuses-- "We can't want a settlement more than the parties to the conflict, so it's up to them to work it out," and the like.   Instead, he seems to be incapable of preventing himself from going from one travesty to the next.   He makes just enough interesting speeches (i.e. Cairo), appears ready to make some interesting appointments (i.e. Freeman), only to beat humiliating retreats, time after time after time, when the perfectly predictable reactions occur.


The latest is the incredible administration proposal that practically begs Netanyahu to make the most meaningless gestures to the Palestinians, in return for yet more unconditional U.S. support of Israel--as described in some detail in a story by Barak Ravid in this morning's Haaretz.

What can Obama be thinking?  I fear I am being reluctantly drawn to the conclusion that he is simply incompetent, unable to prevent himself from being made a fool of by the likes of Dennis Ross--who is said to have drafted the letter--and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Speaking of Ross, anyone who has been following US policies in the Israeli-Palestinian should that the man is a catastrophe, not just "Israel's lawyer," in Aaron Miller’s famous characterization, but a crazed narcissist.  That is what explains why, after Netanyahu apparently rejected even Obama's abject surrender, "Ross was very insulted by Netanyahu's conduct and considered it 'treason.'" (Ravid). 

Unless you happened to remember Ross's memoirs about the Clinton administration (The Missing Peace), that might seem quite puzzling:  "treason" to who?  Well, not such a great mystery.  During the Camp David negotiations, Ross tell us that he told the Palestinian delegation: “You know that I understand your problems, your needs, and your aspirations very well. You know that often I explain them better than any of you do” (p. 755).

At the same time, Ross sometimes seemed to regard the Israelis as spokesmen for him, who needed rebuking when they strayed from the correct path: after telling the Palestinians that he was “quite certain” that the Israelis would not accept anything less than a 7% annexation of the West Bank, he learned that the Israelis were considering 5%: “I was furious. What was the point of my conveying a tough posture on issues of supposed principle to the Israeli side if they were simply going to undercut me?” (pp. 748-49).

So now we know: Treason to Dennis Ross.   And this is who Obama entrusts his Israeli-Palestinian policies?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why I Blog

I recently participated in a conference in Washington DC, on “The New Media and the Palestine Question: Blogging Out of Conflict,” sponsored by The Jerusalem Fund & The Palestine Center. 

There were two panels.  On the first, Adam Horowitz of Mondoweiss and I spoke on the effects of blogging on the public debate on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; on the second panel Steve Walt and MJ Rosenberg discussed the effects of blogging on public policy.  You can view both panels in their entirety, here.

The following is the slightly amended and expanded text of my comments.

“The instructions to Adam and me were to provide a ten minute introduction about where and why we blog, what got us into it, why we blog about the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and whether blogging should be considered activism or journalism, or both. I am not particularly comfortable in talking about myself, and I can see little reason why others should be interested in my personal story, but orders are orders, so I will briefly comply.

I began blogging last December. There are a growing number of excellent blogs that deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as with U.S. policies towards Israel—especially, I may say, Mondoweiss—so it may well be asked what purpose a new one would have. My hope was that, as an academic who had been teaching and writing about this matter for over forty years, I could provide an historical perspective that complements both activism and journalism.

In particular, I think that there is a gap—and an unnecessary gap—between shorter daily comments that quickly react to recent events, and long articles written for professional journals. My hope is to bridge this gap, by writing shorter essays, principally in the 4000-5000 word range, based on research and scholarship—mine, or others—but aimed at general audiences, not written in academic prose, and reasonably closely tied to current events, instead of appearing two years later, if at all, in a professional journal. As an example, a couple of months after the publication of the Goldstone report, I wrote two fairly long analyses of it.

In addition, from time to time, when some especially outrageous event occurs, or a noxious rightwing article is published, or a typically misleading and half-truthy New York Times story appears, I am unable to resist commenting on it, in shorter pieces more typical of the blogging world.

The problem with my type of blog, of course, is that it doesn’t appear on any regular or predictable basis—unlike, say, Mondoweiss and Steve Walt, both of which I read every day-- so it will be difficult to gain a regular readership. However, there is a terrific feature of most blogging programs, including mine, which allows interested readers to sign up to be notified by email when a new blog appears. So you don’t have to check it every day.

So why do I blog on this particular issue? Over the course of my life, I’ve gone through three phases on Israel. Coming of age in New York City in the 1940s, immediately after the Holocaust, and with anti-Semitism still alive in America, I thought of myself as a fervent Zionist. I guess in a sense I still am something of a Zionist, although a lot less fervent, since I regarded the case for the creation of a Jewish state, if nothing else than as a refuge for persecuted Jews, as a compelling one—though not necessarily in Palestine, a land already populated by the Palestinian Arabs. 

How to resolve that moral dilemma is a complex matter that is beyond the scope of these brief comments.  However, in light of the history of the Jewish people, perhaps the most basic rationale of Zionism is still not to be dismissed, however much it has been betrayed by Israel.

From 1957-60 I served as the anti-submarine warfare officer on a U.S. destroyer. Some years later Egypt bought four submarines from the Soviet Union. Since I was still in my first phase as a fervent Zionist, I wrote to the Israeli Embassy and offered to serve as an anti-submarine warfare officer on an Israeli destroyer, in the event a new war broke out with Egypt before the Israelis could train their own people.

However, at about this same time my views began to change, as a result of three factors.  First, I began serious study of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as opposed to its mythology.  How anyone can continue to believe in this mythology, after at least twenty years of its decisive refutation, principally by Israeli historians and journalists, is beyond me.  Well, not really beyond me—among most Israelis and American Jews, sad to say, there is an invincible need not to know.

Second, it became apparent that soon after the 1967 War, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and then his successor Anwar Sadat, were seeking to end the conflict, but were being stonewalled by Israel. I felt like writing to Golda Meir and saying that if Israel blundered into an unnecessary war with Egypt—which, of course, it soon did—she should consider my offer as cancelled.

Third, in 1977 Foreign Affairs published George Ball’s famous article, “How to Save Israel In Spite of Herself.” It had a profound influence on me. These three factors impelled me into my Tough Love phase, hoping that truth-telling would eventually convince the Israelis, and the American Jewish community, that Israel was on the road to both a moral and security disaster, and needed to come to terms with the historical truth as the first step, actually the sine qua non, of saving itself.

But in the last few years—and this is hard to admit, let alone to say out loud—I no longer believe that Tough Love can work. I do not love Israel—as opposed, of course, to the many wonderful and courageous Israelis who still resist what their country has become.  Moreover, I no longer think Israel can be saved from itself—and certainly not if the American Jewish community, with its enormous influence on U.S. policies, continues to believe in the long-discredited mythologies.

In short, Israel is no longer on the road to a moral and security disaster, it is already there, and I see no realistic prospect that it can reverse course. It is hard to see how a two-state solution can be reached, and the one-state “solution” is no solution at all, but a fantasy which if somehow actually materialized, could well be even worse than the present situation.

So why bother to continue to write about it? Part of the reason is illustrated by this story. One day the governor was touring the state mental institution and he came across a man who was completely naked, except that he had on an elegant top hat and beautiful black dress shoes. “Why do you run around naked,” the governor asked? “What’s the difference,” the man responded, “no one ever comes to see me.” Then why the top hat and dress shoes, asked the governor?” “Somebody might,” was the response.

In that spirit, I now write in the forlorn hope that truth and justice might yet prevail, despite my deep pessimism. But equally or perhaps more so, I also now write in the spirit of “Not in my Name.” If you are a completely secular Jew, like me, it is hard to see what the point is of being Jewish if not to uphold the best values of western civilization.

Today that seems quaint, if not downright preposterous—but it wasn’t always so. There was a time when it was widely accepted—and not just by Jews--that the Jewish culture and tradition was one that was particularly committed to reason, truth, and justice. Consequently, when Israel was founded, and committed itself to be “A light unto the Nations,” it was widely believed that it might indeed fulfill this promise. 

No longer, needless to say. The appropriate response to what Israel has become is outrage. So maybe that’s the main reason why I continue to bang my head on the wall.

Finally, is this activism or journalism, or both? I don’t know, but as a lifelong academic, I prefer to think of it as scholarship in the best sense: the search for knowledge, reason, truth, and justice.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Who Can’t Read?

Jeffrey Goldberg’s already famous Atlantic article purportedly merely reports on and describes—rather than argues for—the likelihood that Israel will soon attack the Iranian nuclear installations (and maybe more than that) if the United States doesn’t. A number of commentators have already eviscerated the article (Steve Walt, Robert Wright, Phil Weiss, Glen Greenwald, Yossi Alpher, and others), pointing out a number of crucial factual errors in it and arguing that rather than constituting neutral journalism it is a piece of advocacy, if not outright propaganda.

Since Goldberg also describes the views of Israeli and other opponents of an Israeli attack, and forthrightly lists a number of devastating consequences that are likely to occur after such an attack, are the critical comments on his article justified, perhaps just--in this case--an unfair function of Goldberg’s well-earned reputation as a rightwing and disingenuous hardliner on most issues concerning Israel?

Joe Klein of Time, a normally perceptive  commentator, has risen to the defense of the Goldberg article against its critics, especially Greenwald. Klein writes that “Greenwald… displays his usual inability to understand what journalism is all about….[He has] the hilariously grotesque notion that Jeff's excellent cover story in the Atlantic…is an act of propaganda. It isn't. It's an act of journalism.”

Greenwald is “stupidly mistaken,” Klein continues, when he takes Goldberg’s story about what high-level Israelis are thinking to constitute agreement with them. And even if Goldberg does agree with them, Klein argues, “it is irrelevant,” for “his piece has no secret agenda….he isn’t making an argument, he’s reporting the mood in Israel as he sees it… Any and all attempts to smear this very good piece of reporting as propaganda is propaganda.”

Harsh words. The best way to see who is “stupidly mistaken” is to closely analyze the wording and structure of the Goldberg article.

It is true that Goldberg begins by describing the downside of an Israeli attacks, which “stands a good chance of changing the Middle East forever; of sparking lethal reprisals, and even a full-blown regional war that could lead to the deaths of thousands of Israelis and Iranians, and possibly Arabs and Americans as well; of creating a crisis for Barack Obama that will dwarf Afghanistan in significance and complexity; of rupturing relations between Jerusalem and Washington, which is Israel’s only meaningful ally; of inadvertently solidifying the somewhat tenuous rule of the mullahs in Tehran; of causing the price of oil to spike to cataclysmic highs, launching the world economy into a period of turbulence not experienced since the autumn of 2008, or possibly since the oil shock of 1973; of placing communities across the Jewish diaspora in mortal danger, by making them targets of Iranian-sponsored terror attacks, as they have been in the past, in a limited though already lethal way; and of accelerating Israel’s conversion from a once-admired refuge for a persecuted people into a leper among nations.”

Wow. In that case, who could possibly want Israel to attack? But consider Goldberg’s next paragraph, the key word of which is “however”:

“If a strike does succeed in crippling the Iranian nuclear program, however, Israel, in addition to possibly generating some combination of the various catastrophes outlined above, will have removed from its list of existential worries the immediate specter of nuclear-weaponized, theologically driven, eliminationist anti-Semitism; it may derive for itself the secret thanks (though the public condemnation) of the Middle East’s moderate Arab regimes, all of which fear an Iranian bomb with an intensity that in some instances matches Israel’s; and it will have succeeded in countering, in militant fashion, the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East….”

But could an Israeli attack work? Here Goldberg drops his guise of just reporting what others think and speaks in his own voice: “Israel has twice before successfully attacked and destroyed an enemy’s nuclear program. In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, halting—forever, as it turned out—Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions; and in 2007, Israeli planes destroyed a North Korean–built reactor in Syria. An attack on Iran, then, would be unprecedented only in scope and complexity.”

Those are simply the facts of the matter, Goldberg wishes us to think. But they are not facts at all. As others have pointed out, rather than stopping an Iraqi nuclear program, it either created it or, at a minimum, caused it to be vastly expanded. Moreover, so far as I know there has been no independent verification, as opposed to an Israeli claim, that what the Israelis struck in Syria was a North Korean nuclear reactor. Even if it was, an attack on a single reactor sitting above ground in an open desert would provide no useful precedent whatsoever for judging the likely success of an attack on the extensive, dispersed, hidden, hardened, and underground Iraqi nuclear program.

Throughout the article, Goldberg extensively quotes Benjamin Netanyahu and other advocates of an Israeli attack on the dangers of a new “holocaust” if Iran gets nuclear weapons. One quote is particularly significant: “The only reason Bibi [Netanyahu] would place Israel’s relationship with America in total jeopardy is if he thinks that Iran represents a threat like the Shoah,” an Israeli official who spends considerable time with the prime minister told me. “In World War II, the Jews had no power to stop Hitler from annihilating us. Six million were slaughtered. Today, 6 million Jews live in Israel, and someone is threatening them with annihilation. But now we have the power to stop them. Bibi knows that this is the choice.”

Soon afterwards, Goldberg again speaks in his own voice, musing: “If the Jewish physicists who created Israel’s nuclear arsenal could somehow have ripped a hole in the space-time continuum and sent a squadron of fighters back to 1942, then the problem of Auschwitz would have been solved in 1942. In other words, the creation of a serious Jewish military capability—a nuclear bomb, say, or the Israeli air force—during World War II would have meant a quicker end to the Holocaust.”

And here is Goldberg’s conclusion: “Based on months of interviews, I have come to believe that the administration knows it is a near-certainty that Israel will act against Iran soon if nothing or no one else stops the nuclear program; and Obama knows—as his aides, and others in the State and Defense departments made clear to me—that a nuclear-armed Iran is a serious threat to the interests of the United States.” Note that Goldberg does not say that “American officials believe” that a nuclear-armed Iraq would be a serious threat to the U.S. national interest—presumably serious enough to justify a U.S. or US/Israel attack—he says that it is such a threat.

The cat is out of the bag. Eliminate the clever—not that clever—slipperiness, and here is my translation of what Goldberg is saying: An Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear installations would have dangerous consequences, but is still necessary to prevent a new Holocaust. Even if Iran is not so irrational as to commit national suicide by launching nuclear weapons against Israel, Israel would suffer other unacceptable consequences—like, for example, causing large numbers of Israelis to emigrate, fearing an eventual Iraqi attack. However, it is unlikely that an Israeli attack on its own could succeed in eliminating the Iranian nuclear threat. Therefore, the United States should attack, for its national interests would be so threatened by Iranian nuclear weapons as to require an overwhelming military attack, regardless of the probable devastating consequences. And it had better attack soon, because otherwise Israel will.

So who is it that can’t read, Klein or Greenwald?