Sunday, July 18, 2010

It’s Hard to Defend This One

Well, I’ve been offering a sort of semi-defense, or at least an explanation, of Obama’s unwillingness to confront Israel and its supporters.  But I can’t handle this one (from this morning’s Haaretz):

“U.S. official: More American aid will help Israel make 'tough' decisions”: 

An expanded security aid package would allow Israel to reach "tough decisions" in peace talks with the Palestinians, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Andrew J. Shapiro said Friday, adding that Washington planned to provide Israel with its most extensive military aid package in history.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Reply to “Bon”

Bon’s comment on yesterday’s blog, “Obama’s Dilemma: Addendum,” succinctly and articulately captures the “pro-Israel” argument.  For that reason, I want to reprint it here, and then respond to it.

Bon writes:

What in hell are you talking about? The majority of Israelis support the two-states solution. That's the fact. Likud, Kadima, Avoda, MERETZ, Lieberman (yes!) and even SHAS had committed themselves to this idea in one form or another. If Israeli public would think that Netanyahu is too stubborn, or too weak, or too stupid not to grasp the opportunity to get rid of Palestinians, they would toss him out as they did in 1999. Unfortunately, lots of things happened since then, and lots of Jews had died, and right now Israelis don't think they should move a finger until they have trustworthy, copper-bottomed partner on the other side and the American president capable of delivering. What Obama should have done is to sit on Abbas till the man signs the shortlist of Israelis' expectations - end of conflict, no more claims, demilitarization, "refugee problem" solved outside Israel, no support for Israeli Arab nationalism. Then with this list Obama could turn to Israelis and set the shortlist of Palestinian reciprocal demands: evacuation of the majority of settlements, land swaps, territorial continuity, economic cooperation, water rights, East Jerusalem. Instead, Obama've chosen to press Israel for unilateral concessions, orchestrated a humiliation campaign for a democratically elected Israeli leader, refused to embrace the Zionist narrative in Cairo and then was totally surprised when his strategy backfired. Instead of admitting that your Messiah has acted like an idiot and blew his chance to advance peace, you're prattling about how peace is impossible because the Jews are just too damn strong. Shame.”


Here’s a point by point response:

1. It is true that a small majority of Israelis, responding to poll surveys, usually say they support a two state solution--but they then oppose most of the steps that every serious observer knows are necessary to bring it about.  Therefore, Bon’s comment that they support "this idea in one form or another" is meaningless.

2. Even if a majority of Israelis supported a meaningful two-state solution, they would not or could not impose it on the increasingly strong minority who would oppose it, some of them violently.

3. Jews have died since 1999 primarily because  they continue to occupy and repress the Palestinians, some of whom violently resist.

4. If Bon is saying that Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad don’t meet his definition of  trustworthy partners, then what he is really saying is that no Palestinian leader could ever meet his definition.

5. A president capable of delivering.  No president can "deliver"—Bon means impose--a settlement on either side.

6.  Just what "unilateral concessions" has Obama "pressed" on Israel?  Obama's only "demand" has been for Israel to stop its settlement expansion, the obvious first step--and a small one at that--to a two state settlement.  And "pressed?"  In fact Obama has caved in repeatedly, even on his minimal “demand.”

7. Just what is this "humiliation campaign" that Obama "orchestrated?"  Evidently Bon has in mind the global revulsion against the Israeli siege and military attacks on Gaza, particularly but far from limited to “Operation Cast Lead,” as well as other assorted war crimes that have characterized the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians for decades.  And far from "orchestrating" this reaction, the Obama administration has repeatedly dissociated itself from it, as demonstrated by its opposition to the Goldstone report and its pointed ignoring of the similar reports and investigations of other human rights groups, including a number of Israeli ones.

8. “Democratically elected?”  To begin with, even a democratically-elected leader is not given moral or legal carte blanche to carry out war crimes.  Hitler came to power in democratic elections.  So did Milosevic in Serbia, before starting his genocidal war against the Bosnian Muslims.  There are other examples.

        In any case, Netanyahu was democratically elected only by the Jews, not by a majority of all  the people living in land controlled or occupied by Israel. Note I did not say all the citizens of that land, because Israel has solved that rather serious problem for its alleged democratic nature by simply denying citizenship to about 50% of the population.

         Or perhaps Bon thinks that the Palestinians are rightly regarded as being citizens of the independent states of Gaza and the West Bank?

9. Obama refuses to "embrace the Zionist narrative?"  In fact, regrettably, I’m far from sure he hasn’t.  In any case, as is widely understood today, large parts of the Israeli "narrative" have been repeatedly and definitively shown to be false, particularly by Israeli historians, political scientists, journalists, archaeologists—and even by some Israeli political leaders, once they are no longer in office. 

      It is not “narratives” that should be embraced, but historical truth.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Obama’s Dilemma: Addendum

A number of commentators, here and elsewhere, justifiably frustrated by Obama’s waffling—or worse—on Israel, have suggested a number of executive actions that he could take that would not require Congressional authorization.

The most obvious one is the “bully pulpit” strategy: Obama could seek to educate public opinion on the ways in which Israel is harming U.S. interests and national security, not to mention harming itself.   Several commentators have pointed to Eisenhower’s 1956 success in using strong U.S. pressures to force Ben-Gurion to withdraw Israeli forces from the Sinai, following the 1956 war.

The problem is that Barack Obama does not have the nearly untouchable standing with the American public as did Dwight Eisenhower, Benjamin Netanyahu has neither the intelligence nor the political standing as David Ben-Gurion, and the Israel of 2010 is not the Israel of 1956.

To be sure, I don’t doubt that if Obama would make a strong and public case for US sanctions, it would have a significant impact on general public opinion.  The problem, however, is that the overall electoral consequences both in Congress and in the 2012 presidential campaign would be more likely to be negative for the Democrats than positive: there almost certainly would be a substantial defection, both in terms of voting and contributions, among Jews, and it is hard to imagine that this would be offset by a shift towards the Democrats by those who otherwise would vote and contribute to Republicans.   In close elections, the defection of the Jews, and maybe some Christian fundamentalists, might well be enough to tip the balance towards the Republicans.

Incidentally, political science (for once), has something useful to tell us about this phenomenon: a small minority who feel very strongly about an issue can offset a majority whose views are on the other side but for whom the issue is not very important.  Hence the political power of narrowly-focused interest groups: not only the Israel Lobby, but the NRA, farmers, etc.

Moreover, as I argued, even a shift in American policy would not be likely to force Israel to end its occupation and repression of the Palestinians.  Indeed, it might make matters even worse, as a defiant nationalism could cause a backlash in Israel: think Serbia in the 1990s, at least before we bombed them.  Since no one suggests a similar treatment of Israel, the far milder measures that the U.S. might take could well result in even nastier and more dangerous Israeli policies, including a greater disposition to attack its enemies, real and self-created, “before it is too late.”  A nuclear-armed Samson is not what the doctor ordered.

All in all, then, it is hard to see why Obama and the Democrats would want to take on Israel or suffer the domestic consequences of doing so.  And even though I am undoubtedly a far stronger critic of Israeli policies than Obama and his closest advisors, I’m not sure that if I were in his shoes I would do anything much different.

I hate to reach such a gloomy conclusion, but unless someone can explain to me where my analysis fails, I can’t see how to avoid it.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Obama’s Dilemma

At one level, Gideon Levy’s bitter blast at Obama’s “cowardly” policies towards Israel is perfectly correct. Writing today about Obama’s unctuous behavior toward Netanyahu in their meeting yesterday and his apparent abandonment of U.S. pressures over the ongoing expansion of Israeli colonization in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Levy argues:

“If there remained any vestiges of hope in the Middle East from Barack Obama, they have dissipated….The worn-out, wizened old face of the longest "peace process" in history has been awarded another surprising and incomprehensible extension. It's on its way nowhere. The reality is that Israel has again managed to fool not only America, but even its most promising president in years… Two statesmen met in Washington on Tuesday who are looking smaller and smaller….”

It is true that Obama has all but abandoned any hope that he would make serious use of American leverage to pressure Israel into agreeing to the establishment of a viable and genuinely independent Palestinian state—indeed, for that matter, of any kind of Palestinian “state.” What accounts for Obama’s failure? It is possible that part of the explanation may simply be that Obama genuinely believes in the standard Israeli hasbara and US mythology about Israel-as-victim, driven not by ideology and expansionism but legitimate “security” concerns. Remember that at least two of his closest advisers on Israel are Dennis Ross and Rahm Emanuel.  Ross, as is well known, has long been “pro-Israel,” meaning not only wrong but demonstrably disingenuous. (see here); as a congressman, Emanuel’s positions on Israeli-related issues did not significantly deviate from those of AIPAC.

However, even if Obama privately shared the views of, say, J Street and Americans for Peace Now—and for that matter, of those critics (like me) well to the left of those organizations--it is far from clear that his policies would, or even should, differ from his current ones. First of all, there are probably insurmountable problems with the domestic politics of Israeli issues.  Obama and the Democratic party can only lose if they antagonize the American Jewish community, whose financial and electoral support may be crucial in any close congressional or even presidential election.

Nor is it just a matter of the approaching elections: it is all too likely that a significant number of otherwise liberal Democrats would have abandoned Obama’s domestic program, including the health care reforms, if he had been leaning hard on Israel in the last 18 months.

Similarly, if Obama were to take a harder line on Israel now, the prospects for congressional passage of the rest of his domestic agenda would be even dimmer: the balance of power in congress may be held not only by a handful of Republicans but also by Democrats who might not shrink from holding Obama’s domestic program hostage to his Israeli policies. And all this even before the forthcoming congressional elections, whose likely outcome will make matters even worse.

Worst of all, it is highly doubtful that anything  the United States can do would result in meaningful changes in Israeli policies. Consider the strongest action the U.S. could take: making its diplomatic, economic, and military aid to Israel conditional upon a two-state settlement. Not only is it the case that such a dramatic change in U.S. policies is all but unthinkable, new policies would probably not work: even if Netanyahu was inclined to bow to US pressures (in any case, unlikely), he would almost certainly face fierce and violent domestic resistance, and it is by no means certain that the Israeli army, in which the settlers and the religious fundamentalists are increasingly powerful, would side with the government.

To put in bluntly, Israel is probably a lost cause and can no longer be saved from itself: it is hard to see what could arrest the country’s headlong flight into paranoia, moral collapse, increasing domestic repression of even Jewish dissidents, and general national stupidity.

In that light, what would the critics of Obama—and emotionally I share their reactions—have him do? Would they really have Obama risk the loss of his domestic program, his congressional majority, his reelection prospects, and the return of the increasingly neanderthal Republicans to national political dominance, all for the sake of policies which would have little chance of working and could easily make things even worse?

In short, if Obama is thinking along these lines, that would represent not craven pandering to the Israel Lobby or to domestic politics in the narrow sense, but—I fear--rational calculation, the logic of which seems compelling.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Deconstructing Thomas Friedman

Serious observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict no longer bother with Tom Friedman’s inept columns on that topic. However, he remains the lead foreign policy columnist for the world’s most important newspaper, so presumably he still has influence with readers of the New York Times, probably including policymakers. Assuming that to be the case, it may be worthwhile to occasionally deconstruct some of his more absurd or disingenuous commentaries. (I have examined Friedman’s past record, here.)

Earlier this week Friedman published two opeds on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of them, on the supposed flourishing of the West Bank, still effectively controlled by Israel, received widespread criticism in the blogosphere, including by Phil Weiss and Richard Silverstein. The other, entitled “War, Timeout, War, Time…” (June 25) has received much less attention.

Friedman argues that Israel has bought itself “timeouts” from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by winning a series of wars, but that it needs to do more to bring about real peace, particularly by ending its continuing expansion of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and by more seriously engaging the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas in negotiations for a two-state settlement. 

Despite these criticisms, Friedman once again perpetuates a number of dangerous myths about Israeli policies. First, in writing that “globally, the campaign to de-legitimize Israel has never been more virulent,” he adopts as his own the latest Israeli propaganda, practically word-for-word. Israelis and their U.S. acolytes typically can find no explanation other than “anti-Semitism” for the increasingly widespread anger—including in the West-- at Israel’s policies and behavior. However, even in most of the Arab world and certainly in the West, the goal is not to “de-legitimize” Israel—thus posing an “existential” threat to its very survival—but to bring about an end to its obviously illegitimate occupation, violent repression, and economic siege of the Gazan people.

To be sure, this time Friedman does not explicitly raise the issue of anti-Semitism to account for criticisms of Israel, as he has done in the past. Nonetheless, the anti-Semitism ploy is the clear subtext of the column, and it functions to absolve Israel of moral accountability and political responsibility for the consequences of its behavior—even behavior that Friedman himself deplores.

Second, Friedman writes that Israel “recently won three short wars”: the war “to dismantle the corrupt Arafat regime,” the war “started by Hezbollah in Lebanon,” and the war “to crush the Hamas missile launchers.” In reality, in terms of their consequences, Israel lost all of those wars, regardless of its short-term military “victories” over essentially defenseless adversaries.

Yes, in 2002 Sharon destroyed Arafat’s Palestinian Authority—but not because it was “corrupt,” (as implied by Friedman), but because Arafat had accepted the principle of a two-state settlement, which would require the end of the Israeli occupation. Aside from its wholly illegitimate purpose of perpetuating the occupation, one of the major consequences of the destruction and humiliation of Arafat’s political organization and institutions was the rise of Hamas and its takeover of Gaza.

It is also true that in 2006, Israel soundly defeated Hezbollah—but in an unnecessary war in which Israel seized upon a pretext in the hope of destroying Hezbollah and its major weaponry, and in which it deliberately caused vast civilian casualties and destruction in southern Lebanon—for the sake of “deterrence,” don’t you know. Today, as even the Israeli “security” experts concede, Hezbollah is stronger than ever, both politically and in terms of the far greater, longer range, more accurate, and more destructive missiles and rockets at its disposal.

As for the 2008-09 Gaza attack, even mainstream Israelis increasingly concede that Israel has suffered devastating political consequences in terms in its global standing, and that Hamas is politically stronger than ever and is the process of rearming itself, despite the ongoing blockade.

Further parroting the standard propaganda, Friedman essentially absolves Israel for its numerous war crimes.  While Friedman concedes that Israel fought the last two wars “without rules,” the fault is not its own, for “it found itself confronting enemies in Gaza and Lebanon armed with rockets, but nested among local civilians,” leaving Israel no choice but to be “forced” to kill those civilians.

However, following the 2006 Lebanon War and the 2008-09 attack on Gaza, a number of international human rights organizations (among them Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Goldstone Commission) investigated and decisively rejected the claim that most of the Lebanese and Palestinian civilian casualties were caused by Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s use of the civilian population as “human shields,” as the propaganda has it—that is, the placement of weapons and the launching of attacks from densely populated civilian areas.

Beyond the recent Israeli war crimes, Friedman ignores the long and ignoble earlier history of repeated Israeli attacks on Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordanian, and Egyptian civilians—from the pre-state era through the present (for details, see here) . Far from being “forced” to attack civilians, Israel has deliberately chosen to do so, in order to punish, intimidate, or “deter” peoples and states that it regards as its enemies. Indeed, it is not too strong to say that attacking civilians or their crucially important institutions and infrastructures is the Israeli way of war.

The level of mainstream U.S. media discourse about Israel, though somewhat improved in recent years, is still largely characterized by some mix of ignorance, ideological blindness , dishonesty, or incoherence—all crimes against serious journalism, that is to say, truth. Many commentators could plead mitigation on the grounds that they mean well but were unaware of the facts; however, the ignorance plea is not available to Thomas Friedman.