Monday, December 26, 2011

Another Day--Just One--In the Life of Our Very Own Jewish State, the Only Democracy in the Middle East

Ten stories from Haaretz, December 26, 2011:

*Akiva Eldar, "Netanyahu's On the Way to Kosovo."  Haaretz's diplomatic correspondent notes the close parallels between the recent speeches of Benjamin Netanyahu and those of Slobodan Milosevic, in which "the two leaders used familiar myths, stressed the past suffering of their peoples and sowed fear of the threats the future poses, based their stances on the 'historic rights' of their people and ignored the national and territorial aspirations of the neighboring people. Netanyahu pointed to extreme fundamentalist Islam as the enemy of the Jews, Americans and the West; Milosevic recalled....the background to the Kosovo confrontations between the Serbs and Albanians, who are mostly Muslim."

*Nurit Elstein, "Partial democracy."  The writer, a former Knesset legal adviser and currently a lecturer in parliamentary law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, notes that about a year ago Shlomo Avineri (one of Israel's most prominent political scientists) wrote that Israel could not be viewed as a fascist state.  Elstein quotes Avineri: "In a fascist state the regime monitors citizens, imprisons them without trial, restricts movement and runs a propagandistic education system."

Elstein then observes: "This year the Knesset pushed through the Boycott Law, which delivers a mortal blow to basic principles such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly....it punishes anyone who calls for boycotts. The imposition of sanctions on a call for action, a call that constitutes free speech, is stunningly anti-democratic. The law's operating assumption is that it is forbidden to disrespect the state. This is a dangerous thought….Such developments in the history of political thought provided inspiration for the totalitarian state."

"Politicians do not operate in a vacuum. They are well aware of the public's mood. Any public-opinion survey will find that there is widespread support for restricting civil rights. Public discourse is fraught with extremist statements denouncing Arabs, leftists and others. Knesset legislation converts cultural trends into legal norms."

"Israel prides itself on being a democracy, but it lacks a constitution and a democratic tradition. Was there ever a democracy in this state? There was a partial democracy for some of the state's Jews. With the increase in violence in the public square, the left is now experiencing what Arab citizens have endured for years."

While Elstein does not comment on the other components in Avineri's definition of fascism, all of them--regime monitoring of citizens, imprisonment without trial (the preferred euphemism is "administrative detention"), restrictions of movement, and a propagandistic education system-- are becoming increasingly common in Israel.  And it is hardly uncommon for Israeli dissidents and commentators to point out the parallels with fascism.


*Asaf Weitzen, "Until Our Hearts are Completely Hardened."  The writer, an official responsible for refugees at the Israeli Center for Assistance to the Community of Foreign Workers, charges that growing number of Africans seeking to find refuge in Israel from deadly civil wars in Eritrea and Sudan have been classified by the Israeli government not as refugees--which under international law would require Israel to accept them--but as "migrant workers," which means they can be deported.

Weitzen notes that in order for the fleeing people to be granted refuge until they can safely return to their countries, they must first apply to the Israeli Interior Ministry to be officially recognized as refugees.  However, Weitzen dryly observes,  the ministry "refuses to examine the asylum requests of Eritrean and Sudanese citizens [so] the government claims that they are not refugees because they have not been recognized as such."

Weitzen continues: "The only reason is that the claim that they are migrant workers is aimed at hardening our hearts against the distress of these people, who have fled their homes in all kinds of ways. It's the kind of distress we should be well aware of [emphasis added]. When our hearts are completely hardened - and the mood shows we're near that - [the Interior minister] and his cronies will be able to do with the refugees and asylum seekers whatever they wish, including locking them up for years and deporting them back to hell. The High Court of Justice will not dare intervene and the public will remain silent. That must not be allowed to happen; certainly not in a country that was set up as a country of refuge." .

*Amira Hass, "Israel Allows Gaza Athletes To Cross Into West Bank, But Bars Outstanding Academics."  Haaretz's award-winning chief correspondent on Gazan affairs observes that Gazan athletes are routinely allowed to participate in sports in the West Bank, but that students are not allowed to study there.  There are two reasons, Hass writes: the Israeli government considers students to be potential terrorists--"students around the world are of the rebellious type," an Israel official tells her.  Nor is the effective ban on Gazans moving into the West Bank for any extended period a result of the Hamas takeover of Gaza; as Hass observes, the Israeli "policy of de facto disconnection...began 15 years before Hamas took power in Gaza."

       Hass continues: "the second pillar of the segregation policy, which is not declared openly, is the 'fear of settling down,' as defined for me by the same official of the system's implementing arm. After all, universities across the world are also hotbeds for making new acquaintances, falling in love and even getting married. And then, the fear of the Israeli system is that residents of Gaza will move their 'center of life' to the West Bank, find work there, have children and settle down."

        That's the real problem, of course: Israel is not interested in taking over Gaza but it intends to further its expansion into, and control over, the West Bank--for which, the fewer the Palestinian residents, the better. 

*Oz Rozenberg, "News Crew Assaulted By Ultra-Orthodox Rioters."  A television news crew was assaulted, a camera newsman was thrown to the ground, and a soundman was grabbed by the throat "when they attempted to record footage of a sign that instructs women not to walk past a synagogue."

*Ilan Lior, "Israeli Textbook Slammed For Calling Homosexuality a Disorder."  Lior writes: "Mental health experts, educators, and members of Israel's gay community are protesting the use in the mental health curriculum in a number of academic institutions of a textbook they say presents anti-homosexual positions."  In some cases, homosexuality is presented as an "emotional disorder" that should be treated by psychotherapy, or a "symptom of a borderline personality."

      The story further notes that the textbook was published by a university press and was compiled by four leading Israeli psychiatrists.  In the words of a dissenting psychiatrist: "the chapter on homosexuality not only constitutes a declaration of homophobia, but it educates future therapists and educators to be homophobic."

*Anshel Pfeffer, "Right-wing U.S. Group Holds Hanukkah Party at IDF Base."  The Israeli army officially approved a "Hanukkah party" held by United With Israel, a far rightwing U.S. group that, in Pfeffer's words, "organizes events in support of the Jewish settlement in Hebron and in Jerusalem-area settlements, and also conducts pro-Israeli public relations."

In addition to the stories above, on the same day Haaretz published a number of articles about the discrimination against women in Israel, prompted by two recent events: the insistence by Haredim (ultra-orthodox) Israeli men that women on buses that largely serve their communities must ride in the back, and Haredim cursing of, and even spitting at, seven and eight year old Israeli school girls whose dress is deemed by them to be immodest. 

The most recent incidents of this kind have caused an uproar in Israel, especially among the secular majority--but three columns by Israeli women point out that women have long been excluded from top positions in all fields.

*Lital Levin, "Beyond the Bus."  Levin writes: "It's only been a few weeks since the phrase "exclusion of women" became a staple of the news pages... Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [and other government officials] have condemned the phenomenon. It almost seems as if the exclusion of women were a specifically ultra-Orthodox hang-up, that in Israel, full equality exists between the sexes, threatened only by sex-segregated bus lines. But many of the women protesting the discrimination reject Netanyahu's statement that it is a 'limited phenomenon that does not reflect the entire population'....The true exclusion is in the law and the economic and social structure, not least in its most liberal outposts."

"If we focus the fight on the ultra-Orthodox alone," said a clinical psychology student, "we're liable to forget that women are excluded from all public arenas."

*Tsafir Saar, "Not Only the Ultra-Orthodox Discriminate Against Women in Israel."  Saar writes: "What everyone nowadays is calling exclusion of women is nothing less than ...sexism that's deeply rooted. And this sexism, this widely practiced and multilayered discrimination, is not the purview of the ultra-Orthodox alone....It's so easy to condemn and be horrified by 'those benighted Haredim' and at the same time nonchalantly ignore the sexual violence that is the lot of women of all stripes, secular and religious; the wage gaps between men and women; the fact that most of the poor are women, and many other social phenomena that prove the depth of the problem..."

*Merav Michaeli, "'Exclusion of women' in Israel is Nothing New."  Michaeli writes:
 

"What has changed? I mean, the exclusion and discrimination are far from new. Not on the buses, not on the billboards, not in the streets of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods or in secular and perfectly Tel Avivian spaces - in the army, in the Knesset, in the government, in the print media and television, on various public committees and in the workforce. It is exhausting to bring up time and again, as part of the ongoing struggle of decades, the income gaps, the low status of housework and raising children, the poor representation of women in the public arena, the stereotypical portrayals of women in the media, the sexual exploitation, the small number of female representatives in the Knesset and the even smaller number of female cabinet ministers, the physical oppression, and the number of women who are murdered by abusive partners every year."

 

Well, at least the rightwing Christian fundamentalists--and every Republican candidate for the presidency--still adore us.  However, as David Ben-Gurion famously said, "What matters is not what the goyim say, it's what the Jews do."

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

One Day In the State of the Jewish People, a "Light Unto the Nations"

       What can be said any longer about Israel's occupation and repression of the Palestinians?  What may still be less known is the extent to which the poison of the occupation has inevitably and inexorably spread into Israel itself, into its political system and throughout its society and its institutions.  Read Haaretz for a couple of weeks, and you will learn about the rapid growth of domestic Israeli authoritarianism, violence, racism, religious fanaticism, various forms of corruption and criminality, attacks on dissent, civil liberties and the judicial system, the accelerating decline in liberal and scientific education--and more.

      For example, here are the headlines, summaries, and a few quotations from news stories and commentaries in just one day's edition of Haaretz (November 30, 2011):

"IDF freezes implementation of report calling for gender equality"  "Publicly, the IDF announced support for recommendations drafted by special military committee, but in practice it has done very little to implement them....[because of] the religious establishment's opposition."

Sefi Rachlevsky:
"It's not for nothing that several leading rabbis prefer a firing squad than hearing women sing. From Jewish law they draw the assertion that the most severe of all transgressions is the useless spilling of seed. This is compared to murdering one's children...The demons responsible for tragedies are born from Jewish seed that was wasted. This is the reason for the hiding and silencing of women, so as not to excite the men, which might lead to improper ejaculation." 

"Those who believe this are not a fringe group. Nearly 53 percent of first-graders classified as Jews now study in religious and ultra-Orthodox schools, and the prevailing theology in most of them teach these things as fact."

"NGOs say Police Ignoring Sinai Human Smugglers' Accomplices in Israel." "Organizations say smugglers have contacts in Israel demanding ransom payments by relatives and friends in Israel to free fellow migrants from Sinai detention camps.  Hundreds of would be migrants seeking to make their way to Israel are being held by smugglers in Sinai. Some have been the targets of extreme violence....In a report on the problem issued earlier this year based on the testimony of migrants who had made it to Israel last year: According to some of the testimonies, several victims were either murdered by the traffickers or were starved to death. 18 men were forced into slave labor.... The victims report not just physical abuse, but also psychological torture and humiliation. ... Seven of the victims reported that the traffickers threatened to sell their organs for transplant. The police have not responded to Haaretz's request for a response."

"Ground Breaking survey shows 1 in 5 Israelis don't have enough to eat."  Income of 19-20 percent of the families places them under the poverty line.
"Report Offers Chilling View of Israel's Working Poor." "More than half of the poor families in Israel have jobs, and that number has increased in recent years...[but] poverty among working families has deepened.  Couples with more than two children will also be unable to escape poverty, even if both parents work - one full time and the other part-time - and receive minimum wage."   [According to one worker about to lose his home]: "It's something that's happening all over Israel, not just here. It feels like the state is giving up on people. They gave up on me."
"'Talkback law' passes first reading in Knesset." Under the bill, Internet service providers could be forced to reveal the identity of the author of the offending content.

Zvi Bar-el: "Israel's take on Arab Spring may undo peace with Egypt."  "The way of life in the Arab countries does not interest Israel.  Peace, in its Israeli version, is made with leaders, preferably autocratic ones, and not with peoples. The leaders, so it is believed, will force the people to love Israel [despite] Israel's policy in Jerusalem and the territories.  If Israel wishes to 'warm up" the peace, [demonstrators said], it will have to pay the price in Palestinian coin.  This was not an "Islamist" demand....those who made this demand were completely secular.  As usual, Israel is beginning to get ready the no-Egyptian-partner. He will be an Islamist, radical and anti-Semitic, who does not understand the doctrine of winking that Mubarak employed. Because of this no-partner, peace will collapse. After all, everyone understands what an Islamist threat is."

"How Israel stigmatizes and mistreats AIDS sufferers."  "While AIDS sufferers in the West are treated with miracle drugs and can live normal lives, in Israel, those with the disease are stigmatized and given medicines that don't work. While until three years ago it was possible to say that Israel stood at the forefront of science and treatment, I am sorry to say today that this is no longer true. And since AIDS patients in Israel are anonymous, they will not go out into the streets and won't erect protest tents. It is our obligation as human beings, as a country, to change this policy. As Nelson Mandela said, our approach to AIDS reflects who we are as people."  (Dr. Itzhak Levi, Chairman of the Israeli Association for AIDS Medicine and director of the AIDS and sexually transmitted disease clinic at the Sheba Medical Center.)

      

One day's stories.  I must admit I have been a "liberal Zionist," a supporter of the right and possible need for the Jewish people to have their own state.  Just not this one.  Can we start again?

 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Israeli Threat To Attack Iran: Will Obama Capitulate To That, As Well?

Avner Cohen is an Israeli political scientist, currently at the Monterey Institute of International Affairs.   He is considered to be the world's foremost expert on the Israeli nuclear program.  His work is so accurate and authoritative, in fact, that he has come close to being arrested when returning to Israel.

Cohen has an extremely important column in the November 13 issue of Haaretz, in which he demolishes the myth that the Israeli
attack on the Iraqi reactor in 1981 was a success, let alone that it should serve as a model for a similar attack on the Iranian nuclear program. (His article can be read at http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/a-new-nuclear-reaction-1.395244)

Cohen demonstrates that even the 1981 Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor was strongly opposed by many of Israel's top military and intelligence officials, who in fact--despite the widespread view to the contrary--were proven right.  That is, while the attack seemed at the time to be a "success," in fact the consequence was that Saddam Hussein redoubled his efforts to get nuclear weapons, hid most of the program underground, and was on the verge of producing nuclear weapons until the 1991 Gulf war essentially ended the Iraqi program. 

      An Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear program, even if the United States joined it--which seems (let us hope) inconceivable--would have even less chance of succeeding in disarming Iran, and would be far more likely to result in catastrophic consequences for Israel and perhaps the entire region; indeed it cannot be ruled out that Iran would find a way to attack our own country.

       Almost certainly the primary purpose of the Iranian nuclear program is deterrence, not aggression--as has been the case for every other nuclear state.   There is not the slightest evidence to support the supposed Israeli fear that, out of the blue, Iran would launch a nuclear strike against Israel--in the full knowledge that the entire country would be literally annihilated by Israeli nuclear retaliation.  

       The supposedly more worrisome problem is that Iran might covertly give nuclear weapons to terrorists, who might believe they could use them against Israel and escape retaliation, as it might not be clear who originated the attack and where it came from.   However, that possibility is remote, since Iran would have to assume that it would be blamed for any nuclear attack on Israel and would be destroyed in retaliation--even if it hadn't been the source of the attack.

      No doubt in part for similar reasons, to the best of our knowledge no nuclear power has ever given nuclear weapons to terrorist groups--not even the most extremist or supposedly the least rational states, like North Korea and Pakistan.  Still, however remote the possibility, it is sufficiently worrisome to make serious efforts to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, as in fact the world is doing now--but almost no military experts, including most of Israel's own top intelligence and military officials, believe that a military attack has any chance of meaningful success.

In that light, one would assume--or would like to assume--that the current Israeli threats are bluffs, designed to induce the international community to step up economic sanctions against Iraq.  Nonetheless, the level of Israeli irrationality, as demonstrated on an almost daily basis, is so deep that nothing can be taken for granted. 

Obama must be told that no matter how far he is prepared to go in capitulating to Israeli madness, he cannot put at risk our own national security.  A simple but blunt statement by the president that Israel must in no circumstances attack Iran would almost surely prevent it from doing so. 

Obama has an absolute obligation to act--and right now.

Friday, November 4, 2011

An Embarrassing Error

Oh, boy (oy), am I embarrassed.  In listing Israel's immediate neighbors, I forgot to mention Syria!  I'd like to think of it as an occupational hazard of trying to rapidly respond to breaking events, like the Goldstone oped.

Anyway, it was not because mentioning Syria would have undercut my point that its neighbors not only recognize Israel's "existence," but want peace with it. On the contrary: regardless of the Asad family's domestic repression, both father and son have long sought a settlement with Israel, including full normalization of relations with it.  It is Israel that has repeatedly rejected such a settlement, even though its own military leaders, including plenty of hardliners, have repeatedly said that the settlement that would be acceptable to Syria was also in Israel's national interest.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Not as Bad as South Africa? Richard Goldstone’s Defense of Israel

As disingenuous and pernicious as was Richard Goldstone’s previous Washington Post oped, in which he essentially retracted the Goldstone Report’s fully-substantiated finding that Israel committed war crimes in its attack on Gaza at the end of 2008, yesterday’s NY Times oped is perhaps even worse. Goldstone writes that to characterize Israel’s policies as “apartheid” is an “unfair and inaccurate slander against Israel,” one among other “assaults that aim to isolate, demonize, and delegitimize” Israel.

Other commentators have pointed out that the characterization of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians as one of apartheid is now quite common among serious observers--definitely including Israel’s own dissenters, including among many others Haaretz, Israel’s most prestigious newspaper and B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights organization. What is even more striking, however, is that both Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak—neither of whom are likely to be accused of seeking to delegitimize Israel—have also warned, in just that language, that Israel is on the road to apartheid.

Even so, Goldstone’s defense against the apartheid charge must be examined on its merits. Goldstone wishes to distinguish between Israel’s policies within its own borders, towards the Israeli Arabs, and its policies in the occupied territories. Inside Israel, he asserts, “there is no apartheid,” and “nothing there comes close” to the international legal definition of apartheid: “systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group…”

True, the situation of the Israeli Arabs is not nearly so bad as that of the South African black population under apartheid—but (as others have pointed out) the argument is a straw man, since few if any serious critics of Israel have claimed that its policies and behavior towards its own Arab minority—as opposed to those in the occupied territories—is equivalent to apartheid. Nonetheless, while Goldstone concedes that there is too much “de facto separation" between the Jewish and Arab populations, and some Israeli “discrimination,” he ignores the proven facts that the Israeli Arabs are distinctly second-class citizens, systematically denied equal economic, social, cultural, and increasingly even legal rights.

“The situation in the West Bank is more complex,” Goldstone allows, but—and this he obviously believes is his trump card—“there is no intent to maintain an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group” (my emphasis), a “critical distinction” in Goldstone’s view, because “South Africa’s enforced racial separation was intended to permanently benefit the white minority,” whereas “by contrast, Israel has agreed in concept to the existence of a Palestinian state in Gaza and almost all of the West Bank, and is calling for the Palestinians to negotiate the parameters.”

Here and elsewhere, close attention must be paid to Goldstone’s language: characteristically he asserts something that is clearly designed to give a certain impression, but at the same time, if read literally and the ambiguities are ignored, might provide him with an out when he is challenged on the facts, allowing him to claim he has been misunderstood.

In the first place, one may suspect that Goldstone's emphasis on the racial component of apartheid--as opposed to systematic oppression that may not be essentially racial in intention--is designed to support the argument that Israel's behavior towards the Palestinians does not constitute apartheid.  Even if not, of course, it doesn't necessarily follow that Israeli oppression is less onerous than was that of South Africa--or indeed, even worse, as a number of former South African antiapartheid activists have written. 

Perhaps my suspicion of Goldstone's true intentions in this case is mistaken--but surely not in other cases.  For example, consider again Goldstone's bald statement that “Israel has agreed in concept to the existence of a Palestinian state in Gaza and almost all of the West Bank, and is calling for the Palestinians to negotiate the parameters”--a perfect example of a statement that is literally true but in all essentials a lie. Yes, Israel has agreed to the “concept” of a two-state settlement, but as every serious observer of the conflict understands, not the reality. Further, of course, the statement is clearly designed to convey the impression that it is only the Palestinian refusal to negotiate that is blocking a settlement—another lie embedded in a perhaps technically and narrowly true statement.

In another example of Goldstone’s polemical techniques, he writes: “The security barrier was built to stop unrelenting terrorist attacks; while it has inflicted great hardship in places, the Israeli Supreme Court has ordered the state in many cases to refute it to minimize unreasonable hardship.” You almost have to admire the technique, for in one literally true statement it tells three lies.

First, as everyone knows, another and probably the main purpose of the “security barrier” was to grab more Palestinian land and to protect the illegal Jewish settlements beyond Israel’s accepted boundaries. Second, if the Supreme Court “in many cases” ordered a change in the route of the barriers, it follows that in other cases--probably most other cases--it has refused to do so. Third, in any event the Israeli government and military have often ignored Supreme Court rulings or "interpreted" them in such a way as to essentially defeat their purpose.

In characterizing the overall Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Goldstone also makes technically true statements that nonetheless embody false symmetries and conceal the real truths. For example, he characterizes the conflict as one in which there “are claims and counterclaims,” where “attacks on one side are met by counterattacks from the other,” where there is “hostility and suspicion on both sides,” and in which Israel “sees” its behavior as “necessary for self-defense,” whereas the Palestinians “feel” oppressed. No realities then—no Israeli oppression, no Palestinian victimization, just conflicting perceptions.

Finally, and perhaps worst of all, Goldstone clearly wishes to provide an excuse for Israel's occupation and repression of the Palestinians when he writes that "Israel, unique among democracies, has been in a state of war with many of its neighbors who refuse to accept its existence.  Note that he doesn't say that Israel "is" in a state of war, just that it "has been;" yet he says Israel's neighbors "refuse"--as opposed to "refused"--to accept its existence.  The characteristic trickery is obvious: if he had put everything in the past tense, that would lead to the conclusion that Israel would no longer have any excuses—even assuming that in the past it had--for its occupation and repression of the Palestinians. So, there's scarcely any doubt that Goldstone once again is being deliberately
misleading---and that's a polite way of putting it.

Surely Goldstone knows the facts. Israel's closest neighbors are Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. The Israeli-Egyptian conflict ended
with the 1979 peace settlement, and the Israeli-Jordanian conflict ended in 1994--in any case, both conflicts were not primarily over any refusal
to accept Israel's existence. For the last thirty years, Saudi Arabia has been attempting to settle the overall Arab-Israeli conflict on terms which not only fully accept the "existence" of Israel but call for full normalization of diplomatic and economic relations between Israel and
the Arab world--and all 20 states of the Arab League are now on record as supporting the Saudi plan. As for Lebanon, of course it is Israel
which has engaged in repeated massive attacks on that country, not the other way around.

In short, other than Iran every state in the entire
Middle East region now accepts the existence of Israel, and to the extent that Arab-Israeli conflict remains, it is overwhelming a consequence of
Israel's behavior towards the Palestinians.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Dying of Shmaltz

While uneasy about the asymmetry of the Shalit deal between Israel and Hamas--a thousand Palestinian prisoners ( invariably described in Israel as “terrorists”) for one Israeli--the Israeli and the American Jewish media are also full of hymns of self-praise for us wonderful Jews: the “price” we paid was “a moral victory for Israel,” demonstrates our adherence to “profound Jewish values” such as “the pride in the value we place on every single human life,” is “a sign of humanity” that is “sadly absent in large parts of the world, especially in this region,” and the like. The implication is unmistakable: we are different from them, the parents of the 1000 Palestinians, and the nation they represent, either did not grieve or had no right to grieve over their “children” in Israeli prisons, nor rejoice over their release.

The blatant racism and infuriating claims of moral superiority aside, there are indeed significant differences between the Israeli and Palestinian prisoner situations. While some of the Palestinian prisoners were truly terrorists seeking the unjust cause of the destruction of Israel, surely many others were essentially soldiers in a just cause, national liberation and the creation of an independent state in a small part of Palestine. On the other hand, Shalit was a soldier of a nation whose real cause (continuing the de facto occupation of the Palestinians and Jewish expansion into what remains of their territory) is unjust and whose “profound Jewish values” and “adherence to the dignity of all human lives” does not prevent it—stop me when you think I’m misstating the facts—from occupying, killing, repressing, imprisoning, blockading, and deliberately inflicting deep economic as well as psychological pain on another people.

Who are these people, anyway? Never mind our supposed Jewish moral values, how about our celebrated commitment to reason? Or even self-preservation? Are they quite mad?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Query

A follow-up to my commentary on the meaning of the Shalit deal.  Today's NY Times editorial on the matter asks: "If Mr. Netanyahu can negotiate with Hamas [which does bad things]...why won't he negotiate seriously with the Palestinian Authority...?"

So, my question is this: Is the Times cynically disingenuous on nearly all Israeli matters, or is it merely terminally stupid?

The Real Meaning of the Shalit/Hamas Prisoner Exchange Agreement

On September 27, Israel announced plans to build 2600 new homes in East Jerusalem; an October 18th Haaretz editorial noted that “the creation of the new Jewish neighborhood will reduce the likelihood of reaching a peace agreement over Jerusalem.” The ongoing Jewish expansion into formerly Palestinian neighborhoods, not only within the pre-1967 boundaries of Jerusalem but beyond them as well, will “complete the ring that will cut off East Jerusalem completely from the southern West Bank,” Haaretz noted.

Two days ago a Hamas leader reported that an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza was a central component of the Shalit/Palestinian prisoners agreement; Haaretz reports that Israeli officials have essentially confirmed the Hamas report and that the Shalit agreement “marks a turning point in relations between Israel and Hamas.”

Almost certainly, these two recent developments are connected: taken together, they make the overall Israeli strategy unmistakably clear: to separate the West Bank from Gaza and to make a two-state settlement even more impossible. Unlike in the West Bank, Israel no longer has territorial, nationalist, or religious claims in Gaza; consequently, since its 2005 withdrawal of the Jewish settlements, Israel’s only interest in Gaza is that it not be attacked from there—regardless of who rules it.

Indeed, the return of hundreds of Hamas prisoners and the gradual ending of the Israeli economic siege of Gaza will assuredly strengthen Hamas’s control of Gaza and should be regarded as essentially a reward for the organization’s willingness to continue the de facto ceasefire with Israel—regardless of its policies and actions in the West Bank--that has been in effect since the end of the Israeli attack on Gaza in January 2009.

At the same time, the deal with Hamas has had the effect--in all probability the intended effect-- of marginalizing and humiliating Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, and other Palestinian moderates in the West Bank. Current international pressures (feeble as they are) focus only on an Israeli willingness to seriously negotiate a settlement with the Abbas government, but not Hamas: hence, it is likely that the logic of the Netanyahu government is that the weaker the PA in the West Bank, the stronger Hamas in Gaza, the less likely a two state settlement and the freer hand Israel has in the West Bank.

It is not the first time in Israeli history that it has actually preferred dealing with Hamas than with Palestinian moderates, precisely because the pressures on Israel to grant Palestinian independence in a viable state are far greater when it must negotiate a true compromise settlement with moderates, as opposed to reaching partial, unofficial, and reversible de facto agreements with Islamic radicals. The Shalit deal and the apparently impending end of the economic siege of Gaza, then, reflects a larger Hamas-Israeli agreement, tacit or negotiated: you leave us alone in Gaza, we leave you alone, not only in Israel proper, but in the West Bank as well.

The likely future is revealing itself: no Palestinian state, and certainly no Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem: just two “entities,” the one in essentially disconnected and probably smaller and smaller Bantustans dominated and controlled by Israel, the other in a tiny sliver of land of no interest to Israel. If anything, irony of ironies, Hamas-controlled Gaza may well end up being freer of Israeli pressures, military incursions, and economic control than the West Bank under the most moderate and responsible Palestinian leadership in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Uri Avnery on Obama's Speech

The great Uri Avnery reaches different conclusions than what I wrote on Obama's dilemma; for those interested in this debate, it is must reading: http://www.avnery-news.co.il/english/index.html

In fact, though, I agree with every word of Avnery's contempt for Obama's UN speech, and by implication nearly all of Obama's statements and policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Here's Avnery's crucial argument: 

"Being a moral person, he must have felt the urge to vomit. Being a pragmatic person, he knew that he had to do it, if he wanted to be re-elected. In essence, he sold the fundamental national interests of the United States of America for the chance of a second term."

Of course Avnery is right that besides being a moral wrong, U.S. support of Israel endangers our national interests in the Middle East.  Hence the dilemma: the "fundamental national interests of the United States"--and for Israel and the Palestinians as well--would be also jeopardized if Obama is replaced by any of the likely Republican presidential nominees, which would probably also result in complete Republican control of Congress.

For these reasons, the dilemma should not be framed in terms of Obama "wanting to be reelected," as if this was merely a selfish personal interest.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Obama's Impossible Dilemma--And Ours

After a promising beginning, the Obama administration’s policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have reverted to the US norm—essentially unconditional support for Israel’s follies. In particular,  Obama’s UN speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was dreadful. But while outrage is fully justified, we should also recognize the fact that Obama—and therefore we on the left as well—are in an impossible dilemma.

Let us suppose that instead of saying all the wrong things, Obama were to say all the right ones. Let us further suppose that he didn’t merely say all the right things, he actually did the right things, at least insofar as he had the power to do so. Suppose he said that from this moment on, the Obama administration would end all its diplomatic, political and moral support of Israel until it agreed to the international consensus two-state settlement? What would be the consequences?

First, Congress would refuse to support him, and so the administration would be unable to end U.S. economic and military support of Israel, by far the most important components of potential U.S. leverage.

Second, as in the past the outcome of both the presidential and congressional elections could turn on just 2-3% (or indeed, much less) of the electoral vote. That means that there is a huge risk that the next presidency and both houses of Congress will come under the control of a Republican party that is dominated by know-nothings and the lunatic fringe. That is unbearable to contemplate—it could result in the worst crisis in American history since the Civil War.

Third—and this is really the clincher—I fear that Israel is so far gone that even if Obama said and did all the right things, even if he was reelected, and even if the Democrats controlled both houses of congress, it would not move Israel in the right direction.

In my view, the withdrawal of American support might well result in an Israel that would become even more irrational and violent than it already is. Do we really think that the settlers and the large numbers of Israelis that support them would give up? There is little chance that the increasingly hardline Israeli police and military would or could enforce an end to the occupation—on the contrary some Israeli analysts fear that a military coup against a government agreeing to end the occupation would be a real possibility.

Alternatively, rather than responding favorably to serious American and international pressures, it is at least as likely that Israelis would conclude that everyone is against them anyway, so the hell with them all.

If this assessment is right, then we are asking Obama to adopt policies which are likely to fail in Israel, but which could easily have disastrous consequences for our own country. In short, if I were in Obama’s shoes today, I fear I would grit my teeth and do pretty much the same as he is doing.

But what about after the elections—supposing Obama is reelected? Would that free him up to take on Israel and its supporters in the U.S? For one thing, many of the domestic constraints would remain. Moreover, suppose the problem is more deeply rooted than in what many believe to be Obama’s cynicism (though I have been making the case that it is probably more appropriate to view it as realism). That is, how do we know that Obama is not merely making hardnosed concessions to the American political realities, but is himself ignorant of the true history and realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Suppose he actually believes in—or, at least, half-believes in—his nonsensical and infuriating rhetoric? After all, not even domestic political realities mandated that he choose Dennis Ross as his primary adviser on Israel.

In any case, it is hard to envisage any realistic near or middle-term set of circumstances that would result in Israel agreeing to the international consensus two-state settlement. Many who share this assessment conclude that therefore the goal should be a one-state settlement. It is a puzzling argument: all the factors that have destroyed a two-state settlement make a one-state settlement even less likely to occur. That is, no one-state advocate has explained why and how the Israelis would agree to give up a Jewish state in which they are a large majority and hold all the important sources of political, economic, and military power in favor of a democratic binational state in which the Palestinians would be the majority.

What, then, to do? Despite my own bleak analysis, I find it unbearable to conclude that nothing at all can be done. Over the longer run, it is possible that an international BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) might succeed. As I have argued, it also might backfire, but that is just a risk that morally must be run, in the hope that the pariah status of Israel would result in the South African outcome rather than the Samson one.

In the shorter run, however, Israel is beyond saving, whether by itself or by the United States. Therefore, I don’t see any alternative to what Obama is doing: right now it is this country that needs to be saved from itself.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Addendum

As noted earlier, there may be a problem with some comments reaching me for my decision to publish them or not.  (I publish the overwhelming majority)  If you make a comment but it doesn't appear, please email me at jnslater@buffalo.edu.  I will then let you know whether I received it.  If not, please let me know what browser you are using--apparently that helps in the troubleshooting process.

The Palmer Commission Report

In August 2010 the UN Secretary General established a “Panel of Inquiry” to investigate Israel’s May 31 attack on the international flotilla that sought to defy the Israeli blockade of Gaza to bring supplies—and moral support—to the Gazan people. Israeli commandoes attacked the main ship in the flotilla, the Mavi Marmara, killing nine people.

The Panel of Inquiry is widely known as the Palmer Commission after its Chair, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a professor of law and former prime minister of New Zealand. There were three other members. The Vice Chair was Alvaro Uribe, the outgoing rightwing President of Colombia, whose administration was widely accused of systematic human rights violations, but who was a longtime favorite of both the U.S. and Israeli governments. In 2007 the American Jewish Committee gave Uribe its "Light Unto The Nations" award, and in 2009 George Bush awarded Uribe the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian award. The other two members of the “investigation” were the interested parties in the conflict, representing Israel and Turkey, (from which the flotilla had departed, with a number of Turkish citizens aboard).

In July 2011 the Palmer Committee issued its report, the full text of which was leaked to the New York Times and subsequently became available on the internet: http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/world/Palmer-Committee-Final-report.pdf. The summary of the Report’s findings explained the limited scope and methods of the inquiry: “The Panel is not a court. It was not asked to make determinations of the legal issues….The Panel’s means of obtaining information were through diplomatic channels….[and it] had no coercive powers to compel witnesses to provide evidence. It could not conduct criminal investigations. The Panel was required to obtain its information from the two nations primarily involved in its inquiry, Turkey and Israel.”

The Report concedes that these limitations were important, for they meant that “the Panel cannot make definitive findings either of fact or law.” Still, it concluded: “But it can give its view:”—which was that while Israel’s methods in the attack on the flotilla were “excessive,” it did have the legal right to impose a naval blockade against Gaza and to use armed force (but not “excessive” armed force) to enforce it.

No doubt the Palmer Commission--no matter how limited the scope of its inquiry or its knowledge and/or impartiality concerning the plain facts about the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians, as well as how little the legal or moral credibility of its Vice-Chair--had the right to express its “views.” But then, so can others: mine is that, whether because of its incompetence or the desire not to give too much offense to Israel (and, maybe the U.S. government as well), the Report’s conclusion that international law supported Israel’s right to impose and enforce a naval blockade of Gaza is, to put it mildly, unpersuasive.

To be sure, I’m no expert in international law. Nonetheless, a close examination of the Report clearly reveals the muddled, internally inconsistent, and intellectually as well as morally inept reasoning process by which Palmer and Uribe reached their conclusions. To begin, as the Commission explained, the highly constrained limitations on its fact-finding capabilities meant that it had to rely on the internal investigations carried out by Israel and Turkey, which unsurprisingly agreed on almost nothing of significance.

Here are the Palmer Report's summary of the Turkish commission's conclusions: "The restrictions imposed by Israel on goods entering Gaza by land, and the naval blockade over the waters off Gaza constitute a single blockade...intended as a form of economic and political warfare.  It was not restricted to items that could be used against Israel, but also included ordinary consumer items with no security purpose.  As such, it has a disproportionate and punitive impact on the civilian population [and] amounts to the collective punishment of civilians in Gaza, in breach of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention....In support of this conclusion, the Turkish Commission relies on statements by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the International Committee of the Red Cross...[which have concluded that] Israel is the Occupying Power in Gaza, and cannot blockade the borders of territory it occupies."

The Palmer Report then summarized the report of Israel’s “National Investigation,” which argued that because of Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks on Israel, it had the right “to prevent weapons, terrorists and money from entering or exiting the Gaza Strip by sea.” As for the argument that the Palestinian attacks were a response to Israel’s ongoing de facto occupation and continuing repression of Gaza, the Israeli commission argued that “Israel’s effective control of the Gaza Strip ended when disengagement was completed in 2005.”

Finally, the Israeli commission stated that “the blockade did not constitute collective punishment of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip: there is no evidence that Israel deliberately imposed restrictions on bringing goods into Gaza with the sole or main purpose of denying them to the civilian population.” (my emphasis)

Though an interested party to the dispute, the Turkish Commission's conclusions are demonstrably true, and shared by an overwhelmingly large majority of all nonpartisan academic, legal, UN, and international (as well as Israeli) human rights ngos—nearly all of which have concluded that while Israel’s direct occupation of Gaza ended in 2005, it was replaced by a series of Israeli repressions and controls that turned Gaza, in the common description, into “an open air prison.”

In particular, the Israeli contention that neither the purpose nor effect of the blockade was to impose collective punishment to the people of Gaza is an outright lie--indeed a lie so breathtaking in its chutzpah that it could convince no knowledgeable observer.

In that case, how did Palmer and Uribe get around this problem? Simple: they argued that whatever the purposes of the Israel’s land blockade, the naval blockade was “separate and distinct”—“in fact two distinct concepts” that required “different treatment and analysis.” To be sure, they conceded, “important humanitarian considerations constrain the imposition of a naval blockade [which] would be illegal if its imposition was intended to collectively punish the civilian population,” but concluded that “there is no material before the Panel that would permit a finding confirming [such] allegations.”

“Allegations,” that is, only about the naval blockade, a dubious argument even if one accepts the absurd premise there were two entirely different Israeli policies, or “concepts.” Indeed, even the Report’s criticism of the land blockade--“actions taken by Israel have had severe impacts on the civilian population in Gaza”--concludes in a seriously odd fashion: “The situation in Gaza, including the humanitarian and human rights situation of the civilian population , [is] unsustainable, unacceptable and not in the interests of any of those concerned.”

“Unsustainable?” I don’t know, Israel has been successfully sustaining its occupation, repression, and collective punishment of the Palestinians for over four decades.  “Not in the interests of any of those concerned?” No, I suppose not—though one of the “concerned parties,” Israel, foolishly doesn’t agree. But yes, it does appear to be true that the Palestinians have an interest in not being killed and repressed by Israel.

Never mind. To repeat: the crucial conclusion of the Palmer Report is that while Israel’s land blockade is questionable, its naval blockade is a legitimate act of self-defense. To be fair, the Report did admit--in passing--that “there may be potential overlaps in the effects (emphasis in original) of the naval blockade and the land crossings policy,” However, it quickly dropped this line of thought, which of course would have led it to an entirely different conclusion.

The Flotilla’s Purpose

The Palmer report essentially denies the legitimacy of the flotilla’s mission. Despite its expressed humanitarian purposes, and despite the 10,000 tons of civilian supplies it was carrying, the report argues that the flotilla’s primary purpose was “to generate publicity about the situation in Gaza by attempting to breach Israel’s naval blockade”—clearly, in the view of Palmer and Uribe, an illegitimate purpose, though they don’t explain why.

In any case, on the basis of what evidence does the Palmer report support its contention that the purpose of the flotilla was less humanitarian than it was to generate publicity? There were a number of elements, they argue, that “raise questions concerning the objectives of the flotilla organizers.” For one thing, “there was little need to organize a flotilla of six ships to deliver humanitarian assistance if only three were required to carry the available humanitarian supplies [and] if the flotilla had been a purely humanitarian mission it is hard to see why so many passengers were embarked and with what purpose.” Anyway, “the quality and value of many of the humanitarian goods on board the vessels is questionable” and in any case “no adequate port facilities exist in Gaza capable of receiving vessels the size of the Mavi Marmara. Consequently, “the prospect of delivering significant supplies to Gaza by sea is very low.” Still further, “the number of journalists embarked on the ships gives further power to the conclusion that the flotilla’s primary purpose was to generate publicity.”

In another line of “reasoning,” the Palmer report gave great weight to the apparent fact that “preparations were made by some of the passengers on the Mavi Marmara well in advance to violently resist any boarding attempt” by the Israeli forces. These passengers, the report gravely noted, had donned “life or bullet proof vests and gas masks and assumed pre-agreed positions in anticipation of an attack,” and were armed with “iron bars, staves, chains, and slingshots,” though there was “some indication” that knives were also used.

In other words, no firearms, even for self-defense, let alone to deliver to Gaza. Indeed, the report seemed to consider as ominous or unjust that “firearms were taken from IDF personnel and passengers disabled at least one by removing the ammunition from it,” the apparent implication being that the passengers had no right to disarm some of the invading commandos.

The absence of firearms in the flotilla, let alone of heavier weapons, bears emphasis, though its implications seem to have escaped Palmer and Uribe, whose central argument is that “stopping the importation of rockets and other weapons to Gaza by sea” is necessary in order “to preserve Israel’s security.” In other words, even if one accepts the premise that Israel has two different policies--the one on land blockading the importation and exportation of civilian goods to and from Gaza, the other at sea blockading weapons-- the report’s argument is badly undermined by the fact that the flotilla was carrying only civilian supplies.

The overall conclusion of the Palmer report: “Although people are entitled to express their political views, the flotilla acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade.” In support of this argument, Palmer and Uribe engaged in two quite different lines of reasoning. The first was based on the premise that Israel--far from being a party to the conflict, let alone an illegitimate occupier and repressor—was a rightful authority which had engaged in a legitimate act of international law enforcement. By this reasoning one might also argue, say, that an uprising by a conquered Roman province would be a wrongful act in itself, and this injustice done to Rome would be compounded if the rebellion used armed force to resist the Roman legions sent to suppress it.

The second line of reasoning was that Israel was merely engaged in self-defense: “Israel faces a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza. The naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law….Israeli Defense Forces personnel faced significant, organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers when they boarded the Mavi Marmara, requiring them to use force for their own protection.”

To be sure, in one important respect the Palmer report was critical of the Israeli attack on the flotilla: while Israel had the right to use force, its force was “excessive” and “unreasonable” in several ways.  First, it was wrong of Israel “to board the vessels with such substantial force at a great distance from the blockade zone and with no final warning immediately prior to the boarding.” Second, the Israeli forces wrongly killed nine people and “seriously wounded many others;” moreover, “most of the deceased were shot multiple times, including in the back,” for which “no satisfactory explanation has been provided.” Finally, “there was significant mistreatment of passengers by Israeli authorities after the take-over of the vessels had been completed until their deportation,” including “physical mistreatment, harassment and intimidation.”

Conclusion

Despite the significant criticisms of the Israeli methods in the flotilla affair, in most other respects the Palmer Report is so seriously flawed as to essentially make it useless. First, its notion that the purpose of the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza was “separate” from its land blockade (a contention made repeatedly throughout the Report) is a prima facie absurdity, especially in light of the Report's admission that the "effects" of both blockades may be “overlapping.”

Not to push the analogy too far, of course, but this reasoning is akin to arguing, for example, that the German siege of Leningrad during WWII was actually two separate and distinct “policies” or “concepts,” one an illegitimate land blockade intended to starve the city into submission, the other a legitimate sea blockade to prevent weapons from reaching it.

I don’t know if the Nuremberg tribunals examined the siege of Leningrad as a possible German war crime, but if so they clearly did not consider that Germany had the right to defend its sea blockade (albeit somewhat “excessively”) against Russian attempts to smuggle arms into Leningrad, but that the Russians had no right to defend themselves by breaking that blockade, even though it was Germany that had invaded and sought to conquer Leningrad, along with the rest of Russia.

Secondly, the Palmer Report’s criticism of Israel’s land siege of Gaza, which does not dismiss the argument that it amounted to collective punishment, is couched in weak, ponderous, and obscurantist language: “the procedures applied by Israel in relation to land access to Gaza are unsustainable and need to be changed,” are “not in the interests of any of those concerned,” and so on.

Third, the Report’s reasoning that the real purpose of the flotilla was not humanitarian is tortured and unconvincing, particularly in light of the fact that Palmer and Uribe accepted the Turkish investigation’s finding that the flotilla was in fact carrying 10,000 tons of humanitarian supplies and construction materials—but no weapons intended for delivery to Gaza.

Fourth, even if the flotilla had been bringing weapons to Gaza, the Palmer Report failed to examine its underlying premise that this would have been illegitimate. The Gazan authorities and people sought to arm themselves against the illegal and immoral Israeli occupation and various measures of repression, including extensive violence and repeated devastating armed attacks against Gazan civilians and their infrastructures. Indeed, in the pre-state era the Zionists themselves had also “illegally” armed themselves in order to create the state of Israel.

Victims have the right to defend themselves, including by armed force. To be sure, it is a separate question of whether the Palestinians are wise to exercise that right, in view of its repeated failure. Moreover, any serious analysis of the legitimacy of armed rebellion must also consider the methods used by the rebellion, particularly whether they include terrorism, such as the Gazan attacks on Israeli civilian population centers.*

In short, both the moral and legal issues are complicated, requiring detailed and sophisticated analyses. The Palmer Commission, however, had no analysis at all—it simply proceeded from the premise that the Israelis, but not the Gazans, had the right to defend themselves.

Fifth, even insofar as calling public attention to the plight of Gaza was one of the purposes of the flotilla--as indeed it was, for the flotilla organization made no bones about its intention to call world attention to the Israeli occupation and repression—the Palmer Report’s conclusion that this was mere “publicity,” strongly suggesting that it was therefore illegitimate, is odd indeed.

In sum, I don’t know whether the absurdities in the Palmer Report are the consequence of a political decision not to offend Israel—and maybe its US supporter?—or of breathtaking intellectual incompetence. Either way, it is a travesty.

 

 

*Recently, the Israeli journalist Larry Derfner created an uproar—and lost his job—because of a column in the Jerusalem Post in which he appeared to be defending the right of the Palestinians to use armed force against any Israeli targets, including civilians. Derfner was brave and right to defend Palestinian attacks against Israeli soldiers, but foolhardy as well as foolish to seemingly justify Palestinian terrorism.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Comments Problem

There appears to be an intermittent problem with posting comments.  I am receiving some notifications of pending comments, but not others.

If you have tried to post and nothing has happened, I would be grateful if you would notify me, at jnslater@buffalo.edu

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Debate on Libya

It is perfectly correct to observe that any celebration of the apparent victory of the Libyan rebels--a clear consequence of the major military assistance by NATO and the U.S--is, at best, premature.    If the outcome of the "victories" in Afghanistan and Iraq don't warrant extreme caution in drawing conclusions about the efficacy of military interventions to bring about regime change, then nothing will.

That said, some of the continued skepticism about the success of the Libyan intervention is not persuasive.  For one thing, the argument that the U.S. and NATO exceeded the UN mandate--which  specified that the mission was to protect civilians--is weak.   It was abundantly clear from the beginning--and now, maybe even more so, as the extent of Qaddafi's repression becomes even clearer--that a victory of Quaddafi would have led to a bloodbath and the return to unchecked power of a regime which has a history of killing its own civilians.   In this particular case, then, the distinction between protecting civilians and intervening in a civil war was nearly nonexistent. 

In short, it would not have been possible to meet the UN mandate without regime change.  And who can seriously doubt at this point that the overwhelming majority of the Libyan people supported the intervention and are overjoyed at its outcome?  Or, more cautiously said, at least what appears to be its outcome.

The most important argument of those who strongly opposed the Libyan intervention from the outset and continue to do so today is that its  success--if indeed it holds up in some meaningful way--will only encourage further US or NATO military interventions in countries where the costs and consequences would be far greater than in Libya and "success"--however defined--much less achievable.

That is an extremely important argument--but it appears highly unlikely that the necessary warning against hubris will be disregarded.  It is instructive that hardly anyone--the Obama administration, the Democrats, the Republicans,  the Tea Party, leading commentators, etc.--are calling for military intervention in, say, Syria, let alone Iran (the obvious present analogues to Libya.)  

Put differently, it appears to be very widely recognized in this country that the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq are far more relevant and instructive in terms of future U.S. policies in internal conflicts than whatever success may emerge in Libya.   That being the case, there is no harm in a muted, cautious celebration of one of the very few cases in which an essentially humanitarian military intervention actually worked, with bearable costs and the likelihood that the beneficial consequences will outweigh any damaging ones.

Or so there is reasonable reason to hope.

 

 

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

What's the Point, You May Well Ask? An Email to Isabel Kershner

In today's New York Times Isabel Kershner has a news story entitled "Activists Aim to Revitalize Israeli Protests."  She managed to write an entire story which focuses on the issue of the Israeli social protest movement and its relationship to Israel's "security threats." The word "occupation" does not appear, nor even a hint that Israel's "security threats" might just be somehow connected to its own policies and behavior. 

Among specialists and serious critics of Israel, I wrote to her, it is obvious that most  New York Times stories seriously downplay the dreadful nature of the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians.  Invariably when this is pointed out, the Times or its reporters will respond that they get just as much criticism from the right--as if this proved that its coverage is "balanced."  

In fact, Kershner's news stories are among the worst offenders, and will some day--I hope but don't expect--cause her to look back in deep shame.   I wrote: "I am moved to write this because of your story in the Sept 1 issue on the Israeli protest movement.  Suppose you were a reporter for a Soviet newspaper in 1956, or 1968?   Would you be embarrassed to write about the "security threats" to the Soviet Union from the Hungarian and Czech revolutions, without mentioning that these "threats" were a consequence of Soviet occupation and repression?" 

I could think of even more painful analogies, but it is almost always wise not to go there.

Friday, August 12, 2011

What To Make of the Israeli Movement for Social Justice

It is very hard for an outsider to know what to make of the current wave of populist protest in Israel which, though advocating “social justice” in Israel has nothing to say about the occupation and repression of the Palestinians.

Over 300,000 people have come out into the streets in support of the goals of the movement, which were initially motivated by the unavailability or unaffordability of adequate housing but which have broadened to include the crippling overall cost of living, the growing inequality of wealth within Israeli society, and what the Israeli journalist Dimi Reider has described as “the parenting costs, the free-fall in the quality of public education, the overworked, unsustainable healthcare system, the complete and utter detachment of most politicians, on most levels, from most of the nation.”

Remarkably, polls show that up to 90% of the Israeli general public support the demands for economic reform, including many working-class hardline nationalists and Likud activists. In its broadest form, as the Israeli activist Jeff Halper writes, “the demonstrations currently roiling Israel constitute a grassroots challenge to Israel’s neo-liberal regime. Beginning as an uprising of the middle classes….it has spread to the working class, the poor and the Arab communities as well.”

Last Monday the leaders of the protest movement, as well as student leaders and representatives of various social organizations, issued a joint statement setting forth the movement’s goals in more detail. “For a number of decades, the various governments of Israel have opted for an economic policy of privatization that leaves the free market without reins…making our daily existence a war for survival to subsist with dignity,” the document begins. It goes on to demand that social inequalities be minimized; that the cost of living be lowered; that full employment be achieved; that action be taken to meet “the essential needs of the weaker population in the country, with an emphasis on the handicapped, the elderly and the sick;” and that the state invest in public education, health, transportation, and public infrastructures.

A most admirable set of demands. Indeed, they could be transplanted to this country with very few modifications—which is not at all surprising, since the triumph of the right in Israel and its Likudist “neo-liberal” economics is closely modeled on the greed-is-good and the devil-take-the-hindmost raw plutocracy of the Republican party hereabouts.

The problem is that the leaders of the protest movement have made a conscious decision not to include the demand that the occupation and repression of the Palestinians be brought to an end; indeed, even the demand that the various forms of discrimination against the Arab citizens of Israel be ended has the potential to badly split the movement. As the Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar has recently caustically observed: “social justice, and justice in general, ends for a considerable number of the demonstrators at the outskirts of Umm al-Fahm [the largest Israeli Arab city]. Never mind the gates of Nablus.”

As might be expected, the decision to focus only on social justice for Israelis rather than on justice for the Palestinians has caused some division within the Israeli left, as illustrated by the contrasting positions taken by two of Israel’s most astute, outspoken, and morally admirable young analysts and journalists, Dimi Reider and Joseph Dana. Reider has made a powerful case:

“It should be admitted…that the Israeli left has utterly and abjectly failed to [persuade] Israelis in the project of ending the occupation. There was never a choice between a social struggle focused on the occupation and a social struggle temporarily putting the conflict aside, because the first attempt would have flopped. There was nothing to be gained by trying the same thing again for the Nth time.”

Dana concedes that “The sad reality is that if Israelis discuss Palestinian rights and specifically the rights of Palestinians under Israeli occupation they very quickly lose public support.…Had protesters connected their struggle for social justice to the occupation, many fewer Israelis would have joined the protests.” Even so, he is very uneasy about the strategy chosen by the protest leaders: “The protesters’ working definition of ‘social justice’ is unclear and full of contradictions. The rights of Israelis are inextricably tied with the rights of Palestinians, both inside the 1967 borders and in the Occupied Territories. The protesters, like most of Israeli society, are operating under the assumption that they are disconnected from the Palestinians who live under Israeli military occupation. But the fact is that one regime rules the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and any discussion of the allocation of resources, not to mention social justice, must take into account the rights of everyone who lives under the regime.”

The moral as well as practical dilemma for the Israeli left is acute. Many of Israel’s bravest and most admirable opponents of the occupation—people like Halper, Bernie Avishai, Gideon Levy, Yitzhak Laor, and others—are enthusiastic about the protest movement. Others, like Akiva Eldar, Amira Hass, and Uri Avnery, while of course strongly supporting the social justice goals, are uneasy about the decision to exclude the occupation or skeptical about the likely outcome. For example, Hass writes: “In the coming months, as the movement grows, it will split. Some will continue to think and demand ‘justice’ within the borders of one nation, always at the expense of the other nation that lives in this land. Others, however, will understand that this will never be a country of justice and welfare if it is not a state of all its citizens.”

In light of divisions within the Israeli left and the persuasive arguments on both sides of the debate, an outsider is in no position to reach a confident assessment about the issue. Yet, I can’t help feeling uncomfortable about the current strategy of the protest leaders. First, there is an important difference between the social justice protests and the last mass protests in Israel, which were over Israel’s complicity in the 1982 Sabra and Shatilla massacres in Lebanon. The latter was unambiguously driven by moral considerations; the former, while certainly containing a moral component, is also driven simply by economic self-interest, especially since it has become a populist movement linking the Israeli right with the left. For that reason, there is little reason to be hopeful that the movement signals a moral transformation of Israeli society.

Social injustice in Israel is inextricably linked to the occupation. In the first instance, as a number of the protest leaders and their supporters have pointed out, the enormous public resources devoted to the settlements and the armed forces necessary to protect them are resources that are not available for the rest of society. Even more fundamentally, the occupation and repression of the Palestinians is so morally poisonous that it is impossible to imagine that a truly just society can be created –even if only for the Jews themselves—until it has ended.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Is the Palestinian "Right of Return" an Unbridgeable Obstacle to a Two-State Settlement?

On May 26, the online version of Dissent magazine published an article by Michael Walzer, “What Does Netanyahu Think He Is Doing?”  In it, Walzer asserts that there can be no two state settlement unless the Palestinians give up the right of return—which is clearly correct—but that “no Palestinian has even hinted at a willingness to give up the right of return”—which is demonstrably wrong.

This morning, Dissent online published my letter of rebuttal: http://dissentmagazine.org/atw.php?id=490.  Here it is:

The early rejectionism of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) gradually evolved, until their official decision in 1988 to accept a new partition of Palestine and a two-state solution as the definitive settlement of its claims. Following the 1988 Palestinian decision, the Israeli news magazine New Outlook interviewed leading PLO officials and concluded that they would probably agree to a settlement of the refugee issue on the basis of a token return to Israel, combined with large-scale international economic compensation for resettlement of the refugees in the Palestinian or other Arab states.

Shortly afterward, this assessment was essentially confirmed in a highly important and authoritative article, “Lowering the Sword,” by Abu Iyad, then second-in-command to Arafat (Foreign Policy, Spring 1990). In an interview with the journal editors in the same issue, Abu Iyad stated the following:

We accept that a total return is not possible….we recognize that Israel would not want to accept large numbers of Palestinian returnees who would tip the demographic balance against the Jewish population.... Nonetheless, we believe it is essential that Israel accept the principle of the right of return or compensation with the details of such a return to be left open for negotiation....We shall for our part remain flexible regarding its implementation. [emphases added]

The particular significance of this statement is that the bulk of the evidence indicates that from that point forward, Abu Iyad’s careful formulation has remained the true bottom line of the PLO, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and all other moderate Palestinian leaders.

After the Oslo agreements of 1993, Arafat himself on most occasions—but not always—signaled his willingness to abandon a literal right of return. During and soon after the Camp David negotiations of 2000, Arafat’s signals were inconsistent. On the one hand, during the negotiations Arafat acknowledged to Bill Clinton that Israel could not be expected to absorb hundreds of thousands—or more—of Palestinian refugees, and told the president that “we have to find a happy medium between the Israeli’s demographic worries and our own concerns.” On the other hand, soon after the negotiations broke down Arafat wrote to Clinton that “we cannot accept a proposal…that does not guarantee the right of the refugees to return to their homes.”

Which was the real Arafat position? In an important 2001 article, Ron Pundak, a leading Israeli analyst who had played a major role in the Oslo negotiations and in the Israeli preparations for Camp David, wrote that, regardless of Arafat’s apparent inflexibility on the right of return, “in practice the real Palestinian position on this issue during the negotiations was far more moderate and pragmatic.”

Pundak’s assessment has been borne out, for the evidence of Arafat’s willingness to compromise on the right of return—and, even more so, that of other Palestinian leaders—is quite strong. For example, in December 2000 Arafat wrote to Clinton that the Palestinians were “prepared to think flexibly and creatively about the mechanism for implanting the right of return.” Then, in a 2002 New York Times op-ed, Arafat wrote: “We understand Israel’s demographic concerns and understand that the right of return of Palestinian refugees…must be implemented in a way that takes into account such concerns.”

Significantly, Arafat reiterated this position to an Israeli audience shortly before he died in 2004, when in an interview with Haaretz he stated that he “definitely” understood that Israel would remain a Jewish state, and therefore it was “clear and obvious” that the refugee problem would have to be solved in a manner that was consistent with that reality.

Most importantly, the true bottom line of many of the top PLO, Fatah, and PA leaders was made clear in the Geneva Accord in 2003. As early as 1995, Mahmoud Abbas, then a high official in the PLO who was known as Abu Mazen, had coauthored an agreement with Yossi Beilin of Israel (the “Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement”) that set forth the general principles on which the highly detailed Geneva Accord was constructed. Then, in 2003, an unofficial but high-level Palestinian delegation headed by Yasser Abed Rabbo, a PA official known to be very close to Arafat, met with an Israeli delegation headed by Beilin, who was then part of the Ehud Barak government of Israel and had been the head Israeli negotiator at the Taba conference in January 2001. Various analyses and Palestinian as well as Israeli memoirs have made it clear that the Geneva Accord negotiations could not have been held without the (at least tacit) support of Arafat; in addition, Ahmed Qureia, the then-prime minister of the PA, stated that he “personally supported” the Geneva Accord.

Had the Accord been implemented, it would have simultaneously solved the two most difficult Israeli-Palestinian issues: Jerusalem and the right of return. Instead of recognizing such a “right,” the Accord stated that the refugee issue would be solved in accordance with a number of UN resolutions, the language of which is complicated, but which was understood by both the Israelis and the Palestinians to make any Palestinian return to Israel conditional upon Israeli consent.

Beilin subsequently stated that while the Palestinians were not asked to state officially that they were giving up the right of return, the Accord was a practical compromise solution. While Israel would “probably” admit something like 30,000 Palestinians, “everyone who reads it understands that no Palestinian refugee is going to be admitted to Israel on the basis of any ‘right’ of return.” And in his authoritative book on the Accord, The Path to Geneva, Beilin wrote: “The heart of the agreement is the concession of sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians in exchange for Israeli sovereign discretion over the number of refugees admitted to Israel, with the rest free to settle in the Palestinian state.”

The right of return issue was again central in the 2008 secret negotiations between Abbas and then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel. The full record of those negotiations has not been released, but there have been a number of analyses, the most detailed and apparently authoritative of which is a long article by Bernard Avishai in the February 11 New York Times Magazine, based on interviews with Olmert and Abbas. Avishai’s summary of the refugee issue—supported by other assessments—was that “both leaders agreed on the principle that a certain number of Palestinians should return, but that the governing question should be how to limit that number in a way that preserves Israel’s distinction as a state with a Jewish majority but that does not prejudice the rights of the Arab minority.…[T]he leaders agreed on the principle but disagreed about a number.”

In fact, even the numbers issue was apparently settled. Based on just-released WikiLeaks documents, the Guardian reported on January 24, 2011 that during the negotiations with Olmert in 2009, the Palestinian leaders “gave up the fight over refugees…Palestinian negotiators privately agreed that only 10,000 refugees and their families….could return to Israel as part of a peace settlement….PLO leaders also accepted Israel’s demand to define itself as an explicitly Jewish state, in sharp contrast to their public position.”

Subsequently, news stories and analyses in Haaretz confirmed the revelations in the WikiLeaks papers and added further details, particularly that the essential abandonment by the Palestinian leaders of the right of return was supported by Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator; Nabil Sha’ath, the head of international relations for the PLO; and Mahmoud Abbas—who privately stated that “it would be unreasonable to expect Israel to absorb five or even one million refugees….This would be the end of the State of Israel.”

There is no doubt that the new PA-Hamas coalition agreement will make it more difficult to reach a settlement of the refugee problem, for Hamas has not demonstrated any willingness to compromise on this issue. On the other hand, on a number of occasions leading Hamas officials have signaled that they would not oppose a two-state compromise agreement that was supported by a majority of the Palestinian people. In any case, it is both unnecessary and pointless to speculate about what Hamas and the Palestinian people might or might not accept. One would think the solution would be obvious: Let Israel officially announce its full acceptance of the standard international consensus two-state settlement, which includes no unlimited Palestinian right of return but only a return of small numbers of refugees, subject to Israeli consent—and then see what happens. Only after such an Israeli offer would we find out the true bottom line of all the Palestinians.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

It's Not Only The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict That The New York Times Botches

Reading the editorials of the New York Times is often a real trial: far too often they are an odd mix of empty homilies, irritating hedging, willed or unwilled ignorance, or lightweight analyses. This is particularly the case, of course, with regards to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For sheer mindlessness, though, it is hard to beat today's editorial,"Talking Truth to NATO," which castigates our European allies for not spending more on "defense." Why should they do so? Well, because "The Atlantic allies face a host of new and old dangers." Old dangers? What could that possibly mean except the threat of a Russian invasion? If that's what the Times means, say so, and let's discuss it. New dangers? What new dangers, let alone a "host" of them? The Times doesn't say.

Then there's the "free-rider problem," says the Times. The proof:"During most of the cold war, the US accounted for 50 percent of total NATO military spending; today it accounts for 75 percent" Could Europe be right and the US wrong in judging how much should be spent on the military, in light of the end of the cold war and the Soviet threat? Wouldn't another way of interpreting the same figures be not that Europe's military budgets are too low but ours are too high?

Of course, what the Times has in mind is Libya, where according to the editorial NATO's performance is "shockingly wobbly." Pretty strong. Suppose, as doesn't seem unlikely, the Quaddafi regime soon collapses, thanks to NATO's military effort?

Anyway, why should NATO have made a much greater military effort? Suppose there had been no intervention at all: just how would a continuation of Quaddafi in power have effected the security of Europe? The answer, of course, is that who governs Libya was not merely irrelevant to the "security" of either the US or Europe, but that there was a much better case that whatever the true national interests of either US or Europe,they were being served perfectly well by Quaddafi. Sure, he was a nasty son-of-a-bitch (quoting FDR), but for quite awhile he had been OUR son of a bitch. So if military action is to be judged solely on the basis of national "security," then neither the US nor NATO should have intervened at all.

In short, the issues in Libya are moral, not those of national interest, let alone national "security."

Finally, the editorial concludes that "every defense ministry in Europe" should be "frightened," because what would happen "if they had to fight a more formidable enemy?" Once again: such as who? Germany appears to be off the table. Russia, then ? Perhaps China? Please be specific and provide analyses of these new/old threats.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Goldstone Report and Israeli Criminality: Even the Israeli Left Can't--or Won't--Fully Understand

In its issue of May 26, the New York Review of Books, one of the few major US media outlets for articles seriously critical of Israel, published an article by David Shulman, “Goldstone and Gaza: What’s Still True.” Shulman is a professor of Humanities at Hebrew University, and has long been a critic of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, often writing for the New York Review, Harper’s, and other leading media.

In some important ways, the Shulman article is disappointing and puzzling. To be sure, Shulman is highly critical of Israel’s three-week attack on Gaza (“Operation Cast Lead”) in 2008-09, as well as the overall Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and the cruelties that accompany it, and he praises the Goldstone Report for the “unflinching gaze it directs at the occupation and the link it meticulously establishes between it and the Gaza war.” On the other hand, his criticism does not go nearly far enough, and three of his important arguments are misleading, problematic, or just plain wrong.

After the Shulman article was published I wrote a letter of criticism to the NY Review. Because I wanted to wait to see if the letter would be accepted, I have waited a month to publish my assessment here. It is now clear that my letter will not be published. However, in response to my query, Robert Silvers, the editor of the Review, confirmed to me that he sent my letter, along with others, to Shulman; in the June 23 issue, just out, Silvers prints a letter from Shulman, in which, “for the record and in the interests of precision,” in effect he responds to my criticisms, and perhaps of others.

There are three serious problems in Shulman’s article, and they are not remedied in his follow-up letter. First, Shulman wrote that “Goldstone’s revised statement rectifies the egregious failure of the Goldstone report to clearly condemn Hamas for its crimes.” That is wrong: the Goldstone report explicitly rejected Hamas’s argument that its rocket and mortar attacks in southern Israel were a legitimate response to the Israeli occupation and numerous military attacks on Gaza, and concluded that the attacks were “violations of international law” that were deliberately designed “to spread terror amongst the Israeli civilian population.” Consequently, the report concluded, the Hamas attacks “constitute[d] war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity.” In that light (as I wrote in my letter to the NYR) what exactly was the report’s “egregious failure?”

In his June 23 letter, Shulman now writes this:

 

I’d like to make it clear that the Goldstone report…did note that the missile attacks by Hamas and related groups on Israeli cities prior to the Israeli operation “would constitute war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity.” This statement, oddly hedged and couched in the subjunctive, is dwarfed by the overwhelming focus of the Goldstone report on Israel’s actions before and during the campaign….Goldstone’s reconsideration of his position…seems aimed, in part, at redressing this imbalance.

This “clarification,” however, does not strengthen Shulman’s argument; if anything, it compounds his errors. To begin, Shulman fails to notice that the Report also used carefully hedged language in its conclusions about Israeli war crimes: “some of the actions of the Government of Israel might justify a competent court finding that crimes against humanity have been committed.” More importantly, of course the Goldstone Report focused more heavily on Israeli war crimes than those of Hamas: that did not reflect any “imbalance” in the thinking of the Commission, for there were many more possible Israeli war crimes to be investigated than those of Hamas, and they needed to be analyzed in great detail for the strong conclusions of the Report to be credible. Furthermore, it is obvious that the Goldstone commissioners considered it to be relevant that it was Israel that was the occupier and the aggressor and that the Gazan people—who chose Hamas to represent them in democratic elections--were the occupied and the victims.

Finally, the consequences of the Israeli attacks on the Palestinian civilians were far worse than those of the Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians--which consisted primarily of rocket and mortar attacks that rarely hit their targets and killed only a few Israelis. By contrast, the Israelis directly killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians and somewhat less directly, but no less criminally, were responsible for the death and suffering of thousands of others.

The second major problem in the Shulman article is that his statement that Hamas and its allies attacked Israel “before the war” is quite misleading, for it clearly implies that Hamas, not Israel, must bear the responsibility for the escalating hostilities that culminated in Cast Lead. However, even after Israel withdrew its settlements from Gaza in 2005, it not only continued its devastating economic siege but launched a number of highly destructive military attacks against Gaza, in the course of which it killed over 1200 people, up to half of them civilians—even before Cast Lead. Of course, Israel claimed its actions were “retaliations” for Hamas attacks—which, to repeat, killed very few Israelis—but Hamas made the same claim, and more persuasively.

Moreover, in the two years preceding Cast Lead, Israel violated several ceasefires that had been negotiated with, or unilaterally proclaimed by, Hamas; it continued its “targeted assassinations” of Hamas leaders and other militants; and it steadily tightened the economic siege that was explicitly calibrated to cause great civilian suffering, though short of outright starvation. Yet, in his article Shulman essentially ignores these facts, or apparently considers them to be irrelevant.

Evidently Israeli General Shmuel Zakai, the former commander of the IDF’s Gaza division, does not agree. In a 22 December 2010 interview in Haaretz, Zakai bluntly stated that Israel had made a “central error” during the six month truce that preceded Cast Lead, because it failed “to take advantage of the calm to improve rather than markedly worsen the economic plight of the Palestinians.” Zakai goes on to clearly suggest that the continuation of the Israeli siege and its violations of various ceasefires made the resumption of Hamas rockets inevitable: “You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in the economic distress they’re in, and expect Hamas will just sit around and do nothing.”

In short, not only did Israel commit war crimes in its attack on Gaza, it was Israel that was primarily responsible for the cycle of violence that preceded Cast Lead. In his June 23 letter, Shulman now concedes that “Israel bears responsibility for breaking the ceasefire at crucial points in the period leading up to the campaign,” but he concludes his letter by reiterating that “there is no possible justification for Hamas’s deliberate targeting of innocent civilians.”

Is that persuasive? Yes and no. On the one hand, it is true that Hamas intended to kill many more Israeli civilians and its failure to do so does not lessen the fact that attacking innocents is terrorism and a war crime. On the other hand, in assessing the gravity of the crime of terrorism, results as well intentions do matter, especially when the disproportionalities are so great. Moreover, while all attacks on innocent civilians are evil, some are more so than others. That is, in my moral world—and, I suspect, in that of many others, even when they don’t wish to make it explicit--there are important moral distinctions between the terrorism and war crimes of a powerful state occupying and repressing another people, and those of its stateless and militarily impotent victims.

In short, terrorism is always morally wrong—even so, there are mitigating circumstances in the case of Hamas attacks on innocents but none in the case of the far more destructive Israeli attacks.

 

Shulman’s most important argument is this: “anyone who knows the Israeli army knows that, for all its faults and failings, it does not have a policy of deliberately attacking innocent civilians.” (emphasis in original) For two reasons, this is a highly problematic contention. First, it ignores the overwhelming evidence that from 1948 through at least 2006, the Israeli army—or, better said, the Israeli government—did have a policy of directly attacking civilians. As I have previously written in great detail, (here and here) it did so in 1947-48 in order to drive out hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from areas claimed by Israel; it did so in the 1950s against Palestinian and even Jordanian villagers, in order to “persuade” them not to support raids on Israeli communities; it did so during the 1956 Israeli-Egyptian war, in which it has been recently revealed that on at least two occasions Israeli forces systematically massacred hundreds of Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip; it did so when it shelled and bombed Egyptian towns and cities during the 1970-73 Suez Canal conflict with Egypt, making good on Moshe Dayan’s 1968 blunt warning that in the event of war with Egypt, Israel might attack Egyptian cities in order to “strike terror into the hearts of the Arabs of the cities….[and] break the Arab will to fight;” and it has repeatedly done so in its attacks on Lebanon in 1978, 1982, 1996, and 2006.

2006: Not very long ago. Yet, Shulman appears to have forgotten about the massive Israeli attack on Lebanon and the similar ongoing attacks on Gaza, deliberately designed to force the Lebanese government to end Hezbollah attacks and the Palestinians to end Hamas attacks. No need to take my word that the Israeli actions clearly reflected high policy: In July 2006, Yossi Alpher, a former high Israeli intelligence official and centrist member of the Israeli security establishment, wrote that “Some of the humanitarian suffering in Gaza and Lebanon is a deliberate act on Israel’s part….It is intended to generate mass public pressure on the respective governments to force the Islamic militants to release three IDF soldiers snatched from Israeli territory and end rocket attacks.”

After the invasion, Alpher again denounced “the folly of collectively punishing 1.5 million Gazans for the sins of Hamas…starving masses of Palestinians is a counter-productive strategy.” And less than a year before Cast Lead, Moshe Arens—a high Likud official and well-known hardline rightist, a former ambassador to the United States in the Menachem Begin government, the foreign minister in the Yitzhak Shamir government, and a three-time defense minister in Likud governments since the 1980s—wrote the following:

The ‘leverage theory’—which holds that the destruction of enemy infrastructure and attacks on the enemy’s civilian population will produce pressure on decision-makers to cease their attacks against Israeli civilians—did not work in Lebanon, and it certainly does not work in Gaza. Quite the contrary, it only increases the support that the terrorists receive from the civilian population….[Such measures are] counterproductive [and]….impermissible by our moral standards.

Whether or not Cast Lead continued previous Israeli policies of directly attacking civilians is still in dispute. What is not in dispute, however, is the fact that Israel engaged in systematic attacks on civilian infrastructures during its three-week attack. Thus, the third major problem in the Shulman article is that he fails to examine the policy implications of these attacks, his sole mention of the issue being a single throwaway sentence--in parentheses-- that the Goldstone report “suggested that Israel deliberately destroyed civilian infrastructures in Gaza on a wide scale.”

The Goldstone report, however, did not “suggest” that this was the case, but devoted 27 pages to highly detailed discussions of Israeli attacks on Gaza’s economic infrastructure. Its conclusion was that Israel had committed “war crimes,” for its attacks reflected “a deliberate and systematic policy…of denying [those targets] for their sustenance to the population of the Gaza Strip… indicat[ing] the intention to inflict collective punishment on the people of the Gaza Strip in violation of international humanitarian law.”

Subsequently, a number of investigations by international and Israeli human rights groups also found that Israel, as a matter of high policy, had deliberately attacked civilian infrastructure, and most agreed that the attacks constituted “war crimes.” In fact, the case is a prima facie one: even aside from the direct killings, from 2005 through Cast Lead, Israel attacked electrical generation plants, power lines, industrial facilities and cement factories, fuel depots, sewage plants, water storage tanks, and various agricultural and food production systems, including farms, orchards, greenhouses, fishing boats, chicken coops and a flour factory—and even some 3500 private homes. In that light, the distinction between attacks on “infrastructures” and those on “people” is essentially meaningless: the consequences of such attacks are that civilians suffer and die, even if it takes a little longer than when they are directly gunned down or bombed.

In his just-published letter, Shulman again ignores that argument (which was included in the letter I sent to the NY Review, and which he received). He is not alone: even B’tselem, the admirable and in other respects courageous Israeli human rights organization, objected to the Goldstone report’s conclusion that Israel engaged in “deliberately disproportionate” and “systematically reckless” attacks on densely populated areas of Gaza, in order to “punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.”

In some ways, the unwillingness or inability of the mainstream Israeli left and its supporters in the U.S. to accept demonstrable facts is even more depressing than the moral obtuseness of the Israeli right: if not from people like David Shulman, or from the liberal U.S. media, where else can Israelis and Americans learn the full truth, acknowledge its implications, and finally confront the long history and depths of Israeli criminality towards the Palestinians?