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.


Gene Schulman said...

Hey, Jerry, even Iran accepts the existence of Israel. They just don't recognize it as a Jewish state, nor accept the Zionist government as legitimate.

I fully agree on your assessment of Goldberg. From hero to heel in one swoop.

Anonymous said...

One thing that really struck me about the Goldstone op ed--he doesn't even mention the settlements. I don't think the word is in there at all. Israeli Jews are encouraged to settle in the West Bank by the hundreds of thousands, while Palestinians are not allowed to move back to their homeland inside Israel proper. That's the fundamental asymmetry here and it's obviously wrong whether one supports a one state or a two state solution. That's what leads people to compare Israel in the West Bank to apartheid South Africa. Goldstone knows this, but he ignores the settlement issue. The whole piece was clearly written in bad faith.

Incidentally, have you ever tried getting an op ed published in the NYT? You probably wouldn't be their favorite person, given what you've written about them on this subject, but if they ever want to show some balance then they would print this piece of yours, or one by Finkelstein or even, heaven forbid, something by an Arab-American or Palestinian American or a Palestinian human rights activist.


Jerome Slater said...

Thanks, Donald. Yes, over a great many years I've submitted a great many opeds to the Times, with no result. I admit to being discouraged, so I don't do it any longer.

Of course, if you or anyone else wanted to write to the Oped page and recommend they publish one of my comments, it couldn't hurt!

Castellio said...

Why pretend that the NYT is interested in "balance"? Why pretend it is the "newspaper of record"?

If it uses (correct choice of word) an article of Slater's it's only to burnish it's image.

Better to let bygones be bygones, and move towards the future.