Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Tom Friedman's Geography Disability

Tom Friedman has been getting better on the Middle East lately, though he still has a long way to go before he can be taken seriously, at least in terms of his analytical acuity as opposed to his unfortunate influence.  For example, consider today's column on Obama and Chuck Hagel: not bad at all (though certainly not up to Steve Walt on the same topic, at, with the rather large exception of his remarkable contention that Israel "is surrounded by more implacable enemies than ever."

Well, let's see about that.  To the west of Israel is Egypt--ok, probably not as "friendly" to Israel as in the Mubarak days, but with no indication that the new regime intends to abandon its peace treaty with Israel.  To the north is Lebanon, too weak to threaten anyone but itself and with no intention--that includes Hezbollah--of embarking on an unprovoked attack (maybe not even a provoked one) against Israel.  To the northeast lies Syria, which under the Assads, father and son, has not only rigorously prevented any attacks on Israel from its soil but has been willing to sign a peace treaty with it, if only Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights.

To the east is Jordan, if anything a de facto ally of Israel.  Finally, close by lies Saudi Arabia--the same Saudi Arabia that for thirty years has been the leader of the Arab Peace Initiative, which offers Israel not only a peace treaty but full normalization of diplomatic and economic relations, provided that Israel ends its occupation and agrees to a two-state settlement with the Palestinians.

Who's left?  Well, Iraq is over 500 miles away, possibly a threat to Israel under Saddam Hussein, at least in theory, but obviously not today.  Ok, Iran, the single implacable enemy of Israel, but at 1000 miles away, hardly "surrounding" Israel, and in any case lacking all capability or any apparent intention of attacking Israel--as opposed to the other way around.

Perhaps Friedman was sick during the week when they taught world geography in the third grade.  Even so, that hardly explains why the Times would allow such mind-boggling absurdity to be published.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Human Rights Watch and Israeli War Crimes

On December 7, Human Rights Watch issued a highly critical report on the Israeli bombing of a private home during its most recent attack on Gaza. The attack, which killed ten members of the Dalu family as well as two other civilians in other nearby homes, “was a clear violation of the laws of war,” the report concluded. Moreover, “anyone responsible for deliberately or recklessly committing a serious violation of the laws of war should be prosecuted for war crimes.”

In response to an HRW request that they explain the attack, Israeli military officials first said it was “an accident that it was investigating,” then that the target was “a senior member of Hamas’s armed wing,” and finally that the target was a “terror operative” who was “in charge of rocket launching.” The HRW report noted that Israel had provided no information that supported any of these “explanations” and failed to respond to subsequent HRW requests that it do so.

The HRW investigation found that the probable target was Mohamed al-Dalu, one of the ten family members killed in the attack, a “low-ranking police officer” who (according to Gazan officials, whose account is not challenged by HRW) was in charge of a unit that provided security to Gazan officials and visiting dignitaries. “Police are presumed to be civilian, and thus immune from attack, unless they are formally incorporated into the armed forces of a party to the conflict or are directly participating in the hostilities,” the HRW report observed, but “even if al-Dalu was a legitimate military target under the laws of war, the likelihood that the attack on a civilian home would have killed large numbers of civilians made it unlawfully disproportionate.” Disproportionate attacks, defined in the report as “attacks in which the expected civilian loss exceeds the anticipated military gain,” are “serious violations of the laws of war.”

To my knowledge, so far no other human rights organization of international body, like the UN, has issued similar critical reports, though it is possible more may be forthcoming. So we should be grateful to HRW. Even so, and despite its strong language on war crimes and the need to prosecute them, in two respects the HRW report is misleading.

First, the report quotes Fred Abrahams, an HRW official who conducted the research in Gaza: “The Israeli claim that the attack on the Dalu home was justified is unsupported by the facts….The onus is on Israel to explain why it bombed a home full of civilians killing 12 people.” The problem is that Abrahams’ comment could be read (whether or not that was his intention) as implying that Israel might have had a legitimate reason to attack the home, it’s just that it hasn’t provided one yet.

Put differently, because the HRW report does not challenge the Israeli claim that its attack was necessitated by its right to defend itself against Gazan rocket attacks, by implication the report appears to be conceding that Israel might have had “legitimate military targets” in Gaza, even though the Dalu home wasn’t one of them.

However, Israel had no just cause to attack Gaza in the first place, because the attack--like the much larger “Operation Cast Lead” four years earlier--was not one of “self-defense” but was designed to suppress all resistance to the continuing Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinian people. Consequently, not only was the Dalu home an illegitimate target, but in the present circumstances Israel has no right to attack any targets in Gaza.

Second, the report’s emphasis on “proportionality” is misleading. The principle of proportionality means that even legitimate targets in a legitimate war may be attacked only if the foreseeable civilian casualties (“collateral damage”) are both unintended and in some sense not disproportionate to the military gain. Thus, the proportionality principle does not apply to the attack on the Dalu home, both because Israel lacked a just cause even for “proportional” attacks on Gaza as well as because policemen engaged in essentially civilian activities are not legitimate military targets.

The operative moral and legal principle, then, is that of noncombatant immunity, perhaps the most important principle that governs and restrains the conduct of war. Throughout its entire history, Israel has attacked private homes and even apartment houses known to contain many civilians. For example in 1982 Israel bombed several apartment houses in Beirut in order to kill Yasser Arafat and other PLO leaders believed to be in them, killing hundreds of civilians (but none of the intended targets); as well, during in its attack on Gaza in 2008-09 Israel deliberately destroyed a home containing a large extended family, killing some twenty-five of them. (For the full evidence on these and similar attacks, see my current article in International Security, “Just War Moral Philosophy and the 2008-09 Israeli Campaign in Gaza”

In short, so long as the occupation and repression of the Palestinians continues, Israel doesn't have any "legitimate military targets" in Gaza--even if its attacks on such "targets" were not so obviously indiscriminate and heedless of the noncombatant immunity laws. Attacks on civilian targets are the Israeli way of war, usually failing the legal and moral principle of just cause and always failing the principle of just methods. Thus, the HRW report could have been even stronger, for no Israeli “explanation” of its attack on the Dalu home can change the fact that it was criminal in both law and morality—and not merely in just war moral philosophy, but in the common moral sense of nearly every human culture.

Monday, December 10, 2012

What to Make of Khaled Meshal?

On his triumphant return to Gaza several days ago, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal proclaimed that Hamas would never recognize Israel or abandon its claim to all Israeli territory: "Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on an inch of the land.” There can be no doubt that Meshal’s demagogic but empty rhetoric was shocking, irresponsible, and profoundly stupid. Nor can there be any doubt that he has handed Netanyahu and the Israeli right precisely the excuse they want to continue the policy of no negotiations with Hamas—or even, in quite imaginable circumstances, to launch a massive attack on Gaza to destroy Hamas.

Nonetheless, for a number of reasons Meshal’s buffoonery does not justify Israel’s refusal to explore the possibility of a negotiated two-state negotiated settlement with Hamas—or perhaps even with Meshal himself. First, some of what Meshal said was ambiguous, and probably deliberately so: “We will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take." That is, Meshal could be read as saying that Hamas would never recognize the legitimacy of Israel as long as the occupation continues, in which case he was still leaving open the possibility of a negotiated end to the conflict if Israel agrees to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

In fact, there are a number of strong indications that Meshal has been steadily moving, however inconsistently, towards a negotiated settlement. I provide the evidence for this in my extended discussion of the evolution of Hamas in general and Meshal in particular in my recent International Security article on the 2008-09 Israeli attack on Gaza (

Here I can only summarize:

* According to ex-Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, as early as 1997 King Hussein of Jordan conveyed to Israel an offer from Khaled Meshal, then the chief Hamas leader, to reach an understanding on a ceasefire to last 30 years. Israel not only ignored the offer, but a few days later, Israeli operatives tried to assassinate Meshal in Jordan.

*In the past decade Hamas has repeatedly proposed extended ceasefires with Israel, and in fact several of them have gone into effect; it has been Israel rather than Hamas that has broken these truces. In particular, in June 2008 Hamas and the Israeli government agreed to a six month ceasefire, following which—as was the case in previous ceasefires-- Hamas ended its rocket attacks on Israel. Moreover, even though Israel continued its economic blockade of Gaza and its assassinations of Islamic Jihad activists, Hamas not only maintained the ceasefire but successfully prevented most attempts by Islamic Jihad to retaliate against Israel.

*Israel broke the ceasefire on November 4 2008, attacking a Gazan tunnel and killing six Hamas men. This time Hamas retaliated, firing rockets into southern Israel; even so, according to Israeli newspapers, on December 23 the head of Shin Bet told the Israeli cabinet that Hamas was prepared to continue an indefinite truce if Israel ended the blockade and the assassinations. Israel refused these terms, and on December 27 it launched Operation Cast Lead.

Beyond the ceasefires, for a number of years there have been solid indications that Hamas, including Khalid Meshal, has been gradually moving towards—in fits and starts, to be sure-- abandoning its extremist positions and accepting the two state principle. The evidence is considerable; here I will mention only some of it.

In January 2006, shortly after Hamas won the parliamentary elections in Gaza, it sought to convey a message to Israel, through the U.S. government, offering Israel a truce for many years in exchange for a compromise political settlement; neither Israel nor the Bush administration replied to this and additional overtures. Later in 2006 Hamas began to go public with its new position. For example, in May Gazan prime minister Haniyeh told Haaretz that the Hamas government would agree to agree to a long-term truce with Israel if it withdrew to the 1967 lines; a few months later Haniyeh said that “We have no problem with a sovereign Palestinian state over all of our lands within the 1967 borders, living in calm.”

Meshal did not take a harder line than Haniyeh or other Hamas leaders. In late 2006 he said that Hamas could not oppose the unified Arab stance expressed in an Arab League summit conference, which offered Israel full recognition and normalized relations in exchange for a full Israel withdrawal from the occupied territories and a solution to the refugee problem. In April 2008 Meshal went further, stating that Hamas would end its resistance activities if Israel ended the occupation and accepted a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 border.

Thus, until the recent Israeli attack on Gaza, the general direction of both Hamas in general and Meshal in particular was to abandon--in practice, though not in some of its rhetoric--its goal of “regaining all of Palestine.” Consequently, a number of prominent members of the Israeli security establishment, including Ephraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad and the national security adviser in Ariel Sharon’s 2002-03 government and Ami Ayalon, a former head of Shin Bet, and, argued strongly for negotiations with Hamas. In particular, Halevy wrote that even Hamas militants had recognized that their “ideological goal is not attainable and…. are ready and willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state in the temporary borders of 1967.…They know that the moment a Palestinian state is established with their cooperation, they will be obligated to change the rules of the game: they will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original ideological goals.”

What conclusions, then, can be drawn from the latest Meshal rhetoric? In fact, there are a number of reasonable possibilities. First, Meshal has often said different things to different audiences, so there is no reason to assume that his impassioned speech to his Gazan followers and militants represents the “real” Meshal, as opposed to his past statements—public and private—indicating that in practice he will accept a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Of course, a second possibility is simply that Meshal has again changed his mind--especially in light of the latest Israeli attack on Gaza--from fiery and uncompromising militant, to a much realistic position, and now back again to fanaticism. If so, though, then his position could change yet again--especially, of course, in response to an Israeli offer to negotiate with Hamas.

Third, even if the latest Meshal posture is the real one and will never change, it doesn’t follow that there is no one in Hamas for Israel to talk to. There are other Hamas political and military leaders, some of whom might be more moderate than Meshal, if only they had a moderate Israel that was willing to negotiate with them.

In short, there is no basis to the claim that the Meshal speech proves that negotiations with Hamas are impossible. If anything, precisely the opposite is the case: it is only by an Israeli offer to negotiate on the basis of a two-state settlement that the Hamas position can be tested. Of course, the real reason for Israel’s refusal to negotiate even with the Palestinian government in the West Bank, let alone with Hamas, is that it is the Israelis rather than most Palestinians who are opposed to a genuine compromise settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wonderful commentary by Scott McConnell

With his permission, I am reprinting in its entirety a must-read commentary, on the National Interest webside, by Scott McConnell:



Why Americans Don't Understand Palestine

Scott McConnelll


November 27, 2012

If a man from Mars descended to observe Israel’s attack on the Gaza strip, he would have seen one group of humans trapped in a densely populated area, largely defenseless while a modern air force destroyed their buildings at will. He might have learned that the people in Gaza had been essentially enclosed for several years in a sort of ghetto, deprived by the Israeli navy of access to the fish in their sea, generally unable to travel or to trade with the outside world, barred by Israeli forces from much of their arable land, all the while surveyed continuously from the sky by a foe which could assassinate their leaders at will and often did.

This Martian also might learn that the residents of Gaza—most of them descendants of refugees who had fled or been driven from Israel in 1948—had been under Israeli occupation for 46 years, and intensified closure for six, a policy described by Israeli officials as “economic warfare” and privately by American diplomats as intended to keep Gaza “functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis.” He might note that Gaza’s water supply is failing, as Israel blocks the entry of materials that could be used to repair and upgrade its sewage and water-treatment infrastructure. That ten percent of its children suffer from malnutrition and that cancer and birth defects are on the rise. That the fighting had started after a long standing truce had broken down after a series of tit-for-tat incidents, followed by the Israeli assassination of an Hamas leader, and the typical Hamas response of firing inaccurate rockets, which do Israel little damage.

But our man from Mars is certainly not an American. And while empathy for the underdog is said to be an American trait, this is not true if the underdog is Palestinian.

Among the chief milestones of Washington’s reaction to Israel’s military campaign were: President Obama stated from Bangkok that America supported Israel’s right “to defend itself” and “no country on earth would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens” while national-security aide Benjamin Rhodes added “the reason there is a conflict in Gaza is because of the rocket fire that’s been launched at Israeli civilians indiscriminately for many months now.” Congress took time off from partisan wrangling about the fiscal cliff to pass unanimously two resolutions, in the Senate and House, expressing its “unwavering commitment to the security of the State of Israel” and backing its “inherent right to protect its citizens against acts of terrorism.” Its members could further inform themselves by attending a closed briefing by Israel’s ambassador Michael Oren on November 28, the only figure invited by the House Foreign Affairs Committee to testify.

As the fighting continued, Walter Russell Mead, a prominent political scientist, conveyed impatience with the just-war tradition seemed to inhibit Israeli air attacks, which by then had killed and wounded scores of people. Mead asserted that Americans would back an Israeli response of “unlimited ferocity.”

When Republican governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell, not known for his foreign-affairs opinions, issued a statement backing Israel’s response to “unwarranted and random violence,” he was assumed to be signaling his presidential aspirations. The polls seemed to back him up: Americans told pollsters they supported Israel’s actions against the Palestinians in Gaza by 57 percent to 25 percent, though the percentage of backers were somewhat lower among Democrats (41 percent), and the young (45 percent).

One explanation for such sentiments is that most Americans take foreign policy cues from political leaders, and no prominent American politician is willing to publicly express sympathy or compassion for Palestinians at the expense of Israel. Since roughly the time of John F. Kennedy, the politically ambitious have understood that expressing a wish for even-handedness between Israel and Palestine would threaten one’s career. Whatever their private views might be, by the time they get to Congress legislators learn that uncritical support for Israel is the “smart” political choice.

The spectrum of Congressional debate is shaped by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose leaders vet potential candidates from across the political spectrum for their willingness to promote AIPAC-sponsored views on the Middle East, and ensure the access of those who agree to the lobby’s superb national fundraising networks.

Those who stray are punished. Among notable victims was Illinois Senator Charles Percy, a moderate Republican once considered by many a possible future president. But after Percy refused to sign “the letter of 76” senators opposing President Ford’s call for a reassessment of U.S. Middle East policy, and described Yasser Arafat as relative moderate among Palestinians, he faced well-funded opponents in the primary and general elections, and an outsider from California spent more than $1 million in negative ads against him. As J. J. Goldberg, editor of the Forward, noted a decade ago, “there is this image in Congress that you don’t cross these people or they take you down.” Given the absence of any publicly Palestine-sympathetic politicians at the national level, it may be surprising that support for Israel’s strikes is not higher than 57 percent.

There are of course reasons beyond AIPAC’s campaign-finance heft for Congress’s Israel support. Christian Zionism is a significant factor, particularly in the Bible Belt. Former House Republican leader Dick Armey declared that his “number 1 priority in foreign policy is to protect Israel” while Tom Delay, his successor, described himself as “an Israeli at heart.”

Other factors count as well. After 1967, Israel earned respect as a Cold War ally, with a military which could dominate Soviet allies in the region. Its creation in 1948 was widely viewed as partial moral compensation for the enormity of the crimes of the Holocaust—a view probably held by most Americans, including those opposed to many of Israel’s current policies.

Furthermore, Palestinians have often had poor leadership in their national struggle. When success required international support, their use of terrorism rendered that problematic. Palestinians are hardly the first national-liberation movement to use terror as a tactic, but neither the Zionist Irgun and Stern Gang, nor the Algerian FLN, nor the IRA seemed as dependent on terrorism to gain attention. This made it easier for its enemies to define the Palestinian national movement as “terrorist” tout court and allowed Israel’s backers to tie their denial of Palestinian aspirations to America’s “war on terror”—however dissimilar the two projects were.

A free and responsible press could challenge this political monoculture. But while there was more varied commentary about this Middle East war than previous ones, major journalistic organs failed dramatically at providing Americans information to understand the conflict. On November 19, the New York Times published an editorial outlining its view of the Gaza war. Its core passage described the outbreak of conflict:

Hamas, which took control of Gaza in 2007 and is backed by Iran, is so consumed with hatred for Israel that it has repeatedly resorted to violence, no matter what the cost to its own people. Gaza militants have fired between 750 to 800 rockets into Israel this year before Israel assassinated one of its senior leaders last week and began its artillery and air campaign.

This summary mirrors precisely the oft-voiced Israeli hasbara point “We withdrew from Gaza, and they started firing rockets.” But the Times ignored entirely the virtual occupation of Gaza that Israel has maintained over the territory since its withdrawal, an occupation which intensified after Hamas won a Palestinian election, then prevailed in a struggle against the PA for control of the strip. The Times “balanced” its assessment with mild extraneous criticism of Israel for “marginalizing” the Palestinian Authority and isolating itself diplomatically. But the Israel-dominated reality Gazans had faced for the prior six years is left out.

Yes, it is true that Hamas is hostile to Israel and that its charter is anti-Semitic. It is also true that Hamas leaders have expressed interest in a long-term negotiated truce—a concession many observers feel is prelude to accepting a two state solution. By failing to acknowledge that Israel had been blockading Gaza and its people, the Times gave its readers no way to understand why the people under Hamas rule might support resistance against Israel, including firing rockets, or why millions of people throughout the Arab and Muslim world support them.

On the same day in the Washington Post, Richard Cohen accused Hamas of not caring about human life, including that of Gazans. He too dwelled on the anti-Semitism in the Hamas charter, and mentioned the 2005 Israeli “pullout” from Gaza. He chided Israel for building settlements, but also could not bring himself to mention the blockade Israel has imposed on Gaza.

Neither, writing a few days hence, could his Post colleague David Ignatius. Like Cohen, Ignatius is a centrist, sometimes critical of Israeli actions. But about Gaza he hewed tightly to Israeli propaganda guidelines:

The Israelis withdrew from Gaza in 2005, only to have Hamas fire about 12,000 rockets and mortars at the Jewish state. The Israel Defense Forces invaded in 2008 (Operation Cast Lead) and a ceasefire followed. But in the years since, Hamas and other militias fired more than 3000 rockets and mortars, despite periodic cease-fires. On November 14, the Israelis got fed up and retaliated. . . they assassinated Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari.

Again, no mention of the blockade, no reference to Israel’s denial of Palestinian access to everything from the fish off their seacoast, to the opportunity to go to universities run by their compatriots on the West Bank, to their best arable land, to the equipment that would allow them to mend their broken water system. Palestinian resistance to the occupation is presented as simple bloody-mindedness. It is less surprising that Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, whose views track more closely with Israel’s right-wing government, would take the identical line: Israel withdrew, got rockets in return.

Does not publishing this kind of narrative, again and again, constitute a kind of journalistic malpractice, an abrogation of a major newspaper’s responsibility to inform? To imply that the Palestinians have no cause to resist, when rather plainly they exist in circumstances no people on earth would tolerate, is not really different from an actual lie. Israel can lie about Gaza if it wants, as governments do. But should major U.S. newspapers do so in their editorial and opinion pages?

It is hardly as if such journalistic distortions come without cost to Americans. Faced with a vast region of critical strategic importance, American readers are being deprived of information essential to understanding what is going on. The Arab world is radicalizing rapidly, often in anti-American ways, and one stream feeding the radicalism is U.S. diplomatic and moral support for Israel’s cruel blockade of Gaza.

This is not to say that media coverage of the Israel Palestine issue has not improved. Now, perhaps for the first time, Palestinians appear on network talk programs (Chris Hayes) and major radio outlets (NPR). It is important that Yousef Munayyer can be heard telling Democracy Now radio host Amy Goodman that to claim Israel is not occupying Gaza is like saying your goldfish are not under your control if you are not actually in the tank swimming with them.

The internet also has transformed the U.S. media landscape, on no issue more than Israel-Palestine. Nevertheless, most Americans do not seek news from specialized platforms. At a time when American politicians labor under all the constraints discussed above, the media’s omission of critical contextual information violates its mission to inform and educate.

In the very recent past, Americans paid a heavy price for ignorance about the Arab world—many of its leaders having been led to believe that an Iraq invasion force would be welcomed with rose petals. There are now ample reasons to fear that they are being misled again.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Israel's Real Purpose in Gaza

Gershon Baskin, the co-chairman of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a back-channel intermediary between Hamas and the Israeli government, has followed up a Haaretz column a few days ago with a piece in this morning's New York Times online opinion page, arguing that Israel is "shortsighted" for not pursuing strong indications that Hamas was ready to sign a long-term ceasefire agreement  with Israel.(
The problem, however, is much worse than Israeli "shortsightness."  As the record unmistakably shows, as discussed in my International Security article (, Israel also refused many opportunities to negotiate long-term or even permanent ceasefires with Hamas before its massive attack (Operation Cast Lead) on Gaza in 2008-09, and even deliberately violated existing ceasefire agreements.

Therefore, the appropriate conclusion is that Israel has no interest in a long-term ceasefire, let alone a negotiated political settlement, with Hamas, undoubtedly because it would rather have unending wars than reach an agreement that would leave Hamas in power, and in all likelihood result in a two-state settlement of the overall Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflict.

In short, the Israelis are not "shortsighted," they are mad.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Connecting "Cast Lead" to the Current Israeli Attack

For those who don't regularly read Steve Walt's blog--everyone should--I'll take the liberty of reposting part of his comment today on the ongoing Israeli attack on Gaza:


What if powerful Palestinians were bombing weak Israelis?, Stephen M. Walt

First, the similarities to Operation Cast Lead (the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008-09) are of course obvious. In both cases, the attacks occurred shortly after a U.S. presidential election. In both cases, a period of rough truce was initially broken by Israel, triggering a Palestinian response, and then leading to an overwhelming Israeli counterattack justified by the need to "restore deterrence." In both cases there doesn't appear to be a clear Israeli strategy, in the sense of any justifiable political objectives.  

Given these similarities, a good place to start weighing the moral dimensions here is Jerome Slater's recent article "Just War Philosophy and the 2008-09 War in Gaza," published in the Fall 2012 issue of International Security. Slater is distinguished research professor emeritus at SUNY-Buffalo, and an insightful commentator on Middle East affairs. His analysis of Cast Lead is sober but damning, and it applies with equal force to the events we are now witnessing.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Scott McConnell's Essay

You probably won't be reading this until after the election, but I thought it was still worthwhile to publish Scott McConnell's (former editor of American Conservative, now fully recovered): excellent essay.   Here it is:

"I spent the weekend canvassing for Obama in the Virginia Beach area. Our task -- for the hundreds of Obama volunteers who descended from DC and New York -- was to make sure as many as possible of Virginia's "sporadic Democratic voters" -- a designation which seemed to mean, pretty much, poor minorities -- get to the polls on Tuesday. Making sure everyone understands where their polling place is, what ID they need, to be reminded that it's important, to make a plan to vote and stick to it, etc. And, of course shooting down the various disinfomational memes that "someone" has been circulating in the area: that "because of the hurricane" you can vote by cell phone by calling this number, or alternatively that you can't vote a straight Democratic tickets -- if you do, your Senate or Congress vote won't count. It is a core axiom among Democratic activists that the essence of the Republican "ground game" is to suppress the Democratic votes, by lies, intimidation, whatever might work.
It was a curiously moving experience. Much of the sentiment comes from simple exposure. I have led most of my life not caring very much whether the poor voted, and indeed have sometimes been aware my interests aligned with them not voting very much at all. But that has changed. And so one knocks on one door after another in tiny houses and apartments in Chesapeake and Newport News, some of them nicely kept up and clearly striving to make the best of modest lot, others as close to Third World as one gets in America. And at moments one feels it as a kind of calling -- and then laughs at the Alinskian presumption of it all. Yes, we are all connected.
At times when I might have been afraid -- knocking on a door of what might of well have been, judging from the pitbulls and the young men who answered, a sort of crack house -- I felt no fear. Protected by age and my Obama campaign informational doorhangers.
And occasionally, one strikes canvassing gold. In one decrepit garden apartment complex, where families lived indwellings the size of maybe two large cars, a young man (registered) came around behind me while I was talking to his mother. "Yeah" he said, "Romney wins, I'm moving back to the islands. He's gonna start a war, to get the economy going." Really. He stopped to show me a video on his smart phone, of one of his best friends, a white guy in the Marines. I couldn't make out what the video was saying, but I took it as a Monthly Review moment. In a good way.
And Tomiko. Plump, pretty, dressed in a New York Jets jersey and sweatpants. "If the campaign can get me a van, I can get dozens of people around here to the polls on Tuesday." Yes, Tomiko, the campaign might be able to do that, and someone will be calling you.
Very small sample size: But of the white female Obama volunteers with whom I had long conversations, one hundred percent had close relatives who had failed marriages with Mormon men. I think Mormonism is the great undiscussed subject of the campaign, and I don't quite know what to make of it myself. But contrary to Kennedy's Catholicism (much agonized over) and Obama's Jeremiah Wright ties (ditto), Mormonism is pretty obviously the central driving factor of Romney's life. This may be a good thing or a bad thing -- but it is rather odd that it is not discussed, at all. I think it safe to say that if Romney wins, the Church of Latter Day Saints will come under very intense scrutiny, and those of us who have thought of the church as simply a Mountain West variation on Protestantism will be very much surprised.
I spent a good deal of time driving and sharing meals with three fellow volunteers, professional women maybe in their early  orties, two black, one white, all gentile, all connected in some way, as staffers or lobbyists, to the Democratic Party. All had held staff positions at the Democratic convention. They had scoped out my biography, knew the rough outlines from neocon, to Buchananite, to whatever I am now. They knew my principal reason for supporting Obama was foreign policy, especially Iran. They  spent many hours interrogating me about my reactionary attitudes on women, race, immigration, all in good comradely fun of course. At supper last night before we drove back to DC,  I asked them (all former convention staffers) what they thought about the contested platform amendment on Jerusalem. Silence. Finally one of them said, with uncharacteristic tentativeness, "Well, I'm not sure I really know enough about that issue." More silence.
Then I told them I thought it was an historic moment, (though I refrained from the Rosa Parks analogy I have deployed before) which portended a sea change in the Democratic Party attitudes on the question. I cited various neocon enforcers who feared the same thing.
And now, with permission to speak freely, they spoke up. It came pouring out. Yes obviously Israel has to give up something.  There has to be a two-state solution. We can't just one-sidedly support Israel, etc. But really striking was their reluctance, perhaps even fear, to voice their own opinions before hearing mine."

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Other Israel

In the last few years Israel has been the object of increasingly severe criticism in the West. Almost all of this criticism has focused on Israeli policies and behavior towards the Palestinians—such as the ongoing occupation and various forms of repression, the failure of the Netanyahu government to seek a two-state settlement, the expanding settlements, the creeping annexations and slow-motion ethnic cleansing, the continuing economic punishment and impoverization of Gaza, the settler assaults, pogroms and lynchings, and the like.

Sure, this is the downside of Israel—no country is perfect, and I won’t deny it has been discomforting to me and other “liberal Zionists.” Still, the picture it portrays of Israel, focusing as it does overwhelmingly on Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, is imbalanced. When passing judgment on Israel, surely it is only fair to take into account the full picture, for there is another Israel, the internal Israel, the vibrant democracy of Israel, which (as the saying goes) continues to be the only democracy in the Middle East.

The purpose of this commentary, then, is to help correct this imbalance, by focusing attention on a number of developments, news stories, and commentaries concerning different aspects of Israeli democracy that have appeared in the past year.

The major elements of liberal democracy include (not necessarily in this order) the following:

1. The rule of law

2. Civil rights and liberties for all, including minorities

3. Freedom of speech, especially dissenting political speech.

4. Political competition, especially a vigorous opposition parties;

5. Democratic control of the military and police.

6. Economic fairness and justice.

7. The non-violent settlement of political and other internal conflicts.

8. Racial, religious, and gender non-discrimination

9. Separation of religion from the state.

10. A vigorous and critical media

12. An informed and enlightened public, deeply committed to democratic and liberal values; tot this end, there must be a universal and first rate education system which, among other functions, inculcates civilization’s highest values, including reason and morality.

So, how does Israel fare in terms of these components of liberal democracy? The following discussion is based only on events so far in 2012.

The Rule of Law

A number of Israeli law professors have decried Israel’s unequal legal systems—one for the country itself, a different and worse one for the Palestinians it occupies, often described as one set of law for the Jews, another set for the Palestinians. In the last year, the court system as a whole has become increasingly politicized, and even the Supreme Court cannot be relied upon to provide judicial oversight of the government on “security” related matters—i.e, the settlers and the overall occupation.

A few recent examples:

*Eyal Benvenisti reviews a number of Knesset proposals that aim “to usurp land from its Palestinian owners and give it to settlers;” the title of his June 12 Haaretz column--“Israel, Where Laws are Made to be Broken”-- makes it clear that he doesn’t expect the court system to intervene. Zvi Bar’el explains why: “The State of Israel’s highest court…has transformed itself into a plaything in the settler’s hands.” (Haaretz, Jan. 25)

*Gideon Levy, one of Israel’s bravest and most outspoken journalists, writes frequently about the politicization of the court system: “even the High Court…usually automatically accepts the positions of the security establishment.” (Haaretz, Oct 5) Similarly, a Haaretz editorial accuses the “judicial and security agencies” of “excelling in failing to enforce the laws” that prohibit the building of settlements on private Palestinian land.” (“Justifying the Highest Crime,” July 4) Several months later another editorial points to a variety of ways in which the government provides political and economic assistance to settler expansion that is not only contrary to international but also to Israel’s own laws, and concludes that the government is guilty of “blatant contempt for law and justice.” (Sept. 4)

*In the same vein, Levy writes that the Supreme Court is upholding racist Knesset actions that “discriminate against Arab citizens of Israel solely on the basis of their ethnicity,” and “which in the name of security is prepared to deny basic rights.” (“Israel’s High Court Doesn’t Deserve To Be Defended,” Jan. 9. On May 10 Levy noted other examples of Israel lawlessness, and concludes that Israel is “not only flouting international, but our own law.”

*Moreover, Israeli governmental lawlessness apparently is not limited to the treatment of the Palestinians and the Israeli Arabs. Akiva Eldar points to a number of ways in which the Netanyahu government has proposed “ways that create a detour around law and justice, which bypass…the court system.” (Haaretz, June 11) Merav Michaeli notes some of: “Israeli governments have in past decades pulled the plug on social services. With institutionalized violence, each government has cut budgets drastically, implemented privatization policies behind the Knesset's back….voided enforcing social welfare laws, and has even proactively violated labor, education and public housing laws.” (Haaretz, “Israel Is Privatizing Its Citizens' Despair,”July 18)

Civil Rights and Freedom of Speech.

2012 has been a very bad year for civil rights and freedom of speech in Israel. Zeev Sternhell-- one of Israel’s leading political philosophers, an expert on democracy, and a recipient of the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor--writes that “here in Israel the term ‘human rights’ is a term of abuse, and human-rights organizations are persecuted. As the Israeli right sees it, only Israel-bashers fight for human rights because that principle gives the Palestinian Arab exactly the same rights to freedom and self-termination as the Israeli Jew.” (Haaretz, Oct. 7)

Here are only a few of the events in 2002 that illustrate Sternhell’s conclusion:

*In March, the Knesset passed a law prohibiting public institutions from referring to the Israeli expulsion of Palestinians in 1947-8 as a Nakba, or catastrophe. Similarly, the Knesset passed legislation making even nonviolent calls for boycotts of Israel a civil crime.

*Throughout the year settlers and other Israeli extremists increased their violent attacks not only on Palestinians or Africans but also against Jewish dissidents; typically the police refused to interfere, or even joined in the violence. Gideon Levy wrote:: “The Israeli Police…is not what the police force in a democracy should be. [It] does not like demonstrations, and therefore it is a political police force…. Growing numbers of police officers beat up law-abiding citizens…Legitimate, nonviolent political protest is being suppressed with illegitimate political police violence.” (Haaretz, June 24)

Following the release of an Israeli film maker’s graphic documentary of the behavior of Israeli forces in the occupied territories, Levy wrote: “The reality of the occupation is that there is no such thing as nonviolent struggle…..The Israel Defense Forces soldiers and the Border Police will ensure that it becomes violent. Just one thrown stone, despite the pleas of the demonstration organizers, will suffice; just one verbal altercation will also suffice [for the Israeli forces] to pull the pin, to release the gas, the rubber bullet…and sometimes the live fire, and to cut off the impossible dream of a nonviolent struggle.” (“The Documentary That Should Make Every Decent Israeli Ashamed,” Haaretz, Oct.5.

*In July, Michael Sfard, widely regarded as Israel’s most prominent human rights lawyer, summarized the recent events: “Israel’s democracy is under attack….There has been a wave of legislation designed to confine public discourse and limited political freedom of action….The government has incited against human rights organizations, presenting them as traitorous….and fellow travelers with terror. There has been an effort to derail funding received by such organizations….There have been efforts to deter protesters….such as mass arrests on false pretenses, police violence and the enforcement of draconian restrictions against the protesters.” (Haaretz, July 25)

*Apparently, the thugs, the fanatics, and the police had little reason to be concerned that the violence might precipitate a civil backlash: a 2011 poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute that found that fifty-one percent of Israelis believed that people should be prohibited from harshly criticizing the State of Israel in public.

Recently, even Israeli universities, heretofore a haven for free speech and vigorous dissent, are under governmental threat. There are many examples, the most dramatic one being the decision by the government Council of Higher Education to shut down the political science department at Ben-Gurion University, which includes several unsparing and public critics of the Israeli occupation. A Haaretz editorial comments that this decision “stems from desire to punish faculty who dared offer their students a critical viewpoint. (Oct.2)

Zeev Sternhell writes that the aim of the current campaign is “to strike fear into the other universities and their faculty members…This bullying behavior…is threatening to eliminate the institution of tenure, an essential condition for the freedom of academic research and teaching.” (“The Respectable Right in all Its Ugliness.” (Haaretz, Sept.18)

Political Competition and Vigorous Opposition Parties

The Haaretz journalist Yossi Verter points out that in the 1992 Israeli election of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Labor Party and smaller Israeli parties to its left won 49% of the vote; in the 2009 election of Benjamin Netanyahu the left won only “a paltry 29 percent.” (Haaretz, Aug. 9) Little change is expected in the next Israeli general elections: as the prominent Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar wrote in a widely-noted The National Interest article, even if one included the hardly very leftist Labor Party as part of the opposition, recent opinion polls indicated that if elections were held today, the left would win only 32 seats, a little more than a quarter of the Knesset. (“Israel's New Politics and the Fate of Palestine,” July-August 2012)

In any case, the Labor Party (as Eldar points out in an October 5th column in Haaretz) has been fully involved in coalition government decisions to “dissolve the Oslo Accords…build the settlements….and begin the Second Lebanon War.” The only true “leftist” or, better said, liberal dissenting political party in Israel is Meretz. Netanyahu is expected to call for new elections within the next six months; current surveys indicate that Meretz will win no more than 5% of the Knesset seats.

To illustrate what he calls “the collapse of the Zionist Left,” in his National Interest article Eldar pointed to public opinion surveys showing that 72 percent of Israeli Jews defined themselves as “rightwing.” Similarly, the future is likely to be even worse, Verter observes: “The left is particularly weak among young people: only a quarter of people aged 18-29 have a positive view of the left, while two-thirds have a strongly negative view” (“Reviving the Israeli Left is a Ten Year Project, Says Think Tank,” Haaretz, Aug. 9) For these reasons, Carlo Strenger, an Israeli professor and Haaretz columnist has concluded that for the foreseeable future there is not likely even to be a center-left government in Israel.

Sternhell spells out the implications: “The existential question [of the occupation]…has miraculously vanished from the agenda, thanks to a tacit agreement between the right, which controls the government, and the Labor Party. Thus, the danger of the liquidation of the democratic Jewish state has ceased to be a bone of contention. This development is without precedent in the history of democratic politics: It's doubtful that there has ever before been a democratic state where an incomparably controversial issue on which its very existence depends has been silenced and buried by agreement between the government and the opposition.” (“The Battle Isn’t Just Economic,” Haaretz, August 8)

Non-Discrimination Against Minorities

Never mind how the Palestinians are treated, in the past year there has been a marked increase in contempt, hatred, incitement and violence against various Israeli minorities in Israel, including openly expressed racism against the Israeli Arabs, the Bedouin, and black immigrants or refugees fleeing from African civil wars. While worse than ever, discrimination and racism in Israeli society is hardly new; Uri Avnery points out that even when the Jews who migrated from Arab countries arrived in Israel, “they were received by a society that held everything Arab in total contempt.”

Here are just a few despairing comments by Israeli writers:

* Neri Livneh: “in present-day Israel, the racism has for some time been as overt as it is ugly,” but is becoming steadily worse, not surprisingly because “it is based on religious values which hold that the Jews are superior to goyim, that men are superior to women and that whites are superior to blacks.” Even Ethiopian Jews continue to be the objection of discrimination and racism, Livneh writes: “It’s unbelievable that after so many years of living in our midst we haven’t yet begun to integrate them.” (“Believe It Or Not,” Haaretz, Jan. 27)

* Gideon Levy, “Israel is the most racist country in the West” (Haaretz, May 31)

* Ithamar Handelman-Smith, a leading poet and writer: “Every day, our children hear the same Israeli racist incitement against everyone and everything foreign, other or different….a massive wave of racism and ultranationalism is washing over the entire country.” (Haaretz, Sept 6)

What is new is that government officials themselves increasingly are expressing openly racist attitudes; as Rina Rosenberg the Israeli Director of the “Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights,” writes: “Racism is [not only] becoming normalized among the Israeli public,” it is increasingly legitimized in Israeli politics.” (Haaretz, June 1)

Some examples:

*Some local officials are trying to prevent Arab citizens of Israel from living in their communities.

*These and similar acts of discrimination are tolerated if not supported and even promoted by some government officials. Anat Biletzki writes (May 9), that the Minister of Finance asked her whether “you really want an Arab living next door to you?” Biletzki comments: “that a serving government minister could so bluntly voice such a racist comment is something with democratic proclivities shudders at,” and concludes that “far more racist epitaphs are now regularly expressed by Israeli officials.”

The recent wave of Africans seeking refuge in Israel has exacerbated the racism, including among government officials; as a Haaretz editorial (June 5) put it: “politicians vie with one another over who can inflame anti-migrant sentiment more.:

Don Futterman-- program director of the Moriah Fund, a foundation supporting migrants and working to strengthen civil society in Israel—writes: “Public officials have been competing to make the most outrageous accusations against the Africans, and to incite the public against the aid workers and rights activists trying to help these desperate people. As we listen to [their] words we must wonder if they have any Jewish collective consciousness or memory. (“A Rhetorical Pogrom,” Haaretz, June 8)

As a consequence of these trends, especially of government toleration and even incitement, racism in Israel is becoming increasingly violent:

In an August 29 Haaretz article entitled “Pogroms and Patriotism: the State is With You,” Rachiel Liel, the Executive Director of the New Israel Fund (described as a fund “dedicated to religious pluralism and civil rights in Israel”) wrote that beyond the routine settler attacks on Palestinians in the occupied territories and the destruction of their mosques, farms, wells and olive trees, “to this disgraceful list we must add the variety of serial abuses that Palestinians, foreigners, and those of different faiths suffer in Israel,” including a growing number of spitting at, physical assaults and even firebombings, directed against Israeli Arabs, African immigrants, Christian monks and priests, and even Ethiopian Jews. Liel concludes: “This entire evil horde has one common denominator: the carefree, comfortable belief that the government is with them. That the regime is on their side. That with the legal authorities and their enforcement arms turning a blind eye, they can give free rein to their impulses.”

In a similar vein, Gideon Levy writes: “The government incites the weaker classes against [African immigrants] and after violence breaks out, the prime minister makes do with a weak remark that “there is no place for this.” In fact there is a place for violence against the migrants. After all, what did we think? That when they are described as a cancer….that there would not be an outbreak of violent crimes against them?” (May 31)

Even women are the object of discrimination in Israel -- primarily but hardly exclusively by increasingly large and powerful ultra-Orthodox religious sector, which rigidly separates women from men in public places, buses, synagogues and so. Sexual harassment, of course, is hardly limited to Israel, but some Israeli commentators argue it is worsening; for example, 165,000 women were harassed at their work place over the past year, including by the country’s president, who was recently convicted of rape. (Livneh, “A Country for Men,” Haaretz, Feb. 2)

Zahava Gal-On, the leader of the Meretz political party, concludes: “the Orthodox establishment tells us how we can marry, divorce, convert, and be buried…There can be no democracy in which there is no equality for women…” (Quoted in interview with Neri Livneh, “Meretz Leader Zahava Gal-On is Not Looking to be Loved,” Haaretz, July 12)

Political Control of the Military

The Israeli Army is increasingly being drawn from the settlers and religious. Almost one-third of infantry officers are religious, up from just 2.5% in 1990, and they rising into the top ranks. (Geoffrey Aronson, Report on Israeli Settlements, March-April 2012) The parties based on the settlers and religious are working to increase these numbers, so as to ensure the settlers can never be removed from the occupied territories in a peace settlement. “There are those who fear, and others who hope,” Aronson writes, “that when and if Israel’s political establishment decides to remove settlements, the security forces with either rebel or simply refuse a politically or religiously untenable command.”

Economic Fairness and Justice

Economic inequality and even poverty is growing, as a consequence of the Netanyahu government’s love of what Shimon Peres once called “swinish capitalism.” (quoted in Uri Avnery, Jan. 21, 2012, “The Blockbusters”) According to Haaretz, one out of every three children are beneath the poverty line.” The Haaretz journalist Merav Michaeli writes that a detailed report by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel “describes how over the past few decades Israeli governments have pulled the plug on social service…cut budgets drastically, [and] avoided enforcing social welfare laws.” (“Israel is Privatizing Its Citizen’s Despair,” July 18)

Shelly Yacimovich, the leader of the Labor Party, repeats Peres’s language in her description of Netanyahu’s economic policies: rampant deregulation, worker layoffs, “swinish salaries for CEOs [and] insider deals that spit in the public’s face,” “hundreds of thousands of small and medium-size business owners who are gasping for air,” and high prices that are the result of “swinish” employer behavior. (Haaretz, Oct. 3)

As well, in her July 12 Haaretz interview, Zahava Gal-On observes that “There can be no democracy without a stable and broad middleclass….the middle class is collapsing under the burden of a centralized economy and shrinking govt. services. Basic rights like decent medical care have become a product that costs a pretty penny, and the weaker sectors are suffering from the ongoing and systematic government neglect.” Uri Avneri concludes that Israel today is “a state without democracy, without equality, with the gap between the abject poor and a handful of immensely rich growing from year to year.” “Thou Shalt Not Kill (Thyself),” February 18, 2012.

Separation of Religion and State.

According to Carlo Strenger, “the original sin of Israeli politics [is] the lack of a complete separation of state and religion.” “The Thinking Man Vs. the Theocrat” (Haaretz, June 24). The political power of the Orthodox was evident even in Israel’s early days, and has grown steadily since. Uri Avnery explains that even David Ben-Gurion, who was not religious, needed the Orthodox sectors to provide him with a majority coalition; consequently he made major concessions to them, including the establishment of their own education system, financed by the state. Since then almost all Israeli governments have relied on the religious, because no political party has ever won an overall majority in the Knesset.

Today, the importance of religion in Israel is rising, unlike most of the West. For example, according to an Israeli Democracy Institute survey, 70% of Israeli Jews believe that the Jews are the chosen people, and 61% think that Israel should “ensure that public life is conducted according to Jewish religious tradition,” up from 44% in 1991. And in less than two decades, it has been estimated, over half the armed forces officer corps will be graduates of the religious schools.

Writing in Haaretz, Uri Misgav points out some of the ways in which the state and religion are entwined in Israel: noting that many of the most extreme orthodox groups are funded by the government, including the Education Ministry, he writes that “There is no other country in the Western world where the supremacy of religion is as blatantly enshrined in law….From birth to burial, and matters of marriage, divorce, food, the day of rest…Israeli citizens are subject to religious regulations and to the religious establishment….The state, with its ongoing weakness and the cynical and irresponsible coalitions that rule it, is perpetuator of this craziness.” (Jan. 24)

The future looks even grimmer: in the current school year, 56% of Jewish Israelis entering first grade are attending state-funded religious and ultra-Orthodox schools. Schools, that is, “that teach that non-Jews are non-human.” (Sefi Rachlevsky, Haaretz, June 5) In a later column, Rachlevsky points to the anti-democratic consequences: “boys and girls study in separate classes, never see a secular person, and receive a racist-religious-extremist-and-anti-liberal education, whose inevitable result is the [recent} violent events.” (September 18)

Reacting to Netanyahu’s efforts to associate Israel with Western enlightenment and modernity, Zeev Sternhell writes: “Apparently Netanyahu doesn’t know that in the West, enlightenment is identified with human rights, with secularism, with rationalism and with universalism….The Israel of the settlers and rabbis who stir up hatred for gentiles; the Israel of the various kinds of messianic movements….is light years from secular Europe. Israel—with the emphasis that is placed here on religion in defining nationhood, in legislation, and in everyday life; with the power of religious parties in politics—really does belong to the Middle East and not to Europe.”

A Vigorous and Critical Media

Many Israelis have written about the uncritical nature of the Israeli mass media, which is enthusiastically nationalist and rarely challenges the government and the military. (Haaretz is an exception, which is why Benjamin Netanyahu was overhead saying that “The New York Times and Haaretz are our main opponents.” (Reported by Akiva Elda, Haaretz, June 11)

Gideon Levy, in particular, has written many columns on the failure of the media to perform its critical function in a healthy democracy. For example, in a recent column he wrote:

“If Israeli society today is more nationalistic, more racist, it is thanks to the media, which inculcated in it the demonization and dehumanization of the Palestinians; which taught us to treat African refugees as ‘infiltrators’ who pose an existential danger; taught us that the whole world is against us…. It was the media that taught us to applaud every war, at least in the beginning, and that military correspondents are army spokesmen in mufti…that taught us to worship the generals and the wealthy…to avert our eyes [from the occupation].”

The cheerleading of the media, Levy goes on, is not primarily because the government pressures it: “there is no pressure from authorities—everything they write and broadcast is a matter of choice [with]minimal censorship but for self-censorship….The goal is to sooth, to dumb and entertain …” (Haaretz, Sept. 9)

Elsewhere, Levy writes that “hardly any courageous journalism remains in Israel…..a vast majority of the local media decided not to report on the occupation any more.” (“The Documentary That Should Make Every Decent Israeli Ashamed,” Haaretz, Oct. 5)

The prognosis is even grimmer, as revealed in a New York Times story of October 5: “Israel’s print media are in crisis, squeezed by both the global pressures of the digital age and a small, crowded Hebrew-language market that is undergoing convulsions of its own. Channel 10, one of Israel’s two commercial television stations, also hangs precariously, waiting to be salvaged either by the government or by investment from abroad. Media experts here speak of an ominous trend: a once-diverse news bazaar that is becoming more concentrated and prone to political influence. In particular, they say, the economics of the print media have been skewed by the arrival five years ago of Israel Hayom, a free national newspaper owned by Sheldon Adelson, a conservative American billionaire who is a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel Hayom, viewed as pro-Netanyahu, now claims the widest distribution of any Hebrew newspaper on weekdays. Public television and radio have also come under tighter state control.” (Israel Kershner, “Political and Market Forces Hobble Israel’s Pack of Ink-Stained Watchdogs.”)

An Informed and Enlightened Government and Public, Deeply Committed to Democratic and Liberal Values

Carlo Strenger, Chair of the Clinical Graduate Program at the Department of Psychology of Tel Aviv University, writes that he is “profoundly amazed and distressed” by his conversations with Israeli politicians, revealing “their total lack of understanding of the world at large, and an equally total lack of interest in it….The political class’s mentality seems to reflect a general trend in Israel.” As many opinion surveys have demonstrated, “the majority of Israelis nowadays define their identities in religious, ethnic, or nationalistic terms and their adherence to liberal democratic values is often weak and in many cases, nonexistent.” (“Time to Circle the Wagons,’ Haaretz, July 29) For example, “less than half of Israeli Jews think that, in a clash between Jewish law and democracy, democratic values should always prevail.” (Nir Hass, Haaretz, Jan. 27).

In despair over mounting mob violence, the Israeli poet and writer Eyal Megged writes: “I do not speak in the name of morality, but of expediency, for that is, apparently, the language that the splendid, cruel breed developing here understands best of all…“The one argument that may still convince us, that may still alter, however slightly, the national face peering back at us from the mirror, that may still sway a public that has, for the most part, come to ignore moral considerations, is the pragmatic one: We cannot afford it….. If we go on being callous and cruel, no one will have mercy on us anymore. We will see how well we survive without the world’s mercy.” (“Our Moral Capital Has Run Out,” Haaretz, Aug. 23)

What accounts for this shocking discrepancy between Israel’s supposed democratic and liberal values and the reality of Israel today? Part of the explanation is the continuing rise of rightwing orthodox religiousity—as David Remnick puts it, “these days, emboldened fundamentalists flaunt an increasingly aggressive medievalism.” (Remnick, “Threatened,” New Yorker, March12, 2012); another part, as Uri Avnery has argued, is a consequence of the influx in the last twenty years of a large number of Russians who “grew up in a society that despised democracy [and], admired strong leaders..When the Russian Jews came to join us, they brought with them a virulent nationalism, a complete disinterest in democracy.” (Avnery, “The Blockbusters,” Jan. 21, 2012 ) How many democracies, he might have added, would appoint a thug as its foreign minister?

Whatever the explanations, the prognosis for the future is no better and probably worse. As Zeev Sternhell writes, “What should one think of a young people who don’t utter a peep in the face of the daily oppression in the territories, and also aren’t frightened by the erosion of basic democratic values in the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the education system?” (“The Battle Isn’t Just Economic,” Haaretz, Aug. 8)

According to Sefi Rachlevsky, “the collapse of liberal life” in Israel is leading to an “internal migration” to Tel Aviv, Israeli’s most cosmopolitan city, by Israelis alarmed by the national trends. However, as the title of his commentary demonstrates--“The Final Moment Before the Liberal Population Leaves Israel,” (H, Sept 16)—the flight from the incipient fascism might not end there.

Fascism is not too strong a word. The anti-democratic trends in Israel are increasingly so labeled by Israeli journalists, academics, intellectuals, and dissidents. Here is a particularly powerful example, written by the daughter of Holocaust survivors after riots in Jerusalem:

“They are not alone, these marchers and screamers, these rioters and kindergarten-torchers, these window-smashers and cursers, and this is not just “the street”….they received support from most of the Israelis, by the government and the mayor. In Tel Aviv-Jaffa they received the backing from mayors of six more cities, led by the mayor of Tel Aviv, and they are not ashamed to publish ads calling for imprisonment and deportation. They were also supported by Knesset Members from the Likud, Kadima and the National Union who get up on stage, encourage the frenzy, partake in the fury, and engage in incitement.”

“Where did they learn this, all these recruiters of hatred and evil? What did they forget from their history classes, from the individual and collective memories of the darkest period in Jewish history, as they made their way to these stages and stormy streets? It is the same hatred of the other, the stranger and the weak thatis being directed against Sudanese refugees, Eritreans, labor migrants, or Palestinians.” She concludes: “I do not know how to stop fascism.” (“A Hatred That Stalks My Home,” Haaretz, May 30).

The characterization is apt: to the typical components of fascism—extreme nationalism, racial or religious hatreds, and violence—Israel has added religious fanaticism and medieval fundamentalism. Even a line that has almost never been crossed in the past-- comparing Israeli behavior with that of Nazi Germany—is being breached. For example, one of the rare exceptions to this prohibition was the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz—himself a practicing Orthodox Jew--who was the target of a “rain of curses” when he spoke about “Judeo-Nazis” after the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967. (Yoel Marcus, “Back to Zion Square,” Haaretz, Aug. 24) Marcus adds that in light of the recent mob violence, “you begin to suspect that the professor… God forbid, may have been right.”

More: writing of the comments by Miri Regev, a former spokesman for IDF and currently a Likud MK, that “the Sudanese [refugees] are a cancer in our body,” Don Futterman notes that “Jews have been called a cancer by our Islamic extremist enemies, but more famously by Adolph Hitler, who termed them “a cancer on the breast of Germany…. Is it conceivable that she almost directly quoted Hitler and didn’t know it?” Futterman adds: “The most bizarre comment” comes from a Knesset member, who said that Israel “should lock up all the human rights people and transfer them to the camps that we are building.” (“A Rhetorical Pogrom,” June 8)

Finally,  Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On charges that what has been happening in recent months in regard to refugees and migrant workers is leading to fascism: “There is a growing group in Israeli society that has made it its goal to wipe out any trace of liberalism, of universal and humanistic principles, and above all, of the idea [of] democracy”


Have they already succeeded? Is Israel still a democracy? Of course, to the extent that it is, the moral implications are even worse, for the freely-elected government’s criminal policies are supported by a majority of the public. However, it is increasingly dubious that Israel deserves to be called a democracy, as opposed to (as many have put it) a democracy for the Jews. Indeed, if current trends continue it might not even be worthy of that description--as opposed to a democracy for Jewish Israelis who support the government’s policies towards the Palestinians and other non-Jews.

Who are these people, anyway—obviously they can’t really be Jewish. What to do? The two state solution is all but dead, and the one-state idea never had the remotest chance. I know: let’s work to transform Israel into a Jewish state.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Article Announcement

The Harvard-MIT journal International Security,  has just published a long article of mine, "Just War Moral Philosophy and the 2008–09 Israeli
Campaign in Gaza,"  some parts of which have previously appeared on this site.

The hard copy of the journal won't be out for a couple of more weeks, but it can be read now, free, on the journal website: ttp://

Here is the abstract of the article:

The Israeli attack on Gaza at the end of 2008--"Operation Cast Lead"--is best understood in the context of the overall Israeli "iron wall" strategy that has been at the core of Israeli policies in the Arab-Israeli conflict since the 1930s. The iron wall strategy emphasizes the need for overwhelming military power to break Arab resistance to Zionism and then Israel’s goals and policies; from its outset, the strategy has included attacks on civilians and their crucial infrastructures. Such attacks violate the just war moral principles of discrimination and noncombatant immunity. In addition, Cast Lead violated the just war principles of just cause and last resort: wars must have a just cause and even when it does, must be resorted to only after nonviolent and political alternatives have been tried. Israel did not have a just cause, because its primary purpose was to crush resistance to its continuing de facto occupation and repression of Gaza. Further, Israel refused to explore the genuine possibility that Hamas was amenable to a two-state political settlement. Thus, the iron wall strategy in general and Cast Lead in particular have been political as well as moral failures, failing to serve Israel’s genuine long-term security.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Henry Norr On the Two-State Solution

Continuing the debate on the two-state vs. the one-state ideas, I asked Henry Norr for permission to cross-post his terrific analysis that was first published on Mondoweiss on Sept. 18.

Norr is a retired journalist and longtime activist.  He has written widely on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and over the last decade he has spent a total of six months volunteering in various capacities in the occupied Palestinian territories, most recently two months in Hebron. In 2011 he was a passenger on "The Audacity of Hope," the U.S. boat in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla that planned to run the Israeli blockade of Gaza. 

Here is Norr's analysis:

Every week this year seems to bring some new obituary for the two-state solution. Both in Israel and in the U.S., more and more politicians on the right (the Netanyahu-appointed Levy Committee in Israel; settler spokesman Dani Dayan in the New York Times; the legislatures of Florida and South Carolina; even, apparently, the Republican National Committee) have been coming forward to acknowledge what many on the left have argued for years: there’s only one state between the river and the sea, and there’s no realistic prospect of that changing.

From a different perspective, several prominent long-time champions of the two-state approach have joined the chorus just in the last couple of weeks: Nahum Barnea, widely described as “the dean of Israeli columnists;” Henry Siegman, the former Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress; and Richard Silverstein, the well-known Tikun Olam blogger, who titled his post "Two States Are Dead, Long Live the New State!" Meanwhile, the brightest lights on the left are increasingly focused on mapping out what a one-state solution might look like.

I hesitate to disagree with such a diverse array of pols and pundits, but I don’t buy it. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that a two-state outcome - of sorts - remains very much in the cards: I think it’s almost certainly what Netanyahu et al. are planning, if not for the immediate future then for some opportune moment down the road.

In fact, I believe those announcing the demise of the two-state solution are inadvertently sowing an illusion that could be damaging to the movement for Palestinian rights.

On one level, of course, I agree completely: the kind of two-state solution liberal Americans, Israeli left Zionists, and Palestinian Authority loyalists have long imagined (and right-wing Zionists have feared) - that is, a state with at least many of the attributes of sovereignty along something close to the 1967 borders - is dead. But that’s nothing new: the whole idea was probably stillborn at Oslo, but if there was ever a possibility it would come to life, that chance ended years ago, as the settler population swelled into the hundreds of thousands, successive Israeli governments kept building out the infrastructure to support them, and Israelis of all stripes realized that no one - not the U.S., not the U.N., not the E.U., and not the Arab states - was actually prepared to do anything to impose the two-state  “international consensus” they all talked about.

The only thing that’s changed in recent years is that liberals and moderates are finally shedding their blinders, and the right is emboldened to say openly what it always sought privately.

But to acknowledge that one idealized version of the two-state solution is dead doesn’t necessarily mean that other versions of it aren’t possible. It certainly doesn’t mean, as many of the recent obits imply, that the only issue before us now is the nature of the single state - i.e., will Israel continue denying any real legal and political rights to the Palestinians of the West Bank, even if it formally annexes their land? Will it devise some new form of limited pseudo-citizenship for them? Or will it finally fulfill the fantasies of the farthest-right (expelling the whole Palestinian population) or the dreams of many of us on the left (granting them full and equal rights)?

Each of these alternatives strikes me as completely implausible. After all, although the Zionists have always sought to control all of “Greater Israel,” their elite has also been guided from the beginning by another principle: not just maximizing their territory, but minimizing the number of Palestinians on it, in order to ensure Jewish control. If they had their druthers, most Israelis would no doubt opt for complete ethnic cleansing (a.k.a. “transfer”); the only reason it hasn't happened is that their leaders haven’t been confident the world would let them get away with it, especially in view of the resistance the Palestinians would likely put up. That remains the case today, I believe. (Of course, in the event of all-out, sustained regional war, all bets would be off...)

But as long as transfer is off the table and millions of Palestinians remain on their land, the Zionist leadership has consistently chosen not to incorporate all of it into their state: That’s why Ben Gurion didn’t push to “finish the job” in 1948, and why Israel didn’t annex all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after the 1967 war. That’s why Sharon pulled back from Gaza in 2005. And that’s why I can’t see complete annexation of the West Bank now.

What seems much more likely is that the Israelis will seek to preserve the status quo as long as possible, while they keep expanding the settlements and quietly driving out as many Palestinians as they can (mainly by making their lives miserable and hopeless) - all the while blathering about the need for negotiations. Is there any reason to think that Washington and the Europeans wouldn’t let them get away with this little game, just as they have for so many decades?

And if at some point, from somewhere, there did arise real pressure to resolve the issue - or if the Israelis succeed in so demoralizing the Palestinian population and corrupting its leadership that they can impose the terms they want - I’m convinced they’ll actually implement a two-state “solution.”

It just won’t look anything like what the peace processors have pretended to discuss for the last 20 years. Forget the 1967 borders - Israel will annex the majority of the West Bank. What they'll leave for the new state is an archipelago of minuscule fragments, including the main Palestinian population centers, all cut off from one another and surrounded by what will become officially Israeli territory.

Specifically, in terms of the supposedly short-term administrative divisions originally laid out in the “Oslo II Agreement” between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1995, count on Israel to formalize its currently de facto but complete control of Area C, which represents 62 percent of the West Bank’s land area. It includes all the settlements, the buffer zones around them, the Israeli highways, the IDF bases and “firing zones,” and the entire Jordan Valley except the city of Jericho. (See this factsheet from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and especially the European Union report "Area C and Palestinian State Building," released early this year, though dated last July).

The real beauty of Area C, from the Zionist perspective, is that swallowing it up, even without further ethnic cleansing, would increase the state’s non-Jewish population only modestly: after decades of decline, its Palestinian population is down to somewhere between 92,000 and 150,000 people, depending on whose estimate you believe  - not much more than 5 percent of the West Bank total. Thanks to a systematic and amply documented Israeli policy of ethnic cleansing[1], the Jordan Valley in particular has been almost completely depopulated of Palestinians: in 1967 it was home to between 200,000 and 300,000 people, but now the total, not counting at least 9,400 Jewish settlers, has dropped to 56,000, of whom 70 percent live in Jericho (Area A), according to the EU.

To top it off, the Israelis might also grab some choice bits of Area B, where Jewish settlers have recently begun, for the first time, to set up settlement outposts. But it’s hard to imagine them taking it all: it’s only 20 percent of the West Bank, but nearly a million Palestinians (41 percent of the West Bank Palestinian population) live in the villages and towns it encompasses. It's no secret that Israeli Jews are already obsessed with the “demographic timebomb” represented by the roughly 1.5 million Palestinian citizens inside the Green Line - would they really want to add another million, just in order to achieve formal control of such a modest area?

And as to Area A - 14 separate fragments encompassing all the major Palestinian cities on the West Bank - only fanatics determined to control every inch of Eretz Yisrael, regardless of the consequences for the Zionist project, would want that incorporated into the state as long as its Palestinian population remains. After all, it’s only about 18 percent of the West Bank - about 4 percent of the area of Mandatory Palestine - but it's home to roughly 1.3 million Palestinians, which means that swallowing it up would nearly double Israel’s Palestinian population, even without counting the Area B population.

Few if any of those proclaiming the death of the two-state solution argue that Israel is ready to grant full citizenship to the 2.3 million Palestinians of Areas A and B. When they talk about a single state, they’re assuming, at least implicitly, that Israel will continue to deny the population the right to vote and other civil and legal rights. But if Israel were to formally annex the whole area while continuing to deny citizenship to the natives, the state and its defenders in Europe and North America would face even more difficulty than they do today in trying to refute the charge of apartheid. At that point, it would almost certainly face an accelerating loss of liberal support and renewed condemnation from most of the world, and the size and power of the already growing BDS - boycott, divestment, and sanctions - movement would swell, perhaps finally approaching the proportions of the movement against South African apartheid in the 1980s.

Why would the Zionists risk all that, when they have alternatives? Why won’t they just stretch out the status quo as long as possible? And then, if they have no other choice, they can resort to their own version of the two-state solution: either unilaterally or in conjunction with a quisling Palestinian leadership, they could simply annex Area C (and whatever parts of Area B they want) and declare the remaining fragments of the West Bank to be the Palestinian state. Undoubtedly, the Israelis would insist on demilitarization and a variety of other limitations on the sovereignty of this Palestinian entity, but they could still call it a state.

In fact, Bibi Netanyahu and his cronies have long hinted at such a “solution.” In 1996, when he was first elected prime minister, he promised to implement the Oslo agreement, but compared the kind of entity he had in mind for the Palestinians to either a territory with the right to hold a referendum on sovereignty, like Puerto Rico, or a demilitarized state like Andorra.
When David Bar-Illan, then director of communications and policy planning in Netanyahu’s office, was asked about statehood, he answered “Semantics don’t matter. If Palestinian sovereignty is limited enough so that we feel safe, call it fried chicken.” And just last year, when Moshe Ya’alon, Netanyahu’s deputy prime minister and minister of strategic affairs, was asked to explain his thinking about a Palestinian state, he put it even more clearly: “Our intention is to leave the situation as it is: autonomous management of civil affairs, and if they want to call it a state, let them call it that. If they want to call it an empire, by all means. We intend to keep what exists now and let them call it whatever they want.”

This scenario sounds somewhat like what the South African whites tried to do in the apartheid era by setting up black bantustans. Of course, they didn’t get away with it, but there’s another precedent where similar plans succeeded (from the occupier’s perspective): right here in the U.S.A., Israel’s prime supporter and role model, federally recognized tribes are nominally sovereign nations. Indeed, the “Navajo Nation” is larger than West Virginia. (The comparison to apartheid South Africa probably has more resonance with contemporary Americans, but I’ve always thought the closest analogy to the Palestinian situation was the white man's treatment of native Americans.)

Some astute observers of Israeli politics have been predicting the annexation of Area C - Jeff Halper has repeatedly warned about this possibility (see, for example, Frank Barat’s interview with him in Al Jazeera in May), and just last month Israeli historian Ron Pundak, who helped negotiate the Oslo agreement and later the Geneva Initiative, laid it out very clearly in a Haaretz column entitled “Decoding Bibi’s West Bank Agenda.” My impression, though, is that this very plausible scenario is getting lost in the rising tide of rhetoric about the death of two-state solution and the not-very-likely prospect of a single state.

Does it matter? I think so, insofar as the progressive community can still hope to have some effect on what happens in the Middle East. Consider this scenario: suppose Netanyahu (or a successor) goes to the UN (probably not this year - he’s too preoccupied with Iran - but maybe next year, especially if Romney wins) and boldly declares that it's time to end a stalemate that has gone on long enough. Since the Palestinians can’t get themselves together and won’t negotiate, he’ll announce, Israel is going to settle the conflict once and for all by recognizing a Palestinian state. That state will encompass, basically, Areas A and B; simultaneously, Israel will set setting borders for itself that include Area C.

Instead of recognizing this maneuver as the grotesque landgrab it really would be, Washington (whoever’s in charge) and most of the media would undoubtedly hail him for his “boldness,” “courage,” “vision,” and “fairness.” They’ll declare his plan a “magnanimous compromise,” “the fulfillment of the long-held dream of a two states living side-by-side in peace and prosperity,” blah blah blah.

How the Palestinians would react, I certainly can’t say. Let’s hope they could overcome their current divisions and apparent exhaustion and rise up with sufficient numbers, militancy, and creativity to make the world recognize that this kind of “two-state solution” is no solution at all.

But whatever the Palestinians do, they’ll need help from supporters abroad, especially in the U.S., who can expose the Israeli ploy as a farce and a fraud. And if we’re going to play that role, we’d better be prepared for what’s really in the cards, instead of wasting our time either wringing our hands or celebrating over the supposed demise of the two-state solution.


[1] The ethnic cleansing of the Jordan Valley began in June 1967, when Israeli forces razed numerous villages and camps housing 1948 refugees, driving out perhaps as much as 88 percent of the population - even though no major military battles were fought in the area. Since then, Israel has worked quietly but relentlessly to finish the job, first by preventing the return of refugees (and routinely shooting those who tried), then by establishing a variety of policies and practices designed to deny the remaining  Palestinians any prospect of a decent life. Among the techniques employed to this end: land theft (for settlements, “military zones,” and “nature preserves”); physical harassment by settlers and soldiers; home demolitions (40 percent of all the structures Israel demolished in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in 2011 were in this sparsely populated area); planning restrictions and denial of permits for even the most modest construction  (out of 440 permit applications in 2010, the latest data available, four were granted); destruction of foreign-aided development projects (including European-funded solar panels); theft and murder of animals; and, perhaps most egregiously, a variety of policies that limit Palestinian access to water - deliberate destruction of Palestinian cisterns, denial of pipeline service by the Israel water company, outrageous pricing of water from other sources, and drilling wells much deeper than the Palestinians’, so the latter run dry as the water table is depleted to fill settlers’ swimming pools and nourish their export crops.

Although the Jordan Valley commands little attention in the West, it must be the best documented case of ethnic cleansing in human history. Good recent overviews include “The Forcible Transfer of the Palestinian People from the Jordan Valley,” by Al-Haq legal researcher Mercedes Melon; a report and interactive feature from B’Tselem, entitled “Dispossession and Exploitation: Israel's Policy in the Jordan Valley and Northern Dead Sea” ; and a beautifully illustrated report from the Ma’an Development Center called “Parallel Realities,” comparing the lives of Palestinian residents and Jewish settlers in the Jordan Valley. See also the website of Jordan Valley Solidarity, a network of Palestinian grassroots community groups and international supporters, and two excellent documentary films, the LifeSource collective’s “Jordan Valley Blues” (2010) and Al Jazeera’s superb “Last Shepherds of the Valley,” aired and posted just last month.

So much documentation, so little justice!