While America agonizes over joining the rest of the advanced industrialized world circa 1949 vis a vis healthcare, and while America’s foreign policy establishment rightly directs its focused gaze on South Asia, especially Pakistan and Afghanistan, our longest standing policy vexation festers, namely, Palestine and the Middle East.
In what quickly became a widely disseminated piece, Aluf Benn, editor-at-large for what in Israel passes as a liberal newspaper, Ha-aretz (literally, The Land), complains in a NYT op-ed about the Obama’s lack of direct engagement with Israeli people. In doing so, he unconsciously reveals the inherent, corrosive prejudices of Israel and nearly all Jewish Israelis on the issues most pertinent to the question of regional peace. Since all of our considerable trouble in the Muslim World will defy solution in the absence of a solution in Palestine, these underlying assumptions cry out for refutation, herewith.
Firstly, Benn squeals about the American position, enunciated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, freezing the expansion of Israeli “settlements” in the occupied West Bank. He rationalizes this by saying that Israel had understandings with previous presidents to allow such expansion, including with the administration of Clinton’s husband, and that since all proposed permanent agreements will cede these larger “settlement blocs” to Israel anyway, what’s the harm?
Let’s be clear. All the “settlements” are illegal. They are completely outlawed under every widely accepted standard of international law, and the expropriation by any means, including purchase, of property to create these “settlements” is a war crime, or more accurately a series of war crimes. The Palestinians cannot ever be deemed to consent to these “settlements” because the territory is occupied by adversarial military force, in the same way that a slave cannot ever be deemed to consent to sex with her master. The reason these so-called understandings Benn cites were never codified (if they ever existed) is because, well, it’s a crime. If the US were to acknowledge these “understandings”, they would be acting as an accessory to a war crime, and we have quite enough of that on our plates already. If, as Benn implies, the US can have cordial relations with Israel only by allowing “settlement” expansion, then we have a problem.
If there is ever a permanent agreement with the Palestinians that refashions Israel’s borders to include some of these “settlements”, then and only then will building there become legal (for the first time). Until such an agreement is finalized, don’t look for our consent. And oh by the way, just how motivated will the Israeli government be to negotiate seriously if “settlement” expansion is permitted to continue in the absence of such an agreement?
Benn tells us that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gained political capital by referring to two senior Obama aides, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and Political Adviser David Axelrod, as “self-hating Jews”, a characterization that Benn does not bother to refute. Allow me.
This tired and maddening device, at base an accusation of apostasy and treason, is almost entirely a propaganda instrument of Zionism, which draws a major portion of its legitimacy, at least parochially, from the notion that Israel is the sacred right and destiny of Jews. Zionists, together with their less rational enemies, both seek to conflate Judaism (the religion), Jewish ancestry, and Zionism. That ought to be a tip. For the roughly 9 million Jews who do not live in Israel (almost twice the number that do live there), it’s not that simple. Every religion has its reformers and apostates. Does that make them self-haters? Might it mean they have the confidence to seek another path? Literally billions of believers of every faith have very serious problems with the policies of the Israeli state. Are those objections less legitimate if they come from Jews?
There is considerably less latitude for discussion in America about the justness and effectiveness of the Israeli government than there is in Israel itself. Does Benn suggest there should be no such discussion at all? (Please don’t get me started about AIPAC). I think that’s not what he means, but the reference to self-hating Jews is so odious that it should never go unchallenged.
If all the world’s Jews could vote on the Israeli government, Netanyahu’s Likud party would be more of a rump party than the US Republican Party, or even Jean Marie Le Pen’s fascist wingnuts in France. And I don’t know about you, but I strongly doubt that either Emanuel’s or Axelrod’s self-esteem leave much room for self-hatred. Have you ever met these guys?
Then Benn goes on to turn it around and accuses Obama of conflating Israelis and American Jews. In doing so, he points out that Obama’s visit to Buchenwald was largely lost on the Jewish Israeli audience that is trained to believe that only “Zionist determination and struggle” spawned the State of Israel.
If that’s the case, there needs to be some concerted retraining. No Holocaust, no Israel. Period. The underlying motivation of the Jewish fighters who made their way to British-Mandate Palestine during and after World War II was to provide a haven for Jews from future holocausts, as in “Never Again.” Indeed, the majority of these fighters literally fled the Nazis. Would they have done so had the Third Reich been smothered in its cradle in 1934?
The UN vote that established Israel, about the only UN vote by which Israel has ever abided, succeeded only because of worldwide guilt over the Holocaust. Absolutely every other factor weighed against statehood. Had the vote taken place literally at any other time in history, it would have failed. Today, it would fail overwhelmingly. Ask yourself how receptive the world would be to a plan to establish a Christian homeland in Palestine, where the national language would be Aramaic.
Benn’s assertion that diplomacy is naivete is downright frightening. Indeed, time has already borne out the absolute need to pursue diplomacy with Iran. And with Hamas. As history has repeatedly shown, only the Iranians can bring just government to Iran. If we bomb them, we condemn them, and us, to decades or even centuries more of repression and threat. Even talking about bombing them strengthens the hand of the government against the simmering, spitting popular insurrection led by Mir Hussein Moussavi, which, as is the case in all Shiite movements, features striking martyrs like Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman shot dead by a government sniper during the June 20 protest, whose last moments were captured on a mobile phone video and famously posted on the World Wide Web. As one Israeli diplomat put it, “How do you bomb Neda?” And even now, Hamas has largely abandoned their rockets for community services to shore up their political credibility. Why? It is at least in part because in an environment where credible diplomacy is promised, political credibility matters. Such considerations were irrelevant when Bush was president, because absolutely no one thought he was serious about negotiating with Israel.
Which brings us back to the “settlements”. Benn tells us that most Israelis are oblivious to them, so that the focus on them seems like unprovoked punishment. If Benn is right, that obliviousness needs to end now. The cruelty of the occupation of the West Bank is largely driven by their existence and the consequent need to restrict movement by the Palestinians in the West Bank in order to provide security for them. Those restrictions are inhumane, to say the least, and must be lifted.
Jewish Israelis’ willful obliviousness to the “settlements” is likely in turn driven by the fact that they are out of the way. But their residents are front and center politically. It’s understandable that Jewish Israelis would not wish to confront vociferous settlers (civilian occupiers, really), but there is no other option. The fact that Israel effectively subsidizes these “settlements”, indirectly with aid from US taxpayers, makes Obama’s position on their expansion even more compulsory.
The “16 rosy years of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush”, as Benn calls them, have brought only deliberate stalemate and with it, misery, oppression, and death for yet another generation of Palestinians (not all of them Muslim, in case that matters to you). I suspect that Obama and his senior aides have not spoken to Israel because they know they have nothing to say that most Jewish Israelis are ready to hear. Living as they do in a perpetual state of denial, this is probably for the best. I expect that Obama will not change the substance of his policy, however slightly more just it is than that of previous presidents, merely so that he can have a dialogue. And I further suspect that the reason Benn inveighs against Obama’s continued silence is in the belief that in doing so, Obama will be forced to backpedal on his policies. Hopefully, that is just more denial.