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Israel for Dummies

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I don’t pretend to be an expert on Middle East politics.  I usually rely on the perspective of Steve Clemons at The Washington Note, who provides candid, unvarnished commentary on the complicated issues in that region.  Since December of 2008, I have been following the accomplishments of Jeremy Ben-Ami, the Executive Director of J Street, which he describes as “the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement”.

Concern over the threat to Israel from Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been a hot topic during this election year.  Nevertheless, on February 27, Andrew Jones wrote a piece for The Raw Story, which included some disclosures published by Wikileaks concerning Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts:

Growing concerns over Iran’s nuclear facilities may prove to be all for naught.  Officials from the global intelligence company Stratfor allegedly discussed that Israel may have already destroyed the Iranian nuclear facility, according to one of the emails released by Wikileaks Monday.

In one of the over five million emails leaked, the conversation centered on Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak praising the news of deadly munitions blasts at a base of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.

“I think this is a diversion.  The Israelis already destroyed all the Iranian nuclear infrastructure on the ground weeks ago,” one intelligence official wrote in an email dated November 14, 2011. “The current ‘let’s bomb Iran’ campaign was ordered by the EU leaders to divert the public attention from their at home financial problems.  It plays also well for the US since Pakistan, Russia and N. Korea are mentioned in the report. ”

This scenario makes sense.  Iran would not likely admit to having been humiliated by Israel .  Beyond that, the European Union plutocrats would enjoy nothing more than a decent sideshow to distract attention from their economic austerity fiasco.

For years, I have been waiting for someone to write a book called Israel for Dummies.  Too many American teevee pundits seem completely ignorant about Israel’s internal political strife and its impact on the prospects for peace with the Palestinians.  It appears as though someone has finally written that book.  I recently came across a great piece written by Noah Millman for The American Conservative.  Mr. Millman wrote a review of a new book entitled, The Unmasking of Israel by Gershom Gorenberg.  As Millman explains, the book takes us back to the early days of Israel, with David Ben-Gurion at the helm, bringing us to the present-day, never-ending conflict with the Palestinians.  Here are some highlights from Noah Millman’s book review:

Rather, the thrust of the book, as the title states, is to demonstrate that the series of decisions made during and after the 1967 War that resulted in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza set in motion a process that has progressively “unmade” the State of Israel.  Indeed, the progressive expansion of the settlement enterprise has so eroded the foundations of the signature achievement of political Zionism – Israel as we now know it – that not merely a “Jewish democratic state” but the state as such is now imperiled.

*   *   *

Since 1967, Gorenberg relates, the settlement enterprise has undermined the Israeli state top to bottom.  It has fostered secrecy and corruption in government.

*   *   *

Again the story is familiar.  Less so is the framing. Gorenberg, though he is outraged by the plight of the Palestinians, is not really writing about that plight.  Nor is he writing from an anti-Zionist perspective.  Rather, he is writing from a deeply Zionist point of view.  Zionism, we tend to forget, was not a self-defense movement.  It was a nationalist movement. Nationalism tells a people a story about what it means to be free – that being free means being part of a self-conscious, self-governing, sovereign, and independent collective.  Losing consciousness of one’s national group, being governed by other groups, failing to achieve independence and sovereignty on par with other nations – these are signs of unfreedom.  Of immaturity. The Jews before Zionism were, from the perspective of this narrative, either an exceptionally immature nation or not a nation at all.  The goal of Zionism was not simply – or even primarily – to provide for a “safe haven” for Jews fleeing persecution by the Czar or the Nazis.  The goal was the spiritual rejuvenation of the Jewish people by molding them into a nation like other nations and achieving independent statehood.

This is a narrative frame that, in broad strokes, Gorenberg accepts, which is why he is properly seen as a Zionist.  Indeed, the whole argument of the book is that by holding onto and settling the territories captured in 1967, Israel has reverted to a mode of existence that Zionism was supposed to help the Jews grow out of. By undermining the authority of the state, the settlement enterprise has revived modes of being and of argument that, from Gorenberg’s perspective, the Jewish people should have grown out of when they acquired the power and responsibility of a state. Indeed, that was the whole point, from a moral perspective, of acquiring state power in the first place.  The settlement enterprise doesn’t just undermine the moral case for Israel because it’s an injustice (plenty of states have perpetrated injustices – indeed, far worse injustices – without undermining the case for statehood as such) but because it is evidence that Zionism failed in what was arguably its primary objective.

As an aside:  Be sure to read the Comment stream following Millman’s piece.  It included some astute remarks and a good debate.

One American’s experience in attempting to get a better understanding of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict was chronicled on the Al Jazeera website.  Punk rock icon, Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys discussed his decision to cancel a show he was scheduled to perform at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv with his new band (Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine).  His bandmates had decided to boycott Israel in order to support the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movementWikipedia lists this explanation of the BDS movement’s three main goals:

  1. Freeing all Palestinian territories from Israeli influence since 1967 and dismantling the Israeli West Bank barrier;
  2. Acting towards the rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel; and
  3. Promoting the interests of Arab Palestinian refugees in reference to the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948.

Jello Biafra’s account of what followed his decision to cancel the Tel Aviv gig made for some interesting reading:

So with the rollercoaster still in my stomach and my head, I flew solo to Israel instead.  The mission:  to check things out myself and hopefully at least get closer to some kind of conclusion on whether artists boycotting Israel, especially me, was really the best way to help the Palestinian people.

*   *   *

I also got an invitation from a self-proclaimed fan to “come meet the Israeli right” and see the settlements through their eyes, complete with a wine-tasting party.

Many people I met on my trip to Israel feel that the boycott has damaged the Israeli opposition more than it has anyone else and “helped silence the peace camp in Israel”.  A veteran journalist I met later told me, “the best way to contribute to peace is to try and work to understand both sides” and that he felt that boycotts strengthen extremists by keeping people apart.

*   *   *

One of the few things both Israelis and Palestinians seem to agree on is that one of the main obstacles to peace these days is the settlers.

Today the illegal settlements are completely out of control, with 300,000 settlers planted across the Green Line in the West Bank and another 200,000 beyond the Green Line in East Jerusalem. Borders are creatively moved and enforced by the infamous wall, started by the ideas of Yitzhak Rabin and greatly expanded by Ariel Sharon.  It’s a black eye on the face of Israel’s reputation today, considered so even among many of Israel’s citizens and supporters.

Some people told me that if the wall had been built along the Green Line, it might have actually worked.  But Sharon then used it as a land grab, creatively and maniacally routing it through the middle of Palestinian towns, Palestinian farmland and across Palestinian roads, in a deliberate attempt to make the West Bank such a splattered Swiss-cheese hodgepodge of impassable walls and checkpoints that a free Palestinian state could never get off the ground.

Any fantasy that Palestinians could one day be broken down to stay on “their side” of the wall and live happily ever after is ridiculous.  It flies in the face of all human instinct and human rights. It is never going to happen.  Like the Berlin Wall, it is destined to fall sooner rather than later.

*   *   *

A boycott of products made in settlements has begun inside Israel.  There is also a growing boycott by artists refusing to cross the Green Line and perform for the settlers.  A fancy venue has opened in one of the largest settlements in Ariel.  Many artists refuse to perform there.

*   *   *

Yet bringing down this regime by boycott may be a much higher mountain to climb than the boycott of South Africa.  The 1985 musician boycott of Sun City (a posh, government-owned golf resort and casino in South Africa) was just a promotional tool for the financial boycott, where banks, universities and corporations caved into pressure to pull their investments out of South Africa and broke the back of the white apartheid regime.

*   *   *

I am not saying the same tactics that brought down apartheid South Africa can’t be done.  I am just saying that there are different and heavier obstacles this time and people need to be ready for them.

South Africa never had anything like the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) lobby, which is now considered more of a lobby for Likud than for the Israeli people.  Nevertheless, they have a stranglehold over almost every member of Congress of both parties, using Joe McCarthy-type tactics to smear anyone they don’t like as anti-Jewish – and get them voted out of office.

*   *   *

I will not perform in Israel unless it is a pro-human rights, anti-occupation event that does not violate the spirit of the boycott.  Each artist must decide this for themselves. I am staying away for now, but am also really creeped out by the attitudes of some of the boycott hardliners, and hope someday to find a way to contribute something positive here.  I will not march or sign on with anyone who is more interested in making threats than making friends.

As for the Arab Spring, I cross my fingers on one hand and bite my nails with the other.

I have a lot to learn and a long way to go.

We all have a lot to learn.  Jello Biafra’s humility is refreshing.  If only our politicians were so humble  .  .  .


 

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Hillary Clinton Begins Making History

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March 5, 2009

While most American media outlets focus their attention on Rush Limbaugh’s vainglorious publicity extravaganza, Hillary Clinton is traveling around the world, letting everyone know that the foreign policy of the United States is being drastically changed by the new administration.

The new Secretary of State took quite a bit of heat for her failure to stage a fit of righteous indignation over China’s record of human rights abuses, during her visit there.  Nevertheless, America has been a critic of these transgressions for decades.  Given the current economic situation, our need to maintain a healthy business relationship with China and our country’s embarrassing human rights track record for the past eight years, her decision to leave that issue on the back burner for her initial visit, wasn’t such a bad idea.

Her trip to the Middle East was the first step toward rehabilitating the role of the United States as an effective peace broker for the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.  As Barak Ravid reported for Haaretz, prior to Clinton’s arrival in Israel, a list of demands or “red lines” was created and “approved by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak at a meeting with senior defense officials last week”.  These individuals are apparently so accustomed to browbeating Condoleezza Rice, they feel comfortable about dictating their own “marching orders” to be followed by Clinton as she approaches engaging Iran in formal, diplomatic relations.  The Haaretz article itemized these four mandates as follows:

1. Any dialogue must be both preceded by and accompanied by harsher sanctions against Iran, both within the framework of the UN Security Council and outside it.  Otherwise, the talks are liable to be perceived by both Iran and the international community as acceptance of Iran’s nuclear program.

2. Before the dialogue begins, the U.S. should formulate an action plan with Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain regarding what to do if the talks fail.  Specifically, there must be an agreement that the talks’ failure will prompt extremely harsh international sanctions on Iran.

3. A time limit must be set for the talks, to prevent Iran from merely buying time to complete its nuclear development.  The talks should also be defined as a “one-time opportunity” for Tehran.

4. Timing is critical, and the U.S. should consider whether it makes sense to begin the talks before Iran’s presidential election in June.

Steve Clemons of The Washington Note emphasized that “Israel is crossing the line” by attempting to dictate this agenda to our new Secretary of State and President:

Iran’s pretensions in the region are a problem in my view — but Iran, which fears regime change efforts by the US and other of its neighbors, is responding to an “ecosystem” that many around the world have complicity in building.

Israel should be rebuffed by Hillary Clinton.  She should listen to Israel’s views on the region of course — and consider proposals.  But this kind of instruction manual on what red lines can be tolerated or not is pretty outrageous — and borders on the type of irresponsibility and consequences of what a Taiwanese declaration of independence from China would mean.

In another Haaretz article by Barak Ravid, we see Clinton giving Israel some “pushback” that may or may not have been anticipated:

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday blasted Israel’s plans to demolish Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem as a violation of its international obligations and “unhelpful” to Middle East peace efforts.

“Clearly this kind of activity is unhelpful and not in keeping with the obligations entered into under the ‘road map’,” Clinton said, referring to the long-stalled peace plan.

On March 4, a day before meeting with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, Clinton met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank city of Ramallah.  According to a CNN report, Clinton advised the Palestinian leaders that the United States is committed to the “two-state solution” (establishing a separate Palestinian state) despite the objections to that plan, voiced by Israel’s Prime Minister-designate, Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The United States through President Obama is committed to a comprehensive peace including a two-state solution,” Clinton said.  “I have said that publicly, I have said that privately.  There is no difference in any message.”

Meanwhile, Secretary Clinton made it a point to single out Iran’s “supreme leader”, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for interfering in Palestinian affairs by funding terrorism “whether it’s Hezbollah, Hamas or other proxies”.  As the Voice of America News pointed out:

Khamenei also called the Jewish state a “cancerous tumor” and accused U.S. President Barack Obama of following what he called the same mistaken path as George W. Bush in supporting Israel.  He made the comments during a conference in Tehran earlier Wednesday.

Clinton and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the ayatollah’s remarks.  Mr. Abbas said Iran should look after its own affairs and stop trying to widen the divide among Palestinians.

Although many critics of the new administration complain that Obama has failed to deliver on his promise of “Change”, one important agent of Change on the Obama team is turning out to be none other than Hillary Clinton.  Who could have foreseen that development at this point, last year?