Tuesday, January 6, 2009


“We’re on the wrong side,” a friend of mine said recently, referring to American support for Israel against the Palestinians. “I’m sorry, but we’re just on the wrong side.”

At a time when shocking images of civilian casualties in smoking Gaza streets dominate the airwaves, that statement is going to find a lot of sympathetic ears. It’s tough to root for the side that’s leading in the body count by a factor of more than a hundred. Every time Israel goes over a border and starts killing Arabs, you know in advance they are going to lose the war for public opinion, hands down.

Of course, the Israelis don’t care. For them the only war that counts is the real one, the one that determines whether Israel survives. Israeli minds are fairly focused at this point. And with the death camps still within living memory, they’re a little touchy about calls to eliminate the Jewish state.

Which does not, of course, excuse war crimes, ethnic cleansing and the other sins of which Israel stands accused. Victimhood is not sainthood, and it’s hard to sell the Palestinians on the idea that the Jews should get their land because of a European quarrel. There is an irreconcilable difference of perception at the heart of this conflict.

For the West, the primary fact about Israel is that it exists in compensation for the hideous crime of the Holocaust. For the Palestinians, and the Arabs in general, the primary fact is that Israel is the last colonial implantation in their world. At a time when Syria, Iraq, and even the backward Saudis were gaining their independence from British and French colonial hegemony, the area of the Levant known as Palestine was being settled by an influx of Europeans, culminating in the proclamation of the State of Israel in 1948 and a war which resulted, whether intentionally or not, in what can only be called ethnic cleansing.

“Israel needs no reasons to attack Gaza or anywhere else because it is a state that was founded in the beginning on aggression and murder and destruction and expulsion”, wrote Abdel Sattar Qasem on Al-Jazeera Net the other day. That’s certainly not the way most Americans see it, but that’s the way the Arabs see it, and anyone who does not grasp that does not grasp the first thing about the conflict. There is an abyss between Western and Arab perception of the conflict which may simply be unbridgeable.

Israel is an essentially Western nation. It looks and sounds familiar to us, and it has our sympathy because of what Hitler did. But the Holocaust buys no sympathy from the Arabs, who plead, “We had nothing to do with it.” For Palestinian farmers who lost their land, by processes with varying degrees of legitimacy, Israel is nothing but the foreigners who came and took their land. This dovetailed, of course, with religious animosities, and an unsavory element of anti-Semitism has always been prominent in resistance to Israel, further complicating questions of right and wrong. But the Palestinians would resist Israel even if it had been founded by Methodists or Scientologists. In fact, they weren’t too keen on the Turks, who were fellow Muslims. At heart it’s about conflicting claims to the land and sovereignty.

Why are we involved in a mess like this? We are Israel’s primary patron. We give them lots of money and sell them lots of weapons. Those cluster bombs lying in the Lebanon weeds and those laser-guided bombs taking out Hamas big shots and their families in Gaza came from us. It’s not hard to understand why the protesters are massing outside our embassies around the world.

But it’s also not hard to understand why we have supported Israel. It is the closest thing to an open society in that part of the world. It has effective political opposition and spirited debate resting on thoroughgoing freedom of expression and independent courts and congenial social mores. In comparison to the grim dictatorships and stagnant, repressed societies around it, Israel looks pretty good.

But all of those fine qualities have been stressed and have sometimes cracked under the strain of occupying the territories Israel won in the 1967 Six-Day War. Occupation of hostile territory never brings out the best in a society, and it doesn’t take many terrorist outrages to weaken scruples against ruthless security policies, as we in the United States have found out since September 11, 2001.

So what about it? Are we on the wrong side? That’s a tougher one to answer than my friends on either side would concede. I speak Arabic, have traveled extensively in the Arab world, and have many Arab friends. I think the Palestinian grievance is legitimate. I know people who have suffered, directly and severely, from the establishment of the Israeli state and from its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I don’t excuse Israeli excesses or discount Arab lives. I’ve made a good-faith effort to sift through the history and the legalities and the arguments on both sides. And it’s still a tough call, whatever my friend says.

To begin with, there’s more than one way to define what the sides are. Viewed solely as a territorial dispute, we may well be on the wrong side. The case for a genuinely independent, contiguous Palestinian state is sound, and Israel’s decades-long efforts to settle the West Bank and hold on to it while undermining Palestinian authority over the territory can be fairly described as duplicitous.

But there’s another way to interpret what the sides are in this conflict. If you believe in the open society and the values that sustain it, in free expression and the rule of law and transparency and accountability, there’s not a lot to like about the Arab world and no reason to expect that a Palestinian state would be any different from any other Arab dictatorship. When the principal warring parties on the Palestinian side are the corrupt successors of the egregious Yasser Arafat and the suicidal extremists of Hamas, the prospects for an enlightened beacon of Arab progress in Palestine are not good.

One plausible way of deciding which side to support in a conflict is to ask, about each side, the question: What kind of world do they want? I was asked once what the difference was between the Iraqi insurgents attacking U.S. troops and the French Resistance attacking Nazi troops. I said it depended entirely on what the insurgents wanted: that if all they wanted was a country free of foreign invaders, then they deserved our respect, but that if what they wanted was a new caliphate and worldwide jihad, to hell with them; I had to root for the Marines.

In the same way, we can ask what kind of world each side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wants. Spend a week in Tel Aviv and a week in Damascus and tell me which place looks more like a progressive, forward-looking society. We have a model for what kind of world the Israelis want, and several for what kind of world the Palestinians want, and these models complicate the reckoning of which side is the right side.

None of which grants Israel license to do anything it pleases. Israel must be held to the same standards to which we hold other countries that claim to be advanced nations. But it should be remembered that Israel lives under active hostile threat to an extent that is unimaginable in the comfortable nations where protesters burn the Israeli flag, and hostility does not bring out the best in people or states.

The Palestinians opted for spectacular, provocative violence against civilians as their principal tactic in the wake of the 1967 defeat, and whatever the justifications for that tactic may be, it ought to be clear by now that its principal effect is to harden Israeli hearts. No nation has ever mismanaged its case before the world as badly as the Palestinians.

A lot of energy is expended asserting and denying moral equivalencies in this struggle— each act of violence is justified as retaliation for a previous one, outrage is directed with assiduous selectivity to the other side’s provocations exclusively. At this point, a tit-for-tat accounting is senseless. Analyzing whose provocations are more outrageous gets us nowhere. The only thing to do is determine the fundamental conditions for a solution that will stabilize the situation. And this solution is going to have to be imposed by third parties in accordance with principles rather than interests.

As paymaster, we have considerable influence. And we ought to be able to articulate the required principles. But we keep fumbling. When Hamas gained legitimacy through an election in Gaza sponsored by us, we then refused to recognize the Hamas government on the grounds that it was a terrorist organization, in effect abrogating the election. This confirmed Arab perception of double standards. Hamas is indeed a terrorist organization, but it is more than that: it is also a significant provider of social services in Gaza, and if we deny that an electoral result confers any legitimacy at all, we dismiss the concept of democracy we are supposedly trying to peddle.

Of course, in the wake of the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas booted its chance to rule with the bloody-mindedness that characterizes Arab political culture. All Hamas had to do was administer the territory competently in order to make great gains both in legitimacy and quality of life for its subjects, and instead it encouraged homicidal hobbyists to lob rockets into Israeli towns. It is hard to resist the judgment that the current Israeli invasion of Gaza was intentionally provoked. Extremism and suicidal gestures gain greater glory in Arab political culture than the actual hard work of running a government.

So who do we root for and what do we do? I think we root for anybody who offers to live by the principles that have created such a clear difference between the quality of life in, say, Toronto and that in, say, Aden. In many cases this means rooting for the Israelis, though there are heroic individuals and organizations on the Arab side that are committed to advancing the rule of law, political liberalism (in the general sense) and tolerant civil society.

As for what we do, we go back to the elements of a solution that are already in place and await negotiation of final details. There is widespread consensus that a two-state solution is attainable. Even the Saudis and the Syrians are on board. But there are troublesome details yet to be worked out, and significant resistance on both sides. It’s going to take significant investment of U.S. political capital.

The heart of the problem is that Israel is going to have to make painful territorial concessions, and no Israeli government is ever going to make them without rock-solid security guarantees to compensate for the loss of strategic depth. The experience of Gaza, where Hamas confirmed every Israeli fear by exploiting the withdrawal to increase its attacks, has set back the peace process immeasurably. There is going to have to be a reckoning on the Palestinian side, and we can only hope that Hamas loses the Palestinian civil war.

But there will also have to be a reckoning on the Israeli side. Any lasting solution will be bitterly opposed by the Israeli right, and civil conflict along the lines of that experienced by the French in their withdrawal from Algeria cannot be ruled out. It’s going to hurt.

But I believe that Israel’s long-term survival requires an end to the occupation and the establishment of a viable and genuinely independent Palestinian state. The current situation is not sustainable in the long term; the stresses on Israeli society are too great. Making peace will be a great risk for Israel, and the role of outsiders will be crucial. We should use our power as paymaster and, if necessary, as preeminent military power, to police a two-state solution. The Israelis will not settle for anything less than genuinely secure borders. And the elements on the Palestinian side that will never settle for any accommodation with Israel will need to be suppressed.

It’s a mess, and our role is not a comfortable one. The real question is: should we guarantee Israel’s survival? If the creation of a Palestinian state proves to be a fatal undermining of Israeli security, should the United States step into the breach? (Don’t kid yourself; it will fall on us alone, as the Europeans are terminally conflicted on this question and militarily impotent.)

My answer would be that it depends on the direction Israeli society takes. Not all indicators in the stressed Israeli polity are positive. A genuinely open Israeli society would deserve to be defended. But then, we can hope that the Arabs would recognize the value of a genuinely open Israeli society as a neighbor. And it’s not impossible that Arab society will itself evolve toward the open society as described by Karl Popper, in which power is under control and rational critical discussion determines policy. The open society is always the right side.

The trick, as always, will be to support the most principled elements on both sides, a thing much more easily said than done.

Sam Reaves



DavidK said...

There is nothing in this blog I disagree with. But I have one question that seems appropriate here that has been troubling me of late: What would we do if China instructed the US to stop supporting Israel?

Sam Reaves said...

Good question. Our relations with China are a whole different can of worms, and probably the major strategic question of the next half-century or so. There will be no time to rest if we get the Middle East sorted out...