America, stop sucking up to Israel by mattsteinglass
November 2, 2009, 6:39 am
Filed under: Israel

I’ve lifted the title of the post from this Gideon Levy piece in Haaretz. I simply quote.

It is true that unlike all the world’s other troublemakers, Israel is viewed as a Western democracy, but Israel of 2009 is a country whose language is force. Anwar Sadat may have been the last leader to win our hearts with optimistic, hope-igniting speeches. If he were to visit Israel today, he would be jeered off the stage. The Syrian president pleads for peace and Israel callously dismisses him, the United States begs for a settlement free ze and Israel turns up its nose. This is what happens when there are no consequences for Israel’s inaction. 

When Clinton returns to Washington, she should advocate a sharp policy change toward Israel. Israeli hearts can no longer be won with hope, promises of a better future or sweet talk, for this is no longer Israel’s language. For something to change, Israel must understand that perpetuating the status quo will exact a painful price. 

Israel of 2009 is a spoiled country, arrogant and condescending, convinced that it deserves everything and that it has the power to make a fool of America and the world. The United States has engendered this situation, which endangers the entire Mideast and Israel itself. That is why there needs to be a turning point in the coming year – Washington needs to finally say no to Israel and the occupation. An unambiguous, presidential no.

Gideon Levy is probably the most anti-occupation journalist in Israel, but still, this is pretty amazing stuff to be hearing from an Israeli. “The only language they understand is force” is what they used to say about the Arabs.


23 Comments so far
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I see what you’re saying and it makes sense, but I wonder this: Is Israel, in its present intransigence, a creature of the uncritical West, or has something gone wrong internally there and just worsened a little faster due to the lack of external static?

Comment by citifieddoug

I think the basic dynamic is that something’s gone internally wrong and it’s being sustained and protected by American (not European) patronage. But it’s extremely complicated. Israel is also in part a colonial “frontier” that draws on the diaspora community, and it tends to draw the most nationalist-missionary individuals from that community, in a dynamic that’s familiar from European colonial projects. It’s unclear at some point which is the “frontier” and which the “center” of the Jewish community, but that was also true of European colonialism to a degree people don’t usually acknowledge. Those on the frontier can make an ideological call for resources from the center by claiming to be carrying out the quest that is the essence of the group’s identity, the “mission civilisatrice”. That’s how the Israeli right can call for fealty from American Jews to support its attack on Gaza even though it’s in neither group’s rational interests, in much the same way French colonialists in Vietnam called on paratroopers for Dien Bien Phu.

On the other hand you also have Israeli Jews from the former Soviet Union who come from a society that conceived of national identities through a mix of the Stalinist approach to the “national question” and the centuries-long East-Central European struggle for coherent borders in religiously and ethnically mixed territory. Political hegemony by a privileged ethnic group and periodic mass displacements are not seen as unusual in that background. Some of those ex-Soviet Jews came from areas in Central Asia where the conflict between an educated “white” Russian-speaking population and indigenous Muslim groups mapped easily onto what they found when they arrived in Israel. And then you have the Sephardic Jews, either a majority or a very large minority of the Jewish population, with their long history of life under Arab hegemony. And you stick this into a situation of vicious competition for land, and toss in the religious-nationalist-messianic elements of the ideology, and it’s a wonder Israel is still as democratic and pluralistic as it is.

But again, what looks clear to me is that Israel lacks the political resources to make peace on its own. Levy is saying that America has a responsibility to slap Israel in the face and wake it up to the reality of its situation, to be the tough uncle who forces it to face its problems, and I think that’s a very strong case.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

It’s striking the degree to which you see the problem as indigenous and the solution exogenous. I kind of agree. Californians also need a conk on the melon.

Comment by citifieddoug

Matt, I think this analysis is flawed on several levels. For one, Israel is not a “colonial enterprise” in the European sense. Europeans didn’t have an historical link to the land as the center of the peoplehood and religion, not unless you’re going to tell us that for a thousand years, Frenchmen held a ceremony that ended with “next year in Hanoi.”

For another, Levy’s description of Israel as arrogant may be somewhat accurate. But Israel is like the Holocaust survivor who pointed out that if you followed all the rules, you would die. It’s very difficult to look at Israeli or Jewish history and conclude that meekly following the wishes of others is the way to survive. It seems to me that the root of Israeli “arrogance” is simply the rational observation that its neighbors wish it harm for what it is rather than it does, and that the most of the world either supports or is indifferent to this hostility. I really question whether an Israel that met the world’s definition of “good” would even exist.

Which brings me to the final irony. You and the European left like to cast Israel as colonialist, and yet you and Levy are guilty of the same thing. The Israelis (who are the “natives” in this case) need “tough love” because they can’t sort out their own affairs, just like the Algerians and Annamese. It’s interesting that this is phrased not in terms of American self-interest, but what is supposedly for the natives’ own good. A sentiment that the colonialists would have recognized.

Comment by Michael Peck

Michael, I fail to see how a threat to cut off the $3 billion in annual military aid the US provides Israel would represent colonialist interference in Israel’s affairs. The US and Israel are politically intertwined. To pretend that criticism represents “colonialism” while only blind support represents “non-interference” is simply an apologia for a right-wing pro-settler agenda.

The “historical link to the land” from AD 73 to 1881 is largely an imaginary ideological characteristic, “imaginary” in the sense of Bernard Anderson’s “imagined communities”. The best recent analogy we have is the Serbian attachment to Kosovo. As a Jew who spent a year as a child living in Israel and was bar-mitzvahed there, I recognize the power and beauty of these national myths. But they are myths, aestheticizations of history. They cannot be used as an excuse to steal real land and real water from real people, to throw real people in jail, to wall real people off in their towns, to drop white phosphorous on real people’s houses and schools, etc.

I’m not saying that Israel is a colony in the same exact sense that Algeria was a colony. What I’m saying is that the systemic relationship works in a fashion that’s quite similar. And the term “European colony” is a very broad one, encompassing everything from Vietnam or India to Angola with its large Portuguese mestizo population to Australia or the US where indigenous populations were annihilated to the Afrikaners, who essentially lost the connection to their colonial sponsor. There’s a lot to be gained in understanding by thinking about the Israeli settlers’ relationship to their American sponsor as similar to 18th-century Kentucky settlers’ frustration with English unwillingness to underwrite their wars against the indigenous population, similarly construed as “self-defense”.

The settlers abuse my sponsorship as an American and they traduce my identity as a Jew. So that’s where my affinity for what Levy is saying comes from.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

Matt, if you believe as an American that we should cut off aid to Israel, that is legitimate. What’s not legitimate is saying you will do it for Israel’s own good. That’s patronizing and disingenuous, because the leftists who say they support Israel really support a Potemkin Israel that would fit their ideals of social justice – and would have a snowball’s chance in the Sinai of surviving the real Middle East.

You’re right that building walls and controlling water supplies in pursuit of a national myth is wrong. But since those are measures that many nations have taken in pursuit of their self-interest then I suspect that the “myth” we’re really talking about isn’t a Jewish claim to the West Bank, but rather the legitimate right of the Jewish people to their own state. If that’s the case, then we’re back to square one. And, by the way, this also explains why Gideon Levy is much more popular in Britain than in Israel.

As for settler-patron relationships, I tend to view the U.S.-Israel relationship more through the lens of superpower and client. Guess I’m more of a Cold Warrior.

Comment by Michael Peck

Michael, there is no threat to Israel’s survival. This line about “a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving in the real Middle East” seems to me to be a reiteration of a national myth that distorts reality and serves as an excuse for a lot of militaristic adventurism and repression. Yes, the Mideast is a tough neighborhood, and for that reason nobody expects Israel to become Sweden. But if it becomes Serbia or South Africa, that, ultimately, is not in its own interests, as Serbia and South Africa found out.

I’m not sure I get your point about building walls and controlling water supplies. What we’re talking about here is building walls inside the West Bank — other people’s territory which you’ve taken from them by conquest — and stealing their land and water from their aquifers. I don’t think that falls within any plausible conception of a country’s legitimate self-interest, and it certainly doesn’t seem to me that the Zionist dream of a Jewish state in the land of Israel requires stealing land and water from Palestinians in the West Bank. If Israel had built a big wall along the Green Line, there would have been few or no grounds for objection; lots of people belonged to “Yesh Gvul” and Peace Now at the same time.

Finally, when Israel decided to call itself a Jewish state, it gave every Jew a pass to argue about what is best for Israel. If you want to call that colonialist and condescending, fine: I’m a condescending colonialist. And I think Gideon Levy is right that Israelis would benefit from being sharply reminded by the outside world, in a concrete fashion, that the policies they’re pursuing are nuts.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

What outside observers don’t get, and what Israeli journalists such as Levy don’t mention often enough, is how Israeli foreign/military policy is frequently a cause of the country’s electoral system.

As opposed to the district/regional-based parliamentary representation that nearly all other democracies use, Israel’s Knesset/parliament and cabinet/PM are all chosen using a proportional system where small parties are granted seats according to the proportion of votes won. This means that fringe nationalist and theocratic parties such as HaBeyit Hayehudi, Shas and Halahud HaLeumi all gain the power to make or break governments.

In plain terms, this means that both right-wing PMs like Netanyahu and left-wing PMs such as Rabin have/had every domestic incentive to expand settlements and perpetuate the occupation, and no incentive not to.

Or, as Henry Kissinger – a non-Israeli politician with more blood on his hands than any Israeli politician could ever hope for – put it, “Israel has no foreign policy. It only has a domestic policy.”

Comment by Neal Ungerleider

Neal, that’s quite right, but I think most outsiders with a passing familiarity with the Israeli system do understand this. But here’s the problem: the privileged place occupied by far-right religious parties in the Israeli political system is a permanent structural feature of the system. It’s inherent in the self-definition as a “Jewish state” coupled with the secular orientation of most Israelis, who don’t want to be bothered with the religious side of things and thus leave that all up to Shas etc. This grants the ultra-orthodox a monopoly over the definition of what it means to be Jewish. In the old days of Netarei Karta when the ultra-orthodox were quietist on the nationalist-territorial front this didn’t matter so much, but once religious nationalism predictably fused with territorial expansionism in the ’80s, we started to have a real problem. I don’t think it’s enough to say that PR empowers these small minorities; I think the problem is a real structural one that the US has to address in terms of realizing that a powerful far-right Israeli minority is holding American foreign policy hostage. Just look at what happened yesterday to Hillary Clinton.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

Good points. One thing that will be interesting to watch in the coming 10-15 years is how the secularizing trend that Russian immigrants are bringing with them (for instance, the calls of the otherwise odious Yisrael Beitenu for civil marriage and secular-operated graveyards) will dovetail with the exponential population growth of the religious sectors of Jewish Israeli society, whether Zionist or non-Zionist. I suspect the result will be something that neither side suspects.

Comment by Neal Ungerleider

Good point, Neal, though did you mean to say that the Israeli foreign is CAUSED by the country’s electoral system? I thought there were plans to reform it, though that’s probably as unlikely as the U.S. electoral college being abolished.

Something else to remember is that Israel is still somewhat of a young nation. They haven’t gotten their electoral system right in 60 years, but look at France. It took them almost 200 years to get a stable government.

Comment by Michael Peck

The problem is that for the larger political parties, there is no incentive to reform the Israeli electoral system. The 1948 system results in a massive amount of pork (err, kosher pork) for politicians’ constituents and plenty of shekels lining their pocket thanks to custom-created cabinet posts and the ever-popular “minister without portfolio” duties the Knesset doles out every election or so. While there are parties calling for reform on a geographic (UK/US) or confessional (Lebanon/Singapore) style basis, they’re ironically the smaller parties who would never have a chance in hell of winning in their dream Knesset.

Comment by Neal Ungerleider

Matt, I’m frankly stunned that you say “there is no threat to Israel’s survival.” Iran is a threat. Its bomb is fast becoming a reality and it has made no secret of its desire to “wipe Israel off the map.” Its proxies Hezbullah and Hamas are next-door and would like nothing better. Finally, the irredentist demands of the Palestinians, including even so-called “moderates” like Mahmoud Abbas, for the “right of return” would end Israel as a Jewish state by swamping it. I think you and Levy are dead wrong that it is Israel that needs to be pressured by a tough uncle. The U.S. should lean on the PA and cut off their aid if they don’t (a) stop incitement to murder Israelis, still ongoing on official PA television and (b) get themselves to the negotiating table as recently invited by Netanyahu. Frankly, I’m a lot more disturbed that my tax dollars go to pay for murderous incitement and torture. I see no reason why Israel should give up territory in the West Bank until its neighbor proves itself worthy of more trust.

No, Israeli hearts no longer can be won with hope, promises of a better future, or sweet talk. Not after Oslo followed by intifada or Gaza withdrawal followed by 8,000 Katyusha rockets. As Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Comment by layla

layla, I’m not going to be able to convince you, but you’re wrong. Completely, terribly, and tragically wrong. Whatever you mean by “wipe Israel off the map”, that is not what Iran either wants or plans or has the capacity to do. You are referring to extremist statements made by an inflammatory politician, and even those reprehensible statements themselves meant that he supported the elimination of Israel as a political entity, not the extermination of its population. In any case, there are so many Israeli politicians who have said that Palestinians should be deported from Israel/Palestine that there’s really no point counting; yet we do not actually believe that Israel, as a state, plans to ethnically cleanse the West Bank. In any case, there are 2 very large states in between Iran and Israel, and Iran has no interest whatsoever in building a nuclear bomb and using it against Israel. If it did, Israel has second-strike nuclear retaliatory capacity, probably including missiles based on undetectably quiet diesel submarines that would survive even in the unimaginable event that Iran were to acquire enough warheads on missiles accurate enough to take out Israel’s land-based nuclear-tipped IRBMs and air force — which Iran couldn’t have for decades even if they started building them now, even if there were any evidence they were interested, which there isn’t. Iran wants nuclear weapons because it never wants to be on the point of surrender in war again, as it was in 1988 against Iraq and as it fears it might be in face of an American invasion. And that is an entirely rational policy for Iran. Iran has no interest in attacking the Holy Land with a nuclear bomb, and then itself being annihilated by the dozens of nuclear warheads Israel would surely send its way.

Israel has enshrined a Holocaust survivor’s mentality as a permanent feature of its political culture. It has to lose that mentality or it will remain a victim forever. Israel is the strongest state in the Middle East, vastly stronger than any of its neighbors, so strong that in order to justify its continuing paranoia it must finally go looking as far afield as Iran because it has defeated everyone else. With strength comes responsibility. Israel cannot be defeated by its foreign enemies. It can only be defeated by the long, slow people’s war of insurgency and terrorism conducted by the Palestinian people. In such a war, military strength is useless. As in Vietnam, the Palestinians will accept 100 deaths for every death they cause Israel, because their backs are against the wall; they have nothing left to lose. Israel has to give the Palestinians something they can live with — not something Israel doesn’t mind giving away, but something the Palestinians can live with. The bargain is as simple as that. There is no choice. There is no way to win.

This is not happy talk about peace and reconciliation. It is about reality. Israel does have a strong enemy. It is not Iran. It is the Palestinians. They are strong not because they have nuclear weapons, but because there are 5 million of them, they live right next door, and they are willing to die for their country. They cannot destroy Israel. But they can destroy Israeli democracy, and they can make Israel bleed forever. Israel has to give them a real state. And then Israel has to wait through 5 years of more violence, as that new Palestinian state does what all new states do: makes war on its national enemy. And then after that, a cold, resentful, contemptuous peace will gradually fall.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

Matt et all, one of the aspects of the current political situation that isn’t often discussed is that while the U.S. leadership has moved decidedly to the progressive left this year, the leadership in Israel has moved decidedly to the right, with several members of the cabinet coming from parties that are not just pro-settlement, but avowedly anti-Arab and anti-immigrant.
We also have stopped talking about the fact that Kadima, the party of the pro-peace-process candidate, Tzipi Livni, actually took the highest number of votes and should now be in office with a moderate coalition behind Livni. For a nation such as Israel – which the pro-peace community should be holding up as a supreme achievement of democratic societies – to be represented by the likes of Avigdor Lieberman and others of his political persuasion is to demean everything Israel stands for. Every time Lieberman opens his mouth – most recently to announce that Israelis will not be frierim (suckers) – he hastens the creation of more anti-Semites in the world.
Along with Gideon Levy’s piece, I wonder if you all have read an op-ed in the New York Times by Henry Siegman, former director of the American Jewish Congress. Here’s an excerpt:
“The Israeli reaction to serious peacemaking efforts is nothing less than pathological — the consequence of an inability to adjust to the Jewish people’s reentry into history with a state of their own following 2,000 years of powerlessness and victimhood.
Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose assassination by a Jewish right-wing extremist is being remembered this week in Israel, told Israelis at his inauguration in 1992 that their country is militarily powerful, and neither friendless nor at risk. They should therefore stop thinking and acting like victims.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s message that the whole world is against Israel and that Israelis are at risk of another Holocaust — a fear he invoked repeatedly during his address in September at the United Nations General Assembly in order to discredit Judge Richard Goldstone’s Gaza fact-finding report — is unfortunately still a more comforting message for too many Israelis.
This pathology has been aided and abetted by American Jewish organizations whose agendas conform to the political and ideological views of Israel’s right wing. These organizations do not reflect the views of most American Jews who voted overwhelmingly — nearly 80 percent — for Mr. Obama in the presidential elections.
An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement has eluded all previous U.S. administrations not because they were unable to devise a proper formula for its achievement; everyone has known for some time now the essential features of that formula, which were proposed by President Clinton in early 2000.
Rather, the conflict continues because U.S. presidents — and to a far greater extent, members of the U.S. Congress, who depend every two years on electoral contributions — have accommodated a pathology that can only be cured by its defiance.
Only a U.S. president with the political courage to risk Israeli displeasure — and criticism from that part of the pro-Israel lobby in America which reflexively supports the policies of the Israeli government of the day, no matter how deeply they offend reason or morality — can cure this pathology.
If President Obama is serious about his promise to finally end Israel’s 40-year occupation, bring about a two-state solution, assure Israel’s long-range survival as a Jewish and democratic state, and protect vital U.S. national interests in the region, he will have to risk that displeasure. If he delivers on his promise, he will earn Israelis’ eternal gratitude.”

Comment by Eileen White Read

Eileen: I liked your post and the citation of the NYT op-ed. One note of discord at the end, though: the line about earning Israelis’ eternal gratitude. That might not be true. And it seems to me to reflect an uplifting win-win American style of rhetoric that doesn’t go over as well in Israel’s blunt, Russian-influenced political culture. As a wise man once told me about his style with Russians: you start blunt, and follow with warmth. The point is that this is what has to be done. Whether Israelis thank you for it or not, whatever, they can decide.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

And why would Israelis distrust the world when they can look at your blog, Eileen? The one that’s called “Peacemaker”, and yet never mentions Darfur, or Sri Lanka, or Chechnya? Just post after post after post about anything negative going on in Israel, like a monomaniac with a magnifying glass.

I don’t support everything Israel did or does. But I know that if I had to choose between “peacemakers” and the IDF for my family’s safety, I know which one I would choose.

Comment by Michael Peck

Michael, if I were a Serb living in Bosnia in 1993 and I had to choose between UN peacekeepers and Ratko Mladic’s Bosnian Serb troops for my family’s safety, I would choose Mladic. Hands down. No question. Ratko Mladic is still a war criminal.

The dynamic you’re referring to is one in which people who feel threatened choose a tough guy from their own side rather than neutral third parties. It’s a perfectly understandable and justifiable dynamic from those people’s perspectives. It leads to endless civil war. If you were a Palestinian and you had to choose between “peacekeepers” and the IDF for your family’s safety, you’d choose the peacekeepers. If you were a Palestinian and you had to choose between Hamas and “peacekeepers” for your family’s safety, you’d choose Hamas. That’s why we’re in the situation we’re in. It doesn’t point to the way out.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

No, Matt, I don’t think you would have supported Radko Mladic. But you would have expected third parties trying to mediate the conflict to acknowledge if you had legitimate concerns.

That’s why I’m so critical of people like Eileen White Read and the whole leftist narrative of the Middle East conflict. There seems to no recognition that Israelis have legitimate reasons for not leaving the West Bank. What would happen, for example, if rockets were launched at Israel from a Palestinian state on the West Bank, because some Palestinian group wanted to score domestic political points? I suspect that the response of the left would be that Israel would be reaping what it sowed and has to bear it, or that Israel has to respond “proportionately” (with so many restrictions that an effective military response would be impossible). And then everyone wonders someone like Netanyahu gets elected?

I don’t have any genius solution for the Middle East. However, if you are going to focus on Israeli shortcomings, then you need to focus equally on the Arab ones. There won’t be peace until the Arabs accept the existence of a Jewish state, and Israelis have rational reasons for questioning whether any peace agreement is just a hudna truce before the next war. If the left is willing to work on that side of the equation as well as Israeli intransigence, then it might actually have a positive influence.

Comment by Michael Peck

Michael, one of the things I always welcome is friendly debate – emphasis on the friendly part. If you look at the description of my blog, you see its intention is to cover the Middle East peace process – not other parts of the world, although many areas are of interest to me. (I think you also know that in my regular job, I work for an anti-genocide organization that has done marvelous work on the Darfur issue and other African crises.)
Regarding my coverage of the Middle East today, I assure you that when the current right-wing coalition in Israel that is refusing to comply with previous Israeli governments’ commitments under the Oslo agreement and the Road Map to Peace is voted out and replaced by a moderate, peace-process-supporting government, people like you will no doubt consider my coverage to be right on target – if, that it, you support the concept of “two states for two peoples.” However, if the current Netanyahu coalition pleases you, if your politics are such that you are in favor of the status quo: occupation of the West Bank, of a state in which 40% of the residents do not have the right to vote – then it shouldn’t surprise anyone that you find many things to disagree with in my writing for True/Slant.
Should you want to debate a specific issue, I would welcome the opportunity. Calling me a monomaniac with a magnifying glass – I guess I’ll take that as a compliment, since I do have a single-minded bias in favor of negotiated peace processes to solve international crises.

Comment by Eileen White Read

First, Eileen, I did try to these questions on your blog previously. They never appeared on the blog, so I can only assume that you censored them. That’s why I don’t post on your blog, but if you would like to have a friendly debate, I’m happy to give it a try. Just let me know.

Second, even your post above singles out Israel. Why is that almost all of your posts and headline grabs are either critical of Israel, pro-Israel organizations, or American policy toward Israel? Why you almost never cite Palestinian violence toward Israelis, or the corruption and violence within Palestinian society, or Arab kids being taught that Jews are subhuman?

This isn’t even a matter of ideology, but of intellectual honesty. How you can claim to be a peacemaker when you only highlight the flaws of one side? The only conclusion is that you really do believe that only one side is at fault, and that side is Israel. In which case, good luck having any influence on achieving peace.

Comment by Michael Peck

Michael, if you would like to write about “Palestinian violence toward Israelis, corruption and violence within Palestinian society, or Arab kids being taught that Jews are subhuman,” I suggest you do so. I promise not to post ad hominem stabs at you, as you have done to my posts.
If you are looking for bias, do not look in my direction. My posts have been highlighted and linked by some of the best known Jewish bloggers in the United States and Israel, including most recently Max Blumenthal, author of the new book Republican Gommorah. My posts and Tweets have been featured on the website of the American Jewish organization Americans For Peace Now. If you analyze my posts, you will find that more than 75% of the people I quote are Jewish Americans or Israelis.
Bring it on, Michael. You do not intimidate me any more than Avigdor Lieberman and his extremist comrades intimidate Tzipi Livni and the dozens of moderate MK’s in the Knesset, former Rep. Bob Wexler, Rahm Emanuel, and the rest of the pro-Israel, pro-peace advocates in the United States, Israel, and around the world.

Comment by Eileen White Read

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