The Israel rules

America's support of the Gaza attack proves once again that our mythical image of Israel has blinded us to its faults -- a myopia with devastating consequences for both countries.

Published January 6, 2009 11:43AM (EST)

As Israel continues its Gaza assault, which has now resulted in more than 500 dead and 2,300 wounded Palestinians, with five Israelis killed, the following thought experiment is worth performing.

America's founding sin, its dispossession of its native inhabitants, has not taken place in the 19th century, but continuously during the last 60 years. America has not completed its ethnic cleansing, has walled off millions of exiles and must contend with an armed resistance movement. Washington, despite international demands and U.N. insistence that it do so, refuses to resolve the issue by returning a portion of the land it had taken. Approximately 1.5 million of those native Americans, most of them refugees from their ancestral homes who have never been allowed to return, are imprisoned in a tiny, squalid area whose exits, water, heat, fuel, medicine and food are controlled by Washington. In their despair and their disillusionment with their corrupt leadership, those people elect a radical, rejectionist movement (which Washington had helped to foster, to undercut the native's original leadership) that denies America's right to exist and has a history of viciously striking at U.S. citizens using any means it can, including suicide bombers and crude homemade rockets that have killed two dozen Americans in seven years.

To punish these people for choosing a government it considers a terrorist organization, Washington imposes a harsh blockade, with a top American official joking that the U.S. is going to put the natives "on a diet." The rejectionist government agrees to a cease-fire with the expectation that the blockade will be lifted. When the blockade is not lifted, and following a U.S. raid into their territory, the rejectionists begin firing the rockets again. Washington then launches a carefully planned aerial assault on the tiny, largely defenseless area, raining bombs down on one of the most densely populated places on earth, killing militants and civilians alike and bombing houses filled with women and children. It then launches a ground invasion of the area. Throughout, America paints itself as an innocent victim, which has been forced with a heavy heart to take surgical, conscientious military actions against terrorist fanatics who threaten its very existence.

This comparison to the current Gaza invasion is not, of course, exact. Israel is a tiny state, a fraction the size of the U.S. The Indians never posed a serious threat to American settlers, nor did they have neighboring allies who launched an all-out war on the U.S. in 1776. Nor were large tracts of American territory acquired by legally purchasing them from absentee native landlords. But the larger parallels remain. If such a scenario had taken place, how would the world and America react? At a minimum, there would be massive protests. Large numbers of American citizens would take to the streets, denouncing the slaughter and insisting that their government reach a political settlement with the natives.

Much of the rest of the world is outraged by Israel's assault on Gaza. But the United States -- the beacon of democracy, the champion of freedom, a nation founded on revolutionary anti-colonialism -- is applauding it.

The Bush administration has placed the onus for the Israeli assault entirely upon Hamas, and blocked a cease-fire proposal in the U.N. Security Council to give Israel more time to crush its foe. Congress -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- is almost unanimously behind Israel's war. This, despite the fact that polls show that American citizens are closely divided on whether Israel should have attacked Gaza. As my Salon colleague Glenn Greenwald has noted, there is no other issue in which "citizens split almost evenly in their views, yet the leaders of both parties adopt identical lockstep positions which leave half of the citizenry with no real voice."

Whatever President-elect Barack Obama may think about the attack, or the larger Israeli-Palestinian crisis, he has remained prudently silent. So far his only circulating statement is a fatuous comment made during the campaign -- and promptly trotted out by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to justify the assault -- that if his house with his daughters in it were being subjected to rocket attacks, he would "do everything in my power to stop that." Obama may have a clear mandate to change America's direction in the Middle East, but even he has deemed it too politically dangerous to say anything critical of Israel.

After five years of George W. Bush's "war on terror," a war whose ideology and methods followed Israel's militarist approach to the letter, and which has failed in every conceivable way, America has still not learned that there are no military solutions in the Middle East.

America is backing Israel's assault despite the fact that it is seriously injurious to our national interests, and ultimately to Israel's as well. Israel's actions will not make it safer, and in the long run could endanger its very existence. But Israel, surrounded by a sea of enemies, has far more reason to cling to its belief in militarism than America does.

Why does America give Israel a blank check to do what it wants, even when its actions are so manifestly contrary to our self-interest? Because we hold Israel to a different standard than other states. We follow what we might call "the Israel rules."

In their groundbreaking 2006 book, historians John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt popularized the term "The Israel lobby." The term is useful as far as it goes, and applies accurately to powerful lobbies like AIPAC. But as one of the more perceptive commentators on Middle Eastern affairs, Time's Tony Karon, noted in his Rootless Cosmopolitan blog, the term is insufficiently dialectical -- that is, it fails to capture the way Americans have internalized received opinions about Israel. "The Israel rules," on the other hand, avoids imputing coercive power solely to an entity or group of entities, and highlights the fact that many of the constraints that govern discussions of Israel are self-generated.

"Pro-Israel" commentators -- I use the scare quotes because many of them are Likudnik hawks whose policies are, in fact, harmful to Israel -- argue that Americans have always felt an affinity for Israel because it is a plucky, embattled democracy, a national soul mate. While there is a lot of sentimental "land without a people" nonsense in this argument, it is not entirely devoid of truth. There is much to admire in the astonishing self-creation of the Jewish state. Had it not been for the inconvenient presence of an indigenous people, it would have been cause for unalloyed celebration. And this feeling of kinship is immeasurably strengthened and sanctified by the most potent historical fact behind the special status America has accorded Israel: the Holocaust.

Because Israel came into existence in the shadow of the Holocaust, and because it was immediately attacked by Arab states bent on destroying it, it has become an eternal victim in America's eyes. The historical truths of Israel's creation, above all the fact of Palestinian dispossession, simply cannot compete with the tragic, beautiful myth of an embattled people, the survivors of one of the worst genocides in human history, returning to live in their historic homeland. The enduring power of this myth is understandable. The idea that history's "ultimate victims," as the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said sympathetically called the Jews, created their own state by expelling its native inhabitants, is appalling. It seems almost cosmically wrong: A story this dark should not, cannot, close without a happy ending.

That is the emotional and psychological nut. Throw in geo-strategic reasons (the U.S. embraced Israel as a Cold War bulwark against Soviet expansion), a powerful domestic lobby, and the singular ineptitude of the Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular, and you have the ingredients for an enduring myth. When other states refuse to make just compromises and insist on smashing their enemies into submission, we call them rogue states. When Israel does it, it is fighting off an eternal Holocaust, and that gives it carte blanche to do whatever it wants. Never mind the fact that the Palestinians do not pose an existential threat to Israel, and that over the last eight years between 200 and 300 Palestinians have been killed for every Israeli. As the occupation grinds into its seventh decade and Israel's enemies have become ever more fanatical, it becomes easier to fit them out with Hitler masks. The Palestinians have played the role of villains beautifully, making the myth seem increasingly plausible.

Not everyone believes the myth. In fact, only a minority of Americans do. But the Israel rules must be obeyed nonetheless, lest one be accused of anti-Semitism, radicalism, sympathy for terrorists, or, more subtly, lest one anger or offend one's friends and acquaintances. The Israel rules apply to Jews and non-Jews alike. Courageously outspoken American Jews like Joe Klein, Philip Weiss, Richard Silverstein and M.J. Rosenberg are routinely savaged for daring to deviate from the party line on Israel. Not many choose to subject themselves to this abuse, especially when much of it comes from your own friends, from your political cohort, from your people. Much easier to remain silent. Why has the New York Times run only one Op-Ed piece during the entire Gaza assault, while not a single one of its columnists weighed in until Bill Kristol's predictable defense of Israel on Monday? Because it's an unpleasant, no-win subject.

The subject of Israel splits the American left and the American intelligentsia, a fact that has had far-reaching consequences. As the historian Tony Judt has persuasively argued, divisions over Israel are a large part of the reason that the left's response to Bush's Iraq war was so feeble. Judt's piece, not surprisingly, was published by the London Review of Books, as was the Mearsheimer and Walt article that grew into their book. Ironically, there is a much more freewheeling debate about Israel's policies in Israel's superb newspaper Haaretz than there is any American paper. In a searing recent piece in the paper, "And there lie the bodies," Gideon Levy argued that Israel's indifference to Palestinian casualties is a sign of a collective moral collapse. "The moral voice of restraint, if it ever existed, has been left behind. Even if Israel wiped Gaza off the face of the earth, killing tens of thousands in the process, as a Chechnyan laborer working in Sderot proposed to me, one can assume that there would be no protest," Levy wrote. No such piece could ever appear in any mainstream American publication.

As any student of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis knows, the best work on it has been done by Israelis. From Amos Elon to David Grossman, from Benny Morris (notwithstanding his later incarnation as an unabashed exponent of ethnic cleansing) to Ilan Pappe, from Amira Hass to Tom Segev, Israeli writers and historians have done the painstaking and courageous work that has made it possible to begin dismantling their state's founding myths and see it for what it is -- neither a supervillain nor a superhero, but a state like any other, which should be judged by the same standards as any other.

One of the reasons many people of good will are reluctant to speak out is that in one sense, the Israel rules reflect values and beliefs that are wholly admirable. Siding with Israel is a way of announcing solidarity with the Jewish people and a rejection of anti-Semitism. It is, in a sense, an apparently benign form of ethnic affirmative action: Israel gets extra credit on its moral SAT test. But affirmative action for Israel is like affirmative action for blacks. It is a concept with a sunset provision, one that must eventually fade away.

After 60 years of lockstep U.S. support, the era of Israeli exceptionalism must end. It is no longer justifiable, if it ever was. America may continue to have a "special relationship" with Israel, but that special relationship must be strictly limited: It cannot be allowed to damage America's larger interests. Israel is not synonymous with some transcendental, sentimental idea of Jewishness. It is simply a state, neither perfect nor imperfect, and must be treated like any other state. We can no longer afford to follow the Israel rules.

We cannot afford to for three reasons. First, Israel's current war, which it snuck in at a "perfect time" during the holidays and in the last days of its greatest "friend" and "supporter," George W. Bush, is immoral and illegal. Yes, Israel has the right to defend itself, like any other state. But not all acts of self-defense are legally or morally equivalent.

Israel is "defending itself" against a people that it dispossessed and has occupied for decades, and specifically by bombing a densely populated territory that it has been collectively punishing for a year and a half. Collective punishment is illegal under the Geneva Conventions. By bombing universities, mosques, lines of graduating police recruits, farms and houses filled with women and children, Israel is violating the law of proportional response. It is the same strategy it pursued in its disastrous 2006 war against Lebanon, when it fired thousands of cluster bombs into civilian areas in the south so as to force a Shiite population transfer, and piling up heaps of corpses with the purpose of "bolstering its deterrence." Such actions, in which civilian casualties are accepted or even pursued in the interests of achieving strategic goals, are a textbook form of state terrorism, and under the circumstances of Israel's vise-grip on Palestinian lives, no more morally justifiable than Hamas' repellent attacks. America should not be supporting such actions, whether they are carried out by an ally or not.

Second, Israel's actions are harming America. In the eyes of the world, and in particular the Arab-Muslim world, whatever Israel does might as well have been done by America. We fund Israel to the tune of $3 billion a year, we provide its advanced weaponry and we carry diplomatic water for it. In effect, Israel is the U.S. Obviously, if its actions are harmful to our national interests, we should oppose them. And the Gaza assault is clearly inimical to our interests, unless one believes that making deadly enemies of most Arabs and Muslims in the world, and making the possibility of Israeli-Palestinian peace even more remote is in our national interests. One of the things that motivated Osama bin Laden to launch the 9/11 attacks was televised film of Israel bombing Beirut apartment buildings during its 1982 war. What burning hatred is being grown in Arab/Muslim hearts as Gaza explodes? And what bitter harvest will it produce?

Finally, Israel's actions are not in its own interest. As Talleyrand said of Napoleon's murder of the Duc d'Enghien, Israel's attack on Gaza is worse than a crime -- it is a blunder. Israel is attempting once again to ensure its security by killing its enemies, while refusing to acknowledge the reasons for their enmity or to pursue a just political settlement that would resolve the conflict. As Haaretz editor-at-large Aluf Benn, a perceptive analyst of the Israeli polity, pointed out in Salon, there are deep historical reasons for Israel's allegiance to a doctrine of overwhelming military superiority. It's a doctrine that goes back to the father of revisionist Zionism, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who insisted that Israel must break its foes' will to resist with an "iron wall." But as the last 60 years have shown, that live-by-the-sword ethos not only does not work, it is self-defeating.

Israel deserves lasting security. But it cannot kill its way into it. It may succeed in temporarily reducing the number of homemade rockets that Hamas fires into southern Israel. It may kill some Hamas leaders and militants and set back Hamas. As Benn notes, the Israeli assault has extremely modest strategic aims, and is merely intended to buy time: It is just "another one of Israel's long list of cross-border operations."

In this light, the 2008 Gaza war is little different from the Gaza raid of 1955 led by Ariel Sharon, in which Israeli paratroopers destroyed the Egyptian army headquarters on the outskirts of Gaza City, killing 37 Egyptian soldiers. The parallels between that raid and Israel's current assault are striking. According to historian Avi Shlaim in his classic "The Iron Wall," the 1955 raid was ordered by Israeli Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion to assuage public anger over terrorist fedayeen attacks, prove that he was a strong leader and "cut [Egyptian president Gamal Abdul] Nasser down to size by exposing the military impotence of his regime." Substitute Ehud Barak for Ben-Gurion, rocket attacks for fedayeen raids and Hamas for Nasser, and nothing has changed in 53 years. Except one crucial thing: The entire Arab-Muslim world now instantly sees the bloody consequences of Israel's actions on television.

And just as the 1955 Gaza raid did not end fedayeen attacks or diminish Nasser, any short-term security Israel may gain from its Gaza assault will be outweighed by the long-term deterioration of its strategic position. The Israeli attack will not finish off Hamas; it will eventually make it stronger, just as Israel's 2006 war against Lebanon made Hezbollah stronger. It will not crush the Palestinian desire for justice, or, sadly, for vengeance. It will not dry up the hatred that has poisoned so many minds on both sides of this tragic conflict -- it will only make it worse. It will not "teach the Arabs a lesson," or change the regional dynamic in its favor. It will only weaken Mahmoud Abbas and the moderate Arab states, which are increasingly seen by their people as quisling regimes. If Israel continues along this course, it will isolate itself from the rest of the world, which will increasingly see it as a rogue state.

I hold no brief for Hamas. Its use of terror is morally repellent, and its charter is filled with anti-Semitism. But one does not get to choose one's enemies -- and they are the ones you must make peace with. And at least a temporary peace is still possible. As the veteran Mideast analyst Helena Cobban has noted, Hamas is not a monolithic group of fanatical terrorists. It is prepared to sign off on a long-term truce with Israel.

Contrary to the Holocaustology that sees all Israel's enemies as the second coming of Adolf Hitler, Hamas is not the problem; it is a symptom. Treating it as the problem only prolongs the crisis. The problem is political and historical: the dispossession of Palestinians and the ongoing Israeli occupation of their land. Until that fundamental problem is resolved -- and the hour when it can be resolved by a two-state solution may already have passed -- Israel and America's attempts to bludgeon Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims into submission will only generate more hatred, more violence and ever more extremism.

What the gung-ho war hawks in Israel and America do not realize is that if Israel continues down this road, it will jeopardize its very existence. The world has changed, and time is not on Israel's side. Israel has always been surrounded by neighbors who detest it. Some of those states are ruled by regimes that have been bought off by the U.S., such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Afraid of their own Islamist radicals, they have remained largely silent as Israel has pounded Hamas. But those regimes will not last forever, and there is no guarantee that their successors will embrace the same policies. The real danger to Israel is radical Islam. Jihadism is the X factor that could threaten Israel's survival. Popular rage at Israel across the Arab-Muslim world has been festering for decades, and outrages like the Lebanon war and the Gaza assault have brought it to a boil. With their fury deprived of an outlet by their corrupt and sclerotic regimes, more and more Muslims are turning to religious radicalism.

Israel knows this story only too well because it helped create it. Israel strengthened Hamas in the 1980s because it wanted to undercut the PLO. Now it is trying to undercut Hamas, and by doing so, is strengthening al-Qaida-like jihadists. It is as if Israel actually wants to turn its political enemies into religious ones, so that it can convince itself and the world that it has no choice but to exterminate or be exterminated. In an age of portable weapons of mass destruction and suicidal zealots, this is not a wise strategy.

If the U.S. was truly Israel's best friend, as it claims it is, it would tell it unequivocally that its Gaza war and its larger policy of trying to pound its foes into submission is not just immoral, but counterproductive and injurious both to Israel's interests and America's. It would insist on an immediate cease-fire, which includes the lifting of the Israeli siege of Gaza, and begin pressuring both sides to accept a long-term political settlement, along the lines of the Arab League peace plan, the Clinton parameters and the Geneva Accords. It would bolster Abbas by dismantling settlements in the West Bank, removing checkpoints and improving Palestinian lives. It would insist that the best and only way to undermine the radical rejectionists and the jihadists (who are not the same thing) is through a just peace.

In the end, this isn't about ideology but results. The region is in chaos, hard-liners are gaining power and peace is further away than ever. President-elect Obama claims to be a pragmatist. This is his chance to prove it. He has the opportunity to change course, to start pursuing Mideast policies that work. He must make it clear to Israel that the blank check is expired, the amen corner disbanded.

If Obama has the wisdom and courage to reject the Israel rules, he can begin to broker a lasting Mideast peace, weaken extremists, restore America's standing in the region and ensure Israel's long-term viability. If he doesn't, the wound will simply keep festering, and the infection will keep spreading.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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