Oversimplifying Israel

Editor’s Note: This piece is based on remarks delivered on May 22, when the Center for the National Interest hosted a symposium on Jacob Heilbrunn’s “Israel’s Fraying Image” from the May/June issue of The National Interest. An additional response by Chas Freeman was published yesterday.

I thank Jacob Heilbrunn and Robert Merry for the lunch invitation. And I thank them for the opportunity to discuss Jacob’s article, “Israel’s Fraying Image,” with Jacob, Charles Freeman and you all.

The National Interest has acquired a well-earned reputation for thoughtful, incisive and provocative writing about foreign affairs and national security. My friend Jacob’s elegant essay is no exception.

If stated at a sufficient level of generality, I agree with Jacob’s central theses:

First, Israel’s reputation in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere has been damaged, and Israel must work to repair it.

Second, in an uncertain world with a rising China and a United States rethinking its international role in general and its role in the Middle East in particular, Israel must expand and diversify its friends and allies.

Third, Israel must summon the courage to take hard steps to ease the conflict with the Palestinians.

To these formulations—mine, not Jacob’s, but consistent with a fair part of what he writes—I say, yes, yes and yes.

However, stated as Jacob states his main theses, I find myself often in disagreement. Jacob implies that damage to Israel’s reputation comes primarily from Israel’s unjust conduct. Unfortunately, Jacob leaves out of his account Israel’s just conduct, and the concerted campaign of delegitimization directed against Israel by Arab states, the United Nations, and intellectuals in Europe and the United States. One could go back further than the infamous 1975 UN General Assembly Resolution declaring Zionism “a form of racism and racial discrimination” (which remained in force until its revocation by the General Assembly in 1991). More recently, the outrageous and indefensible accusations of the Goldstone report—about which I am happy to speak at length—continue to do enormous damage.

Furthermore, Jacob’s concern that Israel must diversify its friends and allies proceeds from the erroneous claim that support for Israel in the United States is declining. That’s incorrect. Support for Israel in the United States, according to Gallup, is “at a high water mark.”

And finally, Israel must indeed find a way to advance the peace process with the Palestinians, both because peace with the Palestinians is a vital national-security interest for Israel and because it is a matter of justice. However, no serious discussion of the peace process can take place without a proper understanding of what each side has done to advance the cause of peace and what each side has done to thwart peace. Much of Jacob’s analysis reads as if the only relevant actor were Israel, and as if Israel’s iniquities were the only real obstacle to peace. Such an approach feeds into the fevered accounts according to which Israel—the only fully functioning liberal democracy in Middle East, whose Arab citizens enjoy greater rights than any other Arabs in the Middle East because they enjoy all the political rights of Jewish citizens of Israel—is an arrogant, bullying, and bigoted regime that prefers the violent acquisition of territory and the despotic rule over others to peace.

It is a good rule of thumb to distrust accounts of long-standing international conflicts that assign all blame to a single side.

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Sin Nombre (June 12, 2013 - 5:59am)

Peter Berkowitz wrote:

Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is critical because Palestinians understand that recognizing Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people effectively means waiving the Palestinians’ preferred interpretation of the “right of return.”

So here's my question: No matter how reasonably they may seem otherwise how in the world is one to trust that people like Berkowitz who endorse the above are doing anything other than consciously trying to pull the wool over everyone's eyes for Israel? As everyone else does of course they must know that Israel's position has always been to deny any significant Palestinian right of return, and that in any peace deal reached of course this would be written in—in absolute specifics—without any need whatsoever for Israel to get some special recognition as "a jewish state." And likewise as everyone knows and can see the demand for this special recognition is only a recent thing, and is just spectacularly vague. So how in the world can people like Berkowitz ignore the idea that what Israel is really insisting upon with its request for this special form of recognition is essentially a "pass" that it will claim gives it the right at any time in the future to take any actions whatsoever to maintain what it feels is its "jewish" nature, up to and including not only the disenfranchisement but the explusion of any or all non-jews in Israel, whether Israeli citizens or not? And of course such special recognition language looks precisely like it would agree to any of same and more. And yet time and again we see the Berkowitzes just utterly not mentioning this, just utterly pretending even the possibility of this doesn't exist. And unless someone can come up with some alternate explanation I say it simply renders them non-credible as to writing on this issue. Worse than non-credible: Not really being honest. Game-playing with us. Trying to help lay the groundwork for a militantly ethno-racial state of the sort they would condemn in the harshest moral terms imaginable if it involved anyone other than jews. Now of course it would be somewhat acceptably different if the Berkowitzes would just come out and openly special plead for this double standard, but as here that's not what we see. Instead we see what I at least can only perceive as deviousness in the service of that double standard, and so it seems to me why in the world ought anyone pay any attention whatsoever to anything else the Berkowitzes of the world write? Why, having been given what seems irrefutable proof of their lack of intellectual honesty and good faith and bias and indeed their desire to deceive in the service of that bias, would we do anything but just totally dismiss anything and everything else they say also? And indeed isn't that the same not just with the Berkowitzes of the world but Netanyahu and Israel now too who are also insisting on this sinister special recognition? Maybe I'm wrong here, but I can't see it. So someone—anyone—tell me where and how I'm wrong. Tell me why Israel is insisting on this vague, wide-open special recognition language when its ostensible reason for asking for it could be even more strongly fulfilled in other more specific ways and terms? Or tell me what guarantee there is that Israel would never use this insisted-upon special language in any anti-jewish (racist) non-democratic manner? Because it would never discriminate against non-jews any more than it already *massively* does? 

Beniyyar (June 12, 2013 - 8:07am)

The American retreat, or rather the New American Isolationism, is recognized by the EU, the Russians, the Chinese, the Arab nations, the Palestinians, and of course Israel.  Thus the idea that only or perhaps most importantly only Israel is really affected by this change in American foreign affairs is bizarre and leads to impractical and unrealistic conclusions especially as regards the Israeli/Palestinian peace efforts.  The Palestinians are fully cognizant that the US under Obama is in retreat globally and since their negotiating stance was never based on any compromise with Israel whatsoever, without serious US involvement, they now see that they can adopt an even more hard line rejectionist position vis a vis Israel.  Simply put, apart from an absolute Israeli surrender to every Palestinian territorial and demographic demand, the Palestinians will never settle peacefully with Israel.  Even before Obama's isolationist policies, there never was much chance of any sort of peaceful settlement.  The Palestinians reject any Israeli Jewish state, demand the expulsion or death of all the Jews in Israel, along with the return of every single "Palestinian refugee" to Israel proper.  Now with the US in retreat, the Palestinians are free to indulge their every rejectionist and genocidal fantasy, and the EU along with Russia and China are also free to once again express their long held anti Semitic tendencies in the guise of disagreeing with Israeli policies.

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