Israel: Mini-Me?

Posted January 30, 2009

Categories: Articles, Featured, Human Rights

There is a deep affinity between the United States and Israel. I’m not talking about the Israel Lobby, which concentrates its influence in Washington. Or the connections between neoconservatives and the Israeli right wing. Or the rhapsodizing of fundamentalist Christians, who embrace Israel as part of their scenario for the Apocalypse.

The affinity runs deeper: We are both settler states. The Puritans, who escaped oppression in the Old World only to mete out oppression in the New, unfolded their Zionist project in the 17th century with their “city built upon a hill” as the New Jerusalem. Pity any settler — Quaker, Anabaptist — who didn’t embrace this vision. But the early American Zionists and their successors were considerably harsher toward the Native Americans, who were pushed further and further west, an expulsion as tragic as the Palestinian nakba of 1948. America, like Israel, believed in the “redemption of the land…by settling it.” And today, after some backsliding in the redemption department, the reservations of Indian Country, with their limited sovereignty, represent our own two-state solution.

The settlers of North America got away with murder. If there had been a United Nations in the 19th century or an international media catering to an international audience, perhaps Native Americans could have enlisted some allies in their struggle. They largely fought alone.

Not so the Palestinians. The whole world is watching (and blogging). Israel has been pounding away at the Gaza Strip for nearly two weeks. It began a ground assault this past weekend. The UN has condemned the violence and the resulting humanitarian disaster. International diplomats have called for a ceasefire.

The Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties, on the other hand, have taken Israel’s side. “I think what the Israelis are doing is very important,” top Senate Democrat Harry Reid (D-NV) said. “I think this terrorist organization, Hamas, has got to be put away. They’ve got to come to their senses.” In the press, Charles Krauthammer has declared the Israel-Gaza war to possess “a moral clarity not only rare but excruciating.” Michael Gerson concurred: “This conflict is not a contest between shades of gray in mist and fog. It is a matter of distinguishing between murderers and victims — and of supporting an ally until a clear victory against terrorism is achieved.”

Yes, Hamas has been firing rockets into Israeli territory since the last ceasefire broke down following an Israeli incursion in November 2008. Yes, it has supported suicide bombings against Israeli targets. Yes, its charter supports an Islamist state and the destruction of Israel.

But let’s introduce some complications into this apparent world of good and evil. According to Israeli scholar Rueven Paz, Hamas devotes 90% of its work to providing social, cultural, and educational services. It has a reputation for honesty that distinguishes it from its main political rival, Fatah. It isn’t surprising that the Gaza voters supported Hamas in large numbers in the 2006 elections. Instead of respecting this democratic outcome, Israel and the United States refused to deal with Hamas and worked overtime to isolate the party. It’s not surprising that Hamas looks askance at peace negotiations and thinks only in terms of power dynamics.

When Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from its rival Fatah in 2007, Israel imposed a blockade of all but staple goods, prompting an international outcry. “A crime and atrocity,” said Jimmy Carter. When United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories Richard Falk tried to visit Gaza, Israel detained him at the Tel Aviv airport on December 13 and bundled him onto a plane out of the country.”

Denying entry to the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights is part of the same occupation playbook as keeping Palestinian human rights defenders such as Raji Sourani, director of the Palestine Center for Human Rights, locked up in Gaza and denied the right to leave to speak to the outside world,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Phyllis Bennis in Detaining the United Nations. “It’s at one with the Israeli policy of blocking international journalists who might report on the spiraling humanitarian crisis (especially in Gaza).”

Israel’s actions in the current war also do a great deal to muddy the moral clarity that Krauthammer claims. It has killed hundreds of civilians in its disproportionate response to the Hamas rocket attacks. It’s probably using cluster bombs. “It is becoming increasingly clear that Israel’s latest attack on Gaza was a premeditated attempt to destabilize the Hamas regime,” writes FPIF contributor Mustafa Qadri in Gaza Attacks: Murder with Impunity. “The Israeli Ha’aretz newspaper recently revealed that even while it was negotiating a ceasefire, the Israeli government drew up a detailed plan to destroy Hamas in Gaza six months ago.”

The United States has been Israel’s firm backer throughout this sorry affair, one element in the “lethal mix of arrogance and ignorance” that characterized the Bush administration’s overall Middle East policy. In turn, no country in the world has more resolutely embraced the Bush worldview than Israel. To borrow the black-and-white language of Krauthammer and Gerson, Israel has been Mini-Me to America’s Dr. Evil. Israel’s attack on Gaza, like its previous attack on Lebanon, looks like the Iraq War in miniature. The similarities go beyond the Palestinian issue. The two countries have taken the same terrible stands at the United Nations (for instance, teaming up with Palau as the only three countries in the UN to vote against lifting the Cuba embargo). The two countries see eye-to-eye on Iran and Iraq.

Of course, it’s not so black-and-white. There are important differences between the two countries’ foreign policy. Dissidents struggle to transform Israeli policy just as we campaign here in the United States. The two countries are not as evil as the characters Mike Myers and Verne Troyer play in the Austin Powers movies.

Some argue that it’s just a matter of time before Israel, for reasons of demography, economics, and pragmatic politics, supports a real two-state solution. Writes New York Times editorial board member David Unger, “Israel is no longer a land of self-denying pioneers. It is a consumerist democracy. Its citizens are increasingly rich, comfortable, and more interested in the individual pursuit of happiness than the ideological pursuit of Arab-inhabited territory. Under such conditions, live-and-let-live pragmatism can be counted on to eventually trump traditional Zionist ideology.”

Alas, rich and comfortable consumerism didn’t stop the United States from pursuing empire in the 20th and 21st century. Zionist ideology — the notion that redemption comes through the settlement of land — is powerful. It’s the heart of the settler state’s mythology, in Israel as in the United States.

Crisis Works Overtime

Crisis didn’t take a holiday over the last several weeks, not in Gaza, not in Pakistan or Thailand, not in the global economy.In Pakistan, FPIF contributors A.H. Nayyar and Zia Mian argue, a two-headed monster threatens the population: Islamic militants within the country such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, and those outside the country, such as the Afghan Taliban. “To truly confront the threat, the first challenge is for Pakistanis to agree that they want to live in a modern, democratic, and plural society,” they write in Pakistan and the Islamist Challenge. “Pakistan’s neighbors and the world will need to help rather than compound the problem. The threat of use of military force by India, yet more U.S. missile attacks or commando raids into Pakistan’s tribal areas, and deepening or widening the U.S. war in Afghanistan, as U.S. military leaders and President-elect Obama have proposed, will only make things worse.”

In Thailand, meanwhile, anti-government protests rocked the country in the latter part of 2008. “The December 15 selection of Oxford-educated politician Abhisit Vejjajiya — to many a thinly disguised variant of a coup d’etat — hardly offers a breather from the simmering political tensions that peaked this year,” writes FPIF contributor Johanna Son in Thailand: The Certainty of Uncertainty. “The current political balance of power is far from permanent, critics say, because this government’s legitimacy is tenuous at best.”

And the news about the global economy remains gloomy, with declining employment, capacity, sales, and hope. Progressives are calling for a “new New Deal” in the United States. Beware, warns FPIF columnist Walden Bello. For one thing, new and improved globalization will still retain many of the features of the old model. The new “global social democracy,” Bello argues in The Coming Capitalist Consensus, “assumes that people really want to be part of a functionally integrated global economy where the barriers between the national and the international have disappeared. But would they not in fact prefer to be part of economies that are subject to local control and are buffered from the vagaries of the international economy?”

A Change in Intelligence?

In the category of old wine in new bottles, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) will be heading up the Senate Committee on Intelligence in the new Congress. “Feinstein was among those who falsely claimed in 2002 — despite the lack of any apparent credible evidence — that Saddam Hussein had somehow reconstituted Iraq’s arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, as well as its nuclear weapons program,” writes FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes in Feinstein: Bad Choice for Intelligence. “She used this supposed threat to justify her vote in October 2002 to grant President George W. Bush the unprecedented authority to invade Iraq. Most congressional Democrats voted against the resolution. So it is particularly disturbing that Democrats would award the coveted Intelligence Committee chair to someone from the party’s right-wing minority.”

Similarly in Africa, we’ve seen a lot of old paternalism in new humanitarian bottles. But as FPIF contributor Mukoma Wa Ngugi writes in The Africa That Pushes Back, quite a few new African civil movements are chipping away at the continent’s problems outside the limelight: “Meet Abahlali baseMjondolo, the South African shack dwellers’ movement that has been at the forefront of organizing the residents against evictions. The work of Abahlali baseMjondolo is all the more complex because the poor from neighboring Zimbabwe and Mozambique also trickle into the poor settlements to compete for already scarce resources. When South Africans attacked other Africans in poor townships and settlements in May 2008 killing over 50 immigrants, Abahlali baseMjondolo rose to the defense of the African immigrants. They declared, ‘A human being cannot be illegal.’”

On the Lighter Side

If you’re looking to spend 257 minutes in a dark place, check out the new biopic of Che Guevara, Cuba’s most marketable revolutionary. FPIF contributor Shaun Randol offers a review of the film that praises the performance of Benicio del Toro and laments the narrative’s historical gaps. Finally, we couldn’t miss an opportunity to bid farewell to George W. Bush’s foreign policy. FPIF contributor William Hartung offers 10 reasons Why Bush Was Good for Foreign Policy (Satirists), including W’s inimitable tendency to play cowboy.

“Much as he enjoyed posturing as a cowboy, W’s ‘ranch’ was more like a suburban house with really big weeds in the back,” Hartung writes. “Foreign leaders who visited Crawford would report back that in Bush’s America the word horse is actually a synonym for ‘riding lawn mower.’ No more quick-draw presidency, circling the wagons, or high noon moments. It won’t exactly be ‘all quiet on the Western front’ with Obama, but we satirists will certainly miss the swagger.”

FPIF, January 6, 2009

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