Israel (can never) win this war of ideas

The following editorial appears in today’s Australian newspaper:

Advocates for the Jewish state must use reason, not emotion… 

The latest battles in the 60-year struggle in the Middle East seem to be going well for Israel. But the Israelis are also fighting on another front, one where victory is essential to their state’s survival – the battlefield of ideas, where Israel’s victories are far fewer and increasingly pyrrhic. In the 30 years since the apex of international support for Israel in 1967, when the beleaguered state won a war of survival against an axis of states committed to its extermination, the Israelis have become increasing victims of two paradoxes. The more military victories they win in the national defence the more they are treated in the West as an aggressor that lives to fight. And the more forcefully Israelis present the case for their own survival the more they are seen as intellectual, as well as military, bullies. Earlier this year American academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published a long essay arguing that the United States’ alliance with Israel was no longer in their nation’s interest. Support for Israel, they claimed, had so enraged the Islamic world that the security of the US, and the West in general, was at risk. And one of the main reasons Israel was protected was because of the power of its propagandists in domestic American politics. It was not an especially convincing argument, reducing Israel’s existence to a cynical realpolitic reckoning of American self-interest. But Mearsheimer and Walt’s suggestions were strengthened by the extraordinary ire their arguments incurred from American allies of Israel.

We saw the same situation writ small on Wednesday night when commentator Antony Loewenstein debated Ted Lapkin from the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council on ABC TV’s Lateline. Much of Mr Loewenstein’s argument was based on emotion rather than analysis. He argued as if Israel were a garrison state addicted to the use of force far in excess of what is required for its national defence. On the basis of what he said on Wednesday night many of Mr Loewenstein’s opinions are reflective of an ill-informed youthful Jewish guilt. But instead of respectfully rebutting his claims exclusively on the basis of facts Mr Lapkin went in hard. He suggested Mr Loewenstein wanted Israel to stop bombing the transport system in the south of Lebanon so “it would be easier for Hezbollah to be re-supplied with rockets” and called Mr Loewenstein part of “the pro-Hezbollah cheer squad”.

Rather than badgering opponents and scoring debating points, supporters of Israel would do far better to calmly deploy an arsenal of facts. Israel, despite being a tiny country surrounded by Arab states who would happily – and on more than one occasion have tried – to push it into the sea, has historically sought peace with its neighbours and only fought to defend itself. The present conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon was not a fight of Israel’s choosing; in fact, Israel had pulled out from Lebanon in 2000 only to see the Iranian and Syrian-backed terrorist group regroup on its northern border. Certainly anyone with a heart will have compassion for the civilians killed in the current conflict with Hezbollah on both sides. Yet the outrage about the accidental wartime deaths of Lebanese children seems to far outweigh that felt for Israeli youth deliberately targeted by suicide bombers in calculated acts of murder. Likewise in the occupied territories, Israel has repeatedly sought to arrive at some sort of accomodation with the Palestinians. Yet it was Israel’s reputation that was sullied during the first Intifada of 1987 to 1993 when images of Arab youths hurling stones at tanks were beamed around the world. But when the collapse of the Soviet Union cut off aid from Moscow the Palestinian leadership was finally forced to the peace table. This led to the signing of the Oslo Accords and the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn. The tragedy is that this promise of peace was false. Since its founding in 1948 Israel has repeatedly faced down hostile enemies who still view its founding as a naqba, or catastrophe. This was shown most dramatically during 1967’s Six Day War. Having been subjected to weeks of threats and surrounded by the mobilised armies of Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan, Israel took the initiative and decimated its enemies’ military capabilities. And even though every honest accounting of the war acknowledges Israel was facing overwhelming odds, many in the West see it as an act of Jewish aggression. Israel only occupied land to the east of the cease fire line of 1949 because it was in the process of fighting a defensive war. But the obligation to seek peace is not an obligation to commit national suicide. Who could reasonably expect Israel, a country that is at places just nine miles wide, to withdraw from such defensive buffers in the face of states that have already proven their desire to do it harm? In any case, Arab countries have proved more than happy to delay solutions to the problem of the occupied territories to provide them with a continuing source of propaganda. Soon after Oslo the murder of Israel’s peace making prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish fanatic in 1995 removed one of the strongest advocates for compromise with the Palestinians, as did repeated violations of the Oslo understanding by the Palestinians. By the mid- to late-1990s suicide bomb belts had replaced rocks as the Palestinian weapon of choice. And Yasser Arafat would prove to be nothing but a disaster. Through all of this the Israelis explicitly voted to give land back to the Palestinians in a quest to acheive peace – a very rare act in the history of the world. Events would come to a head with the start of the second Intifada in late 2000, triggered, some say incited, by a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to a mosque within the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem. Arab Israelis rioted, and in the West Bank town of Ramallah two Israeli reservists were arrested and lynched in a local Palestinian police station. In the years that followed suicide bombings would take hundreds of lives in Israel. Yet in 2004 Mr Sharon, the most hawkish of Israeli hawks, finally saw a way to make peace by evacuating the Gaza Strip and withdrawing from parts of the West Bank and leaving the Palestinians to run both areas. But once again the hope of peace was betrayed when the Hamas terrorist militia kidnapped an Israeli soldier last month. The terrorists acted in an attempt to derail the possibility of a Palestinian vote on peace with Israel that could have gone against them. This fits a long pattern. For decades, first under a secular leadership and now under a more Islamicised one, every chance for peace has been scotched by a new atrocity committed by a Palestinian or Arab group determined to instead make war. And now Hezbollah has followed them into the fray, with attacks on Israel from the north. This is the long and complex story Israel’s enemies do not want told, instead preferring the narrative of displacement and victimisation that is so commonly heard in the West.

However many battles the Israelis win their sixty year struggle for survival will never end unless they achieve their objectives in the war of ideas. Yet on this fiercely contested front the fighting is not going Israel’s way. The fact is that many people like Mr Loewenstein, young and old alike, are simply unaware of the history of aggression Israel has faced and are naive about the nature of that country’s enemies. Israel’s foes have become adept at working the press and releasing footage of dead civilians. The assumption of many in the media that there is something suspicious about a democracy that fights, rather than appeases its enemies, makes it easy for the ignorant and the anti-Semitic to paint Israel as an aggressor. To counter this individuals like Mr Lapkin, and all who support Israel’s right to exist, need to make the case with calm reason and lay out the facts, from the 1967 war through the Camp David and Oslo accords and Yasser Arafat’s benighted and corrupt leadership. Also worth mentioning are Ehud Barak’s eagerness to sign a peace deal that would have given the Palestinians 95 per cent of their stated desires and which was still rejected by Mr Arafat. Such reasoning would go a long way to counter the opportunists who have especially emerged since September 11 we have seen more opportunists emerge, with arguments the Holocaust is now so distant that the West’s moral debt to Israel is cancelled and that the risk of terror attack makes the price of supporting the Jewish state too high. Paul Sheehan put it precisely in the Sydney Morning Herald when he wrote last week, “The moral legacy of the Holocaust has now passed into history” and concluded that “the combustible policies of the Israeli Government have become a danger to Australia and Australians everywhere”. Mr Sheehan misses the point. The Islamic terrorists he fears hate Hindus and Christians_ and also Muslims who adhere to different doctrines – as much as they do Jews. And by indiscriminately targeting transport in cities all over the world terrorists demonstrate they do not care who they kill. Like Mr Loewenstein, Mr Sheehan’s emotions shape his argument. But this does not mean they can be dismissed with debating tricks, or shouted down. Because every time this happens some Australians question whether the right is on Israel’s side. This is disastrous, because now more than ever Israel needs all the friends it can get.

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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