Shifting sands of Israel/Palestine

My following talk was presented today to a full room at Harvard University:

Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government/Centre for Middle Eastern Studies
ME Forum, 24 November 2008

The Shifting Sands of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: An Australian Perspective

Antony Loewenstein

Australian Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, speaking in March this year at a United Israel Appeal fund-raiser in Melbourne, said he was “a friend of Israel” and referred to its creation in 1948 as “Australian Labor government handiwork.”

In the same month, in an unprecedented move in the country’s history, Rudd praised Israel’s democratic achievements as federal parliament commemorated Israel’s 60th anniversary and highlighted the need for an independent and economically viable Palestinian state.

The majority of parliamentarians supported the motion, but one Labor backbencher dissented. Julia Irwin could not “congratulate a nation which commits human rights abuses each day and shows blatant disregard for the UN.”

On the same day, a large advertisement appeared in the only national newspaper, signed by hundreds of Jews, Palestinians, unionists and concerned citizens, myself included, protesting the government’s obsequiousness towards the Jewish state. “Australia and Australians should not give the Israeli people and its leaders the impression that Australia supports them in their dispossession of the Palestinian people,” the Not In Our Name ad read.

For my relatively minor involvement in the protest, the leading Jewish newspaper in the country, the Australian Jewish News, labelled me the “enfant terrible of the Australian Jewish community”¦He would be well advised to leave the business of creating an alternative Jewish voice to those who at least support the existence of Israel as a viable Jewish state.”

Like many other Western countries, Australia’s Zionist establishment tolerates little dissent from uncritical support of the Jewish state. With around 100,000 Jews (and more than 300,000 Muslims out of a population of 21 million), there has long been bi-partisan agreement that Australia’s foreign policy should be directed to following Washington’s lead. Australia even wholeheartedly backed Israel’s disastrous 2006 war against Lebanon.

During the presidency of George W. Bush, former Prime Minister John Howard directed Australia to abstain in the UN General Assembly against resolutions that opposed illegal colonies in the West Bank and the application of the Geneva Convention in the Palestinian territories. We joined, alongside the US and Israel, the client states of Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands.

Prime Minister Rudd recently reversed this decision and supported the resolutions pressuring Israel to abide by international law. The Zionist establishment reacted with concern. It was a sorry sight to watch prominent Jews argue that the Jewish state should not apply the Geneva Convention in occupied territory. Israel’s “security” needs, so we were told, allowed Israel to behave as a rogue state.

Shamefully, it was reminiscent of leading American Zionist groups who remained silent during the Bush years as evidence mounted that authorities were committing torture in their name. Were they worried that critics would turn their gaze towards the abusive behaviour of Israel towards captured Palestinians?

Australia’s influence in world affairs is miniscule compared to the European powers, but Israel, despite literally being on the other side of the world, remains central to local media coverage and Jewish and Arab concerns. The Palestinian Diaspora is largely disorganised and politically impotent. The Jewish community – principally comprised of Holocaust survivors and their descendents – unhealthily affect public debate, attempting to neuter critical thinking.

Their success is decreasing, however, as evidenced by the best-seller status of my book, My Israel Question – despite attempts by the Zionist lobby to ban it and smear my publisher and me – and the ongoing profile of Independent Australian Jewish Voices (IAJV), an initiative I co-founded in 2007 to empower Jews to challenge the dominant Zionist narrative. Around 500 Jews signed in support.

I compare our actions to an insurgency against an undoubtedly stronger opponent, but one whose positions are increasingly indefensible. I sense that many Jews, especially younger ones, are deeply uncomfortable about Israel’s ever-deepening occupation of Palestinian land but remain unsure how to express those sentiments. Recent studies in America bear this theory out, showing a much weaker connection by young Jews towards the Jewish state.

Throughout the months-long coverage of the IAJV launch in 2007, the Jewish press virtually ignored any discussion of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, preferring to quote various Zionist spokespeople who mouthed the usual platitudes about a “diverse” community that “welcomed debate” and “where disagreement is king – there are no fatwas.”

The reality, of course, was far different. One letter writer to the Australian Jewish News argued: “I have a sneaking suspicion that many Jews have left the Jewish community because they are not prepared to submit to the unelected ”˜mainstream.’” Some Jews recognised that they had a primary moral responsibility not to remain silent about Israeli crimes committed in their name and on which they may have some direct effect.

Soon after the recent Australian visit of Sara Roy to Australia, the country’s leading Zionist lobby, AIJAC, wrote that, by detailing Israel’s shocking human rights record in the occupied territories, she expressed “ludicrous conspiracy theories, one-sided analysis and seeming disregard for the truth.” Roy had told a radio program that, “the occupation really is about denying people their dignity. It’s about humiliation and dehumanisation.” “Actually”, AIJAC countered, “it’s about security and accepting the Jewish right to self-determination, nothing more, and could have been over long ago had the Palestinians been willing to make peace, but I guess that’s not the paradigm Dr. Roy is interested in.”

The occupation isn’t an occupation. War is peace. George Orwell’s Doublespeak was pleased. It’s surely a sign of success that the establishment Jewish community is forced to defend an occupation that is condemned by the vast majority of the world. The national president of the Zionist Organisation of America, Morton Klein, wrote before the US presidential election that, “it is simply a flat-earth statement to describe Judea, Samaria and Gaza as occupied.” So who is really blocking the road to peace?

Away from parochial politics, however, lies the reality of the conflict on the ground in the Middle East. The facts remain startling. A report released in July by a group partly funded by the European Union found that Jews live longer and enjoy lower infant mortality and poverty rates in Israel than Arab citizens. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights released evidence in late October that Israel had already killed 68 children in Gaza this year. This report was largely ignored by the Western media, despite it claiming that Israeli forces “deliberately target unarmed civilians, including children, as part of their policy of collective punishment of the entire Palestinian civilian population.”

On Israel’s 60th anniversary, Yossi Alpher, senior advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak during the Camp David summit, wrote that the Israelis “have nothing to be ashamed of and everything to be proud of.” He acknowledged the disastrous settlement movement but divorced the ongoing existence of the Jewish state with the colonial project in the West Bank. They are in fact inseparable after decades and Israel is increasingly known globally as a brutal oppressor. A shameful Jewish legacy into the 21st century.

I’ve written and researched the Israel/Palestine conflict issue for years and yet remain surprised with the lack of information reported by the Western media. Who knew that Switzerland in mid-November accused Israel of wantonly destroying Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and near Ramallah in violation of the Geneva Conventions’ rules on military occupation? Or that Israel’s transportation minister, Shaul Mofaz, a former IDF chief of staff and defence minister, recently suggested the return of “targeted killings” for democratically elected leaders of Hamas? How about a report in Haaretz that found Defence Minister Ehud Barak has approved dozens of construction projects in the West Bank contradicting Israel’s supposed commitment to the Road Map? Or that the chairman of Hebrew University’s Arab student body was apprehended by university personnel after he refused to shake the hand of visiting President Shimon Peres after calling it a “murderer of children”? Or that the leader of Hamas in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, again said recently that his group was willing to accept a Palestinian state within 1967 borders?

All of these facts are shocking yet uncontroversial; they are daily life in the Jewish state. A haze of misinformation, outright lies and Holocaust guilt cloud this issue the world over. The occupiers are the eternal victims. Critics tell me that the Palestinians deserve their fate, led by hateful leaders.

A recent leaked Red Cross report found that Israel’s siege on Gaza was leading to a steady increase in chronic malnutrition. “Survival levels” are now the standard phrase used to describe the desperate situation, an environment only permissible with the collusion of the world powers. The World Bank recently argued that the Palestinian economy has “incredible potential” if Israel eases its stranglehold.

It was therefore ironic to read former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s recent comments, in the light of Barack Obama’s win, that he suddenly realised the severe limitations of foreign intervention in the conflict. Here was a man who actively supported the 2006 Lebanon war and Israel’s disastrous policies for years and now wanted to talk about consensus politics. On the Arab street, after his enthusiastic backing of the Iraq war, Blair is easily dismissed as simply wanting to manage the occupation, rather than ending it.

British journalist Jonathan Cook, one of the finest chroniclers of the conflict, writes from Nazareth and has attempted to explain the real reasons behind the Israeli suffocation of Hamas. He wrote last week:

“”¦According to the daily Jerusalem Post, Israeli policymakers have sought to reinforce the impression that ”˜it would be pointless for Israel to topple Hamas because the population [of Gaza] is Hamas’. On this thinking, collective punishment is warranted because there are no true civilians in Gaza. Israel is at war with every single man, woman and child.”

It is a view echoed by Haaretz journalist Amira Hass. She rightly chastises Hamas for its human rights abuses but wonders if Israeli policy towards the group is deliberately designed to bolster support, therefore justifying future military action to destroy them. Unlike virtually every other Israeli paper, Haaretz editorially supports the concept of engaging the Islamists.

I’ve long argued that Israel’s most vocal supporters imagine an Israel that doesn’t exist and never has. It’s a Zionism in their minds; noble, inspiring and humanist. Uncomfortable facts can be dismissed. Human rights abuses placed in context and defended. Anybody who challenges Zionism’s core tenets are terrorists. Terrorists, terrorists, terrorists.

Perhaps it requires a latter-day prophet such as former Speaker of the Knesset and head of the Jewish Agency, Avraham Burg, to challenge these delusions. In his latest book, The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes, he writes that Judaism has to get past its obsessive cheapening of the Holocaust to mature as a religion. Burg argues that the everyday use of the word Shoah in Israeli life has left Israel “a nation of victims.” The Jewish state must abandon its “Judaism of the ghetto” and embrace a “universal Judaism.”

It’s a provocative diagnosis by a religious Jew. As an atheist Jew myself, I’m drawn to some of Burg’s ideas because they acknowledge the damage the physical and mental occupation is doing to both Arabs and Jews. Therefore debate must go beyond “what is good for the Jews?” towards “what is good for the peoples of the region?” Arguably traditional Zionism is incapable of acknowledging the difference.

I met a group of influential left-oriented Jews in Melbourne last year. They wanted to engage with me and discuss privately my ideas. It was a depressing affair, however, as one after the other detailed their “pain” and “trauma” over the occupation, expressed dedication to a two-state solution and pledged to work towards its implementation. Publicly, with a few notable exceptions, they refused to condemn Israel’s gross violations of human rights. It was simply a bridge too far. Talking passionately amongst themselves may have made them feel good but the situation in the Middle East requires more than hand-wringing. A fear of societal exclusion held these people back while the Palestinians suffered in silence.

Militant Palestinians are only part of the problem. Radical Jews are the cancer that Israel refuses to destroy (despite Ehud Barak recently calling these settlers “cancerous growths”). The aim of these extremists is to establish a Taliban-style, rabbinical state to replace the current “secular” Israel. It may seem like a pipedream to most — not least the vast majority of Israelis who allegedly oppose the occupation project — but the attempt to uproot any major settlement blocs will incur a vicious response. A civil war between the state and radical Zionists is not unlikely in the years to come.

The world is starting to finally acknowledge the danger. The New York Times editorialised in early November that “law-breaking settlers” must be stopped. The director of Israel’s domestic security service warned that Jewish extremists could kill Israeli leaders who attempt peace with the Palestinians. Settlers routinely desecrate Muslim graveyards in the West Bank. For the Jerusalem Post, though, it is “Palestinian intransigence” that hinders peace in the West Bank, not the presence of the settlers on illegally held land. Interestingly, a number of settlers recently told the New York Times that they believed in a two-state solution and many of their friends would leave the colonies with proper compensation.

Yossi Alpher, former advisor to Ehud Barak, recently commented that, “Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination continues to symbolize the rise of the violent messianic political right in Israel. They are still among us. They still threaten everything that is dear to rational, peace-minded Israelis. Here is one area where Rabin’s successors have failed miserably.”

The September pipe bombing by Jewish radicals of Israeli historian Ze’ev Sternhell’s home in Jerusalem – a long-time critic of the settler movement – signalled a profound shift in the struggle against Israel’s internal enemies, a point powerfully made by leading peace activist Uri Avnery. “Israeli fascism is alive and kicking”, Avnery warned. “It is growing in the flowerbed that produced the various religious-nationalist underground groups of the past.” And yet the vast majority of the international Jewish Diaspora is tellingly silent on these issues, preferring to protest against Hamas “terrorism” and Iranian “provocation”.

Sternhell, even more determined to warn the world against the Jewish state’s threats, has argued since the attack against him and his family that “If Israeli society is unable to muster the courage necessary to put an end to the settlements, the settlements will put an end to the state of the Jews and will turn it into a bi-national state”.

As a believer in this solution, I don’t fear Sternhell’s thesis, but settler violence undoubtedly challenges the (long-discredited) claim that Israel is a Jewish democracy. The departing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently declared, on the 13th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, that unless the Jewish state returns occupied land, “we could lose support for a two-state solution.” Instead, he imagined a “Zionism that is practical, realistic, responsible and courageous.” Wise words, but after a lifetime of enabling the settler movement through direct action, they are devoid of meaning.

The election of Barack Obama opens a faint possibility of real change, not just the rhetorical kind. Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy echoed this sentiment, writing in early November that he hoped the new President would not be a yes-man for the status-quo in the region:

“When we say that someone is a ”˜friend of Israel’ we mean a friend of the occupation, a believer in Israel’s self-armament, a fan of its language of strength and a supporter of all its regional delusions. When we say someone is a ”˜friend of Israel’ we mean someone who will give Israel a carte blanche for any violent adventure it desires, for rejecting peace and for building in the territories.”

America’s position as a global super-power is slipping. It maintains an enviable ability to shape events across the globe, but the rise of the rest is something that should worry the Jewish state. China and India will never view Israel the same as Washington. The resurgence of Arab resistance – most potently displayed by the Hizbollah struggle against Israel in 2006 – signals a lessening fear of Israel’s military machine. Obama may even pressure the incoming Israeli government – currently looking like Likud’s Bibi Netanyahu, whose election, Gideon Levy wrote last weekend, would prove once and for all that, “an Israel that votes Likud does not want peace – no ifs, ands or buts” – to cease settlement construction and negotiate with a Hamas-Fatah leadership. We can live in hope.

I fear, however, that the dye has been cast. The occupation, in some form, will never disappear. How does a state remove nearly half a million settlers? The long-term plan of Zionism was to establish irreversible facts on the ground. On this definition, the ideology has been a raging success. The rights of the Palestinians were always secondary and remain so. Israel has mastered never-ending and never-progressing negotiations. Talks for the sake of talks, as colonies expand. The fact that the Arab League’s peace initiative has been largely ignored suggests a country that has deliberately chosen the path of confrontation. Peace is too difficult, too cumbersome, too problematic and too painful.…  A fortified ghetto appears to be Israel’s future. History has a cruel way of repeating itself.

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of the incendiary book The Israel Lobby, recently asked leading American Jewish blogger Phil Weiss that, despite polls consistently finding US citizens overwhelmingly supportive of the Jewish state, “do most Americans favour the ”˜special relationship,’ where we unconditionally give Israel abundant material aid and firm diplomatic backing?” Furthermore, both men argue, most Americans “do not believe that the US should favour Israel over the Palestinians, even if they identify more with Israel than the Palestinians.”

Any resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict will only appear with major external pressure. It is difficult to see this happening any time soon.