Thursday, July 20, 2006

Israel and Its Discontents

Israel rains bombs on Lebanon. Calls come from Israel's putative friends calling for restraint. Calls come from Israel's enemies calling the IDF murderers.


Change the targets of Israel's response and this is the dynamic that has pervaded Middle East politics for decades. Israel responds to attacks against it and then is branded as problematic or worse because Israel is stronger than its enemies. And so it goes.


It might be worth pointing out that Hezbollah has been operating from southern Lebanon for years now, and that it is true that the Lebanese are to a large extent hostage to their own weakness. Hezbollah receives its support from Iran and especially from Syria, the country that really ought to be seen as the enforcing rod of any axis of evil that may exist. Most in Lebanon would as soon rid themselves of the Hezbollah problem. They wish Hezbollah would disappear. But my high school football coach had a phrase that he periodically invoked whenever someone whinged about this or that: "Wish in one hand and shit in the other, and guess which one will fill up faster?" Israel cannot respond to Lebanon's champagne dreams and caviar wishes. Israel has to respond to the realities on the ground. The realities on the ground are that Hezbollah, based in southern Lebanon, has lobbed bombs into Israel, including the port city of Haifa, and has kidnapped Israel's soldiers. Israel has a responsibility to its people and a right to respond. That Israel is stronger than its enemies is of no moment.


This is one of the more vexing aspects of Israel's relationships with its neighbors and in particular with the Palestinians. Israel is the stronger force. Thus when attacked, the odds are that the response will be overwhelming. So it is a fools errand to point out that in the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Israelis kill and wound more than do those who instigate the attacks. Now I suppose fools have to run errands too, but this reality does not change the facts on the ground. If you throw a punch at someone stronger than you, don't be surprised when you get the snot kicked out of you. And don't then run to the principal and claim that you were bullied: You threw the first punch. That you couldn't back it up is probably something you should have thought through beforehand. Unfortunately, school principals, like Israel's critics, only see the blood; they rarely see what caused the bloodshed.


Those who are calling for Israel's restraint are not without virtue. Too often Israel reacts in ways that only hurts its cause. In the Gaza Strip and occasionally in the West Bank Israel's actions frequently appear indescriminate, arbitrary, and for all of the force applied, even ineffectual. Israel has more than its share of civil rights problems. But Israel's critics seem to forget the virtual state of siege under which Israel has lived since its inception. Just two decades after the Shoah, Israel was inclined to take seriously calls to drive it into the sea, as happened in 1967, accompanied by the amassing of enemy troops on its borders. Israel responded, as was its right, and in so doing overwhelmed those who were prepared to vocalize their desire to eradicate Israel but were impotent to follow through. In six days Israel won the war effectively declared against it. The price in blood and treasure? Gaza and the West Bank, inter alia. Palestinain territories? Not quite. In May of 1967 Gaza was part of Egypt. West Bank was part of Jordan. Jordan and Egypt were two of the powers who had lined their troops in hopes of pushing the Jews into the Mediteranean. Neither had, up until that point, been engaged in discussions of ceding thier lands for the Palestinian State that only after Gaza and West Bank had been lost in the most humiliating of fashions. (Six days! Driven into the sea indeed.)


Since then, many individuals and many bodies, both supporters and enemies of Israel, have called for withdrawal from territories. Just how much withdrawal there would be was up for debate. Meanwhile successive Israeli governments made the decision to install settlements in the territories, settlement that inevitably was seen as provocative, settlements that many of Israel's supporters, myself included, have thought were a bad idea. Which is why many of us have cheered the removal of settlements in Gaza and wish for the same in the West Bank. Israel won these territories in a war declared against it, but nonetheless, having the right to do something does not always make it right, and beyond that, for Israel's own peace, it must concede territories won. But of course now, when Israel has done precisely what it had been scolded to do for years, Israel is accused of acting "unilaterally," as if there was a viable multilateral partner.


Furthermore, supporting Israel does not mean opposing a Palestinian state, even if Israel's neighbors never saw fit to move toward establishing such a state, except in their grim and murderous dreams of imposing such a state on the skeletal remains of the Jews they hoped to destroy. I have long supported a two-state solution. Overwhelmingly those hopes have foundered on the shoals of Palestinian intransigence. Or need we remind readers of the Oslo agreements? At one point the Palestinians could have had more than 95% of the territories. The exchange? To forswear slaughtering Israel's children. Yassir Arafat (and right-wing Israelis) chose slaughter. Eventually Ariel Sharon chose provocation. And soon enough Palestinians chose to murder thousands of Jews because a member of the Israeli government visited Temple Mount. Someone was saying something about proportionality? Please.


(As a side note, remind me of why Oslo II passed in Israel despite the opposition of a majority of Jews in the Knesset? Ahh, yes, because of the Arab members of that body. Please tell me of a neighboring state that allows Jews the same representation. Wait, that bar is set impossibly high -- please tell me of a neighboring state that allows Arabs comparable seats at the table in a representative democracy. I admit, my thumb is on the scale -- there isn't such a state! Yet Israel is the target of so much wrath. Peculiar.)


And so here we are, defenders of Israel, most of us with a record criticizing Israel while supporting it, and criticizing it in ways that would simply not be allowed were we to ask for the same right to criticize, say, the Syrian government in Syria. (Of course with an Israeli stamp on my passport, I would not even be allowed into Syria.) People who clearly have no grasp on Israel's politics call all of us "Likudniks," as if Labour governments had not for decades supported the fundamental principle of Israel to exist as a secular, liberal, Jewish state free of being driven to the sea. It's an odd thing from which to hope to be free. But this is the state of politics in the Middle East. The country that fears being eradicated by enemies who have proclaimed loudly and frequently precisely that exact goal is told it must act with restraint in the face of wars declared against it. This is the stuff of absurdist farce, were the consequences not so very real.

22 comments:

Abhinav Aima said...
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Abhinav Aima said...
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Abhinav Aima said...
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dcat said...

Abhinav --
Your points are certainly valid ones. Which you might have acknowledged by the fact that in my post I wrote the following:

"Those who are calling for Israel's restraint are not without virtue. Too often Israel reacts in ways that only hurts its cause. In the Gaza Strip and occasionally in the West Bank Israel's actions frequently appear indescriminate, arbitrary, and for all of the force applied, even ineffectual. Israel has more than its share of civil rights problems. But Israel's critics seem to forget the virtual state of siege under which Israel has lived since its inception."

I'm not sure why we should wait a week. Why not a month? A year? Surely you are not granting Bush the insight in the Middle east to know that a week is the right amount of time. Seems rather arbitrary to me -- Hezbollah has been in place in Southern Lebanon for a lot longer than that. And they have been entrenched with malice aforethought. An arbitrary timeline drawn by someone whose feel for the Middle East is, shall we say, deficient, seems a recipe for disaster.

I agree with your cynicism in terms of whether this is all going to work out, albeit obviously with different loyalties. I have written in several places (including an op-ed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2003) that i am skeptical of whether any of the various plans dujour had any likelihood of sticking. I just don't think that arbitrary pronouncements are the way to go.

dcat

dcat said...

Abhinav -- re: your second post --

Who says that just because I am a historian I am not allowed to use various rhetorical tools? What is with this inane misrepresentation of history as merely the chronicling of facts?

Israeli dead since 2000: Actually, you are right -- there have been about 8000 casualities. Only about 1200-1800 dead. Huzzah for you. As for the deaths of Palestinians, that was the gist of my entire post. Do you not read these things? Seriously -- the whole point is that when one side instigates violence, they should not be surprised if it comes back on them when they have attacked a stronger foe. So you got me -- not thousands of dead -- merely hundreds, with thousands wounded. But let's look at what I actually wrote, not your misreading of it: "Palestinians chose to murder thousands of Jews." Are you really saying that they only chose to kill the ones they killed, and that the ones they injured in attacks in which others were killed were only targeted for injury? Are the Palestinians that adept at precision attacks? No -- they chose to kill thousands. In you mind they have "only" killed several hundred. I suppose that says more about you than it does about me.

Again, your silly assertion that any discussion is merely about facts (shall I cite some of your jucier contributions to this discussion in the last post?) and that one has no right to infuse emotion seriously makes me wonder what kind of writer you think is good and effective.

But I love how you have set up this little self-congratulatory syllogism: others are subjective and emotional; you are objective and rational. I'll note that your comments last week were so intemperate that you deleted them rather than let them stand in the historical record. I see that you've only chosen to give us slective access to the discussion. I did not realize that journalistic objectivity included destroying evidence. Then again, some evidence is probably best destroyed.

I am a historian; I am not only a historian. I am also a writer who comments on a host of issues, one of them being the conflicts with which Israel deals on a regular basis. If you do not like emotion in writing or in presentation, that is too bad. I have to wonder what you read that is always so objective.

dcat

Abhinav Aima said...
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Abhinav Aima said...
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dcat said...

I think we are actually crossing messages now which makes this a jumble for others to read, I am sure.

I think I've been clear in the past that FDD, while supportive of Israel, covers a range of ideologies -- yes, there are conservatives. There are also liberals. You try on the one hand to disavow emotion, then you label folks as Likudniks -- that's fine as far as it goes, but pick one -- cold and clinical just the facts or allowing for a certain level of emotion.
Of course Arabs in Israel have it bad -- Israel has, as I wrote, serious civil rights issues to deal with. And if palestinians and their handmaidens would cease trying to slaughter innocents, it would be a lot easier to make liberal and democratic Israel get to grips with its serious problems on that front. As long as it is under siege, however, that accounting will never happen.

Of course there is huge variety in Israel's politics. And the way things manifest, the more Israel feels under siege, the more the electorate tilts right. The more peace reigns, the more the left is ascendant.

Am I wholly uncomfortable with what Israel is doing now? Of course not. But long ago Syria and Iran chose to support a group dedicated to Israel's demise. lebanon proved unwilling or unable to stand against them. As a consequence, as things have escalated, Israel had to react.

I am going to back off for a while as the temperature appears to be rising, and not just because it is 102 degreees in west texas today. I'll weigh in again tomorrow.

Cheers, and no hard feelings -- that beer sounds good.

dcat

Abhinav Aima said...
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greg said...

You both are adding light to the situation for those of us who are less than enlightened to the multitude of issues at stake in the current conflict. Thanks.

Abhinav Aima said...
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montana urban legend said...

Abhinav, I can't for the life of all this understand how on your blog you can uncritically report claims supposedly supported by Hizbollah (Party of God) that this conflict started any time before Israel withdrew completely from Lebanon in 2000 - (except for Shebaa Farms, which is a weak pretext and was used before). 1985? Seriously? Do you really think it's reasonable that Israel's withdrawal - in force for six years - shouldn't have been seen as a sincere end on their part to any provocation? Amassing arms from Iran and strengthening infrastructure all the while with the IDF cautiously watching every move and listening to every needless threat from across a U.N.-recognized boundary...

Implied historical memory is no excuse for not accounting for current realities. I think you know that this is Iran's proxy war (likely timed to distract from condemning their nuclear playtime activities at the G-8 summit), and tilting it through the bizarre lens of The Party of God's seemingly never-ending list of possible grievances just doesn't seem to clarify anything.

Abhinav Aima said...
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Abhinav Aima said...
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montana urban legend said...

Party of God's support base may be Lebanese Shiites, but that doesn't mean their military "adventurism" (to quote the Saudi King) wasn't coordinated by Iran. Even if many of the Lebanese Shiites think it's great fun anyway.

It should be clear that I'm not aiming for a clear-cut right or wrong view of the conflict - which is necessary to avoid in order to understand the decisions of all involved. But abject moral relativism (which I think is the opposite of how you meant it) is also a perspective I don't see - as an observer, rather than a journalist - as ultimately helpful. Preponderant claims, sure - I'll endorse those. Absolute claims? I'm not making those. Absolute moral relativism implies that neither side can ever objectively be right or wrong, even to varying degrees, as long as their view alone defines rightness and wrongness as they see it. That is one way to make sure conflict never ends. Understanding a current mindset doesn't mean that mindset need not be transcended. Nor does it mean any given mindset necessarily should be transcended. Combining objectivity with subjective perceptions is what I'm aiming for. When those subjective perceptions start rejoicing at the killing, rather than expressing regret, than I start to think that the differences in intentions between the respective sides involved ought to be better scrutinized.

I think Israel, as wary as it is of an extended ground-presence/occupation - perhaps due to lessons learned from doing so before, is equally wary of condoning an incredibly disproportionate prisoner-hostage swap business. Just because it valued the lives of its hostages enough to trade their release for hundreds or thousands of prisoners before, doesn't mean that it doesn't believe it has thereby erroneously encouraged hostage taking as an ongoing operation due to the precedent-setting quantitative differences in these exchanges. Plus Israel can't threaten its prisoners with the death penalty - and certainly not with a short term policy goal on behalf of the other side in mind, in contrast to the standard practices of its enemies.

montana urban legend said...

Re your second post: So now your explorations into the Hizbullah mindset make you a better spokesperson for how to ensure Israel's interests? I'm not sure I see the connection.

You'd better believe that if groups inside of Pakistan were massing along its border with India and firing missiles into it, or if groups in Kurdistan were firing missilies into Turkey, both attacked countries would not stand for it, and would not rule out incursions in an attempt to take action over what the offending country claimed negligence over.

I think those calling the shots in Israel understand that this is weakening Lebanon, and that it is unfortunate but preferable to not neutralizing Hizbullah while the opportunity is available.

Abhinav Aima said...
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montana urban legend said...

I'm taking a time out right now to get some beers myself. No drinking and posting. Later.

Abhinav Aima said...
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dcat said...

OK --
Just a few comments:

There are several issues going on here -- the question of proportionality, which I feel I more than addressed in the original post.

There is also the question, floating around several of the comments, of whether Lebanon is a victim. In a sense I sympathize with Lebanon. But I sympathize with them because of their ineffectualness. I tend to think that, as I have said earlier, the lebanese on the whole would like to wash their hands of Hezbollah (see my wishing versus pooping analogy if you wonder why). But the fact remains that they have not. And frankly I am not convinced that it has not been in lebanon's interest to either turn a blind eye or even quietly to support Hezbollah's role on the border.
Abhinav may well be right -- Israel's attacks on Lebanon may be too much and may not prove effective at acomplishing their goals, though my sense is that Israel has made the decision to rid itself of the constant threat that is Hezbollah and that if need be they are willing, even trying, to provoke a response from Iran and Syria, Hezbollah's noxious benefactors.
From Israel's vantage point, Hezbollah are the bad guys. But to wave off any sense of moral ralativism (or moral relativity, which I'm afraid I am grappling with as a concept) I am going to maintain that hezbollah are bad guys, period. I suppose my chilling experience of being at an Israeli border post and peering literally into the eyes of Hezbollah members peering back at me and knowing what would likely happen if those people just a few dozen meters away got ahold of me had its affect. Hezbollah is a threat to Israel; Hezbollah began to act in ways to demonstrate that threat; Israel reacted. That is their right. That Lebanon is either too weak or finds their uncomfortable relationship to bear some fruit is unfortunate for them. But it is not Israel's problem. Enemies at the gates are enemies at the gates.
I do wonder about bombing the bejesus out of the Beirut airport. I do wonder generally about bringing the war to Beirut at all. But i am also no military tactician, so I am going to hold judgment for now.
As for me being a "likudnik," I must admit, I had forgotten about that exchange back in 2003. Fire away, Abhinav, in that case -- as long as it is tongue in cheek it's fine, but you do have to understand that that term is thrown around indiscriminantly without your finely tuned sense of irony or your understanding of the Middle East. Most people who use that term honestly have no idea what it means and what the political dynamics are in Israel.
Greg -- Damn. I wanted heat, not light. Heat, dammit!

cheers --
dc

Abhinav Aima said...
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dcat said...

Abhinav --
Surely you see a difference in legitimacy between the IDF in Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. But of course -- for Palestinian/Lebanese civilians caught in the middle, I'm sure those Israeli gun towers that I stood in are not necassarily a symbol of Israeli virtue. Of course from Israel's vantage point the important thing is that they be seen as a symbol of Israeli strength.

cheers --
dcat