The unfolding tragedy of Israel/Palestine

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It has been a terrible few weeks in Israel and Gaza. My Facebook account is full of people condemning Israel’s bombardment. A lesser number of commenters try to defend Israel’s actions. I am not planning to join this chorus of condemnation. I want to take a step back and look at what is happening, and ask where it is all heading.

What about me? I am not Jewish. I had a lot of Jewish friends at school in the 1970s, where I was highly sympathetic to Israel. In 1979 I volunteered for a few weeks at a kibbutz on the border with the Gaza strip, and took the opportunity to visit the city. I have friends who are both Jewish and Muslim, and I like to see the best in both traditions. In this drama I have identified more easily with the Israelis, who seem to be people more like us, than with the Palestinians and their tendency towards darker versions of the Islamic faith. And that, more than anything is why this post examines the actions and evolution of the Israeli state rather than its aggressors.

It seems to me that Israeli policy has three foundations: the primacy of force; identity with the West; and permanent ambiguity over resolution. Until now, this has been very successful, whatever one thinks of the morality. But it is looking less and less sustainable over the long term.

Might is right – the legacy of the great betrayal

Let’s start with the primacy of force. In Europe, after generations of appalling wars and murderous dictatorships, we are hardwired to think of the  peaceful resolution of problems, using the rule of an emerging international law. We believe that it is always better to try and build long term relationships based on trust, and respect legal principles in spirit as well as letter. Failed military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan reinforce this prejudice. It is easy enough to challenge this bias as naïve. When we bump into countries that play to different rules, like Russia, we find ourselves relying on America.  But the feeling runs deep – and we are internally consistent. When the IRA started to bomb London, we did not send assassination squads in to kill Gerry Adams or Martin McGuiness, still less send in the RAF to bomb Sinn Fein premises in Dublin. We did use military force, but we agonised of its propriety, legality and proportionality.

Israelis have never shared this European bias, drawing different conclusions from the same historical events. To them the overwhelming sense from European history is betrayal. Jews trusted the non-Jewish mainstream in the 18th and 19th Centuries, when so many of them integrated into mainstream society, and trusted to the basic principles of a civilised, rules-bound society. They were betrayed. By the Russians, the Germans – and in different degrees by almost everybody else. Jews were dispensable when the going got rough.

And so, after the War and the Holocaust, the Zionists said “Never Again”. To them that meant self-reliance, and a prejudice to use military power when they had it to protect themselves. Legal principles could be used when convenient, and ignored or bent when not. I need to be very careful here; Jews, including Zionists, are as keen as anybody to support societies based on the rule of law, and in Israel non-Jews have effective legal protections which far exceed those of neighbouring societies. But in Israel the primacy of law seems to have been trumped when it comes to what they see as the existential interests of the national as a whole. [The italicised section replaces a piece of sloppy writing which understandably created offence in the original] The Israelis never trusted the international community in the UN partition in  1948, and simply took what they were able to – under attack from the Arab powers. And so it has gone on.

Back in the 1970s this looked plucky, as Israel “created facts” that the ponderous international community had to put up with and negotiate on. But after the country established complete military supremacy, it took on a more sinister aspect. Assassination continued to be part of national policy; reprisals became increasingly disproportionate. The use of force seems to have replaced all other ways of solving security problems. This doesn’t just take the form of occasional violence, but it also means placing physical constraints on Palestinian communities in Gaza and the West Bank – walls, checkpoints, economic restrictions. To Israelis these are simply pragmatic solutions to a security problem. To others it looks much more sinister.

“People like us” – the West’s front line

The second foundation of Israeli policy is relentless propaganda in the Western democracies, in Europe and America. From this they have forged a massively important military alliance with the U.S., which supplies it with weapons and logistical support. The central tenet of this propaganda is that Israel is part of the extended family of Judaeo-Christian peoples (an adjective probably invented for the purpose) – part of a great “Us”. This is placed in contrast to the hostile and foreign Arab states that surround it, who were at first portrayed as allies of the Soviet Union, and then part of the Muslim terrorist threat – but always an alien “Them”. This has some grounding in truth. Israelis, by and large, are much closer to us in values and institutions than the Arab countries. These have never been proper democracies – and as their peoples are increasingly attracted to fundamentalist visions of the Islamic faith, they become even more alien to us. Israel is presented as a “bulwark” against this alien world.

The propaganda machine has been relentless in its efficiency, supported by Jewish communities embedded in European and  American societies. Critics of Israel are accused of anti-Semitism, and are driven to the fringes of mainstream media and political discourse. “What would you do?” Israeli spokesmen ask – presenting their country’s reactions as a proportionate response to a security threat. Over time its targets might feel the messages are bit like those of a spoilt child. Everything is always somebody else’s fault. You believe them the first few times, but the inhuman monotony of the message leads to scepticism. Also the refusal to engage in serious strategic reasoning or any concept of unintended consequences is wearying.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating – and success of this messaging in America is quite staggering. It helps that many Americans don’t share Europeans’ distaste for the use of force. And while Americans are more attached than most to the rule of law – it is only American law that they really respect. International law is viewed with suspicion.

Permanent ambiguity

It is natural for policy makers to look at Israel’s situation of tension with its Palestinian population, and the world in general, and look for some kind of long term resolution. There are basically only two open to respectable policymakers: the single state and the two state solutions. In the former, the Occupied Territories are incorporated into the Israeli state, and their Arab residents are accepted as full citizens. In the second, the territories are divided, with a Jewish Israel and an Arab Palestine. Neither solution is acceptable to the Israelis. In the first case the status of Israel as a Jewish homeland comes under threat – and besides the legacy of war and mistrust presents an insuperably obstacle. I can’t think of a successful case of two such different but numerically equivalent peoples coming together in a single successful polity. But the two state solution is little better in most Israelis’ eyes. No division will satisfy the Arab hotheads, and the two states would drift into a state of mutual hostility and war. To most Israelis, the withdrawal from Gaza has proved the point – it has made the security situation worse, not better. And we haven’t even mentioned dividing Jerusalem or recognising refugee rights – which could lead to rebellion and armed conflict within Israel itself.

So the solution for the Israeli state is to maintain the current ambiguous status quo, where most Palestinians are effectively stateless, and where Israel remains in effective control of the territory. Peace plans come and go; it is not difficult to play along with them and sabotage them in due course, with the Arabs taking the blame. Meanwhile settlement of the West Bank by Jewish communities slowly but relentlessly continues. This is not good for the Palestinians, but that is simply not a factor that weighs in the calculations.

Israel’s critics often complain that the country has lots of tactics but no strategy – that they win battles but lose the war. But Israel’s leaders are a clever bunch, and they are advised by even cleverer people (including top game theorists) – and they are focusing on an existential problem. (The word “existential” comes up a lot in Israeli discourse – no doubt to distinguish their debates from the dining table discussions of Western liberals). They have simply decided that the best long-term solution is to have no long-term solution.

And things fall apart

Israel’s strategy had seemed to be working fine until quite recently. Israeli citizens continued a normal, suburban life without too much disturbance. The progressive collapse of neighbouring Arab states reduced the threat from that quarter. The security measures against terrorists seemed be doing their job. But now the pressure on Israel’s grand strategy is growing.

First, living with and containing the threat looks much more difficult than expected. The strength of Hamas is a bit of a shock: not just the sheer quantity of rockets that they managed to build up under the blockade, and keep using under threat – but the discovery of so many tunnels to aid future attacks. Instead of responding to Israel’s punitive tactics by abandoning terrorism, Israeli pressure has made their enemy more resourceful. And the civilians seem to feel they have nothing to lose by giving them tacit support. They do not believe that Israel will ever reward better behaviour. Israel are not the only ones to take on the logic of an existential war, where the ways of violence must take precedence. Israel’s operation may have secured Gaza for the time being – but at a greater cost in Israeli military lives than the threat warranted. Can they really keep on doing this every two or three years? And what if West Bank and Israeli Arabs start to take up the cause? Another problem is that dismantling the Hamas organisation, even if it is possible, only presents the threat of its replacement with more extreme and fragmented versions of it.

Second the propaganda offensive is losing its effectiveness. There are two problems. The first is specific to Europe. Many European countries now have significant Muslim populations, whose political weight is growing, and who the political mainstream are trying to integrate rather than isolate. These Muslims are taking Israel’s actions in Gaza as a rallying point, and uncommitted liberals are joining in, glad find an issue where they can build bridges. Unfortunately for the Israelis, appealing to this Muslim audience is much harder than the mainstream one, and they are making no serious effort. Indeed, victims of their own propaganda, they tend to see these people as part of the great “Them”. Europeans appreciate the threat of Islamic extremism – but Israel looks more and more to be part of the problem and not the solution. Talk of it as a “bulwark” seems nonsensical.

The second problem arises from the freedom of social media, which is increasingly how younger people get their news. It has proved impossible for the Israeli machine to muzzle or counter the sheer volume of unhelpful comment. Worse yet, angry posts by Israelis and their supporters wishing ill to all Palestinians get an airing, undermining the country’s carefully crafted image of injured innocence. Israel is losing the propaganda war amongst the young, even in America. And even Jewish citizens are questioning Israel’s actions. Politicians in Britain are much freer to criticise Israeli policy than at any time I can remember.

Where is this going?

So if Israel will need a new strategy, what might this be? The first thing that we can rule out is a move towards some flavour of peaceful reconciliation, in two or one state flavours, beloved of Western liberals. The opportunity for this has passed. Israel may be losing the propaganda war with the public in the West, but it commands the overwhelming support of its own public. Remember that these are no longer largely made up of European exiles – but of refugees from places with no record of liberal values (Russia, Syria, Iraq and so on), or who have grown up in Israel itself in a state of siege. The first pillar of Israeli strategy, reliance on force, is going to stay firmly in place.

But Israel may look for new allies who have fewer scruples. They are losing European nations; America may start to become more reticent. But there are alternative partners outside the West. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) are notably pragmatic in their outlook, and surely open to military and technological cooperation. Russia, China and India are also open to “robust” policies to tackle Muslim extremism. Israel’s attack on Gaza is a picnic compared to Russia’s suppression of Chechnya, after all. Israel has to tread carefully, as the quickest way of ending the US alliance would be for Israel to sell its military secrets to these emerging powers. But the opportunity is there. Israel may become less appealing to Western liberals, but they matter less in the new multi-polar world.

And that brings with it the possibility of some kind of final solution to the Arab problem: annexation of the occupied territories and expulsion of the Arabs living there. So far outside commentators have viewed this possibility as unthinkable, even for Israelis. But a growing body of Israeli opinion openly advocates it, and doubtless the rest is persuadable. And who will stop them and how? I can’t see this happening soon, and doubtless it will require further provocation from the Arab side. But if Israel can’t live with the Arabs, it will live without them. As chaos overwhelms Syria and Iraq, and Russia gets away with annexing Crimea and arming Ukrainian rebels, this solution starts to look less outlandish. This does not look like a world where liberal norms apply.

What can we do about it?

We probably cannot do much more about this than to watch and cry. But there is some value in Western liberals saying what we think the way forward should be, even if nobody outside our own societies is listening. We must show our belief in a better way.

The first thing we need to say is the Palestinians should drop their obsession with weapons and armed resistance. This just makes Israel’s final solution possible – and nobody is coming to their aid. They need to develop a line of peaceful, passive resistance and take the moral high ground. This may look hopeless, but so is the attempt to use terrorism to create a negotiating position. Negotiations need trust, and everything Hamas has done has undermined potential trust. If only they had maintained peaceful coexistence after the Israeli withdrawal, the two state solution might have seemed feasible.

We also need to slowly isolate Israel if it continues to use excessive violence to gain its objectives. We need to call for a progressive easing of living conditions for Palestinians, and to urge progress towards a two state solution. But we should reserve complete isolation for the event that Israel starts mass expulsions of Arabs from the Occupied Territories.

But darker forces are driving both Israel and the Arabs, and they are in no mood to listen to Western liberals. I have used the word “tragedy” in my title because events are taking the shape of those great tragic dramas of Shakespeare or Sophocles. Opportunities for reconciliation are missed as human emotions and miscalculations take events through to an outcome that nobody wants. Everybody is right. Everybody is wrong.

In due course, we can only hope that, like the European nations before them, the peoples of the Middle East will tire of endless violence and seek a better way. But things will get worse first.


7 thoughts on “The unfolding tragedy of Israel/Palestine”

  1. I was interested to read this piece and my comments below are meant constructively.

    You write: “When the IRA started to bomb London, we did not send assassination squads in to kill Gerry Adams or Martin McGuiness, still less send in the RAF to bomb Sinn Fein premises in Dublin. We did use military force, but we agonised of its propriety, legality and proportionality.” Panorama recently reported on undercover British hit squads accused of killing civilians in Northern Ireland. And British forces are part of a coalition that has (inadvertently, in the process of trying to hit legitimate military targets) killed thousands of civilians in Afghanistan, just as Israel has killed civilians in similar circumstances in Gaza.

    You write: “And so, after the War and the Holocaust, the Zionists said “Never Again”. To them that meant self-reliance, and a prejudice to use military power when they had it to protect themselves. Legal principles could be used when convenient, and ignored or bent when not.” Actually Jews, responding to the Holocaust by seeking to create a framework of international law, were among the principal authors of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. You could say the same about the Jews who created Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

    You write that Jews are “sticklers for the rule of law amongst themselves. But when it comes to dealing with outsiders that is different.” That is uncomfortably close to the false and negative stereotype of Judaism as a ‘pedantic, legalistic’ faith; it also comes uncomfortably close to the false and negative stereotype of Jews having one law for fellow Jews and another law for non-Jews.

    You write that, since the 1970s: “The use of force seems to have replaced all other ways of solving security problems.” This ignores Israel’s successful conclusion peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, among other things.

    You write: “The second foundation of Israeli policy is relentless propaganda in the Western democracies, in Europe and America.” You think that there is no propaganda for the pro-Palestinian side and the anti-Israeli side, including much that is funded by the billions of petro-dollars at the disposal of various Arab regimes?

    You write that the word “Judeo-Christian” was “probably invented” as a pro-Israeli propaganda term when there is no mystery as to that word’s origins if you Google it and it has nothing to do with Israel or with Zionism.

    You write: “The propaganda machine has been relentless in its efficiency, supported by Jewish communities embedded in European and American societies.” The Cambridge English Dictionary online defines “embed” as “to fix something firmly into a substance”, so are you really saying that British Jews and others have been “embedded” into our society – and by whom? Are you comfortable criticising the activities not of the Israeli government but of “Jewish communities” in Europe and America? Are you saying that many Jewish Britons’ support for Israel is somehow malign? If I said equivalent things about Muslim communities I would, quite rightly, be accused of Islamophobia.

    You write: “Critics of Israel are accused of anti-Semitism, and are driven to the fringes of mainstream media and political discourse.” Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have been among the “critics of Israel” in recent weeks. Has either of them been accused of antisemitism or driven to the fringes? And no, the vast majority of critics of Israel are not “accused of antisemitism”. There is a vast volume of criticism of Israel in the UK and around the world that does not give rise to antisemitism. The stuff that is labelled antisemitism in this context is not legitimate criticism of Israel but actually is antisemitism, and it is a tiny minority of the criticism of Israel that is expressed openly every day across the globe. Liberal Democrats must stand with Jews against antisemitism just as we stand with Muslims against Islamophobia and with LGBT people against homophobia and transphobia, rather than dismissing allegations of antisemitism in the way that you do here. And since it is impossible to open a newspaper or turn on the TV News without seeing criticism of Israel, how can you possibly say that Israel’s critics are driven to the fringes of the mainstream media?!

    You write that: “Politicians in Britain are much freer to criticise Israeli policy than at any time I can remember.” There have always been many British politicians who criticise Israel. Are you saying that people are free to criticise other countries but are somehow prevented from criticising Israel?

    Your reference to Israel possibly favouring “the possibility of some kind of final solution to the Arab problem” is clearly intended to evoke comparison with the “final solution to the Jewish problem”, i.e. the Holocaust. I have written before ( about the folly of comparing the Palestinian situation to the Holocaust and I question the wisdom of your so doing. And can you please provide some evidence of any Israelis within the political mainstream countenancing the “annexation of the occupied territories and expulsion of the Arabs living there”?

    1. Thank you for your comments Matthew. I think it will add to people’s understanding of the debate. I think I can largely leave it to readers to decide whether the points you make undermine what I am saying, reinforce it, or whether are tangential to it. For all that I am going to make three points.

      First on British secret assassination squads in Northern Ireland, and “collateral” casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the former case I, and I think all liberals, would whole-heartedly condemn such action as being unethical and counterproductive; the sort of thing that happens when you allow the military too much rope to solve the problem their way. In the latter such imprecision has made many in Europe feel that these campaigns were futile and should not be repeated. This is qualitatively different to the way Israelis (or Americans, come to that) tend feel about this sort of thing. The scale and immediacy of the threat presented by Hamas to Israelis, of course, is of a wholly different magnitude – so I wouldn’t want to stretch this. The point I am trying to make is there’s a different starting point.

      Second. You make an excellent point that much of the “never again” resolution promoted by Jewish communities has been to develop our system of international law. Indeed Jewish people (though I hate to use such generalisations) have contributed more than their fair share to the establishment of the rule of law in societies, like ours, of which they are part. I was trying, rather clumsily, to make a rather narrower point about “Israeli Jews and their supporting Jewish communities elsewhere”. The rule of law remains a prime driver within Israel, in spite of some vigilantism – but it seems to be little constraint on the actions of the Israeli state externally, for which it seems to have the full support of its citizens and their outside supporters. I am sure that some would challenge that viewpoint, but I think many non-partisan would agree with me.

      Third. My use of the words “final solution” was intended to shock. That is because I am really worried about where all this is heading – and so many observers, on all sides and none, seem unable to see it. And you are well aware that some Israeli politicians are advocating annexation, though doubtless you would describe them as “fringe”. In a state of war, fringe becomes mainstream all to easily. And I hardly need remind you of the intemperate things Israeli commenters say on internet forums. This is no doubt the product of frustration and anger – but I see few ways that such frustration and anger will be resolved.

      Finally I must agree that criticism of Israel tips into anti-Semitism too often. And indeed there seems to be a growing, well-funded anti-Semitic groundswell fuelled by Arab oil money. I touched on this in my blog last week about ISIS. These are among the “dark forces” that I alluded to. Liberal Democrats and liberals everywhere must make a visible stand against this.

  2. Thank you both Matthews for a good debate. I have lived in Norway now for 10 years. When I arrived I was full of “Norwegians are like this, or Norwegians are like that”, and now finally I have come to realise that Norwegians are individuals, with divers characters and philosophies.

    Amos Oz is an Israeli writer who represents a section of Israeli opinion committed to a peaceful two-state solution. There are other Israelis (and Jews) of different opinions. The terms “Israeli” and “Jew” can never be used to indicate a consensus. In the media this happens all the time, but then we must ask ourselves where the media is getting its opinions from.

    The way humans operate tribally can often make it seem that a group of diverse individuals form single units with unified opinions. When attacked people seek solidarity for safety. I believe we must all resist such groupings, not only in where we place our own identity, but how we talk about others.

    My best friend in London is Jewish, and so is my neighbour upstairs in Oslo. Saying someone is Jewish is simply factual, just like saying someone is black. It’s the belief that saying this implies certain things that is the problem. My London friend is very against the Israeli military action, my upstairs neighbour is for it.

  3. Good point Richard. I make strenuous efforts not use “Jews” or “The Jews” as the subject of a sentence unless it is about the specifics of the Jewish faith – as I think it takes you to a very dark place quickly. I’m not sure if I always succeed. But I do use “Israelis” (and “Americans” and even “Arabs” come to that) without qualifying it as “most” or some such. And I admit that is lazy. There is often such a thing as a prevailing mood – but there are always important exceptions. For example I asserted above that Americans are much more relaxed about pushing the boundaries of international law in the use of force; will I can bet that would not apply to millions of Americans.

    One of the things that liberals should try to promote is that our identity as British, Christian, Jew, Arab, Norwegian or whatever isn’t the most important thing about us.

  4. Another loose end. What is the origin of the idea of “Judaeo-Christian”? I have had a quick look at It supports both sides. The term was first used in the 19th Century – notably in its German version by Nietzsche. But in its early usage it was used to stress, usually negatively, the Judaic inheritance of the Christian religion, to contrast it with its Greek inheritance (regarded much more positively). This line of criticism seem to have been quite frequent – I have read it in Simone Weill, somebody whom I otherwise much admire. The modern, positive usage came to the fore in the 1990s when it was used in the US to stress a common inheritance against social liberalism and, no doubt, Islam. I believe that Jewish propagandists (such as AIPAC) may have had a hand in this, but I have no more than circumstantial evidence. Certainly if they had anything to do with it, it was an appropriation rather than an invention.

  5. Matthew, some of the language in your article bothers me quite a lot.

    For instance, you explain your reference to Israel’s ‘final solution’ for Arabs/Palestinians as ‘designed to shock’; well you certainly achieved that in my case. Do you seriously think that equating Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the Holocaust is remotely accurate? Are you not just being irresponsibly distasteful?

    Your references to Israel’s ‘relentless propaganda’ and the way Jews show mutual solidarity and observe the law among themselves but not towards others is very discomforting, reminiscent of old conspiracy theories. The assertion of a ‘Judaeo-Christian’ nexus as an explanation for any support in the West for Israel may resonate for some crazy fundamentalist right-wingers but not for the rest of us, for whom Israel’s democratic credentials are what count in recognising it as a similar kind of society. I could feel the same towards majority-Muslim Turkey, as long as it resumes going forward rather than backwards in democratic terms.

    But my overall criticism is the way the article puts the sole responsibility on Israel to achieve peace. I have plenty of criticism of Israeli policy, not least settlement construction. There is good reason to doubt the real attachment of Netanyahu to 2 states. I don’t like the insistence on Palestinians recognising ‘the Jewish state’ as it sounds like a theocracy and ignores Israeli Arabs, and I prefer ‘state for Jewish people’. But achieving a negotiated 2-state solution requires a unified and committed Palestinian approach too, which is so far lacking.

    1. Thank you for your comment Sarah. As somebody for whom I have the greatest respect – not least a fearless upholder of the rule of law – I feel I must respond.
      The first point is that at no point do I make a comparison between the actions of the Israeli government and the Holocaust. At most I express a fear that the current frustration of the Israeli public could lead it to take a step in that direction.
      Second, I must accept your reaction to my comments on the rule of law – which are too easily misread. I don’t like to edit my posts so long after the original, except to correct factual or linguistic errors – but I will have to look at that, given the sensitivity of the matter.
      Finally I don’t think you have understood the main thrust of the article. Yes it is highly critical of the Israeli state – but it also makes an attempt to understand its actions rather just condemn them. The point, though, is to express a fear that continued frustration could lead Israel into a much more serious breach of civilised standards. I am genuinely alarmed at the views of some “fringe” politicians and the response to them, or not, from mainstream politicians like Netanyahu. The unthinkable may become thinkable.
      I fully accept the consistency with you uphold civilised standards of conduct in Israel, as elsewhere. While I believe that the weakness of the Palestinian leadership is partly a product of Israel’s policy towards it, I have to say that Hamas’s current stance is utter madness and making the situation for the Palestinian people much worse. It was unutterably depressing when they marked the end of the first ceasefire with an immediate barrage of rockets (after my article was written). They are bad people, but one must ask the question as to whether the Israeli military is simply following their script?

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