Israel and the Palestinians Through the Looking Glass
The Myths That Underpin the Failure of American Policy in the Middle East
By Ira Chernus
Tuches aufn tish: Buttocks on the table. That's the colorful way my Yiddish-speaking ancestors said, "Let's cut the BS and talk about honest truth." It seems like a particularly apt expression after a week watching the shadow-boxing between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that brought no tangible progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The truth, like the table, is usually hard and uncomfortable. President Obama's carefully hedged public call for a two-state solution along Israel's 1967 borders may indeed represent a new step. Maybe it will even prove part of some long-range game plan that will eventually pay off. But here's the problem: as of now, Obama shows no inclination to back his words with the power the U.S. government could wield. Until he does, those words won't provoke any change in Israel's domination of the Palestinians.
And there's a deeper issue. The influential Israeli columnist Sever Plocker pointed to the heart of the matter: the American president has "unequivocally adopted the essence of the Israeli-Zionist narrative." Plocker might have said the same about all top American political leaders and the U.S. media as well. The American conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dominated by the story that most Israelis tell.
Tuches aufn tish. Let's be honest. The Israeli story doesn't merely distort the truth, it turns the truth ass-backwards. Eerily enough, its basic claims about the Palestinians more accurately describe the Israelis themselves.
The Israelis might as well be looking in the mirror and talking about themselves when they say things like "They are the aggressors; we're the victims just defending ourselves." That's part of an Israeli-generated myth of insecurity whose premise is that Israel bears all the risk in the conflict with the Palestinians. Obama fed into that myth in his recent "Arab Spring" speech when he called, in effect, for an even swap: the Palestinians would get a state and the Israelis would get security, as if the massively stronger Israelis are the main ones suffering from insecurity.
In the process, he repeated a familiar mantra, "Our commitment to Israel's security is unshakeable," and offered a vague warning that "technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself." Perhaps that was a coded way of hinting that someday some other Mideast nation might have a handful of nuclear weapons -- as if any of them could threaten Israel, which already has as many as 200 nukes and can surely build more.
Obama did make one reference to what he called "the assumption of Palestinian security." That's how the Israelis typically phrase their long-standing hope that the Palestinian police will become what Netanyahu once called Israel's "sub-contractors," taking over from Israeli soldiers the job of quashing resistance to Israel and its policies. Again, the premise is that Israel bears all the risk.
Yet the Palestinians are far more insecure than the Israelis. Like any victims of colonial military occupation, they're constantly subject to the threat of death and destruction without notice, at the whim of the Israeli military, and increasingly from Israeli settlers as well. Over the last quarter-century, the conflict has killed roughly eleven Palestinians for every Israeli who died. And yet you'll never find this line in the speech of an American politician: "Our commitment to Palestine's security is unshakeable."
Obama did declare that "every state has the right to self-defense." In the next breath, however, he demanded that a new Palestinian state must have no army. Would any sovereign nation accept such a demand, especially if its closest neighbor had dominated and pummeled its people for years and possessed by far the most powerful military in the region? Yet the idea of a "demilitarized" Palestinian state is a given in the U.S. and Israel, as if the only conceivable future threat could come from those occupied, not from the former occupier.
The staggering power imbalance between occupier and occupied points to another looking-glass-style distortion that dominates America's conversation about the issue: the absurd idea that the two parties could negotiate as equals, that the weaker of the two, which has already given up approximately 78% of its territory, must be the one to make the major compromises, and then operate as a nation from a position of utter weakness.
Obama told a meeting of Jewish leaders in private that he knows the truth of the situation: "Israel is the stronger party here... And Israel needs to create the context for [peace] to happen." But as long as his public words reinforce the myth of Israel's insecurity, the Israelis can safely resist any demands for change.
Staring into the Mirror
The Israelis justify their intransigence with yet another looking-glass claim: "We want peace more than anything, but they have no interest in peace." Israelis love to repeat a phrase coined decades ago by their foreign minister Abba Eban, speaking about Arab leaders: "They never miss a chance to miss a chance for peace."
In reality, it's the Palestinians who should lodge that complaint against Israel. "Israel's right needs perpetual war" is the way the eminent Israeli intellectual Zeev Sternhell sums up the situation. Netanyahu, like all right-wing Israeli leaders, has in fact built his career on his image as the toughest of hawks when it comes to the Palestinians. With the Israeli electorate shifting steadily rightward in the twenty-first century, that image serves him better than ever. So, even as he pleads his devotion to peace, he shows no interest in actually ending the conflict -- and the creeping Israeli program of ongoing settlement-building in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank only guarantees that the conflict will continue.
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