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American Puritanism and Infantile Faith

The "Corrupt Betrayers" of the Palestinian People

by MICHAEL NEUMANN

The Al-Jazeera leaks concerning Palestine have provided lots of new material for the tough guys of the Israel/Palestine conflict. These hard cases have been around at least since the Oslo Accords of 1993. Most of them are university types – graduate students and also faculty, some too sainted to name. Almost all of them live thousands of miles from the conflict. They tell us how the Corrupt Palestinian Authority has betrayed the Palestinians. The original Corrupt Betrayer was Yasser Arafat who is still, oddly enough, much beloved by Palestinians who actually live in Palestine. The new Corrupt Betrayers are of course the current Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. They are weak, we hear. Like Arafat, they’ve sold out the Palestinians. They are no Nelson Mandelas.

These criticisms overlook something: the Palestinians are screwed. They cannot passively resist; they just get shot. They cannot actively resist; they just get blown to bits. Because they cannot resist, they have no bargaining chips, none at all. Israel sees an incentive to make concessions only when it senses a prospect of fewer goodies from America or of annoyance from Europe. The microscopic scope of its concessions shows just how little incentive that represents.

It is true that, for a while, Palestinian violence caused Israel to take notice, and it still has some effect in the occupied territories. It still slows the pace of settlement, just a little bit. It still gets Israel irritated with how much it spends to keep the settlers in watered lawns and fanaticism. But this hardly constitutes the wherewithal for the Palestinian authorities to stand up to the occupier.

The case of Hamas is telling here. Hamas doesn’t come in for a lot of criticism from the tough guys, who tend to favor fighting Israel with scolding and intransigent resolutions. But Hamas was supposed to stand up to Israel, to shame the PLO and the Corrupt Old Guard. It’s supposed to be better because it’s democratically elected. But democratically elected to what? Hamas, despite its best efforts, is utterly incapable of defending or improving the miserable lives of its constituents. It has been reduced to running Israel’s prison camp in Gaza. It spends much of its time policing the area to see that no one fires rockets at Israel – not too many, at least, not enough to actually bother the Israelis. Perhaps Hamas, too, will eventually become a Corrupt Betrayer in the eyes of hard-line academics everywhere.

The criticisms of the Palestinian authorities represent a nice combination of American Puritanism and infantile faith.

The Puritanism drives unending emphasis on corruption. No doubt, like most governments, the Palestinian authority is corrupt. Why is this a big deal? Were they not corrupt, would the occupation end? If not, how will honesty save the Palestinian people?

As for the demand that the PLO stand up to Israel, that’s an expression of infantile faith in moral authority. Gee, if Nelson Mandela was there, it would all be different. The Israelis would pull out and there would be a Nelson Mandela High School in Nablus. Why? Stand up with what, exactly? Force the Israelis to do exactly what, and how? We never hear the answers.

What is really behind this faith is, ironically, cowardice. The critics lack even the moral courage to acknowledge that principled declarations and good character are not going to prevail. The leaks just confirm what fifty years have taught us: Europe and America are passionately committed to doing nothing about Israel.

Palestinian concessions and intermittent Palestinian intransigence have provoked more or less the same non-reaction. The tough guys themselves don’t believe or predict that Palestinian virtue is actually going to find its reward in serious Western sanctions against Israel. They only feel this ought to be the case. They want the Palestinians, who must live in a brutally real world, to convert the ought to an is through sheer will-power. And they have the nerve to condemn those Palestinians who refuse to indulge this fantasy.

Western governments are scared of Israel. They remember that in 1967, Israel declared the closure of the Suez Canal a ‘blockade’ (which it wasn’t) and an act of war. They’re not going to risk imposing sanctions on one of the world’s leading nuclear powers. Palestinian courage or lack of courage just doesn’t matter to the West, or to Israel.

Palestinian hopes therefore cannot rest on the character, good or bad, of its powerless leaders. If the Palestinians can hope, it is because there are non-Western forces with the power and the will to make Israel think twice about prolonging the occupation. The Palestinians might hope because Hizbollah can actually fight the Israelis, because Iran might be able to intimidate the Israelis, because Syria might become capable of surviving a confrontation with the Israelis, because moderate yet powerful nations like Egypt and Turkey might come seriously to oppose the Israelis.

None of this involves freedom and democracy and honest government and fine speeches. It does involve some chance that a terrible era of oppression will finally end, and Palestinians can lead decent lives. This is not enough for the tough guys, who need a parable to fit their American Puritan values. And that’s why we will hear much more about the Corrupt Betrayers.

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche is published by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, "What is Anti-Semitism", to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. His latest book is The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at: mneumann@trentu.ca