The Middle East Through the Looking Glass


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.

Ass-Backward Realities

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.

As it happens, however, the need for an enemy, and so for an ongoing conflict, isn’t restricted to the political right or the settlers. “Our enemies have made us one, and, thus united, we suddenly discover our strength” Theodore Herzl wrote in Zionism’s founding tract, “The Jews’ State.” And perceptive Israeli commentators have been asking for years what would hold Israeli Jews together if they had no common Arab or Palestinian enemy. That is still “the defining question” for all Israelis, according to Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli Knesset: “Can we continue to exist without a perennial adversary, without being victims of persecution?”

Sadly, the answer for most Israelis seems to be: no. A prominent Jewish columnist in the Jerusalem Post said it best: “Israelis get mad when you tell them we don’t have to keep going to war, that we’re strong enough to deter our enemies? People don’t want to hear anything about possibilities for peace? All they want to hear is ein breira, we have no choice, it’s either fight or die.”

Israeli political life suffers from “a real obsession,” according to the editors of Israel’s most respected newspaper, Haaretz, “a sense that we are constantly under attack.. an insanity of persecution.”

That’s an old story, of course. “Israel’s position today is similar to its position after the wars of 1948 and of 1967,” an editorial in Haaretz noted: “The potential for negotiations was there, but the [political] cost was considered too high. Now, too, maintaining the status quo appears to be preferable to making changes that Israelis perceive as threatening, even if they do not necessarily pose a genuine danger.”

The recent Hamas-Fatah reconciliation gave Israelis a new imaginary danger to worry about. The news of Palestinian unity launched a verbal tsunami in Israel, a flood of warnings that a far-right theocratic ideology might easily take control of a Palestinian state. President Obama fed that fear when he said “Hamas has been and is an organization that has resorted to terror; that has refused to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. It is not a partner for a significant, realistic peace process.”

“Israel obviously cannot be asked to negotiate with a government that is backed by the Palestinian version of al Qaeda,” Netanyahu responded.

It’s just another case of Israelis staring into that mirror. Hamas has, in fact, been moving steadily toward a form of secular nationalism and greater political moderation. Its government in Gaza is busy fending off threats from the true theocrats of the Muslim right, who despise Hamas. The rare volleys of Hamas rockets that now come into Israel are triggered by and responses to Israeli attacks.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has been saying for years that he and his party are absolutely willing to accept a two-state solution — implicitly accepting the permanent existence of Israel — as long as a majority of Palestinians approve it. Meshaal now speaks of “peace” rather than merely “truce” and views the infamous Hamas charter, calling for the destruction of Israel, as no longer relevant.

When it comes to the all-important question of recognition, it’s Israel that refuses to recognize Hamas as a legitimate party or the Palestinians’ right to be a democratic state and choose their own government. Meanwhile, the Israeli government has been doing exactly what it accuses Hamas of doing — opening the door to increasingly reactionary, racist, and theocratic laws. “Public opinion polls point to increasing extremism, bordering on racism, in Jews’ opinion of Arabs,” as Haaretz has noted, so “it’s no wonder there is no public pressure on the government to advance the peace process.”

Israel is fast coming under the sway of far-right theocrats, and “ever more Israelis are infected by the symptoms of Messianic thinking: ‘We are right, and the whole world is wrong; hence we must no longer listen to anybody,'” as one Israeli Jewish columnist observed.

Then there’s the upcoming vote in the U.N. General Assembly in September, when Palestine is expected to be granted full status as a nation. In his speech, Obama echoed the Israeli line that the Palestinian push for recognition there will harm chances for peace. In fact the vote would promote the peace process by pushing a nay-saying Israel closer to what it now fears most: finally being forced by irresistible world opinion to negotiate peace rather than become a pariah state.

There’s one last point that Obama and American public discourse get absolutely backwards: the idea that being a friend of Israel’s means endorsing its popular narrative, which offers no more truth than Alice’s looking-glass. Real friends don’t enable their friends to engage in self-destructive behavior. Real friends wouldn’t let them get so drunk on a delusional story that they have no compunctions about driving what might otherwise be a peace process off a cliff.

The U.S. has the power to push the Israelis away from that cliff and head them in a new direction. There’s real truth in the common Israeli joke that the U.S. is “the eight-ton elephant that can sit down anywhere it wishes.”

Yes, Obama can put his tuches anywhere he wants. If he ever feels politically safe enough, he just might put it on the table. Then, Israel might have to leave the looking-glass world and agree to start genuine peace negotiations.

Ira Chernus is a TomDispatch (where this column originally appeared) regular and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing about Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.


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