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On May 31 Israel attacked a humanitarian aid convoy bound for Gaza in international waters. Was this an act of self-defense, a stupid miscalculation, or a strategic (albeit costly) necessity?
Israel, of course, argues for the legitimacy of the attack: a Nobel peace laureate, a retired American ambassador, a Holocaust survivor, an American student, etc., all morph into terrorists, and an act of war in international waters is transmuted into a legal exercise in self-defense. Only determined apologists for Israel give any credence to this predictably Orwellian account. Sadly, the U.S. Congress is numbered among them.
“What were they thinking?” sums up the attitude of the many commentators, like Harvard’s Stephen Walt, who see the attack as both misguided and over-reaching.
A partial explanation can be found in the Israeli state of mind that perceives every event through the lens of Holocaust memory – an obsession that distorts and constrains both political and popular thinking, as Avraham Burg has noted. So pervasive is the Holocaust discourse that even those who deplore it go on using it. Uri Avnery, for example, compares the raid on the Mavi Marmara to the 1947 British assault on the Exodus in order to argue that the aggressor “live[s] in a bubble, in a kind of mental ghetto, which … prevents us from seeing another reality, the one perceived by the rest of the world.”
Many Israeli critics, in turn, lament that the United States acts as an enabler to this madness. Instead of restraining Israel and turning its actions into more appropriate paths, the U.S. provides weapons, money, and diplomatic cover at the United Nations. Noam Chomsky argues: “Israel assumes that it can commit such crimes with impunity because the United States tolerates them and Europe generally follows the U.S.’s lead.” And indeed, the speed with which Obama’s mildly expressed reservations about the raid were undercut by Congressional endorsement of it proves Chomsky’s point.
American complicity notwithstanding, the “what-were-they-thinking” commentary is surely correct that, from the Israeli point of view, the attack was more costly than anticipated in terms of public opinion backlash and, likely, less successful than hoped for in suppressing dissent from Israeli policies, especially the blockade of Gaza.
Nevertheless, even a strategy that is more costly and less successful than anticipated is not necessarily a mistake or miscalculation on the part of the aggressor. On the contrary, there is every reason to suppose that the attack, clearly planned and premeditated, represents an immoral but not a stupid calculation by Israeli leaders of their country’s best interests.
First, the Obama administration really is putting pressure on Israel to stop settlement construction, ease the Gaza blockade, and create a two state solution. Most people committed to a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are impatient and skeptical since Obama’s demands seem to be largely rhetorical. Even so, for Netanyahu, the Obama administration represents a dramatic departure from Bush’s carte blanche. Faced with the threat of peace, the necessity of withdrawing at least a few token settlers, and the possibility of ceding control over parts of the West Bank, Israelis are doing what they have done before: they are making every effort to provoke Palestinian violence. If Netanyahu could just get another Intifada started, he could put off concessions indefinitely. Recall Sharon shouldering his way into the Temple Mount at a similarly strategic moment and triggering the second Intifada. Were it not for Palestinian political discipline, the attack on the Gaza flotilla, like last year’s Cast Lead massacre, might well have achieved the same results.
Second, Americans are, once again, in an election year. At the same time, the Obama administration seems willing to entertain a conversation about Israel as a strategic liability for the U.S. – surely the single most dreaded conversation from Israel’s point of view. Under these circumstances, any Israeli government would feel that it had a stake in helping the Republicans in the bi-elections. To this structural incentive, we can add individual inclination: Netanyahu is closely linked to Richard Perle, his former foreign policy advisor, and through Perle, to Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney. Thus personal sympathies and political expediency entwine to create a unique environment for the attack on the Gaza flotilla: should Democrats object, they will be taking enormous risks in losing Jewish votes to the Republicans; should they fail to object, the carte blanche of the Bush years will have been renewed, however reluctantly.
Most importantly, Israel’s need to silence its critics has deep historical roots, well beyond the events of the moment. Israel has always been committed to “judaizing” the land under its control – a project that requires the expulsion of Palestinians and, as a corollary, the suppression of dissent from such policies. Once Zionism rejected the notion of a Jewish homeland in a multi-ethnic Palestine in favor of an exclusively Jewish state, ethnic cleansing became an ugly but necessary part of its agenda. Current events are only the latest chapter of a story that began when the leaders of the first Zionist Congress were told by a party of explorers sent to assess the suitability of Palestine for Jewish settlement that “[t]he bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.” From that day to the present, the object of the Zionism has been to bring all of the land of Palestine under Israeli control while expelling all of the indigenous Palestinians.
Early Zionist settlers hoped that their British colonial rulers would complete the “transfer” for them. When this did not happen, Israeli settlers, before and after the creation of the state of Israel, took matters into their own hands and perpetrated the Nakba, the Catastrophe, that saw the expulsion of about two-thirds of the Palestinian population and the destruction of three-quarters of all their villages in conjunction with the founding of the state of Israel.
The expulsions did not end there. They continued in later wars, in military rule over Palestinians left inside Israel, in the occupation of all Palestinian lands beginning in 1967 and their administration through sociocidal policies designed to induce “voluntary” Palestinian emigration, in the construction of settlements, settler-only roads, and a separation wall, in strategic control over aquifers, and the planting of Jewish National Fund trees over the ruins of Palestinian villages to ensure their erasure from history.
Today, Israeli citizens of Palestinian ancestry constitute 20% of the population of Israel but are confined to 3% of its land. Similarly, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, half a million Israeli settlers are expanding their control over land every day, leaving little more than 10% of historic Palestine as the site of a possible Palestinian state. Against this backdrop, the virulent suppression of militant leadership in Gaza, including the assault on humanitarian aid, is simply the logical next step.
Some predict that the end point will resemble the American system of Indian reservations, with Palestinians penned up, out of sight and out of mind. Others predict that the reservations or Bantustans will be maintained only as long as the Arab states have oil, and that once Arab oil reserves have been depleted, Israel will complete the “transfer” of all Palestinians out of Palestine.
Whichever of these predictions proves more accurate, it is clear that ethnic cleansing stands at the heart of the Zionist project and that suppression of challenges to it represents a clear (if sometimes costly) necessity, not a public relations error on the part of the Israeli state.
Unless and until Americans recognize the connection between Zionism and ethnic cleansing, we cannot act on the hopes of Israeli dissidents to provide “tough love” to Israel, nor can we be honest brokers to all 11 million people who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. We cannot evaluate or own strategic national interests, protect the integrity of our domestic politics, nor can we realize our own most cherished values while we continue to deny the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
EVE SPANGLER is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Boston College and a founding member of American Jews for a Just Peace.
The author is indebted to Dr. Elizabeth Sherman and Toufic Haddad for some of the ideas expressed in this essay.