Archive for the ‘Israel / Palestine’ Category

First published in Democratiya 19, spring-summer 2009, at http://dissentmagazine.org/democratiya/article_pdfs/d16Symposium.pdf
Martin Shaw

The Israeli assault on Gaza was an affront to humanity. 1338 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed, thousands were wounded, and tens of thousands made homeless. The poor and crowded enclave, whose people were already suffering from restrictions on their movement and the entry of food, medicines and other goods, was pulverised by Israel’s modern military machine. Although the total number of deaths is not in dispute, political battle is now being waged over the composition of the Palestinian death toll – mostly civilians according to Palestinian sources, mostly Hamas fighters according to Israel’s statistical counter-offensive. But even Israel does not dispute that its forces killed hundreds of civilians, many of them children. And whatever the breakdown, it is clear that this assault deliberately threatened and terrorised civilians on a huge scale. Certainly, Hamas’ rockets also threaten and terrorise civilians, and they are called terrorists. By this measure, the Israeli government and armed forces are only bigger and better terrorists. Israel boasts rules of engagement that are supposed to avoid civilian harm, but extensive civilian harm was hardly unintended. Israel claims to have attacked Hamas, but it also attacked the Gazan population as a whole, in a clear continuation of the policy of collective punishment for its temerity in supporting the party. Israel’s professed regret for civilian deaths is not really more hypocritical than that of the United States as it bombs yet another wedding party in Afghanistan; but the policy of collective punishment, which we also saw two years ago in Lebanon, is something else.

It is tempting to say that this cannot, must not, go on. But it probably will. Israel has hardly been shamed – its electorate has just returned an even more right-wing Knesset, which seems likely to make Binyamin Netanyahu prime minister. Hamas has hardly been crushed. If Barack Obama was horrified, he did a good job of hiding it. Many European leaders and citizens have shown their indignation, but it is unlikely to be directed effectively towards a solution. The Israel-Palestine crisis is six decades old, and leaderships on all sides have interests in things going on as they are, however awful and unjust. This is much easier than changing, and there are no obvious de Klerks, let alone Mandelas, to hand. In the short term, the best hope clearly lies in the determination of the Obama administration to achieve a peace in conjunction with a regional settlement between Israel and the Arab states (and between the USA and the Muslim world). The US will have to use sticks – threaten to withdraw political and financial support – as well as carrots, to achieve changes.

I have no special insight into the goals and likely methods of team Obama, or the precise compromises that could bring the sides to agreement. However I think it’s important to emphasise that the Palestinians – in their position of undoubted military, political and economic weakness and division, which the Gaza war has reinforced – should not be pressured to accept too little. A viable two-state solution will have to address the fundamental inequities of the situation, revisiting 1948 as well as 1967 and more recent developments. Israel needs to recognise the injustices that it has perpetrated from its inception, which continue to dog its legitimacy and security. Hamas’s provocative Gaza stronghold, after all, is partly populated by the descendents of those Israel forced from their homes in 1948. A two-state solution cannot just be a reversion to the borders before the 1967 war, radical as that will be: it must also address the consequences of the original expulsions from within internationally recognised Israeli territory. Anything less will leave the fundamental Palestinian grievances untouched, and will undermine any settlement.

We need therefore to stop thinking of a two-state solution as ‘realistic’, and a single-state solution as ‘utopian’. A viable two-state solution needs the idealism and apparent utopianism of the single-state option. Just as a single state would need to be a secular, non-ethnic democracy, so should two separate Israeli and Palestinian states have non-sectarian, democratic constitutions. Israel cannot remain the state of the Jewish nation, in which Arabs are second-class citizens. It is not acceptable that there should be a right of ‘return’ for Jews who (and whose families) have never lived there, but no right of return for the expelled Palestinians and their immediate descendents. The latter right will have to be acknowledged in principle, even if in practice – in many or most cases – it is commuted to financial compensation. Jews whose family property was expropriated by Nazi Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s have rightly reclaimed ownership or been granted compensation; no less can be accorded to Palestinians whose families lost, in the late 1940s, residence and property in what is now Israel.

Particular attention needs to be paid to the positions of the minorities: of Arabs within Israel, because their second-class citizenship in their own land is intolerable; but also of Jews within Palestine, because a viable Palestinian state needs to include the territory occupied by so many illegal settlements housing hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews. While many Jews will undoubtedly flee any return of the occupied territories, and Israel will probably encourage their consolidation in Israel proper, the prospect should be entertained, on both sides, of Jewish settlers continuing to live within the Palestinian state. Palestine needs to incorporate the settlements as functioning townships, not torched ruins: it can only do that with cooperation from the settlers as well as the Israeli state. The right of continued residence in Palestine should be offered to Jews, just as that of return to Israel should be offered to Arabs, even if the numbers who actually take up these offers are small. Creating the arrangements that would make these rights meaningful would constitute a small token of human rights and equality in both states – and of the possibility of cooperation between them.

For a functioning two-state solution cannot be based on two entirely separate states, coexisting only in a state of cold war, with a wall between them. Halting the construction of the security fence is a sine qua non of meaningful discussions, and tearing down what has been built will be an early task of any solution. Managing change in ways which respect individuals’ and families’ rights will require a sound infrastructure of bilateral institutions. Recognising the human rights of all, and especially of Palestinian families expelled from Israel decades ago, will require Israel to open up the sealed vault of the 1948 events, acknowledging the obliterated Arab names of long-renamed villages and erecting monuments to civilian victims, maybe even creating a Palestinian Museum in Tel Aviv, so that Arabs, whether as Israeli citizens or Palestinian workers and visitors, can be comfortable in Israel. Would it be a step too far to envisage a joint Israeli-Palestinian truth commission, to achieve closure on the crimes and suffering (on both sides) of the last 60 years?

Moreover it is not only in from a political point of view that the two states will require joint institutions. A Palestinian state will only function if reopened to the Israeli labour market; from this point of view, too, bilateral arrangements too are necessary to the functioning of separate states. The two-state solution should be seen, then, as close to a confederal arrangement, nested within regional security arrangements and guaranteed by the UN and the USA as broker of the agreement, which resolves two-thirds of a century of conflict.

It may be objected that much of what I have proposed is so idealistic as to be utopian. What is truly fantastic, however, is the belief that a Palestian state should be established, let alone can thrive, in the truncated space left by illegal Israeli settlement-, wall- and road-building. Over the last two decades, Israel has annexed an ever-larger area of Palestine, and forced the Palestinians into ever smaller, more fragmented pockets. By the same token, it has steadily undermined the viability of the two-state solution, even as its nominal adherence to this idea has grown. The two-state model is an emperor without clothes, and only a radical policy upheaval, leading to large-scale Israeli withdrawals and the recognition of sixty years of deep injustice, can restore its credibility. It is possible to imagine how it could be done, but there are few signs of imagination in the Israeli – or Palestinian – political universes. The writing is on the wall, but is anyone that matters, in team Obama or elsewhere, reading it? If not, this year’s Gaza war will certainly not be Israel’s last.

Martin Shaw is Research Professor in the Department of International Relations, University of Sussex, and the author of What is Genocide? (Polity 2007) and many other books. His website is http://www.martinshaw.org


The simple answer to this question would seem to be, when it is committed by the Israeli ‘defence’ forces. ‘Brutal yes. Massacre no’, writes Peter Beaumont in The Observer, while a correspondent takes me to task along similar lines: ‘your reference on theglobalsite to the Jenin “massacre” is highly misleading since it gives the impression that something like Srebrenica happened. What does seem to have happened is that (a) the IDF showed a criminal disregard for civilian life and thereby caused very high casualties and (b) that some illegal executions took place. It will be easy for the Israelis to show that nothing like Srebrenica occurred, and by appearing to make that the issue their critics will hand them an easy victory – especially in the eyes of US public opinion.’

There is a serious issue here. The term massacre is becoming a litmus test of illegitimate versus legitimate war: ‘your killings are massacres; ours are legitimate defence against terrorism/ legitimate resistance to oppression.’ Proponents of possible just war, like Michael Walzer, have always made separating war from massacre a key part of their argument. But this is ahistorical: few wars avoid them. The truth is simpler than either apologetics or just war theory. Massacres are not categorically distinct from war, but are a regular feature of what war is about. Deliberate plural killing, carried out in a more or less one-sided way, is all it takes. Massacres come in many shapes and sizes and they are committed by almost all sides in almost all wars.

The Americans, in their ‘war against terrorism’, have committed many (albeit ‘accidental’) massacres of Afghan civilians. I have written therefore that ‘repeated small massacres are an understood feature of the new Western way of war’ (and no one took me to task for that). The Russian army in Chechnya, the perpetrators of the apartment block bombings in Moscow … massacres are the stock in trade of armies and guerrillas alike. They can even involve ‘mutual’ slaughters of combatants, as in the massacres of the Somme.

Certainly, the Israeli army did not do a Srebrenica on a wholly unarmed population. There were Palestinian fighters in the Jenin camp, and many of the victims were fighters. So the Israeli killing and destruction was not simply genocidal, in the sense of being directed only at Palestinian civilians as such. But a ‘brutal’ action of this kind, with its ‘criminal disregard for civilian life … high casualties and … illegal executions’ can hardly be called anything else than a massacre, in the sense that Tanya Reinhart describes opposite.

Jenin is a striking demonstration of the degeneracy of the Israeli war against Palestinian fighters/terrorists. It is simultaneously a war against the Palestinian people, and for this reason it cannot be just and cannot be fought in a just way. The degeneracy is however mutual. The massacres of Palestinian ‘suicide’ bombers are genocidal in a simple sense (directed at Israeli Jews as such) albeit as an extension of a war against the Israeli state. The manifest legitimacy of the Palestinian national cause is dragged into the global gutter by these horrific killings, and Arab/Islamic culture is besmirched by the ‘honouring’ of such murdering ‘martyrs’.

What is clear, then, is that here as always war as such is a huge problem: unjust killing is its norm. Peace ‘at any price’ may not be the answer. But war between armed forces and groups in densely populated zones cannot aid justice, or  only at an unacceptable cost. It was clearly a historic catastrophe that the recent peace negotiations did not produce a solution. The possible outcomes were not perfect. But it is difficult to believe that either Palestinians or Israelis have benefited from their rejection.

The argument that the dismantling of Israeli communities in the Palestinian West Bank would amount to “ethnic cleansing” is increasingly being heard. It deserves close examination of a kind its proponents may not welcome, says Martin Shaw.

An intense political engagement over the question of West Bank settlements is continuing between the Barack Obama administration in the United States and the government of Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel. A failure to resolve the issue would be fatal to any chances of real progress towards an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

A particular rhetorical weapon is being employed by self-proclaimed supporters of Israel in the United States in relation to the settlements: that any dismantling of these communities and removal of their inhabitants would amount to “ethnic cleansing”. The use of such a term makes an explicit association between any withdrawal of the settlers from the West Bank and (among many other cases) the systematic expulsions that took place during the wars of ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The argument is being made for immediate political purposes, as the pace of engagement in the new round of regional diplomacy quickens (see Alex Spillius, “Obama close to securing Middle East peace talks“, Daily Telegraph, 26 August 2009). But some of its rhetorical potency derives from the fact that it connects to historical experience and political reference-points in the region as well as beyond. The “ethnic cleansing” case thus deserves closer examination: but might it lead in directions that its proponents would not wish to go?

A subtle warning

A prominent Republican pollster, Frank Luntz, has circulated a report to sympathetic individuals and organisations on behalf of the Israeli Project (TIP). This outlines what it calls “the best settlement argument”: “The idea that anywhere that you have Palestinians there can’t be Jews, that some areas have to be Jew-free, is a racist idea. We don’t say that we have to cleanse out Arabs from Israel. They are citizens of Israel. They enjoy equal rights. We cannot see why it is that peace requires that any Palestinian area would require a kind of ethnic cleansing to remove all Jews” (see Gilad Halpern, “Pro-Israel group: Obama settlements policy backs ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Jews“, Ha’aretz, 23 August 2009).

The advice of the Israel Project – whose board of advisors includes twenty members of the US Congress, from both parties – represents an interesting variation in the response to perceived threats. Israeli politicians and their allies have long argued that Arab and Islamist opposition to Israel’s existence portends a new holocaust. The most prominent example is the reaction to the anti-Israel rhetoric of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the holocaust-denying Iranian president, in 2005 (interpreted by no less than the International Association of Genocide Scholars as a “public expression of genocidal intent”). The Israel Project’s approach (albeit now somewhat qualified by its founder) represents a subtler and apparently more realistic warning of a new, inherently anti-Semitic, threat. The “ethnic cleansing” argument – given that this concept is so often used as a euphemism for genocide – keeps the genocide threat to the fore without conjuring the fear of a mass slaughter of Jews, which is obviously implausible in the context of any likely peace settlement.

The political context and motive of the “cleansing” argument may make it appear little more than a shallow propaganda move. Certainly the way the Israel Project presents it – denying any threat to “cleanse out Arabs from Israel” and asserting Israeli Arabs’ citizenship and “equal rights” – is doubly disingenuous. The desirability of “transferring” Israeli Arabs out of the state is a recurring theme on the not-so-far shores of Israeli politics, and on no serious assessment can Arabs be said to have equal rights in what is, after all, the “state of the Jewish nation”. The current proposals to demand that Arabs take a loyalty oath to the Jewish state only emphasise the deepening crisis of the Arab community’s position within Israel (see Laurence Louër, “Arabs in Israel: on the move“, 20 April 2007).

The historical code

But if the Israeli Project’s focus on “ethnic cleansing” hits a deeper nerve, this is precisely because of the way that all political issues in the Israel-Palestine conflict, including the settlements, are defined in terms of communal interests. Sixty years ago hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were expelled and terrorised into flight by the emergent Israeli state – a certain episode of “ethnic cleansing” and indeed of genocide (to the extent that there was a concerted policy to destroy a large part of Arab society). For the last forty years, Israel has used its occupation of the West Bank and east Jerusalem to continue the process of dispossessing Palestinian homes and land, in slow-motion and by means which are ostensibly legal in domestic law (if not in international law, since the occupation itself remains illegal).

In this light, is it not then plausible to consider the proposal to dismantle Israeli settlements a kind of “ethnic cleansing” in reverse? It is clear that there have been many such genocidal “cleansings” in history, including the wholesale “revenge” expulsions of Germans in the closing stages and aftermath of the second world war in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia. True, there can be no suggestion that the mere “freeze” on new and extended settlements currently proposed by President Obama could fall into this category, since no one will be dispossessed or expelled from anywhere as a result (although a freeze may save a few Palestinians from this fate). But since any even half-reasonable peace settlement must hand over some Israeli settlements to Palestinian control (without this there is no possibility of a coherent and viable Palestinian state), the situation of the Jewish population in these settlements is a real, complex and potentially difficult issue.

It is clearly relevant that many settlers, as well as settlement leaders, have been in the vanguard of Israel’s illegal expansion in the occupied territories, and their parties are the most aggressively anti-Palestinian in the current Israeli political scene. No able-minded adult settlers can truly have been wholly ignorant of this context, and in this sense all can be regarded as complicit to some degree. However these facts cannot justify the compulsory removal of an entire population, including children and the mentally incapable – as well as those settlers whose motives have been primarily socio-economic rather than expansionist. Such an expulsion might indeed be considered, like the Israeli expulsions of Palestinians since 1948, “racial” in character (whatever the specific ideological motives). Even if neither Israel nor Jews have collective rights to occupied Palestinian lands, it can be argued that individuals and families may have acquired personal rights to stay in homes in which they have lived for years or even, in some cases, decades. The key to the question, then, is the reconciliation of these rights with justified Palestinian demands for political control over the occupied lands in which settlements have been built – and the rights of former Palestinian landowners to compensation.

The political twist

So if “peace” does not “require that any Palestinian area would require a kind of ethnic cleansing to remove all Jews”, three things would be necessary to achieve peace without “cleansing”.

First, Israeli advocates must stop talking euphemistically about a “Palestinian area”, and face up to the unanswerable case (in the absence of any realistic prospect of a single bi-communal state) for a viable Palestinian state. Second, Israel must acknowledge the terrible consequences of its own “ethnic cleansings” of Palestinians, starting with 1948 and including those that have taken place recently to allow the building of the settlements, and make proposals to address the continuing injustices arising from them. Third, Israel must address the poor and deteriorating situation of the Arab minority within its own borders, dropping all constitutional provisions which make Arabs second-class citizens and ensuring that “equal rights” become a reality.

For if the continued existence of a Jewish population in the settlements requires a Palestinian state in which minorities can be confident that their individual and communal interests will be respected, the latter needs to be matched by an Israeli state which demonstrates the same standards. A Palestinian state should not be a racially Arab state; but neither should the Israeli state be defined as the state of the Jewish people. Unless both states can be defined both by secular, non-racial constitutions and by clear, well-founded and widely-supported policies of minority inclusion, the prospects for Jewish residents in any settlements handed back to Palestine – and for Israeli Arabs – will continue to be poor.

The Israel Project offers nothing in this direction. It supports policies that would continue to confine Palestinians to Bantustan-style “areas”, deny the abuses they have suffered over sixty years and their unequal status within today’s Israel, and do everything to sustain the present illegal status of territory- and land-grabbing settlements.

The group’s advocacy touches on a real issue, but by seeking to block any serious compromise with legitimate Palestinian claims its campaign only makes more likely the kind of “cleansing” which it says it wants to avoid – and that when compromise comes, as it must, a number of Israeli settlers will be forcibly removed. Most probably this will be done, as in Gaza in August 2005, by the Israeli state itself.

This makes it ever more important now to distinguish between the rights of settler families and the ideological interests and purposes of the Israel Project and its allies. For in the context of the just and secure two-state agreement that Israelis and Palestinians alike desperately need, such ostensible support for Israel turns on closer inspection into its opposite.

The concept of genocide has become a weapon of political polemic. But the violence inflicted on civilians in four conflicts shows how it is also rooted in the logic of modern wars, says Martin Shaw. Go to Open Democracy for the full text.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, New York: Little Brown, 2009, 658 pp. ISBN 978-1-58648 -769-0

After a rush of major texts in the last few years, another massive tome on genocide needs a distinctive take if it is to find an audience. Daniel Goldhagen‘s new book starts radically, by linking US President Harry Truman, who ordered the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, with more familiar twentieth century mass killers such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot. Yet the tension is quickly defused as we learn that while the latter’s killings were ‘organic expressions’ of their long-standing views and aspirations, Truman’s was ‘accidental, owing to a confluence of circumstances that he would have preferred never came about.’ (p.7) This book never really recovers from the unpromising beginning of this superficial analysis. Before long we are reminded of Goldhagen’s controversial earlier book on German complicity in the Holocaust, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, when he argues that ‘we must consider what it is about societies and their cultures that contribute to the circumstances that produce exterminist conditions, or put difficulty, that make mass extermination plausible as a group or national project …’ . (p.13) Yet there is no sense here that Goldhagen has engaged with the widespread criticism of the earlier volume, and produced a stronger version of his argument. Instead his previous position is simply cited as though it were an accepted interpretation. Indeed Goldhagen boasts of his determination ‘not to engage in debates with writer X or writer Y about what he or she has said on point A or point B.’ (pp. 633-34).

Worse Than War is a curious mix of academic study and popular text, which leads at times to outright polemic. Goldhagen offers a new conceptual framework: ‘the desire to eliminate peoples or groups should be understood as the overarching category and the core act, and should therefore be the focus of our study.’ (p.14) The need for an ‘overarching category’ for the various forms of anti-population violence is a proposition advanced sixty-five years ago by Raphael Lemkin, when he proposed his concept, ‘genocide'; it has been echoed in recent years by scholars as diverse of Michael Mann, who made ‘ethnic cleansing’ his master-category, and Rudi Rummel, with his idea of ‘democide’. All these scholars have seen that it is analytically helpful to have a common framework within which explore the links between different types of violence; yet why should we prefer Goldhagen’s concept to the others? Because of his determination to avoid normal academic debate, he gives us little to go on.

Although in principle Goldhagen distinguishes ‘eliminationism’ from genocide, at many points in this lengthy narrative the distinction is lost. And although his delineation of five principal forms of eliminationism – transformation, repression, expulsion, prevention of reproduction, extermination – blurs the distinction between the destruction of peoples, historically seen as the core of genocide, and repression which leaves oppressed peoples in place, mostly he falls back on something close to a more traditional genocide idea. The book ranges widely but erratically, lacking clear anchors, although tending towards an ideological interpretation: ‘mass murder begins in the minds of men’. (p.485) The dangers of this approach are revealed most fully in the final section, ambitiously entitled ‘Changing the Future’. Goldhagen argues that traditional ‘imperial’ and ‘grand communist’ eliminationisms ‘are over’, while ‘regional’ eliminationism is constrained by global integration. This leaves the field clear for him to recognise a new ideology as the prime source of contemporary genocidal threats. In Goldhagen’s view, ‘Political Islam is many things: totalitarian, aggressive, conquering, cocksure about its superiority and destiny to rule, intolerant, bristling with resentement, only tenuously in touch with aspects of reality.’ These are the ‘hallmark features of past and present eliminationist regimes’, and make Political Islamists ‘persistent threats to practice eliminationist politics.’ (p. 492) Goldhagen makes no real distinctions between al-Qaida, Hamas and the Iranian regime, all of which (in his view) show explicit ‘exterminationist and eliminationist discourse’ toward Israel and Jews, matched only by the Nazis. (pp. 503-05)  Even the Sudanese government, guilty of ‘mass annihilation and expulsion of Darfurians’, is just another manifestation of genocidal Political Islam. (p.526)

In this lightly referenced work, Goldhagen presents an intuitive synthesis, rather than a scholarly apparatus. While this undoubtedly produces some insights, it allows the author to paint his picture too loosely over a broad canvas, begging many questions that others have argued more carefully about. It allows his analysis to be taken over by a tendentious political argument, which suggests that powerful Israel, backed by the United States, is more at risk of ‘elimination’ than vulnerable poor people in, say, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Sri Lanka. It leads, in the end, to the naive proposal that promoting democracy will overcome genocide: where it has been tried in Europe, Goldhagen says, ‘it has worked brilliantly.’ (p.596, emphasis in the original) Clearly he has never thought about the role democratisation played in genocidal violence in the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union (and indeed Rwanda). Overall Worse Than War left this reviewer at best unsatisfied and at worst exasperated. It will do little to convert the many critics of Goldhagen’s work.

Martin Shaw
University of Sussex

John J. Meirsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, London: Allen Lane, 2007, 484 pp, £25, ISBN 978-1-846-14007-5

Many readers will have caught the trail of The Israel Lobby, the expansion of Meirsheimer and Walt’s controversial London Review of Books article – published here in 2006 after the Stateside Atlantic Monthly refused in 2005 to print the article that it had first commissioned in 2002. Theirs was an important political intervention, an argument that US foreign policy towards Israel had been shifted radically from what American national interests require, and that this distortion was due to the activities of the coalition of pro-Israeli lobbying interests at work in US politics. The article was all the more effective because of the authors’ academic credibility, mainstream politics and careful argument. It earned them the accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’, and indeed abuse, that all critics of Israel in the USA expect, but the authors have not been deterred from publishing this much more comprehensive restatement.

The Israel Lobby is an authoritative work. It argues from the conventional Realist assumption that national interests should dictate foreign policy to the effect that US policies serve what Israeli leaders want, in ways that often ‘jeopardize US national security’ and, indeed, even damage Israel’s own best interests. Extremely methodically, carefully and cogently, Meirsheimer and Walt build their case as to how the lobby operates, guides the policy process, and dominates public discourse. They demonstrate its (malign) influence on US policy not only towards the Palestinians, but on Iraq, Syria, Iran and during the Second Lebanon War, taking their stories up to 2007. Although this reviewer is not an Israel, Middle East or US foreign policy specialist, I do not recall reading a more judicious survey of the range of major Middle East issues and the interaction of Israeli and US policies. The authors have researched scrupulously, documenting their arguments at every stage (there are over 100 pages of notes and references); their writing is a model of economy and indeed of balance, since at every stage they are careful to present the arguments of Israeli advocates and US policy-makers before patiently demolishing them. While in a work of this size critics are bound to find points to argue with, it seems unlikely that those who share its main assumption – that US policy should reflect American interests – will be able to seriously damage its critique, which will stand for some time as the standard work on its subjects. One area of particular importance is the meticulous account of the links between the Israel lobby and the neoconservatives in and around the Bush administration. If there is an analytical issue on which Meirsheimer and Walt’s argument can be questioned on its own terms, it must be about where the balance of influence has lain during the Bush years. Israeli advocates have functioned greatly (although not exclusively: they have always maintained wider links) as adjuncts of and contributors to the neocon consensus. One would welcome the authors’ turning their attention directly to the latter, since despite all the attention the neocon lobby have gained, an equally comprehensive critique of it has still to be written.

The Israel Lobby should also be evaluated, however, as a political intervention. Its authors are realistic about the scale of the task they face. Although the bonding of the lobby with the neocons is seen as a major source of its recent ‘successes’ (since these include the Iraq and Lebanon wars the inverted commas are obligatory), Meirsheimer and Walt are under no illusions that Bush’s demise will seriously change the lobby’s influence. All the major Democratic as well as Republican contenders in 2008 are in its thrall to a greater or lesser extent, and the organisations within the lobby are clearly very reflexive and adaptable. Although former presidents Carter and Bush Senior showed some independence from Israel, the prospects of a US president being elected who will ‘treat Israel as a normal state’, remove its large subsidies, work towards a just settlement with the Palestinians and pursue negotiated settlements with Syria and Iran – all of which the authors plausibly claim are what the US national interest really requires – are slim. In the end the authors’ hopes for reorientation in the USA rest on developments which, however important in themselves, remain modest in scope at the time of writing: the development of critical scholarly and journalistic discourse and of more enlightened voices within the Jewish and pro-Israeli communities themselves. The Israel Lobby will contribute to these developments and, given its very accessible writing, deserves to be widely taken up on course lists and by a wider public, but the shift in US policy that Meirsheimer and Walt wish to see will not occur without dramatic external events which wake up the US electorate (whose underlying attitudes are far more critical of Israel than those of the political class) to the extent of policy failure.

Indeed, although Meirsheimer and Walt’s Realist assumptions and mainstream politics take them a long way, they are ultimately inadequate. Their otherwise impressive critique of the ‘dwindling moral case’ for the US‘s uncritical support of Israel fudges the justification for the state’s foundation. This, they argue, was ‘an appropriate response’ to the suffering of the Jews in Europe and the ‘long record of crimes’ against them: ‘This history provides a strong moral case for supporting Israel‘s founding and continued existence.’ (p. 92) Since they comprehensive demonstrate – from impeccable Israeli sources – that the foundation of the state was always recognised as necessarily involving the removal of the majority of the Palestinian Arab population, the sufferings of European Jews did not provide a sufficient moral case for Israel‘s foundation. Since the Israeli state was consolidated in 1948 by murderous expulsion, which Meirsheimer and Walt call ‘ethnic cleansing’ but which could equally be called ‘genocide’ in terms of the UN Convention adopted later the same year (and on this question I do claim particular expertise, as the author of two books on genocide), this is a perverse argument. Israel‘s continued existence may of course justified by the facts of settlement by subsequent generations and the protection of its people from violence, but these are different arguments. The authors also do not fully acknowledge the wider debate (increasingly questioning the two-state solution) which is taking place about how Palestinians and Israelis can coexist in the twenty-first century in the area of Mandate Palestine.

Finally, Meirsheimer and Walt’s argument that Israel should be treated merely as a ‘normal state’ begs the question of how to recognise that animal, and whether on any plausible definition Israel can claim to be one. Are ‘normal states’ based on ‘ethnic cleansing’ or genocide? (Well, actually, too many states are.) Do ‘normal states’ maintain decades-long occupations of neighbouring lands, allow their inhabitants only ‘bantustans’, develop nuclear weapons in defiance of international law, and urge the sole superpower into repeated wars against their neighbours? There is a strong case that Israel should be treated as a ‘rogue’ rather than ‘normal’ polity. Moreover there is another unexamined assumption: that the USA itself is, or at least could be, a ‘normal state’ and a rational promoter of international order and morality. Here too much of the evidence has long been pointing the other way. The USA has enormous power in the Middle East but the assumption that it possesses the key to the conflict is increasingly doubtful.

Martin Shaw
University of Sussex

Martin Shaw

I have referred to the Gaza ‘war’ in my title but we might question whether it really deserves this label. Hamas have managed to kill only 6 Israeli soldiers, only 2 more than the Israelis themselves with ‘friendly fire’. Their rockets have killed 3 more Israeli civilians: this side of their activity is militarily completely pointness, although naturally it brings real fear to civilians in those parts of Israel within range, and so provides the Israeli government with its casus belli. The real story therefore is an almost one-sided assault on Gaza with a death toll of almost 1000 at the time of writing, several thousand wounded, huge damage to the civilian infrastructure and society and a state of terror in which a million and a half civilians, including hundreds of thousands of children, are trapped without even the possibility of flight. To conclude the commentary on Hamas: these consequences of their pathetic rocket fire demonstrate their huge irresponsibility and underlying indifference to the fate of their people.
But the real questions concern Israel’s campaign. Clearly Israel had to do something about the rockets, but as Avi Shlaim argues it did not have to do this. For a start it shouldn’t have broken the ceasefire by attacking Hamas militants, which precipitated new rocket attacks. And before that it should have recognised the Hamas administration in Gaza when it was elected, and talked to it as well as to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. The idea that you can’t talk to Hamas because they are ‘terrorists’ is as absurd as the idea that you can’t talk to Israel because it practices (much greater) violence against Palestinian civilians. Of course talking would have meant that Israel would have had, sooner or later, to address justified Palestinian claims for concessions on the underlying injustices of the the Palestine situation – but there is no other way to peace.
What Israel has done instead is to assault Gaza, one of the most densely populated places on earth, from the air and sea and on the ground. Israel claims to be pursuing Hamas, to have killed hundreds of its militants and to be doing its utmost to avoid civilian harm. However we know (despite Israel’s restrictions on international media access) that there have been enormous civilian casualties. Several high-profile incidents suggest that in reality care for civilians has been minimal, and both the Red Cross and United Nations agencies have called for investigations with a view to charges of war crimes. Even if Israel has attempted to discriminate in its massive violence, the simple fact that Hamas militants live within dense urban populations means that it is not possible to attack Hamas without also causing massive civilian harm.
Jonathan Freedland argues that ‘Britons and Americans have no cause for self-righteousness. The scale of the Israeli offensive is shocking, and yet the killing is not of a greater order than that of the two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which our very own British troops are taking part. I spoke yesterday with one foreign diplomat based in Jerusalem who recalled how, during an earlier posting in Afghanistan, he had seen the remains of an entire village razed to the ground by American fighter jets in pursuit of a couple of Taliban commanders. “All that was left was rubble and body parts,” he says now. Seen in the context of the last seven years, the grim truth is that Israelis are not guilty of a unique crime in Gaza.’
There is much to what Freedland says. But Israel’s violence goes beyond the hypocritical risk-transfers of the ‘new western way of war’ practiced by the USA and UK. Whereas the West certainly attacks its armed enemies in such a way as to cause ‘accidental’ civilian harm, exposing civilians to greater risk than soldiers, Israel now has a substantial record of targeting civilian populations as such, both by economic and military means. In 2006, it was clear that the huge damage Israel caused to Lebanon’s infrastructure, and the massive population movements caused, were intended to pressurise the population into marginalising if not punishing Hizbollah. Likewise in Gaza: Israel imposed a harsh blockade as punishment for Gaza’s election of Hamas, restricting the entry and exit of Gaza residents as well as of food, medical supplies and other goods essential for economic and social life of the territory. As Richard Falk, the UN Rapporteur for the Palestinian territories, says, ‘There is a consensus among independent legal experts that Israel is an occupying power and is therefore bound by the duties set out in the fourth Geneva convention. The arguments that Israel’s blockade is a form of prohibited collective punishment, and that it is in breach of its duty to ensure the population has sufficient food and healthcare as the occupying power, are very strong.’
What seems incontestable is that the war is a continuation of this policy of collective punishment. Israel says it wants to destroy Hamas’s capacity to deliver its rockets: while certainly it is attempting to weaken Hamas militarily, Israel knows that it is impossible to prevent it ever launching rockets, by this type of action. No: Israel’s extensive harm to civilians is not just the accidental fall-out from its attack on Hamas. It has been so integral to its campaign that it is impossible not to see it in the same light as the blockade: Israel has decided that since economic punishment did not stop many Gazans from supporting Hamas, military punishment is necessary to complete the job. The rows of dead children, the terrorised populations, the overflowing hospitals, all are part of Israel’s strategy to subdue the Palestinians of Gaza and compel them to withdraw their consent from Hamas.
Moreover within this campaign, there seems to be an ominous element of targeted mass killing of anyone associated with Hamas as a political organisation. Israel’s violence has been directed not just at armed militants but all who are linked to the local state apparatus that Hamas controls – hence the massacre of policemen. This almost seems to be moving in the direction of a kind of ‘politicide’, or genocide of a political group, within the larger violence against the whole civilian population, summed up in Binyamin Netanyahu‘s idea of ‘removing’ Hamas from Gaza altogether.
Taken as a whole, this kind of war is even worse than what the West is doing in Afghanistan. It is of a kind, rather, with the degenerate war practiced by the UK and USA in the Second World War, bombing to bits the cities of Germany and Japan to shatter the morale of the civilian population and destroy the political basis of the regime. However the lessons of those campaigns were that this kind of violence – utterly immoral and outside the laws of war – only works in its most extreme forms, without limit and with a view to unconditional surrender. Before that, in more limited bombing, it mainly reinforces resistance. But Israel, although given far too much leeway by the discredited Bush regime, is subject to global surveillance in a way that the Allies were not. Israel cannot turn Gaza into Hiroshima or Dresden. This bloody campaign will only have the most limited, short-term successes, perhaps not even enough for Kadima and Labour to save their electoral skins, and certainly not enough to give Israel security. Security cannot come by military means.

For an expanded version of this post, see ‘Israel’s Politics of War‘ on opendemocracy.net