Archive for the ‘Israel / Palestine’ Category

I have coauthored the following article:

Goldberg, Amos; Kehoe, Thomas J.; Moses, A. Dirk; Segal, Raz; Shaw, Martin; and Wolf, Gerhard (2016) “Israel Charny’s Attack on the Journal of Genocide Research and its Authors: A Response,” Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal: Vol. 10: Iss. 2: 3-22. DOI: Available at: View article here

Abstract: Israel Charny has published an article, “Holocaust Minimization, Anti-Israel Themes, and Antisemitism: Bias at the Journal of Genocide Research” (JGR) in the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism. His specific allegations are bundled together in a single sentence: “minimization of the Holocaust, delegitimization of the State of Israel, and repeat[ing] common themes of contemporary antisemitism”. We write as the authors of articles and contributors to the JGR attacked by Charny. His allegations are false and we reject them. This article shows how they are based on distortions, misquotations, and falsifications of our work.


New on openDemocracy

The International Network of Genocide Scholars (INOGS) is holding a conference in Jerusalem this weekend. The initiative has attracted an attack by Israel Charny in the Jerusalem Post under the lurid heading, ‘Genocide scholars who minimize the Holocaust – and some who are coming to town’. This summarised his article published in the pseudo-academic Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, reporting a flawed survey of his friends and acquaintances interested in genocide about their attitudes to the Journal of Genocide Research (JGR), the premier journal in the field which is sponsored by INOGS.

Charny charges JGR and the authors of seven articles (including this writer) with ‘minimization of the Holocaust, delegitimization of the State of Israel, and repeat[ing] common themes of contemporary antisemitism’, and then reports how many of his respondents agreed with each of these charges in relation to each of the papers and the journal as a whole. The exercise is a travesty of social research because Charny personally selected the participants, prejudiced the survey by feeding them his own views and distorted summaries of the papers (rather than the papers themselves or their abstracts), and by using loaded terms like ‘Holocaust minimisation’ and above all ‘antisemitism’.

The ‘boycott’ petition against the conference

At the same time, however, for simply holding the conference in Jerusalem INOGS has come under fire from 270 academics and others who have signed a petition calling on it to respect the academic boycott of Israel, called by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). The petition points to the ‘hypocrisy’ of having the conference in Israel at a time when Israel’s actions are ‘increasingly being viewed through lenses of ethnic cleansing and genocide linked to settler colonialism’, as well as calling the location ‘Jerusalem, Israel’, when the city’s eastern part has been illegally annexed.

The irony of the petition’s first charge is that this is also the core reason why Charny objects to JGR. Seeing Zionism romantically as a ‘heroic nationalism’ rooted solely in Jewish victimisation, he is incensed by the mere suggestion that Israel’s founding through the removal of most of Palestine’s Arab population could be analysed through a ‘genocide’ lens. I proposed this idea in a 2010 debate in JGR following a fuller article in the Journal of Holy Land Studies (the paper was earlier presented at an INOGS conference). It was not an original insight: JGR’s most heavily downloaded paper is one by Patrick Wolfe which, inter alialinked the Israeli case to the wider problem of genocide in settler colonialism.

It typifies Charny’s intellectual sloppiness that he doesn’t seem to have read my original article before condemning me, but it also reflects poorly on the petition organisers that they don’t seem to have been aware of INOGS and JGR’s pioneering roles in promoting discussion of colonial genocide and broaching the subject (very sensitive because of the twin centrality of the Holocaust to genocide studies and to much Jewish identity) of the genocidal dimenstions of the Nakba. Nor do they seem to have picked up on the fact that INOGS was founded partly because of dissatisfaction with the way in which the existing, US-based International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) had been politicised by pro-Israeli scholars, most notoriously in a 2006 resolution echoing Israeli propaganda charges that then-President Ahmadinejad of Iran was threatening a new genocide against Jews.

INOGS’ opposition to politicising genocide studies

I left IAGS after that (although I should mention that in recent years a new, younger leadership has avoided further provocations of this kind). I supported, and still support, INOGS’s opposing stance that it is not helpful for the disciiplinary organisations of academics in a sensitive field like genocide to take political positions on what counts as genocide or a threat of genocide. All scholars in the genocide field have moral commitments, of course, and we should expect individuals to take political positions. But if we are to have professional communities which promote academic rigour and serious scholarly debate on the cases of genocide, then these cases cannot be foreclosed by majority votes on a website.

It is in this spirit, I assume, that my friend Juergen Zimmerer, the INOGS President, and other colleagues on its board have approached the Jerusalem conference. Israel is, naturally, one of the major countries in which the Holocaust is studied and there are key intellectual debates, including the relationship of Holocaust to wider study of genocide (the latter category is subversive in Israel since Holocaust-centrism is hegemonic) and indeed about how the Holocaust itself should be studied, broached in JGR, which it is especially appropriate to take forward in an Israeli setting. There are, after all, many serious genocide scholars in Israel, such as the veteran historian Yehuda Bauer who defended the conference in the Jerusalem Post, as well as ideologues like Charny.

The academic boycott of Israel

Thus far, I am sympathetic to the ambitions for this conference. Its programme is impressive. My absence, however, is not accidental. It is one thing to avoid political commitments, as INOGS has managed to do up to now. It is another, when holding an event in a site of conflict, to accept the position advocated by one side and to reject the position adopted by the other. Whether INOGS likes it or not, the academic boycott of Israel is part of this conflict. The boycott is not directed at individual scholars: many academics who support the boycott regularly have contact with Israeli scholars. It is directed at universities as Israeli institutions, which like many others are to a greater or lesser extent complicit in the oppression of Palestinians, as my late colleague Stan Cohen argued in a memorable paper (Hebrew here).

I don’t criticise the specific Israeli institutions which have sponsored the conference, which may well be acting laudibly within the oppressive Israeli climate of which Charny’s attacks are a symptom. It is significant that a West Bank-based institution is also among the sponsors, and Al Quds University was apparently approached to co-host but declined. There is a plenary roundtable, What Does It Mean to Study the Holocaust and Genocide in Israel/Palestine, A Site of Conflict?, in which one of the speakers is Palestinian, as well as other occasions to reflect on Israel-Palestine issues. This will probably a stimulating gathering, and at one level I am sorry to be missing it.

However I don’t see these as good enough reasons to avoid the boycott question. The boycott as a whole (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions, BDS, to give it its proper name) is emerging to the centre of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It offers Palestinians the means of applying peaceful international pressure to Israel to reach an equitable settlement, as an alternative to the violence of Hamas and others. It has been the focus of a huge official and unofficial Israeli counteroffensive, including bans on BDS campaigns in the USA, which has smeared boycotters as antisemitic.

It was unnecessary for INOGS to endorse the boycott; it could clearly have simply avoided the whole issue, in line with its previous position, by holding its conference somewhere else. But by holding a conference in Jerusalem, INOGS has taken a position against the boycott, and it is not one I can support.

I would have respected INOGS’ board more if it had responded publicly to the criticisms of the boycotters, and indeed I made several attempts to encourage it to articulate its position, so that this debate, instead of being brought together in this piece, would have taken place between INOGS and those academics who thought it should not go to Jerusalem.

There is a further irony in that INOGS and JGR have been smeared as ‘delegitimising the State of Israel’, and even antisemitic, despite this decision. No doubt the Charnys of this world will be quick to heap further ignominy on me for the views I am expressing, and will throw in INOGS for good measure.

‘Delegitimising’ Israel

I explained my decision to support the boycott at the time of Israel’s last large-scale massacres in Gaza in 2014, and there is no need to repeat all the arguments here. I will make clear, however, in the light of recent controversies in the UK, that my position on Israel-Palestine has not fundamentally changed since I was commissioned to write on it in 2009 (after the first Gaza massacres) by the editor of Democratiya, Alan Johnson. (Charny should note that Johnson now works for the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, BICOM, and was never one to publish an antisemitic post.)

Any reader of these articles will see that I do not oppose the existence of the State of Israel. That is also true of my academic writing referred to above. Charny is unable to engage with the Palestinian genocide proposition (or even Ilan Pappe’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ perspective) in conceptual or historical terms, but only through the starkly political lens of the ‘delegitimisation’ of the state. Yet as Jonathan Freedland has argued, ‘As for the notion that Israel’s right to exist is voided by the fact that it was born in what Palestinians mourn as the Naqba [sic] – their dispossession in 1948 – one does not have to be in denial of that fact to point out that the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and countless others were hardly born through acts of immaculate conception. Those nations were forged in great bloodshed.’

However the corollary of recognising that there is no necessary connection between the crimes of Israel’s foundation and its right to exist today is that the Nakba deserves the same academic attention as the other cases that Freedland mentions, which are increasingly discussed in the colonial genocide literature that JGR has done so much to develop. If research on Israel-Palestine is to advance, it will have to overcome the idea that deep historical criticism of Israel necessarily implies the dismantling of its state and society.

The reason why we have not got to this ‘normal’ stage is Israel’s continuous expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem, which even more than its failure to address historic Palestinian grievances means that Israel itself has not achieved a stable state. The world has recognised Israel within its 1948 borders, but Israel itself is unsatisfied with these borders. Its internationally illegitimate expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, endorsed in some degree by all mainstream parties in the Knesset, makes it impossible to unequivocally endorse the state.

Conceptual and normative aspects of forced removal

At the heart of my conceptual position is the proposition that the forced removal of populations is one of the key means through which genocide, the destruction of population groups and societies, is carried out. Corresponding to this, I take a normative position: whole groups and societies should not be forcibly uprooted.

I apply this principle retrospectively to the forced removal of the majority of Palestinians from Israeli territory in 1948, a removal which was partially deliberate at the time and wholly deliberate in the Israeli refusal to allow Palestinians to return after the war.

I apply this prospectively to any proposal for the forced removal of the Jewish population of Israel, and I recognise that the Jewish population needs a state in which it has confidence to protect it. A stable state structure in Israel-Palestine, whether one state or two, needs Jewish as well as Palestinian consent.

However I also apply this principle now to the ongoing forced removal of the Palestinian population from their homes in many parts of the Occupied Territories, and their replacement by Jewish settlers.

Jerusalem: where ‘genocide’ questions are still live

Jerusalem is not just a site of ‘conflict’, in the euphemistic terminology of the INOGS conference programme. It is a site of what many, almost as euphemistically, call ‘ethnic cleansing’, as Palestinians are forced out of their longstanding homes in the occupied east of the city. It is a site in which questions of ‘genocide’, the deliberate destruction of communities, are all too live.

‘Genocide’, wrote Raphael Lemkin, ‘has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization by the oppressor’s own nationals.’

It is true that current dispossession is piecemeal, often legal in the Israeli understanding (although Israel’s domestic law does not genuinely apply when the occupation is illegal under international law), and mostly accompanied by only localised coercion or violence. In these senses it is different from the wholesale removal of a large population, without a shred of legality and with extensive violence, which occurred in 1948.

However it seems to me unarguable that the present dispossession is an extension of the historic destruction of Palestinian society. In the midst of this crisis, genocide scholars cannot ignore the call for boycotting Israel which comes, not from those ‘singling out’ or ‘demonising’ Israel (as BDS’s critics claim), let alone from antisemites, but from those Palestinian organisations which see it as a more potent weapon for justice than rockets, bombs or knives which harm innocent civilians.

This is why I am not in Jerusalem.

Conceptualising and Theorising Antisemitism and Racism: The Structural Context of Israel-Palestine, Journal of Holy Land and Palestine Studies 14.2 (2015): 149–164 (pdf available).


This paper provides a basis for re-examining the contemporary connections of antisemitism and racism through an examination of the conceptual and theoretical parameters of the concept of racism. It argues that racism is a broad and dynamic category, the forms of which must be seen as varied and constantly changing. Thus although ‘new antisemitism’ arguments are wrong to propose a strong connection between opposition to Israel and antisemitism, they are correct to argue that antisemitism has changed and that its current forms are connected to the changes that Israel has brought about for the position of Jews. However, examining antisemitism as a variety of racism requires us to investigate racism in general in the conflicts in, and surrounding, Israel-Palestine. The paper argues for a structural concept of racism in these conflicts. While criticising the ‘apartheid’ framing of Israeli racism, it argues that anti-Palestinian racism is structurally embedded in Israeli society at many levels, and that recent wars have exacerbated this racism on a much larger scale than the antisemitism which they have also stimulated.

Citing my theory of risk-transfer war, Israeli social scientist Yagil Levy analyses in The Washington Post how – despite an increase in Israeli casualties in its 2014 attack on Gaza compared to 2008-9 – Israel transferred the risks of its campaign even more to Palestinian civilians than in the earlier conflict.

I published this letter in the Guardian on 27 January 2015 (scroll down for my letter):

‘The proposals of a European Council on Toleration and Reconciliation report for a Europe-wide ban on genocide denial, as part of a swathe of new legal measures (Jewish groups want EU ban on intolerance, 26 January), are highly problematic. First, it is proposed to ban denial of the Holocaust, but not of other historic cases such as the Armenian genocide or the Palestinian Nakba – although Nakba denial (legally enforced in Israel) is as likely to contribute to antisemitism (a major concern of the report) as is Holocaust denial.

Second, it is proposed to outlaw denial only of any “other act of genocide the existence of which has been determined by an international criminal court or tribunal”. This sounds reasonable, but international courts try individuals, only adjudicating history incidentally; most recent genocide, like historic genocide, has not been tried internationally; and these courts’ operations are highly politically constrained.

The proposed bans will only lead to arbitrary and contested prosecutions which increase polarisation, not reconciliation. It is better to combat genocide denial through argument and evidence.
Martin Shaw
Author, What is Genocide?

To expand, there are at least five separate issues here:

1. Banning ideas, however reactionary, as such – rather than when they threaten violence or discrimination – breaches freedom of speech.

2. The report doesn’t say what is to be banned – ‘literal’ denial (of the facts) or ‘interpretative’ denial (whether the events constitute a genocide). My reference to the Nakba illustrates the contentiousness of the latter issue, and the line where legitimate debate and denial gets blurred. I do not think it is possible to legally define this line: it is a matter for historians.

3. Naming the Holocaust as a genocide that can’t be denied, while requiring all other genocides to pass a legal test before their denial counts for the purposes of banning, is inconsistent and protects the memory of the Holocaust while not protecting that of many other historic and contemporary episodes.

3 In any case, there is no international legal framework for recognising genocides and the corpus of international legal decisions is decidedly not robust enough to provide an impartial framework. Many cases cannot be brought before international courts for political reasons, and courts are subject to political pressures in operations, leading them to inconsistent decisions which even involve genocide denial as in the case of the International Court of Justice decision on Bosnia.

4 In the contemporary European context, to legally ban Holocaust denial while not protecting the memory of other genocides such as the Nakba, which matter particularly to Muslim and Arab minorities, can easily be construed as a partisan intervention, and enforcement could easily contribute to polarisation. The incarceration of Holocaust-denying ‘historian’ David Irving in Austria did little good, and the indictment of Muslim Holocaust-deniers in France, say, could actively cause harm.

5 The report is considerably motivated by the desire to stem (indeed ban) anti-semitism. However we know that contemporary European anti-semitism, while rooted in jihadist ideology as well as historic legacies, is hugely stimulated by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, as the big spike following last summer’s Israeli atrocities in Gaza showed. Israel has instrumentalised the Holocaust while simultaneously banning commemoration of the Nakba. Netanyahu is now shamelessly instrumentalising the recent genocidal mini-massacre of Jews in Paris. I argue that to weaken anti-semitism, rather than reinforcing these Israeli narratives by banning Holocaust denial, it is necessary to seek a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians and to challenge Israeli ideology. Recognition of the Nakba could be a powerful step in that direction. The European Council on Toleration and Reconciliation would have done better to focus on.this alternative agenda.

photo (1)My new article published on openDemocracy. Some additional comments, not in the openDemocracy version, are indicated by italics.

Israel’s slaughter in Gaza must make us all pause and ask whether we should rethink our stance on the Palestine conflict. The killing is presented as a regrettable response to Hamas’s provocations, an almost routine police action as the Israeli euphemism “mowing the lawn” suggests. However the very fact that this is regarded as normal means that we are dealing with a highly abnormal situation, which demands a radical response.

This is not self-defence

Israel’s claim to be acting in self-defence is much too easily accepted by western governments and media. The present crisis arises from Israeli aggression against Hamas following the murder of Israeli teenagers, which Israeli officials now admit was not carried out by Hamas. The recent escalation of rocket attacks was a response to these Israeli actions. (Michael Walzer, writing in New Republic, manages to miss all this, and neglect the fact that this was a war of choice for Israel.)

Moreover this crisis is the continuation of a larger conflict in which Israel cannot generally evoke self-defence. Its violence is not defending it against illegal aggression; instead Israel is enforcing illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, and Palestinian resistance is justified in principle. Israel has withdrawn its settlers from Gaza, but retains overall economic and military control and imposes a cruel blockade. In the rest of the Palestinian Territories, in the West Bank, Israel retains direct control and has promoted massive illegal settlement.

Israel’s legal duty is to end the occupation and rectify the injustices it has committed against the Palestinians. Only if it did that and still faced rocket attacks would it have a legitimate general claim to act in self-defence. (To be clear about the significance of this in terms of the international laws of war: Israel has continued the occupation arising from the 1967 war for 47 years and broken the prohibitions on occupying powers’ annexing and settling occupied territory. It cannot have a legitimate casus belli against those it rules over in this situation.)

Israel’s legitimate defensive interest is therefore a limited one: the prevention of Hamas’s illegitimate rocket attacks on civilians. It possesses extremely effective means of shooting them down, and while it is understandable that it also wishes to destroy the military infrastructure that makes them possible, it does not have a right to do this at the expense of the population of Gaza. (That is, Israel’s only possible justification concerns ius in bello, not ad bellum, but the way it is attacking Gaza rules this out too.)

It is clear that the larger air, sea and ground attacks on Gaza are illegitimate because they are utterly disproportionate to the requirements of ending the rocket threat. Moreover Israel is obliged by international law to take precautions to protect civilians from the force it claims to direct at Hamas. Any precautions it has taken are obviously completely inadequate.

In reality the careless targeting of homes, hospitals and schools and the relentless, murderous destruction of neighbourhoods compellingly suggest that civilian harm is completely intended by the Israeli government. This violence is effectively targeted at Gaza’s civilians as well as Hamas. In the light of the pre-existing blockade directed at Gaza’s population over many years, Israel’s violence can only be interpreted as an extreme continuation of collective punishment.

Israel’s use of force in this assault, as in the Lebanon war of 2006 and the two previous major attacks on Gaza, thus involves far more than the risk-transfer war that other western countries routinely practice. This is at least classic degenerate warfare, recalling Britain’s great shame of the second world war, its targeting of German cities to break civilian “morale”. This is “war” of a kind that the Geneva conventions of 1949 outlaw. Indeed if Israel’s aim is now to destroy Gazan society, rather than just to subjugate it, the killing in Gaza raises questions of genocide. (The subjective basis of ‘genocide’ is certainly present in Israel, as indicated by the remarks of Knesset member Ayelet Shaked and the notorious Times of Israel blogpost about ‘permissible genocide’ – perhaps one of the first open calls for ‘genocide’ as such on record. On the critical side, Daniel Feierstein, President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, has argued on Facebook that Israel’s policies are genocidal. Certainly, its campaign shows the affinities of what I call ‘degenerate war’ with genocide.)

Sanctions, “apartheid” and “singling out” Israel

In the face of this horror, we all have a duty of solidarity with the victims. In the short term, that means pressurising, and getting our governments to pressurise, Israel to stop the bombing. However it is obvious, after this third assault in six years, that we must act now to stop a fourth and a fifth. This means working towards a political solution to the occupation and the blockade of Gaza.

Many have long argued that boycotts and sanctions are the principal means that global civil society can exert towards this goal. The example of South Africa is usually cited in support and Israeli rule over Palestinians is compared to apartheid. I do not usually agree with Noam Chomsky, but his recent assessment puts this claim in perspective:

“Within Israel, discrimination against non-Jews is severe; the land laws are just the most extreme example. But it is not South African-style apartheid. In the occupied territories, the situation is far worse than it was in South Africa, where the white nationalists needed the black population: it was the country’s workforce, and as grotesque as the bantustans were, the nationalist government devoted resources to sustaining and seeking international recognition for them. In sharp contrast, Israel wants to rid itself of the Palestinian burden. The road ahead is not toward South Africa, as commonly alleged, but toward something much worse.”

South Africa never bombed black areas to smithereens, and the Sharpeville massacre in 1961 (with sixty-nine deaths) pales compared to what Israel is doing to Gaza.

Opponents of boycotts and sanctions like the late Norman Geras, a respected Marxist academic, argue that they “single out” Israel when other states are doing far worse things. In the region today, Syria has killed many more, and Egypt’s new regime too, its total soon to be boosted by mass death penalties. Yet the South African boycott, which Norman supported, also singled out one regime, by no means the most murderous of its day. In 1961 Mao Zedong was completing the “great leap forward”, which caused tens of millions of deaths, but there were no calls for sanctions against China from those who targeted apartheid after Sharpeville.

The relevance of boycotts and sanctions to the Israeli case

Boycott advocates counter, in any case, that supporters of Israel also single it out, justifying exceptional levels of western political, financial and military support. Clearly it would be strange to rule out boycotts and sanctions from the Israel-Palestine conflict in principle, because Israel is itself applying comprehensive sanctions to Gaza. The real question about such measures is not whether we are applying them to all bad regimes equally, but whether they are likely to help move the political situation forward in the particular case.

There are good reasons why boycotts and sanctions seem an unusually attractive weapon against Israel. Its dependence on support from the United States and other western states means that opposition to Israel in these societies could also have exceptional political consequences. (It is perverse of Chomsky to argue that there are weak prospects of success.) Although it remains difficult to imagine official sanctions by governments, even of the limited kind taken against Putin’s Russia, Israel’s dependence means that unofficial boycotts, on a sufficient scale, might have an unusual political effect, maybe even more than they did in South Africa.

The difficulty of the effects of severe sanctions, raised by the blockade which has impoverished Gaza (and by sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s), do not appear likely to apply in the Israeli case. A rich western society can surely withstand considerable economic and other pressure without its fabric crumbling or its people being deprived of life-saving medicines. A society that so overwhelmingly supports such severe sanctions against others cannot complain about the more limited sanctions and boycotts that its opponents might mobilise against it.

Why I was reluctant to support boycotts

In earlier discussions, I did not support a general boycott of Israel (although I boycotted goods from illegal settlements). This was not because I was impressed by prominent pro-Israeli arguments, for example that boycotts of Israel evoke boycotts of Jewish shops in Nazi Germany. Boycotters almost always distinguish clearly between Israeli businesses and institutions and Jewish businesses and institutions in general.

Indeed boycotters, like western critics of Israel generally, usually distinguish much more carefully between Israelis and Jews than do supporters of Israel. The latter’s identification of Israel with the world Jewish community almost invites a new kind of anti-Semitism, but western opponents of Israel are mostly scrupulous in avoiding this.

For these reasons, I previously defended boycotters while opposing boycotts. My reluctance to support the latter had much to do with some of the forms they took. I was repelled by the notorious removal of individual academics from editorial boards, simply because they were Israeli.

I remain opposed to any boycott of individual contacts on account of nationality, and believe it is important to maintain individual communications. Indeed it is crucial that direct support is given to courageous Israeli individuals and groups who oppose war and occupation. In due course I discovered, of course, that this is the mainstream position of the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions movement (BDS).

I was also suspicious of the logic of collective punishment involved in ostracising Israeli institutions. As an academic, I valued academic discourse and although I knew that Israeli universities were implicated in injustices against Palestinians, they were also disproportionately centres of debate and even opposition. I worried that blanket academic boycotts could weaken these. Similar arguments applied to the media, which contain some important bastions of free discussion.

However the decisive reason for not supporting boycotts and sanctions was that there always seemed some prospect, however tenuous, of negotiations leading to a settlement. Even if this was bound to be largely on Israeli terms, it seemed important to me (as it did to many Palestinians) to pursue the prospect. Even an unequal peace could open up cooperation based on common economic interests (Israel-Palestine is the size of Greater Los Angeles, as Bernard Avishai points out) and in the long run enable Palestinians to improve their situation.

So I thought it important to avoid doing anything that might make it more difficult, and worried that this could be the result of a large-scale boycott.

What has changed

There were always counter-arguments. Given the inequality between Israel and the Palestinians, external pressure could help even up the balance of forces and so lead to a marginally more just settlement. Peaceful global boycotts could encourage peaceful forces inside Palestine at the expense of the armed militancy which feeds Israeli militarism. Perhaps I didn’t give enough weight to these claims.

What convinces me of them now is that the pro-dialogue forces in Israel have never been weaker. Not only do almost all Israelis (87% in one poll) support their government’s current slaughter, but also the anti-war movement is the smallest of all Israel’s wars. Most important, the real negotiation between Israeli and Palestinian leaders that took place in the days of Ehud Olmert appears to have been definitively cast aside.

For many years Israel’s settlement policies have constantly diminished what little chance there was of a viable Palestinian state. Settlers steal Palestinian land and homes, aided and abetted by Israeli law, bureaucracy and armed force. The “security” wall divides Palestinian communities. Army, police and settlers harass Palestinian families and the state fails to protect them from settler violence. State and municipal policies whittle away the Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem.

However Israeli leaders have kept the increasing fiction of a two-state solution alive and allowed John Kerry to shuttle too and fro in ever-more hopeless diplomacy. The US connived with this by never putting sharp pressure on Israel. Binyamin Netanyahu never really supported a two-state solution and his coalition’s centre of gravity reflects the ever-strengthening pro-settler right, even as it includes some “moderates” like Tipi Livni. The exploitation of the teenage murders first to terrorise the West Bank and then shatter Gaza has made it clear that Israel has no interest in peace.

Netanyahu abandons the two-state solution

Peter Beinart draws attention to Netanyahu’s recent declaration: “There cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.” Beinart also cites the view of Times of Israel editor David Horovitz, a Netanyahu sympathiser, that the prime minister was “insisting upon ongoing Israeli security oversight inside and at the borders of the West Bank. That sentence, quite simply, spells the end to the notion of Netanyahu consenting to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Therefore Israel is dominated by forces which are wholly committed to maintaining control over the Palestinians and their territories. It is difficult to see a constellation of forces emerging which will change this any time soon – except possibly in the direction of yet more radical assaults on Palestinians, maybe within Israel proper. The attack on Gaza appears as a final confirmation of the direction in which Israel has been travelling for a long time. In this context, my reticence about the boycott is as futile as Kerry’s willingness to continue shuttle diplomacy. Moreover, the distinction between boycotting Israel and boycotting settlements is meaningless since the state has committed itself totally to settlements, settlers and all that their growing dominance in the West Bank means for the possibility of a Palestinian state.

Boycott, an unavoidable political choice?

In this situation, for there ever to be a chance of change and a negotiated end to the occupation, Israel has to be subjected to much more of the coercion to which it so readily subjects others. This coercion can come in two forms. One is the violence of Hamas and others: indeed it is important to note that analysts increasingly emphasise that destroying Hamas will only open up the way for “more extreme” forces. The other is peaceful pressure, in the forms of civil protest inside Palestine, a boycott in western and global civil society, and sanctions by any governments on which civil society can exert sufficient pressure to act.

In the last decade, a vicious cycle of violence has helped close down civil protest and reinforce the relentless pro-settler, anti-two-state dynamic of Israeli politics as well as Hamas’s dominance in Gaza. If we outside Palestine hope for a virtuous cycle of protest and dialogue, we have a duty to make our own contributions, through action as well as talk. Palestinians and Israelis cannot do this on their own. A general boycott of Israeli goods, along the lines of the South African boycott, seems the minimum that is needed.

How far should this be extended to cultural spheres like academia, media and the arts? In prioritising an economic boycott, we cannot neglect these areas. A boycott of Israeli institutions is a price they will have to pay to prevent a repeat of what we have seen over the last two weeks – or worse. While contacts with individual academics continue, boycotting conferences in Israel sends a strong message of international disapproval. Stephen Hawking’s refusal to attend a conference hosted by president Shimon Peres worried Israel: its leaders even refrained from inciting accusations of anti-Semitism (usually made against those who boycott the country) against him. The rest of us may not be so lucky, but that too is a small price for standing up. In any case, abuse is weakening the potency of such accusations.

Israel’s future

Many will say, as I might have said before, that isolating Israel will only reinforce the deep reactionary trends in its politics. This may be true in the short term, but it seems as though only a sharp challenge and dislocation will turn this society and state in a different direction. Israel is radically overplaying its hand locally, regionally and globally by spurning the opportunities for settlement with Palestinian leaders which are on offer. If its present course continues, it is probably only a matter of time before the state experiences a radical shock which will present it with the existential crisis that its leaders’ rhetoric has long invoked to justify its atrocities.

Such a shock may come about through the accelerating instability of the wider Middle East, which hardly promises a safe environment for this outpost of the west. It would be better for everyone if it came through western states’ pulling the plug on Israel’s support-mechanisms. Boycotting Israel is not just a way of helping the Palestinians: it could also be the best way to save Israelis from the consequences of their own folly.

Posted on The Ukraine and Gaza crises alike demonstrate the risks of aggressive policy based on short-term calculations. Vladimir Putin and Binyamin Netanyahu’s war-as-politics invites damaging long-term consequences.

The slaughters in Ukraine and Gaza have one thing in common. Both result from governments authorising violence which is overwhelmingly motivated by domestic politics and appears almost gratuitous from a strategic point of view. Such policies promise short-term domestic popularity, but risk losing international credibility and producing serious blowback. Vladimir Putin is now finding this out. Binyamin Netanyahu should take note: the blowback for Israel could be far more serious.

Putin’s nemesis

Putin began his capricious military intervention in Ukraine to offset the humiliation of the Maidan protestors’ overthrow of the kleptocratic president Viktor Yanukovych, the day after Russia had endorsed the European Union foreign ministers’ deal for a gradual transition. Putin’s initial intervention secured total control over Crimea with its Russian naval bases, though these (like Russian speakers in Crimea) had never seriously been threatened. Putin, emboldened by a success which played to the nationalist gallery, then promoted the transformation of eastern Ukrainians’ political opposition to the new Kiev regime into armed rebellion, and followed up by sending Russian officers and weapons and encouraging Russian as well as local activists.

The strategy had the domestic effect of boosting Putin’s popularity. But it imposed a high cost in life and disruption on the people he claimed to be helping, provoked great western hostility, and did not stop Kiev gradually reasserting some control.

Now, however, the shooting-down on 17 July of a Malaysian Airways plane with 298 international travellers on board – to all appearances by pro-Russian separatists – raises the stakes to an entirely new level. This outrage can fairly be painted as the outcome of Putin’s adventure and is leading to worldwide condemnation of his regime. This could have serious consequences for Russia’s global economic as well political position. In the longer run it could certainly translate into domestic political costs for Putin.

Netanyahu’s gamble

Where Binyamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government is concerned, it almost certainly knew that the three teenagers whose kidnap led to its army’s rampage through the West Bank were already dead. More children were killed in the army operation, houses blown up and hundreds arrested (including many previously released Hamas supporters). The government definitely knew that, in response, Hamas would have every reason to escalate its rocket attacks. Partly to keep extreme right-wing, pro-settler elements within the governing coalition, Netanyahu calculated that Israel’s public, outraged by media hysteria over the murdered teenagers, would rally to whatever violence its military inflicted, not just on Hamas, but on Palestinian civilians.

There are conventional military elements to Israel’s attack on Gaza, but it is difficult to dignify them as strategic. These amount to inflicting short-term damage on Hamas’s economic and political as well as military infrastructure. However as the obscene euphemism “mowing the lawn” suggests, these gains are recognised as short-term. In any case the starting-point of this campaign, and its larger purpose as it continues, is surely to punish Palestinians as a whole for the delectation of an Israeli public opinion desensitised to dead bodies which are not their own. In this purpose, too, the gains can only be short-term, as once Gazans emerge from the rubble they will surely be radicalised by the new outrage that Israel has committed on them. The signs of this are already apparent.

Netanyahu’s blowback problem is not just Hamas: its political reinforcement is a predictable consequence of what he is doing, just as the continuing dominance of the aggressive Israeli right is a predictable consequence of Hamas’s rocket campaigns. The real problem is the extreme instability of the wider Middle East, with long-term wars raging in Syria and Iraq, in which the stability of Jordan – absolutely crucial to Israel’s own – is increasingly at risk. The gain to Israel of the brutal new, anti-Hamas Egyptian government is small in comparison.

Israel could find itself, not too far ahead, facing an opposition far worse than Hamas, which cannot be contained by the quick-fix punitive expeditions that Israel has practised in Gaza and Lebanon in the last decade, and which are easily sold to a domestic public and tolerated by western governments. Indeed these assaults, which Israelis now think of as routine, could contribute to a radicalisation beyond Gaza, and beyond as well as within Israel-Palestine, which will genuinely threaten their security in a way in which Hamas can never do.

Israeli adventurism: the real stakes

This is Netanyahu’s real gamble. For small, encircled Israel, dependent on United States and western support, the stakes of adventurism are far higher than they are for a great power like Russia, secure in its own borders and facing no real military threats. Israeli leaders, relentlessly focused on the short term (as their unstable electoral-coalition system dictates) could be making a historic blunder by ignoring the strategic advantages of a settlement with the existing Palestinian political forces – including Hamas.

The outlines of a deal, overwhelmingly on Israel’s terms even if requiring some difficult concessions, have been on the table for a long time. Peaceful Israeli and Palestinian states alongside each other, with cooperative economic arrangements and even a fraction of the western aid now buttressing Israel’s military stance, would offer a bulwark of stability which military occupation and violent collective punishment can never provide. In ten or twenty years’ time, the world might ask how Israeli leaders could possibly have indulged this dangerous temptation of short-term military gratification at the cost of a political and strategic solution.

The problem of war-as-politics

Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) famously claimed that war is the continuation of Politik by other means. The word is usually translated as “policy”, but sometimes as “politics”. In the 21st century, however, war is increasingly the continuation of domestic politics, with geopolitical policy and military strategy subordinated to domestic goals.

Since Margaret Thatcher salvaged her deep domestic unpopularity by successfully avenging the Argentine invasion of the Falkland/Malvinas islands in 1982, governments have increasingly factored electoral calculations into military decisions. Western leaders over the last three decades – like Netanyahu today – have been tempted by quick-fix wars with minimal political risks, in which few of “our” soldiers are killed and the life-costs are mainly transferred to innocent civilians in the war-zone. (see The New Western Way of War, where I call this “risk-transfer war”).

Such wars have worked only for short periods. In an extreme but relevant case, George W Bush’s hubris in declaring “major combat over” in Iraq in 2003 was exposed by the unending, low-level genocidal civil war that continues to this day. Despite Tony Blair’s protests, this war did not just introduce “terrorism” and al-Qaida to Iraq, but has led ultimately to ISIS and the new “Islamic State”. Even electorally, although Bush may have scraped re-election, his presidency ended in ignominy and the defeat of his party, while Blair has of course become a pariah in Europe.

Netanyahu should heed not only Putin’s, but also Bush’s nemesis. He may keep his show on the road for a while longer as a result of the latest assault, but the new, much more aggressive and unpredictable Islamists which Bush’s policies helped to unleash are not far from Jordan and even Israel itself. It is a mark of the extreme short-termism which characterises Israeli, like most governments’, policies that few are thinking of the dramatically different stakes that would arise if the Palestinian crisis should be connected to the wider instability, as the Iraqi crisis has been dramatically connected to the Syrian war.

The Gaza war is meant to be, like Israel’s and other western wars, a contained exercise. But what if Clausewitz’s law of escalation should assert itself in currently unforeseen ways?