This week Selwyn Manning and I do a post-mortem on Brazil’s election and a preview of the US midterms under the general banner of “it is about the movement, not the man,” then turn to the tactical and existential issues surrounding Israel’s latest (and increasingly rightwing-leaning) elections. You can draw your conclusions by linking here.
In this week’s podcast Selwyn Manning and I work through some of the under-examined aspects of the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the stakes involved in Samoa’s disputed political transition. You can find it here.
Not wanting to get into an endless debate here, but as a political person I cannot pass on making a small comment on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I do not pretend to be a subject expert on the tortured history of Israeli-Palestinian relations and am not about to get into the finger-pointing and “whataboutism” surrounding the latest precipitants of collective violence, but as a student of armed conflict (yes, there is such thing), here it goes.
Among many others, there are two principles embedded in the laws of war (jus in bello): in the conduct of armed operations the use of force must be proportional and discriminate; and collective punishment of unarmed populations must be avoided. Even when not specifically phrased in these terms and whether done by state or non-state actors, behaviour that violates these principles are classified as war crimes. The legal work on this subject is voluminous.
Unfortunately, these norms continue to be regularly violated. In the desire to apply superior asymmetric force to an adversary, armed forces lacking a firm moral compass or professional ethos disregard these principles as a matter of course and yet at their peril (think of the Syrian military as a recent example). Conversely, weaker armed groups use disproportionate and indiscriminate force against non-combatants to compensate for their inability to prevail in a conventional (and rules bound) force-versus-force confrontation (think of Daesh). Whichever the reason, disproportionality and collective retribution lead to indiscriminate violence against innocents, which opens up the perpetrators to legal consequences or replies-in-kind should there be no legal consequence.
If eye-for-eye retribution is to be avoided, regardless of who they are and the cause that they espouse, those who order and carry out attacks in violation of these principles must be legally held to account. If not addressed by their own judicial means, there is a place for that to happen. It is called the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. However, there is a problem with adjudicating justice via the ICC because it depends on it being recognised by sovereign states and objectively supported by the most powerful among them. Unfortunately, countries like Israel, Iran, Russia, the PRC, Turkey, most Sunni Arab states and the US do not recognise the ICC, so its scope of authority is limited at best.
The Palestinian Authority recognises the jurisdiction of the ICC but Israel and Hamas do not. Israel argues that Palestine is not a sovereign state in spite of its non-member observer status in the UN (the ICC is a dependency of the UN) so cannot be party to the Rome Statute that established the ICC. It also argues that Israel has its own investigative bodies so does not need ICC interference in its affairs. Hamas is not recognised as a sovereign governmental body even though it administers the Gaza Strip (in a division of authority with the Fatah-led Ramallah-based administration that is recognised as the Palestinian Authority), so is excluded from ICC jurisdiction even if its members can be prosecuted by it (as is the case with Israelis). In addition, because it is not a party to the Rome Statute, Hamas refuses to recognise the ICC as an instrument of accountability. Because of the lack of universal recognition, the ICC cannot gain UN Security Council (or even General Assembly) approval to extend its jurisdiction to non-signatory states.
Even so, the ICC has (perhaps as an aspirational rather than practical goal) on-going investigations against both Hamas and Israel dating back to 2014 and has launched another against both sides as a result of the current conflict. It is more than likely these will be fruitless unless the international community coalesces around a demand for accountability for war crimes in this ongoing tragedy. Specifically, the time has come for larger powers to use their diplomatic strength to support the ICC investigations against Hamas and Israel and thereby put on notice those on both sides who order and carry out war crimes that they will be prosecuted for their actions.
Again, this is not about who started what or re-litigating historical grievances. It is about trying to stop the commission of war crimes once armed conflict is engaged. The ICC can investigate the veracity of claims of civilian targeting and can charge commanders and political leaders on both sides for authorising attacks on them (the evidence is already available on video). It can then issue international arrest warrants for the accused that, if not enforced inside of their own territorial jurisdictions, will be enforceable if they try to leave the safety of them (think of Pinochet when he went to visit Maggie Thatcher and wound up under de facto house confinement for months because he could not leave Britain without risking arrest for crimes against humanity–in his case against his won people). This type of move is therefore a holding to account for current and past crimes and a deterrent against future crimes. The impediments to doing so are many but the need to do so is even greater.
The desire to use the ICC as an agent of justice and deterrence may be wishful thinking given contemporary realities but it seems that with enough support in the wider international community, such an ICC intervention could be a prelude to the political settlements required for peace. And even if its potential use only helps stop the current fighting, then a small defense of humanity will have been served.
An interesting thing happened after I wrote last week’s first blog post about Venezuela ( http://www.kiwipolitico.com/2019/02/on-the-venezuelan-mess/). A gentleman from the Israel Institute of New Zealand wrote me at my business email address to request a correction or retraction for something I had written in that post. The objectionable phrase was my reference to Israel as “semi-democratic.” He pointed out that Israel ranked just one point away from France as a “flawed” democracy in the latest Economist democracy ratings, not far behind Germany. In that post I characterised France and Germany as Right-leaning “advanced democracies” so he reckoned that I had slighted Israel when I labeled it as “semi” democratic instead.
We backed and forthed on the subject for a day or so. I told him that I based my characterisation on the fact that Arab Israelis are treated as second class citizens. I told him that I would leave it at that and not get into the subject of settlements on occupied land, the drift rightwards towards extremism and intolerance in its politics under the Likud Party (created by those paragons of democratic virtue Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon and now led by Benjamin Netanyahu), the corruption of its government under Netanyahu (and his predecessor), its approach to Palestinians etc. He countered by pointing out that Arab Israelis have all rights given to non-Arabs, that they do not have to do compulsory military service but can vote and that a High Court judge who will hear Netanyahu’s corruption trial is an Arab.
I explained to him that I do not take the Economist’s ranking as gospel. In fact, I think that they are flawed due to an Anglo-Saxon bias and formal procedures and frameworks rather than substantive interactions (for example, I believe that New Zealand is ranked too high and Uruguay is ranked too low in the Economist list). I pointed out that I had an academic background that included writing about democratic theory (and democratisation in practice), so understand democracy to involve procedural (free and fair elections), institutional (impartial application the rule of law), societal (toleration, equality as mass values), and economic (fair distribution of productive wealth) dimensions, all of which I believe are deficient in Israel. He replied that Israel fulfilled the first three criteria. I also told him that I was raised in a strongly pro-Israel household and that I understood its unique security and geopolitical conditions as well as the fact that, when compared to pretty much every other nation in the Middle East, Israel was the most democratic of them. But that is just damning it with faint praise.
Perhaps I expect more of the Israelis, but its behaviour in the last two decades (and more) leads me to believe that it is no longer (if it ever was) a liberal democracy. Just because people have formal, de jure rights on paper does not mean that they have de facto rights on the ground. It may not be apartheid but in its treatment of Arab Israelis, African migrants and other non-European Jewish peoples, it falls very short of the “equality for all” mark that I would expect of a truly substantive democracy and well short of most European, North American and Antipodean democracies. This is not to say that the latter are all healthy and above reproach. It just means that Israel does meet even their lowered standards.
We agreed to disagree. I did not print a reaction or correction. I invited him to explain his views in a comment on the thread but he declined. After our correspondence I found myself thinking about how KP readers would classify Israel. I realise that given the ideological leanings of the blog many will be firmly in the anti-Israeli camp, but I wonder what, upon honest reflection, readers think about Israel’s form of governance. In other words, what argument do readers make to themselves about where they stand on Israel?
So here is an invitation for readers to express their views on the matter, formally posed as this question: is Israel democratic? . That way we can get a sense of how intelligent (mostly Left and Kiwi) readers see the Jewish state. But first a few rules:
No anti-Semitic anything. One can be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic (as an example, see this). One can criticise Israel without running nasty alt-Right tropes. One can defend Israel without resorting to false charges of anti-Semitism against those who oppose it, and one can defend Israel without making bigoted or other prejudiced remarks about Arabs, Palestinians etc. No re-litigating history. Israel is here to stay regardless of what some might prefer. And, as other democracies have done, it has behaved ruthlessly towards its enemies. So please, do not go down the worm-hole of who did what to who first.
IT goes without saying but is worth repeating nevertheless: No personal attacks on other commentators. Keep the discussion polite, rational and on-topic. I say this because any time Israel is mentioned people tend to lose their senses when confronted with contrary views. It really is a hot button issue.
I shall moderate the comments section a bit more vigorously given the subject matter. But by all means have at it because I am genuinely curious as to how people come to form their opinions on Israel.
Using an “eye for a tooth” approach, the Israeli military has yet again adopted a strategy of collective punishment in its war against Hamas. The result, predictably, has been carnage and slaughter of innocents on a grand scale.
I am not going to debate who is right and who is wrong in this ongoing struggle. I have previously written about it and have found that the response is simply too emotion-driven for a rational discussion to hold. I will just say that I agree with those that say that Israel has forever lost whatever moral high ground it once had and is now no better than the enemies it fights. In fact, one can only despair for Israeli democracy as it descends into the type of reactionary intolerance that Hamas is notorious for. So I ask readers to please refrain from commentary about Israel.
Instead, here I wish to propose that collective punishment can be a two-way street, and that the global community can find ways to use it against Israel when the latter persists in disproportionately and asymmetrically meting out collective violence on the people of Gaza.
One way to respond is to collectively sanction all israelis for the actions of the political leadership and IDF. There are plenty of ways to do so: boycott Israeli goods; reduce diplomatic contacts with Israel, to include downsizing embassy and consular staffs; cancel contracts with Israeli businesses (to include rescinding investment contracts involving Israeli firms and export licenses for domestic companies trading with Israel, especially in the arms trade); refuse landing rights to Israeli flagged air carriers; deny all types of visa to Israeli nationals, to include tourist and student visas (John Minto has already suggested pulling the work-study visa scheme that allows young Israelis to do so in NZ); refuse Israeli participation in international sporting events; cancel touring Israeli art exhibitions, theatrical productions and musical events–the possibilities are many. The inevitable litigation that will ensue is an avoidable cost levied on Israelis as a result of their government’s policies regarding Gaza. As for the Israelis who carry multiple passports because of their lineage and the prohibitions against Israeli passports in Muslim states–visa checks, airline logs and residency checks can confirm who they are. It may cost to do so, but it Â will cost the individuals involved much more.
Sanctions regimes already exist, but these are usually against government elites and their supporters (think of the current sanctions regime against Russian officials and elite entities and those (now lifted) enacted by Australia and New Zealand against the Baimimarama military dictatorship in Fiji). What is proposed here is different: complete sanction against all nationals of a targeted state.
This may seem unfair to the average Israeli who has nothing to do with the Netanyahu government or IDF atrocities. But that is the point: collective punishment of a majority for the actions of a minority is patently unfair. In this instance the collective punishment against Israelis may be unfair to them but is relatively benign when compared to what Israel does to Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Â Forcing them to swallow a softer taste of their own medicine might give them pause to rethink their support for the “eye for a tooth” strategy.
More importantly, much like Israeli spokespeople who argue that the people of Gaza are getting what they deserve for electing Hamas into government, so too it can be argued that collectively punishing Israelis is justified in light of their election of the Netanyahu-led Likud government amid rising support for Israeli right-wing religious parties. After all, if we are to blame the electorate in one instance we might as well do it in another, although in the case of the Israelis the blame does not entail being subject to military force.
I realise that nothing will be done along the lines I propose. But I feel the need to put it out there because there seems very little else that anyone can do to make the Israelis desist from collectively punishing innocent Gazians. Â In fact, the concept of non-lethal collective punishment or sanction could be used in other instances, say for example against Russians in response to their ongoing intervention in Ukraine. But that depends on some degree of international agreement on the necessity of pursing such a course of action and an equal degree of commitment to enforcing it over an agreed period of time or until certain corrective measures are undertaken by the targeted state.
That simply will not happen in the current context. Heck, if New Zealand sees venal material opportunity arising from Russian counter-sanctions against the EU and US, then it is clear that there is not enough moral and ethical consensus to effectively implement a collective sanctions regime against citizens of a targeted state.
But it might be worth a try, if even in a piecemeal fashion or as a symbolic statement of repudiation of those who believe that lethal collective punishment is a just means of conflict resolution. If nothing else, raising the possibility of non-lethal collective sanction might force citizens of states like Israel to re-think their individual stake in pursuing the collective punishment of others as a matter of state policy.
Benjamin Netenyahu gets up in front of the UN General Assembly with a poster board showing a caricature of a bomb (surprisingly similar to the Mohammed Turban bomb cartoon motif) that supposedly shows how close Iran is to acquiring a nuclear weapon. The bomb is bisected by horizontal lines at the “70%” and “90%” uraniumÂ enrichment marks, the latter at the neck of the 19th century cannonball drawn on the board. Bibi draws a red line at the “90%” mark, declaring that it was time to draw a red line on the Iranian nuclear weapons program.
Pardon me if I cough. Forget the fact that Israel has at least a dozen nuclear warheads, some of them submarine launched. Forget that even if Iran was to develop a trigger for its fissile material, it still would have to place it in a warhead that in turn must be installed inÂ an artillery shell, airborne deployed bomb, or on a missile, all of which are exposed to attack at the point of loading. Forget the Iranian nuclear physicists have one of the highest occupational morality rates in the world, dying in a myriad of unfortunate and unexpected ways. Forget that the computers governing the Iranian nuclear enrichment process are unusually susceptible to catastrophic failures caused by worms and viruses.Â Forget the fact that Iran is merely seeking what could be called deterrent parity: no one seriously messes with a nuclear armed country, as North Korea, India, Pakistan and yes, Israel, have demonstrated.
Forget all of that. Why shouldÂ Iran not seek deterrence parity given what happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in light of the US attacks on them even though they threatened no vital US national interest (let’s be clear: terrorist attacks, no matter how atrocious, are not existential threats to any well-established state). Given the attitude towards it on the part of the US and other Western countries, to say nothing of Israel, Iran has every reason to seek the ultimate deterrent.
In fact, Iran is on the horns of a classic security dilemma: the more it feels threatened by the actions of hostile states, the more it is determined to protect itself by seeking the nuclear trump card. The more that it does so, the more the US and Israel will feel compelled to move against it.
One might say that it is the Iranian regime’s rhetoric and support for terrorism that warrants grave concern. I say give us a break. Ahmadinejad talks to his domestic audience the way Netenyahu and Romney talk to theirs, especially during electoral season or times of internal crisis. However Westerners may wish to misinterpret and mistranslate what he says (which, admittedly is offensive and often bizarre, as his latest “homosexuality is a product of capitalism” remarks demonstrate), and no matter what an unpleasant fellow he may be, Ahmadinejad is no more of a threat to international security than any of the dozen or more Central Asian despots that the West supports, and who do not even try to hold contestable elections. They may not have nukes, but that does not mean that they are any more peace-minded than the mullahs in Teheran. As far as the use of armed proxies are concerned, does anyone remember the Contras?
And even where nuclear states have elected leaders, they are not often the most stable or impeachable. I mean, does anyone seriouslyÂ think that Iran is a worse threat of starting the nuclear apocalypse than Pakistan? And yet billions of dollars in foreign aid flow to the Pakistani government, whose corruption is matched only by the rapidity with which they take offense at perceived slights.
No, the real problem is that the Persian Shiia did a bad thing to the US three decades ago by throwing out the US-supported Shah and holding US embassy hostages for more than a year (the latter a definite inter-state transgression and diplomatic no-no, to be sure). They also pose a grave threat to the US-backed Sunni Arab autocraciesÂ because ofÂ their evangelical and proselytizingÂ Shiaa fanaticism. Yet Iran has attacked no other stateÂ directly (Iraq attacked Iran to start the 1980s war between the two), even if it uses proxies like Hezbollah toÂ pursue military diplomacy and exact revenge on its enemies. After all, plausible deniability can work many ways.
In any event, Bibi’s show and tell show at the UN demonstrates the hypocrisy and disdainÂ he and his supporters hold for that international organization and the intelligence of the interested public. Trying to reduce and simplify into a cartoon a complex diplomatic and military subject that is layered upon centuries of cultural, religious and ethnic enmity is not a useful teaching aid: it is an insult to the audience.
If anything, with a different presenter that ticking/fizzing poster bomb could beÂ well beÂ read as an indication ofÂ the state of Palestinian frustration with a territorial occupation and ethnic subjugation that has been decades in theÂ making. Â As the leader of a stateÂ that yields nothing to the self-determination aspirations of the Palestinian people, aspirations that have exacted a terrible toll on both sides of the conflict, Bibi’s bomb poster is an incitement, not an explanation.
What is galling about Bibi’s demonstration is a) his denial of Iran’s right to pursue a course of action that has proven to be an effective deterrent against aggression by larger powers and which Israel itself has availed itself of; and b) his disrespect for the UN in trotting out a kindergarten poster as an illustration of the threat he claims that Iran poses.
I am no fan of the Mullahs regime and Ahmadinejad. I believe that the Iranians are lying when they say that there nuclear program is entirely peaceful. But I understand their reasons for doing so, especially since the Israelis have lied all along about their nuclear program.
The real issue here is that Netenyahu is trying to provoke the US during an electoral campaign into supporting a pre-emptive strike on Iran. He is doing so more for his own domestic political reasons than out of concernÂ about any imminent Iranian nuclear threat. He is a scoundrel, and he is mistaken. The US, quite frankly, is in no position to do support his preferred move, which Israel cannot do on its own. The USÂ needs a break from more than a decade of constant war and Iran is a far more formidable adversary than Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria. Thus the timing of the cartoon presentation is ill-advised as much as its substance is childish.
The bottom line is that only a clown would findÂ explanation and justificationÂ in Bibi’s poster bomb. That clown is Bibi himself.
This post started as a comment over at DPF’s place.
Reputation and precedent are important referents in the international security business. Israel has a reputation for using sayanim (â€œhelpersâ€ who are Jewish citizens of other states or Israeli travelers who provide information and do tasks for the Mossad in foreign countries out of loyalty to Israel), and are known to send young intelligence officers, often posing as male/female couples, on foreign training missions where they act like travelers. Israel also has a precedent for engaging in covert operations in NZ in the form of the 2004 attempted passport fraud in which there was at least one local â€œhelperâ€ facilitated the Australian-based sayanim’s procurement of a false NZ identity. It has a reputation for using â€œclonedâ€ foreign passports when undertaking foreign intelligence missions (to include assassinations), and the NZ passport is known to be very valuable on the black market and intelligence circles because of its perceived neutrality. Thus, when 3 surviving Israelis left the country with unusual speed after the Feb 22 Christchurch earthquake, facilitated by the Israeli embassy, warning flags went up at the SIS.
The issue of multiple passports for one victim hinges on the number and the identities and nationalities on them. If there were just two (as the government maintains) for the deceased driver that would be understandable given that Israeli passports are refused in many places and dual citizens routinely use more than one travel document. Even a third passport in the same name is not unusual for someone who has been raised and lived in several countries. But if there was indeed five or six passports as has been alleged in the original Southland Times story, and these had multiple identities as well as nationalities, then things get suspicious. We may never learn the truth of the matter in this regard, but if there were in fact different names and the same photo on more than two passports, then their counter-intelligence value is significant.
The issue of the unauthorised USAR team has to do with the victimsâ€™ families desperate attempts to get a focused search going for their loved ones at a time when local SAR was stretched thin and things were chaotic in the quake zone. The families hired a private Israeli USAR team that had the last known locations of the victims as their search target, and this team did not obey diplomatic niceties in securing permission because they were on a very time sensitive private mission. The fact that at least one of the Israeli USAR crew had past military and intelligence ties is no surprise given Israeli conscription and its network of helpers, but means little in this context. As for the Israeli forensic team helping with victim IDâ€“they would have had access to police and other public records as part of their assigned duties with regard to identifying the dead and wounded. If Netenyahu and Key spoke more than once about the quake that would be unusual, but more likely that was due to genuine Israeli concerns with quickly recovering the 3 deceased compatriots for proper burial (since Jews bury their dead quickly).
In any event, given precedent and reputation, the SIS launched an investigation triggered by the hasty exit of the three survivors while the cops did a forensic accounting of their data banks given the access of the Israeli forensic team. The unauthorised USAR team was made to leave, Israeli cultural sensitivities regarding their dead compatriots notwithstanding. The govt says nothing untoward was found by both investigations, and we have to take its word for it unless further revelations come out that contradict the official story. If the Israelis are innocent of any wrong-doing as the survivors claim, then they are just another reminder of how innocents can get caught up in international disputes due to the actions of their governments. They are, in other words, victims of reputation and precedent, not prejudice.
It was unfortunate that PM Keyâ€™s original statement on the matter was defensive and obfuscatory, since as Minister of Security and Intelligence he signed off on the SIS investigation and would/should have known the results prior to the story breaking. Had he just fronted on the facts as outlined above rather than clumsily dissemble, the story would have died quickly. But his comments just fueled the speculative fires for several hours until a crafted press release was issued, but by that time the conspiracy theorists and Israel-haters were in full flight.
I think that on this matter, the SIS is to be commended for flagging the hasty exit and moving to investigate the activities of the 6 Israelis leading up to their being in Christchurch on Feb 22, as well as coordinating with he Police with regards to the SAR and forensic teams. That is simply good counter-intelligence tradescraft. But let it also be clear that if the Israelis were on any sort of intelligence mission they would not have left evidence of such on their personal laptops and cell phones. Moreover, since they were unfamiliar with Christchruch, they would have had a local handler to facilitate their mission Â much as was the case with the Auckland passport fraudsters. So even if the official response has put the story to rest, there remains enough in the way of reputation and precedent to keep alive in some circles the idea that perhaps there was more to the Israeli’s NZ visit than has been revealed.
On a tangental note, I was bemused by how the media treated my remarks on the story. In every interview I did on the day the story broke (about a dozen), I began by qualifying my remarks with the caveat “IF the story is true, then…”. Several reporters asked me to speculate on what the Israelis would be doing IF they were indeed on an intelligence mission, which is where I brought up the identify theft angle as the most likely possibility. At no time did I assert that I had concluded that they were spies, given that I could only go on the published news reports on the matter. Yet when I reviewed the coverage of the story in the following days, I saw that I had been repeatedly quoted as saying that the israelis “were probably on an identity theft mission” without any qualifiers or caveats attached to the statement. That is simply dishonest or lazy reporting, and led to some commentators claiming that I had jumped the gun with my remarks (including one regular KP commentator who made some silly remark elsewhere that I have a tendency to talk first before thinking. That says more about him then me). So, for the record, let it be clear that all of my comments on the matter were prefaced with the qualifier rather than made as bald assertions of fact.
One axiom of mediation is that the parties sincerely want to settle their dispute and realise that mutual concessions will have to be made in order to do so. Another is that the mediator has to be procedurally and substantively neutral–s/he has no interest in the specific terms of the result and is bound to procedurally enforce the rules on negotiations as well as externally enforce the settlement (which in effect makes the latter a contract between the disputants).
This is why Barack Obama’s latest attempt at mediating the Israel-Palestinian conflict is doomed.
In order to establish a semblance of neutrality, he proposed that Hamas recognise Israel’s right to exist in exchange for Israeli acceptance of the (post-conflict) 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations on a two-state solution. He said that mutually agreed upon land swaps would form the basis for the contract. Neither Hamas or the Israeli government accepted the offer and instead rejected it outright. Although it is possible that Obama’s initiative is just the opening gambit in a more delicate elaboration, it is also quite possible that this was his best offer, which is now dead in the water.
The problems with the proposed deal are many. With regards to the US, it is clearly not an impartial mediator. Whether the administration of the moment wants to or not, the power of the pro-Israel lobby and Israel’s strategic connections (intelligence sharing, weapons acquisitions and covert political maneuvering) ensure that the US will support it as the default option. To that can be added the fact that the US has designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation and openly supports Fatah as the legitimate representative of Palestinian interests even though the latter lost its electoral mandate to Hamas some years ago. By any measure the US is not impartial, neutral or objective, so its role as a mediator is reduced to pressuring Israel to engage limited concessions in the hope that Hamas will take the bait and offer significant concessions of its own. That will not happen. And yet no other country has offered to step into the breach, and it is doubtful that any other country (the UK? Germany? France?) would be acceptable to both parties.
As for the principles, they have no real interest in cutting a deal that binds them over the long-term. Politics in Gaza and Israel are dominated by fundamentalist discourses that see the conflict as a zero-sum struggle where the “other” is seen as sub-human and inherently evil. Both governments are divided and weak, the Palestinians visibly so but the Israelis no less so in spite of their veneer of unity. Corruption has become a major problem on both sides, which delegitimates their standing as honest interlocutors and representatives of their respective constituencies.
Moreover, both Israel and the Palestinians have foreign partners who overtly or covertly work to prolong the impasse and low intensity warfare because it is seen as serving their geopolitical objectives (Iran and Saudi Arabia come to mind). Then there are the weapons merchants and others who see profit in fighting and who do not wish to see the source of that profit end. One might argue that there even are NGOs and humanitarian agencies that have a vested organisational interest in an unresolved armed standoff that provides them with the opportunity to “do good.” Â In other words, the constellation of interests that favour the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict outweigh those that sincerely seek a durable peace.
Which is why Obama’s initiative will not prosper. But there is a factor now at play that may make the US role irrelevant and actually force a hole in the diplomatic logjam obstructing resolution of the Palestinian “question:” the Arab Spring. Although it has yet to result in democracy anywhere in the Arab world, the groundswell of popular protest against authoritarianism has been a game-changer (of sorts). The change is in the acceptance of non-violent mass resistance as the preferred method of voice and redress. Not only does this strategy explicitly turn its back on jihadism. It also forces regimes to either up the ante and engage in mass repression (such as in Syria), or attempt to reform-monger in a way that maintains elite interests while offering more avenues of representation and service to the populations in question. Most importantly, though, it forces the Arab world to reappraise the regional status quo, specifically with regard to the status of Palestine, in such a way that it will make it increasingly less tenable for Israel to continue its policy of illegal settlements and armed force. With popular demands for a harder line on Israel emerging in places like Egypt, the pressure is on for the “reformist” leaders to reconsider the options with regard to Palestine. In addition, the use of (mostly) non-violent passive resistance against Israel such as the Nakbar protests on the Israeli-Syrian border forces it to show its authoritarian stripes (as it did in killing a half dozen of the cross-border protesters) or live up to its supposedly democratic principles when confronting unarmed protest.
Given Israel’s current political climate, it may well ignore all democratic pretense and fire away at will against peaceful demonstrators. But that is a short-term solution. The longer-term impact of the Arab Spring will be to force increased accountability on Arab regimes, which in turn will require them to adjust their approaches to Israel and Palestinians in ways that will not uphold the status quo ante. Should that happen, then it will be Israel that will be forced to make the first significant move with or without US backing, and it will do so not out of a sense of idealism but because it has pragmatic self-interest in doing so. After all, Israel is the stronger actor in this conflict. It has less to lose and much to gain when offering a genuine unilateral concession, in the beginning of what game-theorists call a “tit-for-tat” strategy (that is, it opens with a cooperative move then mirrors the adversaries’ response). It may take a few iterations and more concessions to elicit a cooperative response from Hamas, and the outcome could still result in failure, but that is how the game will have to be played if there is any hope of reaching a negotiated compromise.
Hardline Zionist talk notwithstanding, the best guarantee of Israel’s long term security given the changes underway in the Arab world is not superior counter-force as a deterrent. Instead, the solution that guarantees Israel long-term security is diplomatic, and that involves over-riding hardline interests in pursuit of diplomatic flexibility. There will be domestic consequences when it does make the first move, which will have to involve the unilateral eviction and withdrawal of newer settlements on occupied Palestinian land (think of the precedent of violent resistance by illegal settlers to the limited evictions undertaken by the Israeli government to date), and Hamas and Fatah will have to agree on a commensurate response if negotiations are to advance to the point of establishing a blueprint for dual statehood (which is the only realistic option and where recognition of Israel’s right to exist comes in). None of this will be voluntarily generated by the elites currently in office, not will it be the US that breaks the impasse and brokers the deal. Instead it will be the extension of the Arab Spring into Gaza and Israel that may offer the best hope for a diplomatic opening in pursuit of a durable peace, and should that opening come, it will be endogenous rather than exogenous in nature.
Although it is hard for the Obama administration to do given the imperial hubris that infects US domestic politics and foreign policy, the best thing it can offer is to quietly encourage the Arab Spring, openly condemn repression, seek broader international consensus and let events take their course. Or, as a senior Israeli intelligence official told me a few years ago (and I roughly paraphrase from memory here), “although conditions are not favorable to negotiations at the moment, there will come a time when both sides realise that theirs is an unhappy marriage, but it is for the children’s sake that they stay in it and make it work.” That moment may shortly be upon us, and it will be the “children” who force the issue.
The facts are still not completely in and will undoubtedly be the focus of much dispute, but it appears that while it was in international waters Israeli forces stormed the “freedom flotilla” headed to Gaza with humanitarian aid and several hundred pro-Palestinian activists, including Turkish parlamentarians, a holocaust survivor and a nobel laureate. The Israelis claim that their commandos were attacked with clubs and knives as they rappelled onto the lead vessel, and that soldiers opened fire when one of the commandos had his weapon seized by an activist. Estimates are that around 16 people were killed and 30 wounded. The flotilla is now being towed to Haifa, were the six vessels will be inspected and the surviving activists presumably arrested and deported. Since the flotilla sailed from Turkey and was organised in part by a Turkish-based Islamic charity, the Turkish government has demanded an explanation from Israel as to why it resorted to force.Â
This is not a good look for Israel and no amount of PR spin is going to undo the image of soldiers gunning down unarmed civilians. I will not be surprised if the Israelis produce weapons caches found on the boats and a number of purported Hamas infiltrators amongst those on board as proof that the flotilla was up to no good, but even if that were a true discovery and not a staged justification, its reputation for callous disregard for the lives of those who even peacefully oppose its policies will be reaffirmed. On the other hand, deliberately attempting to break the three year old blockade after being warned by the Israeli navy to not enter its waters was a foolhardy, if courageous thing to do given Israel’s reputation and track record when it comes to the use of force.
Some might wonder why on earth Israel would do such a thing knowing full well that it will be universally condemned for doing so. The answer is simple. Like North Korea they have a garrison state mentality in which internal political dynamics and an oversized conception of threats far outweigh any concern with external reactions. Israel gave up a long time ago worrying about how its actions will be perceived by the international community. Its major concern is to not appear weak. Whatever their other differences, the Israeli political elite is virtually unanimous in its support for a hard-line defense policy, to include the blockade. It is a mindset that external actors do not share but which is compelling to them. Anything that could appear to be an exploitation of a point of Israeli weakness (such as successfully running the blockade) is seen as an existential threat. Â Thus killing activists who dared to challenge Israel’s commitment to enforcing the blockade is seen as a fair price to pay for maintaining its image of toughness. What is more, the Israeli government believes that its Arab neighbours as well as others in the international community quietly respect its toughness, which serves as both a deterrent as well as a reaffirmation that it is here to stay, on its own terms.
Since the Palestinians receive little more than rhetorical support from the Sunni Arab world, Israel also knows a hard fact that the North Koreans understood when they torpedoed the South Korean frigate in March: there is nothing anyone can really do about the kilings beyond rhetorical condemnation and meaningless UN sanctions (and it will be interesting to see if Israel receives a UNSC sanction while North Korea does not). Although it may engage in some diplomatic retaliation, Turkey is not going to declare war over this incident. No other state or coalition of states are going to mount a counter-blockade that would invite an Israeli armed response, and economic and trade sanctions, even if they were to be applied, will be happily circumvented by the numerous “quiet” partners Israel has around the world. As an old Latin American phrase puts it, impunity has its own reward.
The point being that what appears outrageous to the outside world makes perfect sense to Israeli decision-makers given their garrison state mentalities. Had the flotilla organisers understood this, perhaps they would have thought twice about challenging the blockade. Had the Turkish government understood this, they would have been better served by dealing with the political wrath at home caused by their denying the flotilla permission to leave port rather than deal with the violent protests now occurring in the aftermath of the commando raid.
One thing is certain: specific differences notwithstanding and adjusting mutatis mutandis for context, ideology and circumstance, Israel is the North Korea of the Middle East. Both have been in a de facto state of (undeclared) war with their closest neighbours since the moment of creation/partition. Both of are driven by extreme security rationales born of the perception of imminent threat, real or imagined. Both have gone both nuclear and ballistic. Both see conspiracy in the far abroad. Both have repeatedly practiced a remarkable disregard for international convention. Both believe that they have the moral high ground. Both use military diplomacy as the leading edge of their approach to regional conflict. Both have hawk and dove political factions (and in society) Â that are nevertheless united in their stand on the physical integrity of their borders. Both have larger patron states that provide them with physical and diplomatic cover. Both have hard-line zealots in positions of governmental authority. Both will kill innocents to make their point.
In that light Israel’s bellicose (ir)rationality, just like that of the North Koreans, may seem odd to us. It makes perfect sense to them.
The Israeli offensive in Gaza has rekindled debate about the role of collective responsibility in the initiation and prosecution of war. Israel is specifically accused of collectively punishing all Gazans in retaliation for Hamas missile attacks on the Israeli population, with some claiming that aspects of Israeli military operations amount to war crimes. Such may or may not be true, but the issue is more complex than that.
Hamas argues that it is justified in firing missiles into Israeli population centers because all Jews are complicit in the Zionist enterprise and all Israelis eventually complete some form of military service. From that perspective better to kill a Jew in the crib than on the battlefield. Sunni extremists in Iraq target Shiia worshippers at their holy sites because they hold them accountable for the apostasy of their clerical leaders. Osama bin Laden has openly stated that the US public made itself a target for attack by repeatedly electing pro-Israeli and anti-Muslim administrations. Kurds and Armenians hold all Turks responsible for the sins of the Ottomans,Â Kemalists and their successors. Chechnyan militants hold all Russians culpable for the depredations of the Russian military in the post-Soviet republic. Germans are still held by some to be collectively guilty for the sins of the Nazis. The Japanese are accused on not feeling guilty enough for the depredations of Hirohito and company. The list of collective finger-pointing, responsibility, guilt, targeting and punishment is long.
The issue is complicated by the fact that, by the criteria of collective responsibility, open and honest elections increase the culpability of the electorate in the sins of their political representatives. That was Osama’s point about the US. Whatever one may think about the US electorate’s complicity in Bush 43’s follies, by that logic the Palestinians are collectively culpable for having voted in favour of a Hamas-majority parliament in 2006. Put another way, citizens of non-elected authoritarian regimes cannot be held accountable for the behaviour of those regimes unless there is some other mechanism to attribute direct support for the authoritarian project. An example would be Argentines during the Falklands/Malvinas war, which was initiated by a brutal military dictatorship feared by its own people. Conversely, the citizens of all democratic regimes are complicit in the behavior of their governments because it was their majority vote that brought those governments into power. The minority of those who voted against these democratically-elected incumbents may take issue with that (and indeed have), but the logic is inscrutable on the point: mass elections make the masses collectively responsible for the conduct of their elected leaders. Continue reading