Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Ugly Israelis?

by Steven A. Cook
March 15, 2012

A pro-Israel supporter waves behind an Israel flag (Edgard Garrido/Courtesy Reuters) A pro-Israel supporter waves behind an Israel flag (Edgard Garrido/Courtesy Reuters)

I rarely write about Israel.  It’s important politically, but intellectually for me a bit of a bore. What more can be said about the country that has not already been said, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict of which the Palestinian problem is the core? You could pile the books, papers, and articles from floor to ceiling on the topic. Israel-Iran?  It’s covered. The ethnic and sectarian differences in the Holy Land? It’s been done.  Israel’s changing demographics?  Lots of smart folks have weighed in. The durability of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty after the Egyptian uprising?  I am sort of/halfway intrigued, but only because I once drank the water from the Nile and now I can’t quit Egypt.  Every now and again though, something comes across my desk on Israel that interests me.  In the last week or so, colleagues have suggested I read two short opinion pieces–one by Avi Shlaim Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, and one by the New Yorker’s David Remnick. Both pieces were a revelation—who writes better than Remnick?—but not necessarily because they offered any new or interesting insights about Israeli politics or society, but rather because of the fascinating way Shlaim and Remnick treat their subject.

How analysts talk and write about Israel has always been a challenge.  There is, of course, the perennial problem of perception when it comes to a highly politically charged and emotionally freighted issue like Israel.  That’s why to some The New York Times’ former Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, is either an unrepentant sympathizer of Israel’s right wing or an unrepentant fellow traveler of the Palestinian cause.   Yet the kind of guff Bronner took and those that follow him will take is not exactly what I am getting at.  Too often Israel is rendered in caricature, where only ideology, lust for land, and hatred for Palestinians reign. In this world, politics, agency, and nuance simply do not exist. Remnick could be given a pass because his lamentation titled “Threatened” is beautifully written and he is, after all, an essayist whose forte is a kind of literary impressionism.  Not so of Shlaim who, as a scholar at one of the world’s most outstanding universities, should know better, but nevertheless lets loose with an angry missive identifying Israel’s prime minister as, “a bellicose right-wing Israeli nationalist,” “a reactionary who is deeply wedded to the status quo,” and “a jimcrack [or gimcrack, meaning cheap] politician.”

Let me state (once again), lest anyone misinterpret what I am saying, that Israel’s settlement project is a tragic mistake that has denied Palestinians justice, killed thousands of Israelis and Palestinians combined, and for all practical purposes has closed off the possibility of a two-state solution, jeopardizing not only Israeli security and democracy but the country’s existence I hold no particular brief for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.  I believe ideas matter. And, it’s perfectly legitimate for professors to have views about the world and express them, even angrily.

Yet Shlaim and Remnick obscure more about Israel and its politics than they reveal.  Yes, we know that Netanyahu and his government are right-wingers and we know that many settlers are racists and harbor little commitment to democracy.  It would have been more interesting and I might have learned something new if either author had unearthed the crosscutting political pressures that Netanyahu confronts in maintaining his coalition. Netanyahu is a politician and as a result, like all politicians everywhere, he wants to stay in power.  Knowing as the prime minister surely does that Israel’s right has toppled successive governments since the 1990s including Netanyahu’s own between 1996 and 1999, he is unlikely to pursue policies that will jeopardize his coalition.  Netanyahu is no statesman, but statesmen are rare in history.  A distillation of Israel’s electoral laws, which has done more than anything to create the unhappy situation in the Holy Land, would have been far more helpful to understanding how it came to be that “the settlers, the Ultra-Orthodox Shas, and the National Religious Party” are the backbone of the current Israeli government, rather than the wild-eyed ideologues that Remnick and Shlaim portray.  A nod to the fact that the settlement ethos is central to Zionism—of all varieties and shades—would have given some sense of the historical context in which Israeli democracy finds itself under threat.  There are, of course, a variety of additional interesting avenues to explore.

I am sure Remnick and Shlaim would say that examining these issues was not their goal, which is their right, but it is also too bad.  As powerfully as they have written, they haven’t told even the casual or left-of-center observer of Israel anything they don’t already know or fervently believe.  As a (detached) observer, it’s curious to me that even ostensibly sophisticated observers of Israel have come to essentialize—to reduce them to some alleged ascriptive or primordial characteristic—Israeli leaders.  And as a result, observers like Remnick and Shlaim, who are only two recent and prominent examples among many others, have done precisely what they so revile about their subjects whom they accuse of having a one-dimensional view of the Palestinians as hopelessly retrograde and violent.  I am not sure, but it strikes me that when it comes to Israel, Palestine, and peace, we need less polemics.

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by Haim

    that Israel’s settlement project is a tragic mistake that has denied Palestinians justice, killed thousands of Israelis and Palestinians combined, and for all practical purposes has closed off the possibility of a two-state solution

    What an incredibly silly thing to say.

  • Posted by Bill Pearlman

    I get, the Israelis are the new nazi’s worse really. And the palestinians are the best people on the planet, saints really. Do I have it right Mr. Cook?

  • Posted by Rachel

    In addition, the high amounts of emotions you talk about, also cause a disregard for the positions made from the ‘opposite side.’ It isn’t that the information is not distributed – it most certainly is, however we have a difficult time sympathizing with, or legitimizing the concerns of another viewpoint. The comment left by Halm is an example of this.

    Settlements: The reason for them is not security. Otherwise they would not be placed all along the Jordanian Valley. They are however, strategically placed. For example, the ones mentioned before, as well as those surrounding Jerusalem. Whether they are bad or good depends on the outcome you are hoping for; a Jewish state in the absence of Palestine or a one-state solution or a two-state solution or an out-of-the-box remedy that has not been voiced yet. Either way, settlements are hindering negotiations (arguably reasonable concessions by the PA); making a two-state solution, financially speaking, unreasonable to accomplish; and encouraging violence on both sides. They also offer some Israelis cheaper housing, and in the face of high real estate prices, this is sometimes difficult, despite your political stance, to pass up. The topic of settlements is both complicated and serious. That said, I am genuinely interested in how you find Cook’s comments on settlements ridiculous.

  • Posted by Jehudah Ben-Israel

    Fundamentally, this piece is yet another elegant article slinging mud at Israel and its leaders; this time Mr. Binjamin Netanjahu. Yet, two important elements are missing:

    1) Israel’s several offers for a realistic accommodation of peaceful coexistence between Arab and Jew, between the Muslim-Arab world, local and regional, proposed by leaders from the right, left and center of the Israeli political spectrum, yet all have been rejected by Israel’s counterparts, more often than not through the initiation of a new wave of the on-going war-of-attrition-through-terror against the Jewish community of the Land.

    2) The lack, to date, on the part of the Muslim-Arabs, local and regional, to make the simple gesture and accept Israel’s right to be, to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people; a right that is anchored in historic, ethical and legal grounds as stipulated by international law.

    We are aware of Netanjahu’s invitation to the PLO’s leadership to come to the negotiating table, something that leadership has refused to do for the past three consecutive years. We are also aware of the Olmert’s peace offer of 2008, him being a centrist prime minister; the Sharon’s peace gesture of 2005; him also being a centrist prime minister; of the Barak’s peace offer of 2000, him being a leftist prime minister. But, we are less aware of the Contour for peace made by the leftist prime minister, the late Yitzhaq Rabin. He presented his contour to the Knesset in his very last speech, in October 1995, which the PLO refused to even acknowledge, and Rabin, a man of the left and considered worldwide by many as the prince of peace.

    Rabin’s contour consisted of four points:

    a) Jerusalem will remain united under Israel’s sovereignty and will also include the suburbs of Giv’at Zeev and Ma’aleh Adumim

    b) All major Jewish settlement blocs will be incorporated into the sovereign boundaries of Israel

    c) The Jordan Valley must be viewed geographically in the widest meaning of the term, and it too will continue to be ruled by Israel

    d) The future Palestinian Arab state will not be a regular state in that it will be demilitarized, its airspace will be controlled by Israel as will its boundaries and all border passes: land, sea and air

    Rabin’s view, implemented in the September 1995 Interim Agreement, is nearly identical to that of Mr. Netanjahu’s views as they have been expressed on various occasions. Rabin, the leftist, and Netanjahu, the rightist, have been pragmatic men who seek peace, but not at the expense of Israel’s national and security interests. And, both have been basing their approach to peace on the fundamental elements of international law relevant to the achievement of an accommodation of peaceful coexistence, i.e. San Remo Conference, 1920; the League of Nations decisions, 1922; the United Nations Charter, Article 80, 1945; and finally, UN Security Council Resolution, 242, 1967.

    All of the above clearly recognize the Jewish people’s right of national self-determination in the 23% territory of “Palestine” – 77% of which had been handed over to the Arabs in 1921 of course – located between the Jordan River and the Med. Sea. Yet, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) categorically refuses to accept this right, and, furthermore, objects to reaching a peace treaty that would entail the acceptance of a treaty as the end of the conflict and the end of all future demands.

    But, this piece glosses over this reality in an elegant fashion, and once again blames the Jews for the lack of peace while doing so through the convenience and thinly veiled attempt to blame the latest freely elected prime minister of Israel…!!

    One wonders, why…??

  • Posted by Abbushuki

    “Palestinian justice” is none other than per Sharia. To accomplish this Israel must bow down to Mo. via Mecca.
    It ain’t gonna happen.

    Cook ignores the “refugee issue”, Jerusalem and the fact that the Arabs really really really hate Jews and deny all Jewish history. By irrationally positing that Israel’s surrender of the captured artillery and bombing platforms called ‘the West Bank’ will somehow enhance peace, he and his fellow believers in irrationality step off a cliff of reality.

    Just as with Antisemitism. No act of a Jew or Israeli will make any difference in the racist hatred of the bigots who say they want peace with Israel.

    If Cook seeks peace, let him write about his plans for Arabs to change their hatred to a love of peaceful co-existence without Israeli participation in the process. Let’s see how many words he can come up with. It’s soooo much easier to bash Israel.

  • Posted by Grow up

    Lots of demographic changes are tragic. It is tragic that Mohammedans are moving to the Western Europe. It is tragic that Hispanics are taking over large parts of the United States.

    But that’s how history works. History didn’t start when Mohammed declared himself the vicar of the moon Jinn (rassul’allah). History didn’t end when the arabian imperialists recaptured Israel in the 17th Century.

    Disagreement with Hispanic settlement patterns doesn’t justify genocide against Hispanic Americans. Disagreement with the kuffar Jews who fail to recognize Mohammed’s divinity doesn’t justify genocide against the “settlers”.

    The “Palestinians” are just going to have to grow up and learn to live with their neighbors.

  • Posted by Y.

    While Cook dissents from the rants of Remnick and Shlaim, his own article is not so different.

    A) First, Cook overlays all blame for all that’s wrong in the near area to Israel. Thus, all the deaths are the result of settlements (nevermind Fatah, Hamas, or Islamic Jihad), the political bottleneck are a result of Israeli election laws (an overclever statement if there’s ever been one). This is, at best, extremely one-sided.

    B) Second, Cook ignores actual Israeli politics dynamics. If the only thing that prevents more dovish policies were a few religious parties (nevermind that Shas actually supported the political process as long as Deri was there), this would have happened a long time ago. After all, Likud+Whatever major Lefty party+ was always close to or above 61 (the needed seats for a coalition) all the time (making up the difference is not difficult with the smaller other parties, Haredi+Arabs were after all only about 30 seats).

    Israeli democracy didn’t end up at certain foreign policies due to some electoral laws – it ended there because these policies are far more popular than all the alternatives.

    C) Lastly, there’s the hackneyed statement that “Israeli democracy is under threat”. How exactly? The biggest ‘threats’ were when Rabin bribed his way to get support for Oslo B and (at the same time) the Supreme Court had abused the Basic Laws. I don’t recall any ‘threat to democracy’ rhetoric when a law was proposed in the Knesset to ban Israel Hayom. What’s happening now is not a ‘threat to democracy’, but rather ugly internal infighting.

    In sum, perhaps Cook should rather reread all the articles and books he finds to be boring – he might learn something.

  • Posted by Frank G Anderson

    The childish denunciations of a factual statement on the consequences of Israeli Egypt-over-Jews type of repression of Palestinians is better moved to Mad Magazine tongue-in-cheek humor, not on CFR pages. Too bad we don’t have an American policy in the Middle East.

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