Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Why John Kerry Just Might Have The Last Word On The Israel 'Apartheid' Flap
America’s “special relationship” with Israel is an especially one-sided and dysfunctional one: The US gives the tiny Jewish state unconditional military and diplomatic support, as well as $3 billion in foreign aid a year and gets, in return, little political leverage, little strategic advantage and often very little basic respect. Blame for the imbalance in the relationship, which is truly unique in the annals of patron-client states, can be located to a large extent in the American discourse about it. This discourse is itself dysfunctional, even deranged, riddled with sacred cows, straw men, ethnic hypersensitivity and bullying ideologues whose demagoguery could make Joe McCarthy blanch.
That debate has long since passed the point where saying The Obvious, no matter how factually accurate, means saying what those policing the debate have told us is The Unsayable. Taboos surrounding the discourse have done a good job at checking anti semitism. But these same taboos, or rather their overzealous enforcement, have done a good job too at smothering the difficult and inconvenient truths that America really should be hearing, and of making perfectly reasonable language used to express those truths verboten.
In the kind of situation where, to use a formulation TNR's John Judis devised, “taboo” has assumed far more cultural power than “truth,” a lot of people are reluctant, even terrified, to say what is glaringly clear for fear of being accused of trafficking in “historical anti semitic tropes” and being excommunicated for doing so. George Orwell would be familiar with this effort to deprive the debate of the language needed to conduct it: If you can redline the words needed to formulate thought, the thoughts that are reliant on those words are harder to form--- and harder still to use as a basis for action.
This has been a boon to the Israel lobby, which has been able to leverage its control of the debate into an unprecedented alliance, in which Israel practically stands as the 51st State. But it’s been a bane to those Americans concerned that the special relationship has grown into an Alliance Too Far, and that we are joined at the hip with a militarized religious ethnocracy that puts Jewish identity and Jewish interest above democratic equality, is fast approaching its 50th year of occupying another people, and could very easily put us into yet another war under the fallacious and manipulative assumption that its national interests and security priorities are identical to ours.
And so we have Chuck Hagel roasted on a spit for saying that the Jewish lobby “intimidates” a lot of people on Capitol Hill. According to Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, who led the anti Semitic smear campaign against Hagel, the word "intimidates" implies “powers that are at once vast, invisible and malevolent; and because it suggests that legislators who adopt positions friendly to that lobby are doing so not from political conviction but out of personal fear. “ The hoot was that in the end during his confirmation hearing, Hagel’s Senate attackers gave a demonstration of exactly the kind of intimidation Hagel had in mind, putting him through an interrogation worthy of the Inquisition. Recanting for his heresy, Hagel issued declarations of fealty to Israel that would have been out of place even in the Knesset, the surrealism of the scene memorably parodied in the SNL skit in which “Senators” Lindsay Graham and John McCain ask “Hagel” is asked whether he would fellate a donkey if Bibi Netanyahu called him up in the middle of the night and asked him to.
Likewise, Chris Christie groveling apology to Sheldon Adelson for using the term “occupied territories” in remarks before members of the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Las Vegas in late March. This was a gathering that insiders called “The Sheldon Primary” in reference to the millions that Adelson is ready to pour into the coffers of the Republican hopeful who most clearly aligns with his ultra nationalistic views on Israel. Although the term “Occupied Territories” is absolutely true as well as legally accurate under international law except as it is interpreted by the Jewish state, Christie’s use of it was considered offensive. Mort Klein of the Zionist Organization of America told Christie that at minimum you should call it disputed territories” and told reporters that Christie “either doesn’t understand the issue at all or is hostile to Israel.” Later, after Christie apologized Klein said he thought he was insincere, and declared that he would not support him for the nomination. Then Klein played the guilt-by-association card a la Joseph McCarthy, claiming that some of Christie’s political appointments as New Jersey’s governor showed he was unduly close to Muslim political figures and was soft on Islamic terrorism--- a charge was as outrageous as it was baseless.
Lashed to the same whipping post two months ago was John Kerry, pilloried for saying that Israel was on the road to apartheid if it didn’t figure out how to give Palestinians their own sovereign state in a two state solution. “A unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens—or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state,” Kerry declared, in supposedly off-the-record remarks before a closed-door session of the Trilateral Commission.
Israeli politicians like Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Linvi have all invoked the specter of apartheid in the future, just as Kerry had done, if a two-state solution does not emerge. And there is a very good argument to be made that in the “Occupied Territories,” apartheid is already the reality, including roads and bus lines reserved for Jews, voting rights for Jews but not for Palestinians, and the application of different laws for the two different people living on the same land. Even journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, the “Official Therapist” of the US-Israel “special relationship,” who is also a a proud Zionist and dual US-Israeli citizen, acknowledges, as he did in a 2004 New Yorker report, that “de-facto apartheid already exists in the West Bank” where Jews living in the settlements live under Israeli civil law
but their Arab neighbors—people who live, in some cases, just yards away—fall under a different, and substantially undemocratic, set of laws, administered by the Israeli Army. The system is neither as elaborate nor as pervasive as South African apartheid, and it is, officially, temporary. It is nevertheless a form of apartheid, because two different ethnic groups living in the same territory are judged by two separate sets of laws.
In fact, according to a 2012 Haaretz poll, there’s also evidence that in the minds of most Israelis, apartheid is seen as a favorable development. The poll found that most Israelis already believe that Israel practices apartheid against Arabs, that most Israelis would not give Arabs the right to vote if Israel annexed the West Bank and that almost half favor transferring Israeli Arabs to the Palestinian Authority so that Israel Proper could better retain its “Jewish” character. As Justin Raimondo has observed: “When American critics of Israeli government policies describe it as an "apartheid state" they are simply agreeing with the views of the majority of Israelis, who know apartheid when they see it – and live it.”
Yet Israeli government ministers condemned Kerry’s use of the “A- word,” relaying their condemnations with an odd mix of moral posturing and moral panic. Predictably, some played the Holocaust card. Likud Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon said that Kerry’s remark undercut the ability of the US to broker peace with Palestinians and added Kerry’s unfortunate timing, lamenting that the remark “was made public as we in Israel were marking the solemn day when we remember the more than six million victims of our people murdered in the Holocaust last century in Europe. To suggest that the Jewish people would ever establish an apartheid regime was particularly hurtful. Former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren, who is now a paid on-air commentator for CNN, said that “apartheid” was “a hugely destructive word” that was “synonymous with undiluted racism, second only in hatefulness to Nazism,” adding that:
We Jews remember how each attempt to obliterate us, whether in the Inquisition or during the Holocaust, was preceded by a campaign to delegitimize us. People who practice apartheid are easily considered illegitimate.
Oren also said that even on the West Bank, apartheid didn’t apply. “The vast majority of settlers and Palestinians choose to live apart because of cultural and historical differences, not segregation, though thousands of them do work side by side,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times, adding that the Israeli security “is no more an apartheid wall than the fence between the United States and Mexico."
Stateside, pro Israel groups were just as offended and emotional. Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel said Kerry’s remarks amounted to “slander” and called for Kerry “to step down as Secretary of State, or for President Obama to fire him.” Former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, now flacking for Zionist billionaire Sheldon Adelson tweeted that what Kerry had said was “disgusting.” The ADL’s Abe Foxman said that even if Kerry had Israel’s best interests in mind, the sue of such a “an inaccurate and incendiary term” was “starling and disappointing” and echoed “the repugnant language of Israel's adversaries and accusers.” AIPAC said that Kerry’s remarks were “deeply troubling” and that “Any suggestion that Israel is, or is at risk of becoming, an apartheid state is offensive and inappropriate.” Eric Cantor, then House Majority whip and America's most ranking Jewish political leader before being drubbed in a GOP primary by his tea party opponent, said that Kerry’s use of the term was “offensive and inaccurate” and said that President Obama should call on call on Secretary Kerry to apologize to the Israeli government and people.”
In short order, Kerry issued a three-paragraph clarification, which much of the media mischaracterized as an apology, in order to quiet the uproar. He said he “had been around long enough to know the power of words to create a misimpression, even when unintentional.”
And if I could rewind the tape, I would have chosen a different word to describe my firm belief that the only way in the long term to have a Jewish state and two nations and two peoples living side by side in peace and security is through a two state solution… While Justice Minister Livni, former Prime Ministers Barak and Ohlmert have all invoked the specter of apartheid to underscore the dangers of a unitary state for the future, it is a word best left out of the debate here at home.”
The clarification brought to mind a long string of disheartening incidents where Israel, and its American defenders, had purposefully tried to scold, shame or humiliate American officials who challenged Israel’s hard-line positions or departed form the preferred pro Israel narrative. Think Netanyahu lecturing Obama in the Oval office on the naïvete of 1967 borders, made worse by the standing ovation the lobby engineered for him in Congress just after; Joe Biden landing in Israel to assess prospects for renewing peace talks just as another round of settlement building was announced, the spite in the timing unmistakable; Chuck Hagel forced into a ritual recanting of statements that showed “insufficient regard” for the Jewish state. It’s no secret that the Israelis have a condescending and manipulative attitude toward the alliance, with Netanyahu being caught telling Israeli radio that America is a country that is "easily moved.” Not for nothing did former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who spent most of his distinguished career at CIA, say that Israel was an “ungrateful” ally.
The fury that Israeli officials and their supporters here directed at Kerry seemed as much a matter of salving wounded national pride and highly chauvinistic Israeli self image as it was a bid to get him to make a very public genuflection to the power of the Israel lobby in American politics. The fact that Kerry is not himself Jewish also seemed part of the dynamic. Although Israeli politicians can use the “A-word,” ethnocentric double standards dictate that goyim shouldn’t. As John Cassidy in the New Yorker phrased it, euphemistically of course Olmert, Livni and Ehud could use the A-word because “from the Israeli perspective, they are family.”
As this two-part story played out through the news cycle that week however, I began to sense something more complicated might be involved. Diplomats are supposed to be able to tell someone to go to hell in such a polite manner that they don’t realize it until a half hour later. The apology might make Kerry look weak or craven on the surface, but subtextually it worked to his favor, kind of like a ju jitsu move where he used his opponent’ weight against him. The outcry and the way Kerry handled it had a silver lining. In their zeal, the Zionist thought had actually:
* Redoubled the association between the words "Israel" and "apartheid" that Kerry had established by using it in the first place. Even in the context of an "apology" that’s significant, giving the linkage in the public mind even more traction than it would have had without the walk-back. Andrew Sullivan made the same point in an excellent post: “John Kerry Tells The Truth, Therefore He Must Apologize,” declaring that it was time to “call it what it is.”
The state of Israel controls a large amount of neighboring territory, seized in war, in which the inhabitants are divided by ethnicity, with one group, the original inhabitants of the land or refugees from ethnic cleansing, are systematically disadvantaged compared with the other. They are penned into eight distinct areas from which they have to get through checkpoints to move around. They have no right to vote for the government that controls their lives. This arrangement has now lasted a year longer than the apartheid regime in South Africa – and, unlike
that regime, looks set to continue indefinitely. It also comprises a massive project of ethnic and social engineering in which the dominant ethnic group continues to settle the occupied territory in an attempt – forbidden by the Geneva Conventions – to change its demographic nature.
According to the 1998 Rome Statute, the “crime of apartheid” is defined as “inhumane acts… committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”
How does that not describe the West Bank and Gaza? It may offend some to think of the Jewish state as increasingly like the old South African one. But that, alas, is solely because the hopes of the past still occlude the ugly reality of the present. It seems to me important that if the United States has no real power to change that brutal unending reality, it can at least call it what it is.
* Underscored, once again, that the American conversation about Israel and the “special relationship” is one of the most dysfunctional conversation in American political history, one where “facts, data and the apparently tedious details of international law often seem to have little bearing on conversations about Israel conducted at the highest levels of this country,” as UCLA literature professor Saree Makdisi noted in the Los Angeles Times. The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman, in a column that captured both the bathos and the pathos of this said the Kerry apartheid incident drove home how “ absurdly constrained” the American pro-Israel orthodoxy has made our country’s debate. In American politics, Waldman maintained, the debate about our closest ally in the Middle East has all the candor and thoughtfulness of a cabinet meeting in North Korea.”
There’s no other country in the world for which any criticism of the policies of that country’s current government will immediately be met with charges of insufficient loyalty to that other country and the insistence that only supportive statements may be made. Nobody would accuse an American Secretary of State of being “anti-British” or “anti-Japanese” if he said a decision of one of those governments was problematic, but people are routinely called “anti-Israel” if anything but full-throated support for whatever the current Israeli government does should pass their lips.
So it’s less important to consider what Israel’s future is and what kinds of changes must be made than to monitor whether all public officials are being sufficiently “pro-Israel” in their every utterance, public and private. What we have in American politics when it comes to Israel is a system of censorship that requires occasional controversies like this one to remind everyone what the rules are.
As Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer wrote in the Israel Lobby, “Controlling the debate is essential to guaranteeing US support (for Israel), because a candid discussion of US-Israeli relations might lead Americans to favor a different policy.”
* Drove home the double standards in the debate, particularly how much more open and freewheeling the discourse is in Israel itself, where politicians across the political spectrum have invoked the specter of South Africa. The fact that Kerry conceded that the A-word “was not appropriate here” underscored the corruption at the heart of the “special relationship” which apparently cannot bear the weight of honest and straightforward language. Also “the power of the lobby over the American discourse,” as Phil, Weiss argued.
For the lobby believes that criticism of Israel is fine if it happens among Jews who understand the need for Israel, e.g. Israelis, but it cannot be permitted in front of a diverse population in the U.S., because non-Jews often feel no affection for Israel and in fact may then call for a binational state or single democracy over there, as Truman did.
*Gave the American Zionist establishment yet another chance to display the moral narcissism, the moral preening and the moral sanctimony at the heart of its vision of Israel, which seems to exist in some exalted, parallel universe. According to AIPAC, which had said that any indication that Israel is or could become an apartheid state is an unforgivable insult, “The Jewish state is a beacon of light and freedom and a token of good luck in a region plagued by terrorism, hatred and oppression." In fact, however much the attacks on Kerry may have showed the lobby’s arrogant moral superiority, they also showed its insecurity. As the cliché goes, you have to wonder about people so desperate for positive affirmation.
* Provided an opportunity for Jeffrey Goldberg to show, once again, that he is less the “Official Therapist” of the US-Israel Debate than its “Official Weathervane,” less committed to journalistic honesty or consistency than to maintaining his access and position, especially if it means confirming the criticisms of those he considers Israel’s "enemies." In his Bloomberg View column headlined “Is Israel An Apartheid State,” Goldberg led with a bragging reminder that he had used the apartheid analogy way back in his 2004 New Yorker piece but said that he would no longer do so. Although he acknowledged that “few of the conditions I described in that 2004 article had changed” and that the term reflected “current and unfortunate facts on the ground,” Goldberg said he would no longer use the term apartheid to describe the situation in the West Bank. Among other reasons for the reversal, Goldberg said that “deployment of the word doesn’t start conversations it ends them” and that
Real enemies of Israel---Muslim supremacists of Hamas, Anti Semites in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and so on---use the term “apartheid” not to encourage a two-state solution that would end official discrimination on the West Bank but to argue for the annihilation of Israel.”
Forthwith, Goldberg said, announcing his revision to his personal speech code, rather than using the “incendiary” apartheid label, “I now prefer simply to describe its disagreeable qualities.”
Of course, if Kerry wanted to warn about a possible apartheid future, like some Israeli officials had in the past, Goldberg said he would not “condemn him.” Kerry was, after all “a pro-Israel secretary of state who worries about the Jewish state’s future.”
This volte-face column had a heel clicking, Ya Volte! quality to it that might have been strategic. Not long after the Bloomberg reversal, Goldberg landed a prized interview with Israeli PM Netanyahu, which may not have taken place if he’d left his apartheid comment from ten years ago hanging around his neck. Interestingly, the Q&A, at least the published version, didn’t include any questions or references about the A-Word contretemps, perhaps red penciled in the extensive negotiations Goldberg said had preceded the conversation.
* Revived memories of the close, largely clandestine and now largely forgotten alliance between Israel and South Africa that prevailed in the 1970 and 1980’s. If you google “Israel” and “apartheid” it doesn’t take too long to find a 2006 report by the Guardian’s Chris McGreal that describes the “ love affair between the security establishments of the two countries and their armies.” Within three decades of its birth, McGreal wrote,
Israel's self-proclaimed "purity of arms" - what it describes as the moral superiority of its soldiers - was secretly sacrificed as the fate of the Jewish state became so intertwined with South Africa that the Israeli security establishment came to believe the relationship saved the Jewish state.
The alliance was primarily marked by close cooperation on weapons development, with the Israelis providing the technical know-how and the South Africans provided the money, with the Chinese military becoming a ready market. The two countries cemented their bond with “the ultimate gift of friendship—A bomb technology,” which former Israeli Ambassador to Pretoria Alon Liel maintained was kept tightly hidden. In fact, as McGreal reported in a 2010 Guardian follow- up, the Israelis had struck a deal with the South Africans to sell the apartheid regime bombs and missiles directly, but wound up restricting itself to providing only the technology, receiving yellow cake uranium in return.
The bond between the two countries was also marked by a shared sense of exceptionalism, with both Israelis and Afrikaners embracing a sense of divine election. Although they were at first nervous about where they fit into the apartheid regime which came into power in 1949, South African Jews found echoes of Israel's struggle in the revival of Afrikaner nationalism, especially the idea that the land was their God-given right.
Like the Zionists who claimed that Palestine in the 1940s was 'a land without people for a people without land', so the Afrikaner settlers spread the myth that there were no black people in South Africa when they first settled in the 17th century.
The two peoples also shared a sense of racial engulfment. McGreal:
“The whites [in South Africa] always saw their fate in a way related to the fate of the Israelis because the Israelis were a white minority surrounded by 200 million fanatic Muslims assisted by communism," says Liel. "Also, there was this analysis that said Israel is a civilised western island in the midst of these 200 million barbaric Arabs and it's the same as the Afrikaners; five million Afrikaners surrounded by hundreds of millions of blacks who are also assisted by communism."
A few months after South African Premier John Vorster visited Israel, where his wartime detention as a Nazi sympathizer was ignored, the South African government's yearbook said that "Israel and South Africa have one thing above all else in common: they are both situated in a predominantly hostile world inhabited by dark peoples."
Military cooperation and the arms trade ran afoul of the arms embargo against Pretoria that the Security Council had approved in 1977, requiring duplicity –and no little hypocrisy---on that part of Israeli diplomats. "At the UN we kept saying: we are against apartheid, as Jewish people who suffered from the Holocaust this is intolerable,” Alon Liel maintained. “But our security establishment kept cooperating.”
* Underscored, if we needed it yet again, that the special relationship makes us look foolish internationally---and that the “rest of the world increasingly sees the US as simply an obedient and very powerful poodle for the Israeli government,” as Andrew Sullivan put it.
The “surreal kabuki dance,” in which John Kerry “is forced to recant publicly” for the indisputably truthful things he said “in private,” is, Andrew Sullivan wrote:
an almost perfect symbol of why US engagement with Israel-Palestine is, at this juncture, such an enormous waste of time. The US is barred from telling the truth, which makes a real negotiation impossible. The Israelis know that they will never be subject to real US pressure, because the US Congress stands ever ready to do whatever Israel asks. And so the beat goes on.