Israel, Palestine and the hypocrisy of power
In January 2006 Palestinians voted in a carefully monitored election, pronounced free and fair by international observers. But Palestinians committed a grave crime, by Western standards. They voted the wrong way – for Hamas. The US instantly joined Israel in punishing them for their misconduct, with Europe toddling along behind as usual.
There is nothing novel about the reaction to these Palestinian misdeeds. It is obligatory to hail our leaders for their sincere dedication to bringing democracy to a suffering world, perhaps in an excess of idealism. However, the more serious scholar/advocates of the mission of ‘democracy promotion’ recognize that there is a strong line of continuity running through all US administrations. The US supports democracy if, and only if, it conforms to US strategic and economic interests. The project is pure cynicism, if viewed honestly. It should be described as blocking democracy, not promoting it.
The punishment of Palestinians for the crime of voting the wrong way was severe. With constant US backing, Israel increased its violence in Gaza, withheld funds that it was legally obligated to transmit to the Palestinian Authority, tightened its siege and, in a gratuitous act of cruelty, even cut off the flow of water to the arid Gaza Strip.
The Israeli attacks became far more severe after the capture of Corporal Gilad Shalit on 25 June, which the West portrayed as a terrible crime. Again, pure cynicism. Just one day before, Israel kidnapped two civilians in Gaza – a far worse crime than capturing a soldier – and transported them to Israel, where they presumably joined the roughly 1,000 prisoners held by Israel without charges, hence kidnapped. None of this merits more than a yawn in the West.
There is no need here to run through the ugly details. The US-Israel made sure that Hamas would not have a chance to govern. The two leaders of the rejectionist camp flatly rejected Hamas’s call for a long-term ceasefire to allow for negotiations in terms of the international consensus on a two-state settlement.
The US supports democracy if, and only if, it conforms to US strategic and economic interests
Meanwhile, Israel stepped up its programmes of annexation, dismemberment and imprisonment of shrinking Palestinian cantons in the West Bank, always with decisive US backing, despite occasional minor complaints accompanied by the wink of an eye and munificent funding. The programmes were formalized in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s ‘convergence programme’, which spells the end of any viable Palestinian state. His programme was greeted in the West with much acclaim as ‘moderate’, because it did not satisfy the demands of ‘greater Israel’ extremists. It was soon abandoned as ‘too moderate’, again with mild notes of disapproval by Western hypocrites.
There is a standard operating procedure for overthrowing an unwanted government: arm the military to prepare for a military coup. The US-Israel adopted this conventional plan, arming and training Fatah to win by force what it lost at the ballot box. The US also encouraged Mahmoud Abbas to amass power in his own hands – steps that are quite appropriate in the eyes of Bush administration advocates of presidential dictatorship.
As for the rest of the Quartet, Russia has no principled objection to such steps, the UN is powerless to defy the Master, and Europe is too timid to do so. Egypt and Jordan supported the effort, consistent with their own programmes of internal repression and barring of democracy, with US backing.
The strategy backfired. Despite the flow of military aid, Fatah forces in Gaza were defeated in a vicious conflict. Many close observers described this as a pre-emptive strike, targeting primarily the security forces of the brutal Fatah strongman, Mohammed Dahlan.
However, those with overwhelming power can often snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and the US-Israel quickly moved to turn the outcome to their benefit. They now have a pretext for tightening the stranglehold on the people of Gaza, cheerfully pursuing policies that the prominent international law scholar Richard Falk describes as a prelude to genocide that ‘should remind the world of the famous post-Nazi pledge of “never again”’.
The US-Israel can pursue this project unless Hamas meets the three conditions imposed by the ‘international community’ - a technical term referring to the US Government and whoever goes along with it. For Palestinians to be permitted to peek through the walls of their Gaza dungeon, Hamas must: (1) recognize Israel or, in a more extreme form, Israel’s ‘right to exist’ – that is, the legitimacy of their expulsion from their homes; (2) renounce violence; (3) accept past agreements – in particular, the Road Map of the Quartet.
The hypocrisy again is stunning. No such conditions are imposed on those who wear the jackboots: (1) Israel does not recognize Palestine, in fact it is devoting extensive efforts to ensure that there will be no viable Palestine ever, always with decisive US support; (2) Israel does not renounce violence – and it is ridiculous even to raise the question with regard to the US; (3) Israel firmly rejects past agreements, in particular the Road Map.
The first two points are obvious. The third is correct, but scarcely known. While Israel formally accepted the Road Map, it attached 14 reservations that completely eviscerate it. To take just the first: Israel demanded that, for the process to commence and continue, the Palestinians must ensure an end to all hostilities, education for peace, cessation of incitement, dismantling of Hamas and other organizations. Even if they were to satisfy these virtually impossible demands, the Israeli Cabinet proclaimed that ‘the Road Map will not state that Israel must cease violence and incitement against the Palestinians’. The other reservations continue in the same vein.
Israel’s instant rejection of the Road Map, with US support, is unacceptable to the Western self-image, so it has been suppressed
Israel’s instant rejection of the Road Map, with US support, is unacceptable to the Western self-image, so it has been suppressed. The facts did finally break into the mainstream with the publication of Jimmy Carter’s _Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid_. The book elicited a torrent of abuse and desperate efforts to discredit it, but the relevant sections – the only part of the book that would have been new to readers with some familiarity with the topic – were scrupulously avoided. The imperial mentality is so deeply embedded in Western culture that this travesty passes without criticism, even notice.
Now in a position to crush Gaza with even greater cruelty, Israel can also proceed, with US backing, to implement its plans in the West Bank, expecting to have the tacit co-operation of Fatah leaders, who will be amply rewarded for their capitulation. Among other steps, Israel began to release the funds – estimated at $600 million – that it had stolen in reaction to the January 2006 election, and is making a few other gestures. The programmes of undermining democracy are proceeding with shameless self-righteousness and ill-concealed pleasure, with gestures to keep the natives contented – at least those who play along. Israel continues its merciless repression and violence; and, of course, its immense projects to ensure that it will take over whatever is of value to it in the West Bank. All thanks to the benevolence of the gracious rich uncle.
Boycotts – for and against
What should concern us is that US-Israeli triumphalism, and European cowardice, might be the prelude to the death of a nation – a rare and sombre event.
A large majority of Americans oppose US Government policy and support the international consensus on a two-state settlement. Furthermore, a large majority also think that the US should deny aid to either of the contending parties – Israel and the Palestinians – if they do not negotiate in good faith towards this settlement. This is one of a great many illustrations of a huge gap between public opinion and public policy on critical issues.
I have always been sceptical about academic boycotts. There may be overriding reasons, but in general I think that those channels should be kept open. As for boycotts in general, they are a tactic, not a principle. Like other tactics, we have to evaluate them in terms of their likely consequences.
Let’s consider South Africa and Israel, which are often compared in this context. In the case of South Africa, boycotts had some impact, but they were implemented after a long period of education and organizing, which had led to widespread condemnation of apartheid, even within mainstream opinion and powerful institutions. That included the US corporate sector, which has an overwhelming influence on policy formation. At that stage, boycott became an effective instrument.
The case of Israel is radically different. The preparatory educational and organizing work has scarcely been done. The result is that calls for boycott can easily turn out to be weapons for the hard right. Those who care about the fate of Palestinians will not undertake actions that harm them.
Nevertheless, carefully targeted boycotts, which are comprehensible to the public in the current state of understanding, can be effective instruments. One example is university divestment from corporations that are involved in US-Israeli repression and violence. In Europe, a sensible move would be to call for an end to preferential treatment for Israeli exports, until Israel stops its systematic destruction of Palestinian agriculture and barring of economic development. In the US, it would make good sense to call for reducing US aid to Israel by the estimated $600 million that Israel has stolen.
Looking farther ahead, a sensible project would be to support the stand of the majority of Americans that all aid to Israel should be cancelled until it agrees to negotiate seriously for a peaceful diplomatic settlement.
That, however, will require serious educational and organizational efforts. We can debate the extent to which Israel relies on US support. But there can be little doubt that its crushing of Palestinians, and other violent crimes, are possible only because the US provides it with economic, military, diplomatic and ideological support.
So, if there are to be boycotts, why not of the US, or Britain, or other criminal states? We know the answer – and it is not an attractive one.