Thursday, January 8, 2009

Israel: Shooting itself in its own Foot

When Theodore Herzl in the late 19th century conceived the Jewish state, he had in mind a country that would serve as a safe haven for Jews, particularly those in Europe suffering a far greater degree of persecution and discrimination than their brethren in Arab and Muslim lands. The Holocaust gave the need for a safe haven greater urgency. Increasingly, Jews over the decades became less inclined to uproot and immigrate to the ingathering of the exiles as Israel perceived itself. Yet, the very existence of the Jewish state gave psychological comfort to Jews across the globe and became a building stone for communities' identity as well as a, if not the, center of Jewish culture.

However, Israeli policies towards the Palestinians as well as towards the Jews are defeating the very goals of the Zionist movement. Israel, which capitalized on sympathy towards the Jews in the wake of Germany's genocide, today hardly looks like a safe haven. "..from war to war, it has become clear that there are many places in the world where Jews are safer than in Israel," says Israeli journalist Tom Segev. Israel is a continuous target of terrorism and embroiled every several years in military conflict that the international community increasingly finds difficult to swallow; increasingly Israel no longer produces the kind of clear cut military victory it used to be able to deliver. No doubt, military confrontation today is not against conventional national armies but against non-state militias deeply embedded in the population, often in densely populated areas. Israel may well be seeking to minimize civilian casualties but the pictures coming out of Gaza and the assessments of the humanitarian situation by international organizations are so powerful, there is no way it can the win the public relations battle – a key aspect of any war. Leaving aside the analytical question whether Israeli policy is radicalizing the Arab and Muslim world rather than removing an extreme terrorist movement to create space for more moderate forces, the images of Gaza and perceived Israeli callousness makes it impossible for Israel to garner the kind of international and Jewish support it enjoyed when it was fighting battles that almost unanimously were perceived as existential and because it had no alternative and where there was no obvious political and diplomatic alternative.

To be sure, the greatest military threats on Israel's borders – Hizbollah, Hamas and other religiously inspired militant groups – are hardly nice guys. Beyond the fact that they are in part a product of Israeli policy, history shows that they cannot be militarily removed from the stage, at least not at a price that Israel morally would be willing to pay or would be allowed to pay by the international community despite the international community's inability so far to call a halt to the fighting in Gaza. One needs only to hark back to the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s that led to the 1993 failed Oslo peace process That process emerged once Israeli military commanders advised then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that they could control the uprising but that the solution needed to be political because the price Israel would have to pay to crush the role was neither morally nor internationally acceptable. The question arises whether the price Israel is paying for Gaza in terms of loss of international goodwill and sympathy, an asset it will need in future peace negotiations, is worth the outcome of the battle at a time at which in many ways prospects for a Middle East peace may never have been better. The Arab world led by Saudi Arabia have put a peace plan on the table Israel views as an acceptable base for negotiation. In addition, a closer look at Israeli policies over the years towards the occupied territories, including the 18-month blockade of Gaza, have contributed to severe economic deterioration rather than to the nurturing of an economic and social environment that would create the vested interests needed for a viable peace process.

The failure of Zionism, measured by its goal rather than its success in establishing a vibrant, viable state, may in part have been inevitable but in part is Israel's own doing. Inevitably, there was going to be a divergence of interests between well-established Jewish communities across the globe and the Israeli nation state, rendering Israel more the 13th tribe than the representative of global Jewish interests. While Zionism sought to promote Jewish immigration, Israel needed to keep influential Jewish communities in major capitals as part of its global support network. Invariably, those communities are impacted by Israeli actions and policies, which at times spark more often than not privately rather than publicly expressed disagreement. That divergence focuses not only on repercussions of Israeli foreign, regional and military policies but also, for example, on the very notion of who is a Jew. Legally, Israel recognizes anyone with a Jewish mother. Much of the Jewish community in the Diaspora however is religiously liberal or conservative rather than Orthodox, yet orthodoxy controls Israel's religious hierarchy and apparatus refusing to recognize any other form of Judaism as legitimate or legal in religious terms.

Nothing justifies outbursts of racism and Antisemitism from Dubai to Florida in response to the Israeli offensive in Gaza, outbursts that say more about its perpetrators than about Israel. Nonetheless, the outbursts constitute the fringe of a swell of opinion that less and less views Israel and the Jews as a moral and democratic force seeking to carve out a secure national existence of their own even if that is only achievable by ensuring that Palestinians enjoy that same privilege and more and more as a belligerent military bully that appears to have lost perspective and the ability to think and act boldly; a power that uses its political, moral, economic and military strength to help shape an environment conducive to peace, a power that is politically proactive rather than defensive and reactive exploiting primarily its military capability. The outbursts must raise concern in Jewish communities around the world. They range from a car ramming into a synagogue in France to the spraying in Belgium of swastikas on a Chabad menorah and Jewish-owned shops, a banner at an Australian rally demanding "clean the earth from dirty Zionists," demonstrators in the Netherlands chanting "Gas the Jews," protesters in Florida demanding Jews "Go back to the ovens!" to an editorial in Dubai's Gulf News denying the Holocaust. "My fear," says Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance "is that the rage we see in the protesters marching in the streets is far more profound and dangerous than we would like to believe. There are a great many people in the world who, even after Auschwitz, just can't bear the Jewish state having the same rights they so readily grant to other nations."

A statistical analysis of Palestinian Israeli violence from 2000 till today despite the vulgarity of these outbursts calls into question whether anti-Israeli sentiment can be reduced to a racist refusal to accept the notion of a Jewish state. Basing herself on Israeli official and non-governmental statistics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and investigator Nancy Kanwisher. Kanwisher concludes that:
-- A systematic pattern exist in which it is overwhelmingly Israel, not Palestine, that kills first following a lull
-- Hamas can indeed control the rockets, when it is in their interest. The data shows that ceasefires can work, reducing the violence to nearly zero for months at a time.
-- If Israel wants to reduce rocket fire from Gaza, it should cherish and preserve the peace when it starts to break out, not be the first to kill.

In analyzing the data, Kanwisher defined conflict pauses as periods of one or more days when no one is killed on either side and looked at which side kills first after conflict pauses of different durations. "This analysis illustrated in the above figure shows that it is overwhelmingly Israel that kills first after a pause in the conflict: 79% of all conflict pauses were interrupted when Israel killed a Palestinian, while only 8% were interrupted by Palestinian attacks (the remaining 13% were interrupted by both sides on the same day). In addition, we found that this pattern -- in which Israel is more likely than Palestine to kill first after a conflict pause -- becomes more pronounced for longer conflict pauses. Indeed, of the 25 periods of nonviolence lasting longer than a week, Israel unilaterally interrupted 24, or 96%, and it unilaterally interrupted 100% of the 14 periods of nonviolence lasting longer than 9 days," Kanwisher says. The figure shows in black the percentage of times from the Second Intifada in which Israelis ended the period of nonviolence by killing one or more Palestinians, in grey the percentage of times that Palestinians ended the period of nonviolence by killing Israelis and in white the percentage of times that both sides killed on the same day. Virtually all periods of nonviolence lasting more than a week were ended when the Israelis killed Palestinians first.

The latest outbreak of violence is no exception. For all practical purposes, the Israel Hamas ceasefire that came into effect last June was effective. The figure below based on a fact sheet of the Israeli consulate in New York shows that the rate of rocket and mortar fire from Gaza dropped to almost zero, and stayed there for four straight months. The ceasefire came to an end when Israel on November 4 killed a Palestinian to which Palestinians responded with a volley of mortars fired from Gaza. In turn, Israel launched an Israeli air strike that killed another six Palestinians prompting a second barrage of Palestinian rockets.

A complex history and psychology that goes beyond the trauma of the Holocaust and the existentialist fear of coming to the world in a sea of enemies willing to use force to achieve a still born birth explains Israel's overly reliance on overwhelming force. Prominent left-wing Israeli journalist Tom Segev, an exponent of the New Historians who challenge Israel's version of the history of the Jewish state and Zionism, argues that for much of their history, Israelis defined themselves in opposition to the traditional, persecuted and submissive Old Jew whom they looked down. The Israeli, the New Jew, resembled Lenin's New Man or Ataturk's New Turk: upright, strong, patriotic, honorable a fighter and warrior rather than the Old Jew, a lamb available for slaughter. The role of the Holocaust in Israel identity and policy is all the more intense because as described by Segev in his book, The Seventh Million: Israel and the Holocaust, Jews in Palestine during World War II faced an impossible choice: build a Jewish state designed as a safe haven for future generations or focus on the immediate and save persecuted Jews facing genocide in Europe. The Zionist movement, Segev argues, had no choice but to choose the former, burdening the new state with a legacy few countries have to confront. "…the extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust was an obvious defeat for the Zionist movement: The Zionists were unable to convince the majority of the world's Jews to come to Palestine before the war, while that was still an option. And though the yishuv (Jewish settlement of Palestine)leaders certainly could have displayed greater compassion for and identification with the Jews of Europe, they could not have done more to save them; the yishuv was helpless when faced with the Nazi extermination program," Segev says.

On a lighter note:

Al Aqsa TV, the Hamas television station, broadcasting live images of the Israeli offensive on Gaza, is not the channel one would turn to for Western-style entertainment and pornography is certainly not part of its programming. But late last night Al Aqsa viewers, at least those with access to electricity, were treated to six minutes of erotic entertainment broadcast on Polish channel Patio TV. A Hamas technician presumably seeking relief from the tensions of war and the images of suffering and destruction apparently decided to zap satellite channels and settled on Patio TV unaware that the images were being broadcast live on the Hamas station. To view the clip: MEMRI . WARNING: This clip contains nudity.

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