Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The main story in this week's New Yorker is entitled, "Among the Settlers", and carries the summary blurb, "Some Jews believe God sent them to the occupied territories. Will they destroy Israel?". A narrated online slide show by the author, Jeffrey Goldberg, explains his concern: the settlers, in forcing Israeli troops to protect them by militarily occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip, are placing Israel in the ultimately untenable situation of ruling undemocratically over a hostile Arab population roughly as large as its own Jewish population. The resulting tension between Israel's security needs and democratic character is irresolvable and potentially ruinous for the nation.

This argument is, of course, decades old. It was at the heart of the Israeli peace movement's position in favor of unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories at least as far back as the 1980's. It remains today the core belief of the dovish Israeli left. And it's therefore entirely unsurprising for it to feature prominently in the New Yorker. What's odd about it, though, is the timing of its presentation. Prior to the start of the current hostilities in September 2000, Goldberg's thesis was widely embraced as a justification for the Oslo process. Shortly thereafter, it was trotted out as an explanation for the terrorist campaign known as the "Al Aqsa intifada": by failing to withdraw unilaterally from the territories, Israel had provoked the bloodthirsty wrath of a subjugated people. The same argument was used to declare "Operation Defensive Shield" (the return of Israeli troops to the territories) doomed to fail.

But today, the empirical evidence is unmistakable: vigorous military action in the West Bank and Gaza has drastically reduced the ability of terrorists to operate against Israel, and the number of victims of terrorism has declined with similar alacrity. (There have been no suicide bombings inside Israel proper for two and a half months now, and far fewer civilian casualties this year than at the same time in the previous two years.) The crisis atmosphere in Israel has hence abated somewhat, with the expected salutary effect on democratic politics. In short, Goldberg's analysis simply doesn't stand up to the facts: it was surrendering the territories to terrorists that put both Israel's security and her democracy at risk, and retaking control of them that warded off the danger.

Indeed, it's striking to compare Goldberg's assessment of Israel's prospects with the objectively assessed prospects of the Palestinians. Four years ago, the latter were on the very verge of getting their own state, making peace with their powerful neighbor, and establishing their unquestioned geopolitical legitimacy. Today, they are destitute, violence-torn, occupied, largely forgotten, and without any apparent hope of mitigating any of these problems. By comparison, the supposed long-term threat to Israel posed by the settlers seems negligible. Why would Goldberg even bother to pay attention to it?

The answer is that despite the pragmatic phrasing of Goldberg's argument, it was never seriously intended as a hardheaded analysis of Israel's situation. Reading between the lines of Goldberg's narrative, one can clearly discern that his real concerns are moral and political, rather than practical. He believes that Israel's military rule over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is morally wrong, and should be ended for that reason. (And it would be unfair not to concede the obvious point that the Palestinians living in the territories do undergo suffering at the hands of Israeli troops. Their movement is interfered with, their safety is endangered by military incursions, and their political aspirations are left unfulfilled.) Moreover, Goldberg is politically opposed to the settlers and their religious-nationalistic agenda for Israeli politics, and wishes to see Israel take a more secular, internationalist path.

But this moral/political argument, taken on its own, runs up against the practical counterargument that withdrawal from the territories would be a security disaster for Israel--as, indeed, it was the last time it was tried. (The Oslo process handed over large portions of the territories to the "Palestinian Authority", which promptly turned them into terrorist havens.) After the debacle of Oslo, it's hard to find anyone with even a scintilla of sympathy for Israelis who is willing to demand such enormous security risks from Israel merely to cater to some leftists' moral and political preferences. Hence Goldberg has to rephrase his case as a practical one: Israel occupies the West Bank and Gaza to protect settlers, not to suppress terrorist activity, and this occupation therefore threatens Israel's long-term safety, rather than enhancing it.

This pattern of argument--"it's only practical to embrace my moral and political outlook"--seems to crop up repeatedly in debates over Middle East policy. For example, it's mirrored in the debate taking place in America over the treatment of prisoners by US troops in Iraq. The latest offender is Fred Hiatt, who argues in the Washington Post that the stories of torture emanating from Abu Ghraib prison are first and foremost a setback to Iraq "hawks", who want America to remain in Iraq to shape its political future.
Iraqi detainees might have been going home to their families and saying, as German POWs did so many decades ago, that these American soldiers are for real, that they treated us humanely -- that maybe they mean what they say about liberation, not occupation. Instead, the United States is reduced to pleading that it's not as bad as al Qaeda...Who pays the price for the president's dishonesty? Soldiers such as Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli and his troops, who, as The Post's Scott Wilson reported last week, are out in Baghdad's slums, fighting insurgents one hour and fixing sewers the next. The prison scandal and the administration's failed response haven't doomed those efforts, but they've lengthened the odds. They've given aid and comfort to the enemy.
Now, there are certainly legitimate moral and political reasons for outrage at the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by US troops. (The scale of the abuses, and the appropriate scale of the outrage, are more complicated questions, of course.) But it's absurd to suggest that Iraqis' opinions of the US or its occupation will be radically altered by this set of revelations. They are, after all, only the latest (and most credible) of a steady stream of allegations of American misconduct that opponents of the US occupation have been beaming at Iraqis since the military campaign began. And if Americans themselves--as Hiatt concedes--have been reacting largely according to their partisan predispositions, there's no reason to expect that Iraqis would do otherwise. Most likely, those Iraqis inclined to disapprove of the American presence will cite the graphic images of mistreatment as yet further justification for demanding an American withdrawal, while those who prefer a guiding hand through the Iraqi transition to a new government will accept American claims that the misdeeds were isolated, atypical, and ultimately forgivable.

But then, Fred Hiatt doesn't need a practical justification for preferring that the Bush administration had "embraced the heroes such as Spec. Joseph Darby, who sounded the alarm[,]....apologized to the people of Iraq, appointed an investigator from outside the chain of command, pledged to abide by the Geneva Conventions." Even if it could be proven that these actions would have had absolutely no effect on Iraqis, Hiatt would surely have recommended them as morally obligatory and politically appropriate. Likewise, if Jeffrey Goldberg could be convinced that the occupation and the settlers were not long-term threats to Israel's safety, he would almost certainly advocate ending the former and removing the latter, for moral and political reasons. The assertions by these writers that their preferred political paths are in fact practically necessary therefore deserve to be taken with at least a grain of salt.

As a final example, consider the "neocons" who argue that the Middle East must be democratized--at the point of a gun, if necessary--if America is to be protected from the threat of radical Islamist terrorism. The problem with this argument is that many of these same neoconservatives were advocating an aggressive, democratizing American foreign policy long before the Islamist terrorist threat became a matter of serious concern. At least some of them, it is clear, would be proposing American initiatives to undermine and then democratize authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes, even if there were no Al Qaida. Hence, while it's easy to sympathize with their enthusiasm for dispatching odious despots, their assertions about the insufficiency of less aggressive alternatives should nevertheless be viewed with a certain amount of skepticism.

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