Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Further to Shelby Steele


Here is at least one of Steele's core points.

"'World opinion' labors mightily to make Israel look like South Africa looked in its apartheid era—a nation beyond the moral pale. And it projects onto Israel the same sin that made apartheid South Africa so untouchable: white supremacy. Somehow "world opinion" has moved away from the old 20th century view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a complicated territorial dispute between two long-suffering peoples. Today the world puts its thumb on the scale for the Palestinians by demonizing the stronger and whiter Israel as essentially a colonial power committed to the "occupation" of a beleaguered Third World people."

This is a wonderful piece of rhetorical sleight of hand, because it simply treats as an obvious truth that there is absolutely no basis for comparison between Israel and South Africa and that any such comparison is merely projection. Believing that Israel is a "colonial power" committed to occupation of a Third World people is some sort of delusion. Except that, in reality, the settlement of the West Bank while under occupation bears far too much resemblance to apartheid. If it is not yet full-blown apartheid, it aspires to be, and the similarities should discomfit anyone who takes human rights seriously (oh, like Martin Peretz lets say). Indeed, this appalling situation is so discomfiting that the only response one gets from the defenders 99% of the time is to point to worse deeds by someone else in the world, preferably Moslem.

The West Bank is not incorporated Israeli territory. It is occupied, and acknowledged by Israel to be so. By settling it, Israel violates the Fourth Geneva Convention by transferring its own population to explicitly occupied territory. It cannot and will not grant political equality and rights to the inhabitants of the territory. Hence, we have a situation with a pretty white, Western, technologically and economically advanced society occupying, colonizing, and asserting political and military control over a less-white, non-Western, technologically and economically backward society. This is not a fantasy of Israel-haters, or some distorted perception of Westerners lacking self-confidence, as Steele would have. It is a fact. Not is it the logical, necessary or acceptable outcome of the Six Day War, It is a deliberate choice by a succession of Israeli governments to colonize the West Bank based on historical and messianic claims and the strange belief that something about Israel and Jewish history granted a license to ignore the international human rights convention to which Israel is itself a party. This has nothing whatever to do with "a territorial dispute" as Steele says and everything to do with the human rights of the people in an occupied territory. If Israel claimed the territory and granted the inhabitants citizenship, THEN it would be a territorial dispute. For now it is a human rights violation. Steele thinks the problem lies with people who notice this, rather than with the people who strive to deny it, and he concocts a whole right-wing fairy tale around it. He has invented the problem and the fairy tale is his. It has instant appeal to the right because it at once absolves them of any responsibility for the human rights problem and assures them of their moral superiority. Their single favorite thing, better than catnip for a cat or chocolate ice cream for a three-year-old.

It should not be forgotten that, until very recently, the Likud openly aspired to permanent possession of the West Bank without any intention whatsoever of according the inhabitants political equality. It should also not be forgotten that, upon his election, Benjamin Netanyahu, prince of peace, could not bring himself publicly to accept a two-state solution in order to form a coalition with Kadima. Yet we can be sure that he was not in favor of a one-state solution with equal rights for all. The notion that at least some large minority of Israel has aspired, and still aspires, to colonial domination of the West Bank is not a fantasy.

The whole thing is so shameful that Israel's defenders must contort themselves endlessly in order to pretend that these facts do not exist and to draw attention away from them. If you call attention to it, then you are an anti-Semite. (About this, Mearsheimer and Walt are not so far off the mark. One need only read the Spine to see it.) The one thing that seems never to occur to them is that Israel ought to just stop doing it, or that anyone who criticizes this state of affairs might actually have a legitimate point.


...Here is at least one of Steele's core points...(etc.)

This is pretty strongly and well argued but I think that Steele has the better of the issue.

The first reason why is that rather than the more nuanced position set out in above post, Steele is responding to a (forgive me) black and white view of the Occupation that is of a piece with Palestinian irredentism, that won’t make peace, that won’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and that is Islamist in some parts and inclines to it in other parts.

That irredentism curries, and gets the favor of, “world opinion”. It is that unnuanced, black and white view of things increasingly seeping into, and informing, world opinion, that Steele is responding to. It is a view that calls for Israel to dismantle the blockade, that hedges on ideological terror, that won’t cede to Israel its sovereign legitimacy. It is continuous with liberal self haters such as Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, who laud Tariq Ramadan regardless of his espousal of the righteousness of the terror war against Israel. Once one understands who and what Steele is responding to, one understands further two things astride the critique made out in the above post:

1. in fact, in context, it is no rhetorical sleight of hand; and

2. there need be no inconsistency between Steele’s characterization and his (if he has them, I don’t know) discrete criticisms of Israel’s settlement policy, just as Israel has many strong and ardent defenders who criticize its settlement policy.

The second reason why the criticism is, finally, off centre is the totality of all the reasons that make it difficult for Israel simply to end the West Bank occupation. While there had always been messianiasm in that policy after 1967, it strikes me as unreasonable both to see the continuation of that messianism in current policy and to hold that even if conditions permitted Israel would not end the Occupation and not welcome a the trading of land for peace.

To put the second point more assertively: if it had a partner for peace, Israel would make peace: it is unreasonable not to think so. And that point is so regardless of how late Netanyahu arrived at the dance. Gaza taught Israel the perils of unilateral withdrawal. A reasonable case can be made, and is often made, that Netanyahu pursues what two statism he can. He does this, it can be reasonably argued, by his policies encouraging West Bank Israeli joint ventures and easing check points on the premise of a bottom up growth of Palestinian statehood. This is the starting point for Salim Fayed. Military necessity and Islamist irredentism bedevil easy talk of Israel withdrawal from the West Bank.

3. This second reason bleeds into the third: talk of apartheid is inapposite, to put it mildly, since, essentially, Israel would forgo the West Bank for peace. And the assimilation of Israel to South Africa, an explicitly racist regime, de facto and de jure, is a mile wide for all that anyone can point to the oppressive conditions under which West Bank Palestinians live. The Occupation presents Israel with a tragic dilemma which it would solve if it could. An apartheid state it is not.

So, as I say, Steele is, I think, right and the above arguments made against him proceed from the wrong premise, and, conceptually wrong to start with, get entangled in their own complications.