“The Occupation Is Indefensible”

In a lengthy and powerful reflection inspired by Israel’s outsized response to the kidnapping of three yeshiva students in the West Bank on Friday, Max Fisher announces that he is finished blaming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on “both sides”:

There has always been, and there remains, plenty of culpability to go around in this conflict, plenty of individuals and groups that squandered peace and perpetuated suffering many times over. Everyone is complicit and no one is pure. The crisis over the kidnapped students shows all this. But it is also highlights what has become perhaps the most essential truth of the Israel-Palestine conflict: for all the complexity of how it came to be and why it’s continued, for all the shared responsibility for this week’s crisis and everything that led up to it, the conflict predominantly matters for the human suffering it causes. And today the vast majority of that suffering comes from Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Today, the suffering has become so disproportionately administered by the occupation and so disproportionately felt by Palestinians that, in a conflict famous for its complexity and its gray areas, this is an issue that looks less gray all the time: the occupation is wrong, it is the problem, and Israel is responsible. …

Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy generated anticipatable controversy when he wrote that “if, in the West Bank, yeshiva students aren’t abducted, then the West Bank disappears from Israel’s consciousness.” To many, this sounded as if the column were encouraging Palestinians to abduct school-age Israelis; to others, presumably including the columnist himself, it may have rung true as a description of many Israelis’ apathy to the suffering of West Bank Palestinians.

Here’s what has happened in Hebron as a result of the kidnappings:

In the three days since, the Israeli military has descended on the southern part of the West Bank where the yeshiva students disappeared, and especially on the major Palestinian city of Hebron. I happened to visit Hebron the day before the kidnapping and found it already suffocated by occupation. Dozens of Palestinians have been arrested; some estimates say 120, some nearer to 80, but all agree that it includes the entire population of middle-aged and older men who work for Hamas’s political branch (remember that they are also a political party). The military has severely restricted Palestinian movement in Hebron, forbidden residents under age 50 from leaving the country, and completely shut down all movement in or out of Gaza and the southern West Bank save for “humanitarian and medical assistance.”

I don’t know how you live in a place where a foreign army can do this to you at will at any time. And I do not begin to know how you live with it for decades and decades, as the occupation continues to advance by colonizing and settling. Until the United States is capable of ending aid to Israel unless it ceases its illegal and immoral attempt to control and repress a whole nation under its thumb, this will go on. In so many ways, this is America’s colonization as well. Until we have the foresight and sanity to cease our enabling of it.

On Chait

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I’m overdue for the response I promised and so much is going on. But here goes.

Jon Chait is absolutely correct that I have moved very far from the hardline neoconservatism I held in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And I think he is right to say that my previous view of the subject, informed by years of marination in the topic at The New Republic, combined with a long-held commitment to the defense of the Jewish people in the wake of the Holocaust, was, in many respects, brittle. It was also not as well-informed as it should have been, although editing TNR for so long meant I was probably exposed to more argument and rhetoric on the question than most people in a lifetime. My core interests were elsewhere and still are. But my concern for Israel – and admiration of her remarkable achievements in economics and science and technology and the rule of law – has always been deep.

I never wrote much on the subject of the Israel-Palestine conflict before I started blogging – but the decision to run a highly eclectic blogazine made it unavoidable in the Middle East wars of the new Millennium and prompted me to think about it some more and follow events more closely. Readers know I constantly link to writers who know much more about this issue than I do – from Laura Rozen to Jeffrey Goldberg to Marc Lynch to Juan Cole to Stephen Walt and Reuel Marc Gerecht and countless others of many different views.

My view of the question was also made much more brittle at the beginning of the last decade by what I thought were good faith efforts by the Israelis in the 1990s to forge some kind of peace rejected unreasonably by Arafat (although my view of Taba has become a little more complicated since I have read more on the subject). The 9/11 attacks – in their evil and traumatizing impact – immediately added a new level of of emotional intensity to the threat of Islamist terror in my mind and heart, and helped me identify with Israel’s confrontation with Hamas and Hezbollah more viscerally. To select via Google, as Chait does, various, extreme passages from that period is certainly legitimate as a debating point but not entirely fair, given the long, gradual and open self-correction and re-thinking I have gone through since then.

And it also critically ignores the major shifts in the world and the situation since then: the doubling of the illegal settler population on the West Bank, the catastrophe of the Iraq war and its ramifications for the West’s relationship with the Muslim world, the torture policy embraced by the US government against overwhelmingly Muslim prisoners, the move to the far right in Israeli public opinion (where approval of Obama once sunk to 6 percent), the effect of Bush’s blank check for Israel for eight years, the rise of Israel’s religious right, the influx of Russian immigrants, Obama’s promise as a bridge between the West and moderate Muslims, the brutality of the Gaza war just before his inauguration, and the intransigence of the Netanyahu government ever since over something as basic as mere freezing settlement construction that is already illegal. Chait writes as if the last decade had never happened and that therefore the shift in my position is somehow inexplicable, apart from some psychological inability to see nuance, or some general Manicheanism in my world view.

It would be more accurate to say that certain scales have fallen from my eyes with respect to Israel as they have with respect to the United States under the Cheney administration and its war crimes. And yes, I was moved by what I saw in Gaza, and appalled by the triumphalist neoconservative rhetoric over the dead bodies of innocent children and what I came to see as a grotesquely disproportionate response by a regional super-power, subsidized by a global super-power, armed with 150 nuclear weapons, to the war crimes of Hamas.

It is also true that I write emotionally at times, and my anger sometimes gets the better of me. But this is true of all of us. For example:

I hate President George W. Bush. There, I said it … He reminds me of a certain type I knew in high school–the kid who was given a fancy sports car for his sixteenth birthday and believed that he had somehow earned it. I hate the way he walks–shoulders flexed, elbows splayed out from his sides like a teenage boy feigning machismo. I hate the way he talks–blustery self-assurance masked by a pseudo-populist twang. I even hate the things that everybody seems to like about him. I hate his lame nickname-bestowing– a way to establish one’s social superiority beneath a veneer of chumminess (does anybody give their boss a nickname without his consent?). And, while most people who meet Bush claim to like him, I suspect that, if I got to know him personally, I would hate him even more.

Well, no one can claim that some of this anger isn’t merited, and I quite enjoyed the column as a rant myself. But there are glass houses and stones involved here.

More to the point, after graciously exonerating me from the insinuation that I am a bigot, Chait writes that Wieseltier wrote a “trenchant and persuasive dissection” of my evolving views. Note the word “persuasive”. And “dissection”. Really? Does Chait believe it is persuasive that, as Wieseltier claimed on the question of torture, for example, that

Krauthammer argues for his views; the premises of his analysis are coldly clear, and may be engaged analytically, and when necessary refuted. Unlike Sullivan, he does not present feelings as ideas.

Is Chait persuaded that my response to Krauthammer in TNR, The Abolition of Torture, was merely, as Wieseltier claimed, “feelings” presented as “ideas”? Does he think that my examination of the roots of “enhanced interrogation” has not been backed up by facts and legal precedents? Does he believe that my essay last summer was mere feeling? Does he think that my work over the last decade on this subject has not constantly been backed up by fact, argument, text, and historical precedent? Was Wieseltier’s piece really a “persuasive dissection” of these issues?

Does Chait think it was a “trenchant” argument by Wieseltier that my exploration of the question of just war in the context of Gaza was “calculatedly indifferent to the wrenching moral and strategic perplexities that are contained in the awful reality of asymmetrical warfare” when the Dish’s extensive and careful and thoughtful discussion of the subject can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here? Is this what Chait believes is “calculated indifference” to the complexities involved?

Is Chait persuaded by Wieseltier that my record on this blog and elsewhere has involved no “notion of the magnitude and the virulence of Muslim contempt for the Jewish world”, or that I have refused over the years to “give the whole picture”?

These are not rhetorical questions. They are real questions of a fellow blogger and former colleague who has endorsed as “persuasive and trenchant” the substance of an argument that is riddled with easily demonstrated untruths. If Chait is intellectually honest, as I believe he is, he will address these points, and refute Wieseltier on them one by one by one.

My response to Jeffrey Goldberg’s endorsement of Chait’s piece (which began with the sentence: “Chait says much of what I would say, but better”) is forthcoming.

(Photo: a schoolgirl in Gaza walking through the wreckage of Israel’s air assault in January 2009. By Olivier Laban-Mattei/Getty.)

Goldblog On The Dish

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Read Jeffrey’s latest. He makes a point that improves on my own formulation:

I disagree with his formulation about Israel’s suicide, though not entirely. If anything, Israel may wind up the victim of murder-suicide. The long and brutal strategy of Arab Muslim extremists is to keep up the pressure on Israel until it makes a fatal mistake (the Gaza invasion, many believe — and I do, on some days — was an example of a non-fatal, but pretty damn serious strategic mistake) or until Israelis simply give up.

I think that murder-suicide is a better formulation. I despise the idea that Israel doesn’t have as much a right to exist as any other state, that it doesn’t have the right to self-defense as much as any other state, and I do believe that in the 1990s, the Israeli governments and people made good faith efforts to make peace that were largely, but not entirely, unreciprocated. I think Taba was more complicated than many neoconservatives made it out to be, but I had little difficulty in taking Israel’s side unequivocally in those years.

What concerns me – and concerns many – is what has happened since.

I’m sorry I haven’t had time to respond fully to Jeffrey and Jon yet – I thought it more urgent to tackle Marc Thiessen and this blog’s incessant pace makes the kind of reflection necessary to be fair in a real response in real time very hard. (And I hope Jeffrey saw my “tear his argument to shreds” point had a tongue-in-cheek quality to it. I certainly didn’t write, as his headline has it, that I would tear him to shreds. )

What concerns me is the hardening of attitudes in Israel, the emergence of a radical right in the mainstream, a foreign minister who is a vicious racist, and a response to Obama’s offer to hold a mirror up to Israel that amounted to a Cheneyite attempt to smash that mirror to pieces. Since the 1990s, the population of settlers on the West Bank has doubled, while the entire world has shifted deeply against Israel – and not solely because of rampant anti-Semitism. I do not single out Israel for war crimes – look at my record on the US. But I do believe that the Gaza war was worse than a mistake. It was, in many respects, along with the blockade, a pre-meditated crime.

And if Ehud Ohlmert were still prime minister, we might have made huge strides this past year. But Olmert is not prime minister. Netanyahu is – a wily, deeply cynical pol. And Avigdor Lieberman is Israel’s face to the world. No less than Marty Peretz has described Lieberman as a “neo-fascist … a certified gangster … the Israeli equivalent of Jörg Haider.” This is Israel’s foreign minister – and he’s there because the domestic politics of Israel put him there. We have the equivalent of Rove-Cheney in power in Israel, and we are approaching a terribly dangerous moment with Iran. I fear terrible consequences and I see in Washington the same neoconservatives upping the ante more and more.

Jeffrey doesn’t see it quite that way, but he does see the problem, and his writing has helped me understand more deeply the problem:

I’ve been writing since 2004 that Israel will one day be considered an apartheid state if it continues to rule over a population of Arabs that doesn’t want to be ruled by Israelis. That is why it is vital for Israel to establish permanent, internationally-recognized borders that more-or-less adhere to the 1967 border. Unlike Andrew, I believe that Israel has tried to free itself from ruling these Palestinians (the pull-out from Gaza is an example, as is Ehud Olmert’s recent, unanswered offer to the Palestinians to pull out from virtually 100 percent of the West Bank). But the reality remains: It will be very dangerous for Israel to engineer this pull-back, but it will be, over time, fatal for it to stay in the West Bank.

(Photo: Avigdor Lieberman by Uriel Sinai/Getty.)