Cutting through the bullshit.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Saving Israel

University of Chicago political science professor, John J. Mearsheimer, co-author of the infamous dog wagging hypothesis, has an article in the latest American Conservative [subscription only, apparently; hat tip to the person who sent it, and shall therefore remain unnamed], ‘Saving Israel From Itself: The two-state solution is the only way to guarantee the Jewish state’s long-term security—and our own’.

According to Mearsheimer,

President Obama would like to change the situation because he understands that a two-state solution would be good for America, good for Israel, and good for the Palestinians. But Netanyahu seems determined to thwart his efforts.

Citing the July 2008 J Street poll, he cannily remarks that even though 78% of American Jews say they support the two state ‘solution’, there was also ‘substantial opposition to dismantling Israeli settlements and making East Jerusalem part of Palestine’ (41% and 56% opposed, respectively). For Mearsheimer, like most who profess support for partition of Palestine, this seems like a contradiction.

Furthermore, ‘a February 2009 poll found that 59 percent of Israelis opposed a Palestinian state; only 32 percent supported it’. If he is referring to the OneVoice poll, it actually found that 32% said a two state ‘solution’ was ‘Essential’; 13% ‘Desirable’; 16% ‘Acceptable’; 17% ‘Tolerable’; and 21% ‘Unacceptable’. [I’m analysing this survey in more depth – watch this space!]

In any case, assuming he is right about what Obama would like, the Israeli PM, Israeli Jews, American Jews, and of course The Lobby, will exert themselves to thwart him.

Obama’s only hope—and it is a slim one—is that a substantial part of the American Jewish community will come to understand Olmert’s warning that Israel will become like white-ruled South Africa if there is no two-state solution

Apparently for a doyen of the curiously named Realist School of international relations, that constitutes a strategy. Throughout the article, he displays a similar level of political nous and intellectual rigour.

Clinging to the same old Israel Lobby trope – that the US government uncritically supports everything Israel does even when it contradicts American interests, makes little sense for Washington to back Israel no matter what it does because sometimes there will be circumstances in which the two countries’ interests clash. For example, it probably made good sense for Israel to acquire nuclear weapons in the 1960s, since it lives in a dangerous neighborhood and a nuclear arsenal is the ultimate deterrent. But a nuclear-armed Israel was not in the American national interest. Both countries would be much better off if the Obama administration treated Israel the way it treats other democracies...

It should go without saying, but apparently doesn’t, that it makes no sense to speak of ‘countries’ interests’. The commonsensical notion of ‘national interest’ camouflages the radical contradiction between the interests of the ordinary people who make everything and do everything and our rulers, who own everything and control everything. Higher wages, shorter hours, longer holidays, stricter occupational health and safety regulation and enforcement, and so forth, for instance, are transparently in the interests of the vast majority of people, but they are not in the national interest because they may impact profits. Hurling trillions at insolvent banks, on the other hand, benefits few, but to all appearances is in the national interest, or at least the democratically elected representatives of all stripes in one country after another seem to think so. ‘Examples’, as Nikolai Trubetzkoy always used to say, ‘can easily be multiplied’. I’d like to give Mearsheimer the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’s articulated a viable definition in his academic writings, but if truth be told, I suspect that he writes of ‘countries’ interests’ in precisely this sense without considering what it means terribly deeply.

As for the example he chooses, the loose thinking remains in evidence. It may or may not have made good sense for Israel to develop nuclear weapons, but if it did, it’s not because it was a deterrent against her near neighbours. Israel could never nuke Lebanon or any populous area of Syria, Jordan, or Egypt without irradiating its own territory. Nor is it obvious that a nuclear armed client state perched on the edge of ‘one of the greatest material prizes in world history’ is not in the US’s national interest, as defined. Now he doesn’t explicitly say that ‘both countries would be much better off if’ the US had prevented Israel from developing nukes, but he does suggest it, which makes you wonder why Israel would be better off if it had eschewed them if it ‘made good sense’.

The United States is in deep trouble in the Middle East and has a serious terrorism problem in good part because of its unconditional support for Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories. Backing Israel at almost every turn also makes it harder for Washington to get open support from moderate Arab states, even when dealing with common threats like Iran.

The US has a serious terrorism problem in much the same sense as it has a serious bee sting problem or a serious lightning strike problem, at least in terms of threats to American lives. It has much more serious problems with smoking, obesity, traffic accidents, and of course work related injury and disease. From the perspective of the national interest, on the other hand, terrorism is not a problem at all. It’s an opportunity. Anyway, it’s not just US support for Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza that inspires people to want to kill Americans. It’s at least as much to do with the support for a colonial Jewish ethnocratic Sparta in their midst, for the continuing dispossession of the refugees, and for the occupation of Syrian and Lebanese territory. Lest we forget, terrorism – the terrorism that Mearsheimer is almost certainly talking about – arises from exactly the same nationalist assumptions that underlie his whole analysis. That is, the belief that ordinary Americans are responsible for and can effect change in US foreign policy. As for the moderate Arab states, it’s precisely because of their support for the US that they have earned the epithet ‘moderate’, unless, that is, he’s aware of some political or economic moderation in the Saudi monarchy or the Mubarrak dictatorship that he’s not telling us about. Iran does seem to be a threat to US hegemony in the region, due largely to the American adventure in delivering democracy to Iraq, but it’s not obvious that the oppressed living there, or even their oppressors, would be worse off if Iran really did manage to make things more difficult for the US in its crusade to control energy supplies to its economic rivals.

To get to the point, thinking strictly inside the box, Mearsheimer reckons,

Given present circumstances, there are three possible alternatives if the Palestinians do not get their own state, all of which involve creating a “greater Israel”—an Israel that effectively controls the West Bank and Gaza, or all of what was once called Mandatory Palestine.

In the first scenario, greater Israel would become a democratic binational state in which Palestinians and Jews enjoy equal political rights. This solution has been suggested by a handful of Jews and a growing number of Palestinians. It means abandoning the original Zionist vision of a Jewish state, however, since the Palestinians would eventually outnumber the Jews in greater Israel...

Like the sainted Jimmy Carter, godfather of the Mujahideen, ‘the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers’, the only objection to the first, binational state, scenario is that it would be democratic and undermine the racist ‘original Zionist vision of a Jewish state’. As he writes later in the piece, ‘bringing democracy to greater Israel would also mean the end of the Jewish state because the more numerous Palestinians would dominate its politics’. He goes on to explain that the vast majority of Israeli Jews and their American supporters have no interest in such an outcome, but not why it is not in their interests. There is some dispute about when the Palestinians in the area of Mandatory Palestine will outnumber the Jews, if they haven’t already, but it is imminent, not something that will happen eventually. And that’s on the assumption that none of the millions of refugees would return to such a state, when one of the principal justifications for a one state solution is to allow just such an outcome. But the refugees obviously don’t count for squat in anybody’s calculation of the national interest.

Second, Israel could expel most of the Palestinians from greater Israel, thereby preserving its Jewish character through an overt act of ethnic cleansing...

Nor does he elucidate how this second, transfer, scenario disadvantages the Israeli or US national interest, except that it ‘would do enormous damage to Israel’s moral fabric, its relationship with Jews in the diaspora, and its international standing’. To speak of a county’s ‘moral fabric’ makes, if possible, even less sense than its national interest. But even if it were intelligible, it’s hard to fathom how the moral fabric of a country founded on the basis of racism, colonialism, terrorism, and ethnic cleansing, not to mention all the atrocities committed since 1948, could do much further damage to its threadbare moral fabric.

Nor indeed to its international standing. Mearsheimer himself actually mentions that ‘only 47 percent of Americans think that Israel’s influence in the world is “mainly positive”’. If, as seems probable, he is referring to the 2005-06 BBC World Service poll on this issue, it was actually only 41% of Americans, and the average among the 27 countries surveyed was 17%, the lowest of any country they asked about, which I might just mention, included Iran, North Korea, and even the US. Overall 56% said that Israel’s influence was mainly negative.

I’ve given up thinking of non Israeli Jews as ‘the diaspora’, as it buys into the myth that we all originated from Palestine and were dispersed by Roman imperialism. Anyway, the American Jewish community was not scandalised by the mass ethnic cleansing of 1948 and was delighted with that of 1967. Mearsheimer is characteristically silent on what leads him to believe that it would be any different this time.

The final and most likely alternative is some form of apartheid, whereby Israel increases its control over the Occupied Territories, but allows the Palestinians limited autonomy in a set of disconnected and economically crippled enclaves.

I agree that this is the most likely scenario. But I don’t agree that ‘some form of apartheid’ is a departure from the status quo. I surmise that he shares the common assumption that apartheid is not apartheid unless the minority is oppressing the majority. But if the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid is any guide, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as within the Green Line, comfortably meets the definition in Article 2 of the Convention,

For the purpose of the present Convention, the term "the crime of apartheid", which shall include similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practised in southern Africa, shall apply to the following inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them:

(a) Denial to a member or members of a racial group or groups of the right to life and liberty of person:

(i) By murder of members of a racial group or groups;

(ii) By the infliction upon the members of a racial group or groups of serious bodily or mental harm, by the infringement of their freedom or dignity, or by subjecting them to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;

(iii) By arbitrary arrest and illegal imprisonment of the members of a racial group or groups;

(b) Deliberate imposition on a racial group or groups of living conditions calculated to cause its or their physical destruction in whole or in part;

(c) Any legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country and the deliberate creation of conditions preventing the full development of such a group or groups, in particular by denying to members of a racial group or groups basic human rights and freedoms, including the right to work, the right to form recognized trade unions, the right to education, the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a nationality, the right to freedom of movement and residence, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association;

d) Any measures including legislative measures, designed to divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos for the members of a racial group or groups, the prohibition of mixed marriages among members of various racial groups, the expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group or groups or to members thereof;

(e) Exploitation of the labour of the members of a racial group or groups, in particular by submitting them to forced labour;

(f) Persecution of organizations and persons, by depriving them of fundamental rights and freedoms, because they oppose apartheid.

Mearsheimer asks, ‘would it not be in Israel’s best interests for President Obama to put significant pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians to agree to a two-state solution?’ As Ali Abunimah wrote on Thursday,

Let us assume for the sake of argument that Obama applies unprecedented pressure to force Israel to make a deal with the Palestinians. What would such a deal look like? The outlines were suggested in the recent report sent to Obama by a group of US elder statesmen headed by former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. The document, warning that there was only a "six to twelve month window" before all chances for peace evaporated, called on the US to forcefully advocate the creation of a Palestinian state. But this would be a demilitarized truncated state "based on" the 1967 borders. Israel would annex large West Bank settlements and there would be no right of return for Palestinian refugees. This "state" would be occupied indefinitely by a NATO-led "multinational force," which the Scowcroft group suggests could also include Israeli soldiers (see "A last chance for a two-state Israel-Palestine agreement, 2009).

Of course the Scowcroft proposal does not necessarily represent Obama administration thinking, but it expresses the pervasive peace process industry consensus that views such an outcome as "reasonable," "pragmatic" and all but inevitable, and it accords with Obama's own statements opposing the right of return and supporting Israel's demand to to be recognized as a "Jewish state."

In other words, what the vast majority of Palestinians would view as a horrifying plan to legitimize their dispossession, grant Israel a perpetual license to be racist, and turn the apartheid regime set up by the Oslo accords into a permanent prison, is now viewed as bold and far-reaching thinking that threatens to rupture American-Israeli bonds.

Over the last few days the press have reported that Obama has cobbled together his own peace plan, in collaboration with Jordan’s King Abdullah, that he will propose in a speech in Cairo next month.

The hugely ambitious plan aims for an “independent, democratic and contiguous Palestinian state,” which would not have a military of its own and would be forbidden from entering into military pacts with other nations “for Israel’s security.”

The Palestinan state would have East Jerusalem as its capital, and the US would arrange for Israel and the Palestinians to swap territory to settle on the borders. Jerusalem’s old city would be an international zone. Palestinians would also be required to give up any claim to a right of return...

The real problem with this third alternative to the two state ‘solution’ is that it is not an alternative. It is the two state ‘solution’.


  1. "Lest we forget, terrorism – the terrorism that Mearsheimer is almost certainly talking about – arises from exactly the same nationalist assumptions that underlie his whole analysis. That is, the belief that ordinary Americans are responsible for and can effect change in US foreign policy."

    That second sentence is so difficult to accept.

    Would you explain further the description of this belief as "nationalist?"

  2. christian h.25 May, 2009 10:17

    Well, I think what Ernie means is that "nationalism" is an ideology positing a unity of interests among the members of "the nation", interests that find their expression in the nation's policies. To an extent, then, the national government is acting as an avatar of the nation's people and those people are therefore responsible for the government's actions as well as fundamentally shaping them.

    If one accepts that analysis, then attacks on members of the nations in question - even if they are random civilians - are an appropriate way to effect a change in national policy.

  3. Thanks for picking up Margaret’s question, Christian. To amplify a little, the principal function of nationalism is not, of course, to provide terrorists with an excuse. It is to convince ordinary people that we have common interests with our own exploiters – the ones who really determine what’s in ‘the national interest’.

    I hasten to add that I didn’t intend to imply that ordinary Americans CAN’T effect change in US policy – just not through conventional bourgeois democratic means like elections. This is kind of where the myth of democracy comes in. If we were really in control, as the appellation ‘democracy’ suggests, then we WOULD be responsible for what our governments do in our name. And since our ‘leaders’ are quite adamant that they actually represent us, you can hardly fault the terrorists for taking them at their word.

    Not to mention their deed. What kind of signal does it send when Israel slaughters hundreds of civilians on the grounds that they support Hamas? Or when the US bombs Serbs on the pretext that ‘their’ government was allegedly committing genocide in Kosovo?

  4. What has always befuddled myself is how so many attempt to define this as a "clash" between interests, or between nationalisms, and how when one does not meet with the other then that is somehow a terrible thing to be halted all the while when they are congruous then that should be pursued whole-heartedly (as if common interests between the two states have NEVER contributed to the situation that we see ourselves today). This is the affliction that most, if not all, self-described "realists" are diseased with, hoping to shape it into a pretty picture on good Americanism over evil Americanism (or Israelism). Unfortunately, only the few out there really do see the dangers of this outlook and sadly I see too many of those who are for the curbing of Israel's crimes wave American flags as if to say that they know how to manage this better. I really hope so many can attempt to detach themselves from their "pride" and see the truth.

  5. Thanks all. I did jump in with gusto, as Joshua describes, proclaiming the US as a standard bearer.

    I'm going to stick with original documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights when I talk of values. Rather than considering these to be American values, I have come to understand them as statements of human values.

  6. Ernie - I know you are busy, but your posts... well, I wish you would write more.

    I'm not articulate today.

  7. You often read anecdotes about the number of Americans who think Central America is in Kansas and the Middle East is somewhere around Baltimore. In Canada, you hear of the Americans crossing the bridge to Windsor with skis on the roof in July, asking directions to Montreal at 9 AM because they have to be there at midday. They may be apocryphal, but I don’t think they are much of an exaggeration. In many respects, people living on tiny Pacific atolls have a more cosmopolitan perspective than most Americans, and even if they’ve never worked in New Zealand themselves, at least they have an appreciation of the insignificance of their countries in the grand scheme of things.

    Combined with their profound ignorance of ‘the outside world’, it may seem that way, but there’s nothing unique about Americans’ conviction that their country and its flag represent all that’s good and fine and noble – ‘peace, justice, and The American Way’, and all that. One of the things that makes nationalism so insidious is that it’s below the radar. Objective, dispassionate journalists and newsreaders everywhere display not the slightest embarrassment speaking of ‘our’ financial crisis and so forth. Also, unlike other oppressive ideologies, it’s acceptable, and in its most virulent and extreme form, ‘patriotism’, is regarded as a virtue. And I think that’s where all the flag waving comes from. People think ‘their’ nation is founded on just and humanitarian principles and wave the flag to show their support for them, even if they don’t understand them. Ultimately, we’re going to have to persuade people who really want peace and justice that nationalism is part of the problem, not the solution. But while people are creating academic careers out of such bullshit, I’m not holding my breath.

    When it comes to the US’s founding documents, they don’t provide the immediate impression of articulating any kind of universal human values, if I understand what you mean by that, Margaret. Whatever interpretation people might like to cast onto it today, I think it’s clear that when Jefferson wrote, ‘all men are created equal’, he really did mean vires, and not homines. Nor even all vires – just the white, property owning ones. Notably, the first four Amendments of the ‘Bill of rights’ are basically about property rights, and the fourth through eighth about due process. Due process is all well and good, but it does assume a society where conflicts and transgressions are dealt with through courts and trials – not entirely congruent with my vision of a just and equal society. With all their flaws and internal contradictions, even modern human rights instruments come a lot closer.

    I’m delighted that you like my posts and wish I would write more, too. Unfortunately, my day job occupies a lot of my time and saps my meagre reserves of energy. At least I’m writing more than I did last year.

  8. "...not entirely congruent with my vision of a just and equal society."

    There we go: educate us, Ernie.

    I do appreciate that you are writing more, but your perspective isn't common, and, I think, is needed.

    I question whether the intent of what was expressed in the US foundational documents was as important as the message. I will search on "modern human rights instruments" and not bug you unless I have questions.

    Thanks for your effort.

  9. I think it would be nice if more people had my perspective and I guess I agree that it’s needed, but I hope I haven’t been coming off as pedantic, except perhaps in my post about labour force statistics, ‘We won’t be fooled again’ (

    When I was 13, I used to draw up blueprints of the perfect society and called myself an anarchist. It always kind of surprises me to find that there are people of my cohort who are still doing it, albeit at a somewhat more sophisticated and detailed level. My vision of a just and equal society – and I guess it’s not really a vision – is a society where people’s relationships with each other are based on solidarity and cooperation rather than competition and exchange. Imbued as I am with ‘the muck of ages’ (, like everyone now alive, I can’t even imagine what that would look like. Within three or four generations after the revolution – the revolution that overthrows capitalism once and for all globally – nobody will remember living under capitalism. I can suggest a few things that would probably not exist, though. For example, I wouldn’t expect transfers of goods and services – they wouldn’t be commodities – to be based on any kind of exchange or quid pro quo – more likely on the basis of need. A lot of people disagree with me about this, but I can’t imagine anything recognisable as sport. While I imagine people may enjoy forms of physical activity, as I think the term is most commonly used, competition is a defining characteristic of sport – orienteering is a sport, hiking isn’t. And I expect people to develop ways of dealing with disagreement that are not coercive and don’t involve punishment. So the whole question of due process doesn’t come up. That the framers of the Bill of rights emphasise it indicates that their intent was not the kind of society we, or at least I, consider egalitarian nowadays. It’s not that those guys weren’t revolutionary themselves. They were part of the revolution that successfully overthrew feudalism. But that was then, this is now. We’ve had more than two centuries to observe capitalism at work. It’s a big advance on jus primae noctis, but still a far cry from ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’.

  10. christian h.31 May, 2009 01:38

    Hmmm. I'm not a believer in human nature, but do you really think given a just society, competitive behavior (as in sports, or as in "hey, I solved this problem first!" etc.) would vanish eventually? I don't know. From where I'm standing the first order of business is to get rid of competition through accumulation and the resulting domination of some humans by others.

  11. Well, Christian, I couldn’t agree more. Our job is not to speculate, much less pontificate, about how people who grow up in post capitalist society ought to behave themselves and structure their relationships. It is to smash capitalism comprehensively so they can get on with it. When I wrote ‘ vision of a just and equal society’, I opened myself up to this, so when Margaret asked me to expand on it, I thought I ought to oblige.

    The short answer to your question is yes. But my main point is that we don’t know and can’t even really imagine how people who live in such a society would behave or organise themselves. I know a bit about pre class societies and assume that some aspects of their social organisation may provide clues to how post class society might organise itself. But I appreciate that most foraging societies have to cope with scarcity in a way that I don’t anticipate in a post revolutionary society – a rather crucial difference – and don’t believe that my idle speculation is privileged over anyone else’s. That said, I would not expect problem solving to be an individual endeavour in any context. Even under capitalism – within an overall framework of competition – cooperation and teamwork are valued for achieving results. Impressionistically, most developments and inventions arise from real time collaboration. But even where there is a genuine individual achievement, individuals only achieve them because, to coin a phrase, ‘they stand on the shoulders of giants’, or even on the shoulders of people of ordinary stature who busily solve subsidiary problems that pave the way for the ‘great discovery’.

  12. christian h.31 May, 2009 08:33

    Oh, I completely agree. All problem solving is a social endeavour. I was thinking more of closer-to-sports things, like crossword puzzles, say - not "real" problems ;). Anyway, as you say, it's idle speculation. The important thing to realize is that there is nothing natural or inevitable about the way society is currently organized.

  13. I envision change as coming about through a process other than smashing capitalism, which appears to me to be the same kind of behavior as that which drives society now, rather than being activity sufficiently different from it to result in a different social structure.

    I think we may be seeing the beginning of such change now, although still being so early in the beginning that it is difficult to imagine what the accumulated result will be, eventually.

    For me, a key need is "to develop ways of dealing with disagreement that are not coercive and don’t involve punishment."

    The value of your insight for me is not affected by the difference in perspective regarding capitalism.

  14. Margaret, you might find this article interesting:

  15. Thanks, I will read it.

  16. The blogosphere is exploding!

    I've got so many tabs open, the system is going to crash any second.

  17. It does not appear to me that you've completely wrapped your head around what it means to be a realist. The state's interests are the only interests. If the state does not persevere, any labor standards involved are no longer a question for it to answer. That individuals in the state have needs is noise. Hence the great desire to discourage dissent and cheer for the home team.

    I appreciate your comment about Rome. That's obviously the slice of territory that should be given to the Jews. I heard one conservative academic joking that his solution to the crisis in the Levant was to go back to 1945 and declare Bavaria the Jewish National Homeland. He hadn't turned the dial back far enough (oh, I just don't like Berlusconi, I'm kidding, of course).

    Calling the one state solution a "bi-national" solution is the wrong way to look at it. The one state solution is the only one I can imagine which resembles justice.

    Liked your comment on WIIIAI.

  18. I’m sure you’re right. I don’t know a great deal about schools of international relations. Whenever I read any of their stuff, the sloppy reasoning, the bogus assumptions, and the casual approach to consistency just appal me. So I tend to avoid it. The only reason I read a guy like Mearscheimer is because I perceive he has a certain amount of influence among people who support Palestinian liberation. Otherwise, I wouldn’t dignify it with a refutation.

    There is a variety of one state proposals, ranging from ‘Greater Israel’, to a secular pan Arab confederation. Some prefer binationalism within Palestine on the grounds that it may be able to preserve community rights, where a unified state would privilege the majority. As I don’t regard either as a possibility in the foreseeable future, it’s not urgent to take a position, although I’ve always preferred the democratic secular state version. As far as I’m concerned, the main considerations are that any decision involves the Israeli and diaspora Palestinians and provides a meaningful right of return.

    I’m glad you liked my comment. Thanks.

  19. That was a great post, keep them comming. I've seen your comments on other sites ernie but this is the first time I've visited your site, rest assured you have a loyal reader from now on.

  20. Thanks, Tarig, I'm flattered you liked my post. I'll try not to disappoint you.