By Barry Rubin*, GLORIA [This is one of Rubin’s best]
Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister, once memorably said, “Better a bad press than a good epitaph.” In the Western world, where a cushioned elite increasingly mistakes headlines or academic studies for the real world, the difference between the material world and words is often lost.
At the same time, we are getting something along these lines: “Joe [Israel] is a stupid, lazy, dishonest, lying, no-good criminal who deserves to be punished. And you know what his main problem is? People saying stuff like that about him.”
Let me give two examples and then point out why this tells us a great deal about the Western world’s malaise and why Israel should ignore such advice. Keep reading because the last point is the most important of all.
One can always depend on Roger Cohen for a good quote since he never seems able to open his mouth without saying something stupid that he thinks his wisdom. Here’s how he begins his latest column:
“I took a short break for my daughter’s bat mitzvah, Israel killed nine activists on a Gaza-bound ship in international waters, and its bungled raid prompted international uproar and Jewish soul-searching.”
He couldn’t be more obvious. First, he lets us know that he’s a Jew (bat mitzvah) and then he let’s forth with no less than five anti-Israel points in 21 words:
Killed nine (no mention of the attack on the soldiers) activists (no mention of lots of evidence that they were radical Islamist Jihadists seeking martyrdom), international waters (implication this is some kind of piratical aggressive act and no mention that this is how blockades are conducted, international law experts point out it was legal, see Cuban Missile Crisis, British operation in the Falklands, etc.), bungled raid (it is Israel’s fault that it went in without lethal force and faced greater violence than expected), Jewish soul-searching (Oy! Where have we gone wrong! We used to let people beat us up and murder us and now Israel-gasp!-defends itself).
There is an Arab proverb to the effect that the guy hits me and then runs off screaming that he was assaulted.
And so after purveying anti-Israel propaganda that delegitimizes Israel, Cohen then goes on to say that the main threat to Israel is…anti-Israel propaganda
Cohen goes on to say that “Israel is a liberal democracy stuck in the blind alley of a morally corrupting 43-year-old occupation that has made force its reflexive mode of operation.” Yet Israel’s main problems today are caused by the fact that it withdrew the “occupation” from the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank. I’m not saying this was a bad thing overall but obviously Hamas wouldn’t be in power in the Gaza Strip smuggling in weapons, lobbing in rockets, mortars, with cross-border terror attacks, etc., if Israeli forces were still all over the place.
If anyone can’t start from that point they aren’t worth listening to at all. But here we come to Cohen’s conclusion and it is this:
“What Israel in turn must realize-before it is too late-is that the real threat it faces today is not one of destruction but of de-legitimization.”
This sentence deserves the greatest attention. Delegitimization is a real problem for Israel today but actually the threat of destruction–or at least, loss of life in terrorist and rocket attacks, nuclear attack from Iran, assaults that shut down normal life–are the real threat. Having people call you names and an obscure boycott here and there doesn’t compare to being destroyed or dead.
Where does Cohen’s thinking, and a very similar approach by Bernard Kouchner, Franco Frattini, and Miguel Angel Moratinos come from?
–Two of the four authors are Jews, and their view expresses the traditional Jewish Diaspora (or Galut, if you prefer) attitude: What our neighbors think of us is the most important issue. Why? Because lacking their own country, economy, and means of defense, Jews were helpless. The response was that we had to make people like us, we had to prove we were the best citizens of all, and that we didn’t have (as the antisemites charged) our own selfish agenda.
And that’s why so many Jewish intellectuals criticize Israel. On the one hand, they are dedicated to a universalist agenda which involves the dissolution of any Jewish peoplehood. On the other hand, Israel goes against the Diaspora (Galut) strategy of trying to prove that Jews are as close to being perfect as possible. They want the conflict ended not because it is Israel’s interest but because it interferes with the image they hold of themselves and want to project. For such people, Israel’s interests are secondary and they won’t hesitate to betray them.
Of course, like Cohen, they are generally ignorant of the facts any way and don’t want to know more. And while Cohen pretends to “defend” Israel (he has to throw in one point for pretended balance), like most such people he picks a “Jewish” not “Israeli” point on which to do so, specifically that the “Star of David” should not be equated with the “swastika.”
–Once you admit the fact that the Gaza flotilla and other problems (including the continuation of the Israel-Palestinian and Israel-Syria conflicts) are caused by actions of the other side, you remove the ability to solve them from Israel’s hands. You might have to blame the Arab or Palestinian or Islamist side. This type of article never ever does so. What if they said that there are deliberate campaigns to undermine Israel’s legitimacy as part of the broader strategy of destroying Israel? Then they would have to take Israel’s side, which is what they most want to avoid.
And so while there are a few safe targets–bin Ladin, Ahmadinejad–these people can criticize they will never criticize the Palestinian Authority for, as examples, rejecting the two-state peace offers of 2000 or refusing to negotiate at all from January 2009 to May 2010. BUT if you only blame Israel for the problems and never its enemies you are–ta-da!–delegitimizing Israel!
–And thus those complaining that Israel is, in effect, delegitimizing itself are energetically involved in the process of delegitimizing Israel. What if they were to say: Israel is being delegitimized! This is a big lie and must be fought against so we are going to give you the facts about what really happened. Instead of Cohen’s defamatory 21 words they would be quoting things like the testimony of the ship’s captain about how the Jihadists prepared to attack the Israelis and he tried to stop them. Then, the delegitimization campaign would falter and–guess what?–the threat would be dismantled. Instead, they are the single main cause of delegitimation in the West!
–But now we come to the most important point, because it goes far beyond Israel: the confusion of image and reality. Even in the world of 2010, power still matters. Violence settled quarrels. Individual men are greedy for power. Revolutionaries seek state power in order to transform fundamentally their societies. Regimes aggress against their neighbors. Power is respected.
And yet the idea has taken hold in most Western governments that what is most important is image. If we are nice to our enemies we will win them over. If we are popular we will avoid trouble. If we apologize we will be forgiven. If we tell everyone we are weak we will be pitied. If we sympathize with the underdog, even one that wants to be the overdog and maul us to death, we will be noble and thus succeed.
It is a world in which Senator Barbara Boxer can say, “Our national security experts…tell us that carbon pollution leading to climate change will be, over the next 20 years, the leading cause of conflict, putting our troops in harm’s way….” Now even if you believe that “carbon pollution” is an important global problem that needs to be addressed, is this the way to think about it? Forget about the ambitions of Iran, China, Russia, Venezuela, North Korea, and revolutionary Islamists and terrorists, the real cause of war is going to be carbon pollution?
Well, she is from California after all, but Boxer is expressing the zeitgeist (spirit of the age) also, though even “national security experts” don’t talk like that. (Theory: She is reflecting Obama’s national security doctrine and the White House-influenced Department of Defense Quadrennial Report which barely mentioned real-world threats.)
In short, what we are seeing is the abandonment of realpolitik and in a real sense of the real world itself. No! If a Canadian labor union or a British teacher’s union (dominated by leftists) want to boycott Israel, or if newspapers write nasty articles about Israel, or if college professors want to teach slanted anti-Israel courses that is not the principal threat to Israel.
Of course, the concern is that eventually Western governments, staffed by people so indoctrinated, will turn against Israel. Yet after all the op-eds are written, governments make decisions based a bit more on the real world. After a half-century in which the threat of pressure on Israel has been discussed every day it has in fact amounted to little. Or as Professor Frédéric Encel put it in Le Monde: “L’émotion et la compassion sont une chose, la diplomatie en est une autre.” Emotion and compassion is one thing, diplomacy is something else entirely.
The real threat to Israel is not being unpopular in certain circles (and check out U.S. public opinion polls for a corrective there) but Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, the Muslim Brotherhoods, and others of that ilk. And guess what? They are also the real threat to the West, too.
But you know what? In the end, it doesn’t matter what people say, what matters is how the real world hits them upside the head. In 2001 an article ridiculed me for warning about a threat of revolutionary Islamist terrorism against the United States. It came out in early September, just before the eleventh day of that month. A few conks on the noggin coupled with elections will force more realistic policies. The only problem is who is going to do the bleeding, but it won’t be from delegitimization but rather from being blown up.
So what’s the bigger threat to Israel: Hamas becoming established permanently as the government of the Gaza Strip, training thousands of terrorists and importing arms or Western politicians and media criticizing Israel for stopping that from happening? It’s no contest.
Golda Meir was right. Policy may be adjusted to reduce criticism but interests should not and will not be sacrificed.
[Note: The article by Kouchner and the other two foreign ministers called on Israel to drop the blockade of the Gaza Strip and the UN not to have an investigation that is designed to attack Israel, as happened with the Goldstone report. It also urged Israel not to use violence. What you do when your soldiers are attacked, beaten, and held hostages by radical Jihadists is not precisely clear. But these points lie outside the subject of this article.]
*Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org. You can read and subscribe to his blog at http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com.