Over the years, I’ve learned that having a civil argument about the Israeli-Palestinian situation can be extraordinarily difficult. Those who know me personally are aware that geopolitics is a hobby, and something I may have even pursued professionally had I been aware that such a career track existed. (Thanks, no-horse town where I was born and “educated!”)
I’ve approached the Israel-Palestine issue from several different angles and feel confident that I’ve encountered most of the talking points from each side. Still, my earnest attempts at grown-up discourse with the staunchly pro-Israel set usually ends up in disappointment, or worse. And by worse, I mean being labeled an anti-Semite. (Which is both awful and untrue.)
It’s enough to make even someone with a love of argument stop engaging. But hey, it’s me we’re talking about here.
Recent events in Gaza have ignited the passions of Palestinian and Israeli defenders/apologists/antagonists and everyone in between. Sadly, this this zeal isn’t enough to solve the region’s problems — if it were, it would’ve been accomplished by now. What the Israeli siege on the flotilla does provide is yet another chance for those on both sides of the argument to trot out their favorite tropes.
I was/am involved in a debate on a friend’s Facebook page with a pro-Israel individual whom I don’t know in real life. Engaging on this issue is quite a bit different than when I bash on Ayn Rand, Comcast or the Tea Party. It’s a delicate situation with more nuance than most folks are capable of entertaining. With that in mind, I decided to take part. Cautiously. If you’re feeling up to it, have a look at our core arguments below the fold.
Legality of Israeli attack on flotilla
My debate partner says it’s perfectly in compliance with international edicts. “According to the San Remo Manual on International Law, ‘Merchant vessels believed on reasonable grounds to be breaching a blockade may be captured,'” he said. “‘Merchant vessels which, after prior warning, clearly resist capture may be attacked.'”
I suggested that, once again, it’s a question of scale, not legality. I fell into a trap by making the unquantifiable assertion that Israeli Jews might display more forbearance, given their previous experiences. “Forced ghettoization of a weaker body politic, even short of genocide, is shameful when viewed through the lens of the Jewish experience in 20th-century Europe,” I offered. Still, I didn’t attempt to refute his invocation of international law, because I am not a lawyer. Instead, I merely suggested that, “law, international or sovereign, can and often is used to justify egregious offenses against all manner of humanity in all corners of the world. In this case, Israel is not unique. However, given the Jews’ treatment in accord with the laws of Germany and Europe during the lead up to WWII, one would perhaps expect a greater sensitivity to human rights abuses even within acknowledged legal frameworks.” Not sure I scored any points there.
What is a ghetto?
He had a problem with the use of the word ghetto to describe the Gaza blockade. “Your rhetoric distorts the situation,” he said. “A ghetto is a section of a city that a minority (or using the term a little more loosely, the poor) is confined to. Gazans aren’t confined to a part of a city, or to the whole of a city, or to just a part of their territory. They have freedom of movement within Gaza, the entirety of the land of their polity. They are prevented from entering Israel and Egypt, which they have no right to do (all countries are allowed to control their own borders), and they are subject to a blockade (which is and always has been a common part of war). Israel has no lasting presence in Gaza and Hamas controls Gaza internally… your comparison of the blockade to the Nazis ghettoization in the Holocaust, where people were rounded up to be slaughtered, is particularly irresponsible.”
My response was a bit of dodge: “The common parlance takes ghettoization to mean the deliberate economic and civic marginalization of a group — minority or otherwise — by a more powerful — politically or otherwise — group.” I did take the opportunity to suggest that there is another reason for the stalemate. “Leadership on both sides are reluctant to commit to peace due to fear of retaliation from the zealots within their own ranks,” I said. “After the assassination of [Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin, this fear became very pronounced, if not crippling.”
Anti-Semitism or reasoned opposition?
In my experience, accusations of anti-Semitism come early and often. Besides being troubling, they’re difficult to refute — by some people’s logic, any questioning of Israeli policy is tantamount to Jew-hating. Before I even joined the conversation, my challenger had already stated the following: “Like with most movements in the last decade, the anti-Israel movement is stuck in an echo chamber where allegations are stacked on top of each other and are never subject to critical analysis. That’s why the allegations get more and more extreme. Many anti-Israel protesters accuse Israel of committing genocide. This is moronic for anyone who actually knows what genocide is, but it’s accepted by many leftists and anti-Semites (especially in Europe and in Muslim countries) who throw reason out the window when it comes to Israel.”
That could very well be true. But I’d say the same about those highly intelligent people who, in the face of legitimate criticism of Israeli strategems, start playing the anti-Semitism card. The echo chamber echoes both ways.
Again, I tried to introduce some perspective: “My criticism of Israel has nothing to do with its ethnic or religious heritage, but rather with its practical military dispensation, which, as has been demonstrated several times in the new millennium alone, is grossly disproportionate to the threat at hand. (Threats being Hamas and Hezbollah, not Iran, which is a different story.)”
We both agreed that Hamas presents a serious obstacle to achieving peace. I’m of the belief that Hamas is a product of several decades of shortsighted Israeli policy, but the fact remains that the group thus far has refused to curb its anti-Israel rhetoric. They also continue to confound Palestinian Authority attempts to provide security guarantees. My debate partner put it like this: “Hamas isn’t going to agree to a permanent peace because that would be a violation of its religious beliefs. They believe that all of Israel/Palestine is permanently held in trust by all Muslims and none of the land could ever permanently be given to anyone else. That’s not my opinion, it’s what they say. Maybe one day in the future they’ll change their minds, but until then lasting peace may be impossible.”
I suggested that political legitimacy is often the road to mutual stability. Hamas is a democratically elected leadership body, but the United States does not recognize them. Therefore, they are not at the negotiation table in any American efforts to secure a peace agreement. However, history indicates that a different approach — while perhaps unsavory — may produce more favorable results. “In the absence of stateless nihilism (like Al Queda), there is the opportunity through political legitimacy to change the dynamic of a resistance body,” I said. “Look at the IRA. Or the PLO. Hell, even Hezbollah could be on their way.”
At this point, I was more interested in figuring out his thoughts on why peace remains so elusive, so I suggested that there’s profit to be made in continued tensions. I always like to throw in an unanticipated argument to shake things up.
Show me the money
I went a bit on the offensive here:
“Israel benefits from instability (in the short-to-medium term),” I said. “Why else would they pursue unsustainable policies in the face of unfavorable internal demographic shifts and growing international condemnation? Even with the ‘special relationship,’ the center cannot hold.
“The most conservative estimate of US direct aid to Israel is $1.92 billion annually [as of 2008]. The vast majority of that allottment goes to military hardware. In essence, the American taxpayer is subsidizing the Israeli military to the tune of $20,000 per Israeli head, per year.
“Israel’s expertise in ‘soft’ military tech (re: security) makes it the country’s most profitable export. Actually, the majority of the CCTV cameras in UK have Israeli patents. And, as I previously stated, the post-9/11 US is a huge purchaser. This is even more money that comes from our government and is awarded through contracts and subcontracts.
“So my asserion stands: instability has been good for the Israeli economy. The real question is, what do we get by prolonging this arrangement? Is Israel truly more secure, or does it’s armed bellicosity make it less so?”
His response wasn’t unreasonable. In fact, on some levels, it confirms what I’m always saying about America’s national security industrial complex (which is bigger than the military, and might as well include it at this point):
“I believe polished diamonds are Israel’s biggest export (at least they used to be). Israel is a big exporter of high tech goods of all sorts, not just military ones. It could just as easily (perhaps more easily) develop and sell military technology with greater stability. This is particularly the case since it has instability on so many fronts that fixing one (e.g. the Palestinian issue) would still leave others (Hezbollah, Iran, Syria). Most of the military aid from the U.S. goes back to the U.S. in the form of purchases from Israel. Israel gets weapons, but the profit goes to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrup, etc.”
I’ll call this a draw.
Netanyahu, Hamas and the peace process
I was very much impressed by my debate partner’s assessment of Netanyahu. Both of us understand that the Prime Minister is very right wing and not as committed to the peace process as he likely needs to be. The ball is still in his court, though. Will he be the Israeli leader who can achieve what eluded his predecessors, or will he lead the country down the path towards international marginalization? Will he carve out a place for Jews to coexist with Palestinians when Jewish immigration cannot offset a growing Arab population within Israel’s own borders? Or will he continue to pursue ill-advised and provocative strategies like expanding settlements? (Factoid: Russian Jews who left their country after the fall of the Soviet Union provided Israel with extremely cheap labor but in part drove settlement expansion. One of the reasons they left is that our free-market tinkering with the post-Soviet economy resulted in an overnight oligarchy and perpetual joblessness. You don’t read about that much.)
Anyway, here’s what my friendly rival had to say about the Israeli PM:
“As far as reasons for Netanyahu’s belligerence goes, here are a few possibilities:
“I think 1, 2, and 4 are the most likely reasons. That being said, there are continuing peace negotiations (can’t remember if they’re on or off at this moment — it always changes) but I agree that Netanyahu’s permission of settlement expansion does not indicate a serious peace effort.”
I’d say the negotiations are decidedly off at this moment. But it’s important to keep in mind that the US — despite our desire to appear crucial to peace efforts — is often not privy to these deliberations. In fact, we are sometimes the last to know.
Regardless of some of my other experiences in having The Most Difficult Argument, I’m impressed with the tenor of our back-and-forth. I think it may even be ongoing, though I suggested that we take the conversation off of our mutual friend’s Facebook page. I offered to host our debate right here, but have not heard back.
Congrats if you made it all the way through this post. If you’re one of the few and the brave, I’m curious to hear your thoughts.