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April 09, 2009

The Larger Meaning of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

By: Bernard Chazelle

Why the incessant focus on Israel? The question is usually rhetorical and designed to elicit defensiveness rather than, say, an answer. With so many worse conflicts raging around the world, the idea goes, a fixation on the Israeli treatment of Palestinians is suspicious.

The charge is not that anti-Semites obsess about Israel -- of course, they do: it's that a critical focus is symptomatic of that ancient brand of hatred. The Harvard legal scholar, Alan Dershowitz, won't hesitate to bring up David Duke's endorsement of the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis as proof. The logic is somewhat novel, since I don't recall anti-Apartheid activists having to justify Idi Amin Dada’s alignment on the matter. There are two distinct questions to answer: one is why Westerners fixate on the I/P conflict; the other is why they should.

Why they do is obvious. Quite simply, the topic is unavoidable. The argument might seem circular but it's not. The US media’s coverage of Israel, a tiny country the size of New Jersey, may well exceed that of China and India combined. A TPM Cafe poster was joking recently that what the site needs is more coverage of Israeli politics. The I/P conflict is the OJ Trial of international news: everywhere, all the time. Even if one tried, one would be hard pressed to ignore it. The fixation is fueled by 3 factors, none of them a symptom of bigotry. One is religion and culture. Half the planet and virtually the entire Western world worship a god that claims Jerusalem as her playground. If Darfurians and Sri Lankans wanted more of our attention, they should have had the foresight to write the bible first. As Le Monde Diplomatique's Alain Gresh reminded his readers recently, when Syria's Faisal was overthrown by French forces in 1920, General Gouraud went to Saladin's tomb and whispered snidely, "We're back. The cross beat the crescent!" A second reason for our focus is the Holocaust, which still carries enormous moral weight in the West. The third factor is geopolitical, and has much to do with the dark, oozy stuff that Jimmy Carter identified with our "vital interests."

Of course, those who bristle at the critical focus on Israel, a focus they themselves share, object only to the critical part. So let's examine that angle. Perhaps only an anti-Semite can resist the charms of Netanyahu, Barak, and the saintly Avigdor Lieberman, but many democrats (lower-case d) rightly wonder how it is that Michigan has only 2 US senators in Washington but Israel has 100 of them. Americans were evenly divided about the Gaza offensive, yet the US Congress passed a resolution of support for Israel by a vote of 390-5. (I trust AIPAC asked Kim-Jong-il what to do with the 5 renegades.) You'd never know, listening to our fearless leaders, that 74% of Americans don't want the US government to take Israel's side in the conflict. When the IDF mowed down hundreds of women and children in Gaza, US politicians of all stripes jumped over themselves to support Israeli action. That's not friendship: that's prostitution. The latest flap over Chas Freeman was so laughable one almost wonders if it was not orchestrated by Walt and Mearsheimer themselves to validate their thesis. (The hasbaraniks who whine about their own incompetence, as they're wont to do, may have a point after all.)

All true, but one must keep all of that in perspective. US support for Israel does not require AIPAC. With no comparable lobby, the vile government of Egypt receives comparable support. US imperial ambitions in the region have in Israel a natural ally. Since World War II, the US has supported nearly every non-Communist tyranny against the aspirations of the people. Are the Palestinians so different from the Chileans, the Nicaraguans, the Guatemalans, the Salvadorans, the Greeks, the Timorese, and the Vietnamese that the US should make an exception for them? AIPAC influences the modalities of US policy but not its foundation. Until the Palestinians find wisdom and give themselves a pro-American dictatorship, they'll always be the enemy. The failure of Taba in 2000 had nothing to do with the Israel lobby, and that's the closest the conflict came to a resolution in the last 40 years. AIPAC is the cherry on the cake of a notoriously paranoid bunch of Likudniks and Rapture-ready nut jobs. Would US policy be significantly different if they did not exist? No.

That we focus on the I/P conflict does not mean that we should. They are, indeed, more serious issues facing this world. Western attention is warranted because the conflict represents the last vestige of Western colonialism. After 1967, with US support, Israel turned into a full-fledged colonial project embedded in an imaginary existential narrative. A signature trait of colonization is that it is optional. Occupying the West Bank never served any purpose of survival. It's always been a choice, not a necessity. Israelis are entitled to a state. All of the residents, regardless of religion or ethnicity, are entitled to live where they are. They just may not do so as occupiers enforcing an apartheid regime. It's not exactly advanced political science.

For roughly two hundred years, most of the planet was a giant playground for the White Man. Niall Ferguson will tell you what a splendid idea that was. And, indeed, it was quite splendid for British white men like himself -- just a coincidence, of course, for that most objective of historians. World War II brought all of that fun to an end and catalyzed American imperial hegemony, which then grew under the cover of the Cold War. The last colonial bastion to fall was South Africa. Remember the good old days when these two icons of freedom, Reagan and Thatcher, were calling Nelson Mandela a terrorist while opposing sanctions against the most racist regime on earth. How one quickly forgets. Today, except for Syria, every Arab country is a "friend" of the US, and virtually every single one of them is a brutal, corrupt dictatorship. Plus ca change.

The I/P conflict represents the last battle of a declining West against the Global South. "Clash of Civilizations" is a self-flattering phrase meaning "Crash of Colonizations." Like South Africa (and the US), Israel is a European creation. It was not intended as a colony but as a refuge. But it all went wrong in the 60s and became a colony. That the "homeland" happens to be local is a distinction without a difference. Most of the French in Algeria had lived there for 5 generations -- far longer than most of the Jews in Israel. Technically, Algeria was not a colony but an integral part of France: again, a distinction without a difference. The two main colonial characteristics, racism and domination, were present. As they are today in Israel.

Westerners born after the 40s need not bear the guilt of their colonial past but they must bear its historical legacy. That's why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should also be theirs.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at April 9, 2009 02:53 PM

Bernard, you have a deft touch.

Reminded me a bit of Roger Ebert's adept and ruthless rhetorical defenestration of Bill O'Reilly the other day.

Color me a fan...

Posted by: woody at April 9, 2009 04:29 PM

excellent post. one question:
"Israelis are entitled to a state."

what's an "israeli"?

(you know where that question is going, but you threw that line out so casually, i couldn't resist.)

Posted by: anonymous at April 9, 2009 04:42 PM

excellent post. one question:
"Israelis are entitled to a state."

what's an "israeli"?

(you know where that question is going, but you threw that line out so casually, i couldn't resist.)

Posted by: anonymous at April 9, 2009 04:42 PM

excellent post. one question:
"Israelis are entitled to a state."

what's an "israeli"?

(you know where that question is going, but you threw that line out so casually, i couldn't resist.)

Posted by: jason at April 9, 2009 04:43 PM

Anon/Jason... patience please.

Posted by: Coldtype at April 9, 2009 05:21 PM

I've always had trouble with that "Why are you focusing on X when things are so much worse in Y?" logic for much simpler reasons.

It seems to me that no matter how bad things are for one person, there's always somebody worse off, until you get all the way down the chain to the person who is worse of then any other human being on the planet? Is that person the only person who can legitimately complain about anything?

A homeless person in the US is better of then somebody living in Gaza in any number of ways, but that doesn't mean that they don't have a lot of shit to complain about. Do you think the guys who say "Why are you so focused on Israel when there's worse stuff out there?" ever go up to homeless advocates and say, "Why are you so focused on American homeless people when there are so many people out there who have it worse?"

If I break both my legs I will still be in a position that millions if not billions of people would kill to have, but that doesn't mean people are going to write "What the fuck are you complaining about?" on my casts.

Badness is not relative. The fact that a bad thing isn't the worst possible thing does not somehow transform it into a good thing or a neutral thing.

Posted by: Christopher at April 9, 2009 07:27 PM

@Christopher: That's a good point, but the simpler non-defensive response of any U.S. citizen to accusing questions about why focus on Israel/Palestine is that so much of our foreign policy and foreign aid is devoted to it, especially taking into account the money that goes also to Egypt and Jordan.

This is covered by but not spelled out in Bernard's geopolitical reason #3.

Posted by: Nell at April 9, 2009 07:38 PM

I'm surprised that in this entire post you managed to avoid mentioning the main reason we're involved at all: oil. Oil, oil oil. That is the only reason we give a flying fuck at a rolling donut what happens in Israel. That is the only reason we send them more money than anyone else (yes, even Egypt, whose support is tightly constrained, unlike the gift we send ribboned and scented to Israel every year). The moment oil stops being important will be the moment the US government realizes that it's not really so important after all that Israelis be allowed to continue running over the Palestinians.

Posted by: saurabh at April 9, 2009 08:08 PM


He may not have explicitly said the word oil, but he did say this:

The third factor is geopolitical, and has much to do with the dark, oozy stuff that Jimmy Carter identified with our "vital interests."

Posted by: deang at April 9, 2009 08:39 PM

Good post.

On the oil factor, I think that's more likely to work against Israel rather than for it, at least to the extent that our amoral rulers are rational. If oil was the most important factor governing our Israeli policy, we'd be funneling arms to the glorious Palestinian freedom fighters as they waged their just struggle against the socialist totalitarian state of Israel and Arafat would have taken his place in the pantheon of American-supported anti-communist heroes alongside, say, Jonas Savimbi. It's always been my belief that parallel universes where precisely that state of affairs applies are only slightly different from this particular universe.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at April 9, 2009 09:12 PM

Probably the point I was just trying to make was only clear to myself. I don't think Israel does the US much good in the oil-securing department. We (meaning the US government) would have had it easier if we'd just been able to keep the oil states happy and posing as the defenders of the Palestinians against the oppressive Zionists (who have socialist roots, ya know) might have been a more natural position for our government to take, if it weren't for the cultural and religious factors at work. Israel is the regional superpower now, but it wouldn't necessarily have worked out that way if US foreign policy in the region had been mainly determined by the need to keep the oil-rich countries happy.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at April 9, 2009 09:20 PM

Christopher: I would guess an American Indian over here or someone from Bangaladesh over to the east. Oil, gold, diamonds, land, water, its always something "they" got that WE want.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at April 9, 2009 09:24 PM

Good post.

Posted by: cemmcs at April 9, 2009 11:14 PM

Journalist Philip Weiss on the Neoconservative agenda:

"In terms of their politics, they were almost all Democrats and then as soon as the Democratic party suggested that it wasn't going to have a strong military, Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, the grandfathers of this movement, they went Republican. Why? Because they said, back in the 70's, a strong American military is needed to protect Israel."

Download an mp3 of Phil saying the above here (9:45 minutes in) - 07/12/2008 - 03/18/2009

Watch the BBC documentary "The War Party", part 1 of 5 - blogging daily all things Neocon, Israel Lobby, Zionism

Posted by: NoMoreWarForIsrael at April 10, 2009 12:28 AM

US support for Israel does not require AIPAC. With no comparable lobby, the vile government of Egypt receives comparable support.

My understanding is that the aid for Egypt (and Jordan, and the Christian/Sunni part of Lebanon), is really support for Israel. Mubarak's been a pretty good ally to Israel during its war on the Gazan people. Obviously a Muslim Brotherhood gov't would be a big problem if you want to put the Gazans on a diet.

I also don't share your certainty that AIPAC is relatively unimportant. Walt's realpolitik argument for supporting the Palestinians seems far more persuasive than your realpolitik reasons for supporting Israel.

Posted by: Carl at April 10, 2009 12:36 AM

BC:US support for Israel does not require AIPAC. With no comparable lobby, the vile government of Egypt receives comparable support.


Carl:My understanding is that the aid for Egypt (and Jordan, and the Christian/Sunni part of Lebanon), is really support for Israel...

I think Carl is absolutely correct. I would add that US aid to Egypt functions to keep the myth of the Camp David Accords alive, insofar as it serves to reify the notion that the US actually wants peace in the middle east because we acted that way once, and makes Israel seem less isolated and unreasonable in the eyes of the US public because at least one Arab neighbor has ongoing normal relations with Israel.

Posted by: abb1b at April 10, 2009 01:12 AM

Forgot to change back to JV. Sorry about that.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at April 10, 2009 01:15 AM

Egypt is the funnel for US TAX DOLLARS to the Palentinians.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at April 10, 2009 01:40 AM

Israel gets US TAXDOLLARS of its own and steals ONLY The Palestinian Tax Funds from The Palestinians.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at April 10, 2009 01:46 AM

Oook, missed that oozy line. Sorry, Bernard.

I'm still inclined to blame oil for mostly everything. Our rulers aren't all that smart, really. They did invade Iraq imagining they would be "greeted as liberators" and so on, recall. And they do tend to think that people with the most guns and bombs can always set the rules.

That said, they've been pretty effective at controlling the key players throughout most of the Middle East's history - once they got Egypt buckled down post-Nasser, they had all the cards - the Shah in Iran, the Saudi royals, Israel, Hussein in Iraq, and Sadat in Egypt - that's all the might in the Middle East right there. Not to mention all the oil.

As for the cultural alliance with Israel, predisposing us to take them as our favored thug, I think that's a big factor. It helps to have a close ally in the region with a couple of hundred nuclear weapons in case shit really goes south. I have a hard time imagining us finding allies with a mentality totally in line with our imperialist outlook amongst the Arabs or Persians. Better to trust the European colonialists. Sure, they're Jews, but they have the same cavalier attitude as we do about taking what belongs to other people.

Posted by: saurabh at April 10, 2009 01:48 AM

Brilliant. If you follow my link you'll see another take on the subject...

I think we need to bring in the aligning words like you do with apartheid and such. I use holocaust myself to hopefully get sympathy from Jews themselves in regards to the Palestinian extinction...

Posted by: Thomas Hansen at April 10, 2009 05:11 AM

What a good post!

I wonder how much of Egypt's docility comes from realising that if Israel bombs the Aswan dam they will be washed away...

Posted by: lambent1 at April 10, 2009 06:51 AM

(sorry for the multiple posts above, first time and all that).

support for israel also gives the US the ever-ready excuse for constant meddling (and threat of worse, e.g., invasion, bombing, even nuking a la iran) in the ME, perhaps not unlike Taiwan vis a vis China. (threats also get manufactured when israel is not enough, as in gulf war 1, what with "the iraqis amassing on the saudi border", etc.)

Posted by: jason at April 10, 2009 12:05 PM

If Darfurians and Sri Lankans wanted more of our attention, they should have had the foresight to write the bible first.

If Darfurians and Sri Lankans had written the bible, we'd all be worshiping Zeus right now.

Posted by: AlanSmithee at April 10, 2009 12:48 PM

Er, Thomas,couldn't the line "Most jews should know better" be interpreted as rather prejudice and generalizing? There are jewish people against Israel's actions, you know. See here:

Posted by: Jenny at April 10, 2009 12:53 PM

Ever so slightly off-topic, but someone is censoring Norman Finkelstein's website at Google, or else hackers are doing something behind Google's back--


Posted by: Donald Johnson at April 10, 2009 01:40 PM


Yahoo search has a notably different result. (H/T to poster leaNder over in the comment section at Pat Lang's Sic Semper Tyrannis site.)

Do those who play ball with authoritarian states like China have a deep fund of principles? An open question.

Acceptance of torture changes a society. Acceptance of censorship also changes a society (or a corporation...I'm lookin' at you, Google). Looks like the infowars are here for real, although Chris Floyd could probably tell us a thing or two about that already.

Posted by: JerseyJeffersonian at April 10, 2009 04:00 PM

seems to me that AIPAC and Israel don't have people in Congress unless the people in Congress want them to have that say. it's not really about money, it's not just the money. Israel serves strategic purposes for the USA, and it's not really a matter of persuading Congresscritters to help Israel. that sort of persuasion isn't based on Israel qua Israel, but rather, it's about what Israel does for Uncle Sambo... (or is it Uncle Shmuel?)

for sure, relative to other nations, Israel has the Congresscritters' ears in unbelievable disproportion. but it's really about what Israel can do for us. such as, torture via Shin Bet and Mossad (who trained Abu Ghraib & Gitmo grunts, bulls, and mercenaries)... development of espionage technologies... Israel doing dirty work for the USA, in exchange for which we're running a pipeline to an Israeli port destination and paying Israel handsomely for that privilege. the list goes on.

other nations could create an AIPAC analogue and throw coins, paper money, trinkets and pirate booty at the Congresscritters, but the end result wouldn't be the same if those other nations couldn't provide for the USA what Israel provides for the USA.

I don't approve of any aspect of the Israel - USA relatiionship, and I think Israel behaves as a thuggish murderer and serial psychopath on the global stage. so my point here isn't to rehab Israel's reputation, it's to say that our Fed Govt high-muckety-mucks give Israel so much leeway because Israel does a lot for Uncle Shmuel, it's a symbiotic relationship that has existed for 60 years.

Posted by: micah pyre at April 10, 2009 11:06 PM

Micah,I've been meaning to ask this,but what sort of solution to the conflict do you want?

Posted by: Jenny at April 11, 2009 12:49 AM

The battle of West against the South is alive and kicking, but the methods are different; Egypt is a good illustration.

These days you control the South by deputizing and supporting local SOBs, not by direct colonization; Israel is probably the last enterprise of that sort.

The direct colonization method has been removed from the arsenal because it's not acceptable anymore; Western populations don't approve.

Zionism has been so far a successful cover for the old-style colonialism because it's cooked up an elaborative narrative, or rather a whole suit of narratives for, pretty much, every dopey consumer out there. From biblical lunacy, to "the only democracy", to islamophobic bigotry, to artful victimology (that we often see on these pages).

That's all. As old narratives fade away Zionists modify them or invent new ones. As long as it works, Zionists will manage; as soon as they run out of bullshit stories they will find their rightful place in the garbage dump of history.

Posted by: abb1 at April 11, 2009 02:42 PM

I completely degree with the statement "US support for Israel does not require AIPAC."

Do you really believe that support for Israel would be this deep without a coordinated and well-funded effort to maintain a very right-wing Zionist stranglehold on American foreign policy? Your polls on support among Americans for Israeli activities belie your point on the necessity of AIPAC; if the people who elect are against Israeli actions, then why are the elected so adamantly and unabashedly pro-Israel? (Again, maybe we are missing a vital step, that in American democracy true power resides in the people in-between the voters and the elected -- the people and organizations who fund the elected and keep the blinders on the voters).

Posted by: alec at April 11, 2009 11:25 PM


Well put. The art of Zionism (and what many on the Left should possibly take note) is how fluidly it transforms from one narrative to the other. It has been an incredible 60+ year con.

Posted by: alec at April 11, 2009 11:29 PM

I thought I had made a pretty good distinction between Jews (in general) and Zionists in my post...?

Roughly quote from my blog; "Jews are Germans, the Israelian Army is Wehrmacht and Zionists are Nazis"...

At least that was my intention!

I absolutely *LOVE* Noam Chomsky. He's definitely a Jew. AND he is *extremely* opposing against Zionism...

Posted by: Thomas Hansen at April 12, 2009 09:06 AM

Actually, Chomsky was a Zionist as a youth and can still be relatively weak on the merits of Zionism (he is mostly outspoken on the treatment of Palestinians).

From an interview:

"QUESTION: Does Zionism have anything to do with the fate of the Palestinians?

CHOMSKY: This is a very complex problem. It depends on what you mean by Zionism. I was a Zionist activist in my youth. For me, Zionism meant opposition to a Jewish state. The Zionist movement did not come out officially in favor of a Jewish state until 1942. Before this it was merely the intent of the Zionist leadership. The Zionist movement for a long time stood against the establishment of a Jewish state because such a state would be discriminatory and racist. "

Posted by: alec at April 12, 2009 09:41 AM

The Zionist movement for a long time stood against the establishment of a Jewish state because such a state would be discriminatory and racist.

It appears that what he describes as back-in-the-day "the Zionist movement" today is, in fact, pretty much the definition of the anti-Zionist movement.

In general, I noticed, Chomsky almost always takes this line: Israel is but American outpost and military base in the Middle East. Which maybe a valid angle, but a bit too distant a view for my taste.

Posted by: abb1 at April 12, 2009 11:12 AM

I'm apathetic about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I'm bored of it. I'm tired of it. I didn't read most of the post above. I didn't read any of the comments below it.

It was one of many political issues I've just let go to allow others to fight about it. Want to argue about abortion? Go at it. I do not care. Bibles in schools? Ho hum. Contraceptives for 12 year olds? Go rent a room and have it out.

For the vast bulk of the time I do not even think about these things. I feel no moral obligation to think about them. I see more important issues to think about. I see the people who do not think about these morally more important issues and irresponsible.

Posted by: Randall Parker at April 12, 2009 03:55 PM

Enlighten us, O Randall - what SHOULD we be worried about?

Posted by: saurabh at April 12, 2009 06:27 PM

I get hung up over the price of the ticket for the show. How much am I PAYING to watch these people torture and finally kill each other off? What is the REAL cost to me to see genocide?

Posted by: Mike Meyer at April 12, 2009 07:03 PM

I didn't read most of the post above. I didn't read any of the comments below it.

I didn't read most of your comment. And doing so has helped me retain my humanity.

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at April 12, 2009 08:05 PM

Jenny, I've been wondering where you have been. How is my old friend Colonel Sparks these days? Is she still pretending to be a skeptic, while making apologies for Israel's murderous acts?

I love all alumni of the Chip Berlet School of Disinformation. I love them all equally. But Colonel Jenny Sparks tempts me to love her most, with her brazen statements of irrelevant distraction.

Posted by: micah pyre at April 13, 2009 11:59 AM

I've noticed Jenny's position on P&I seems to vary based on venue.

m.pyre, could you please tell me more about this "graduation" business?

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at April 13, 2009 05:11 PM

To my mind, there is another reasons to focus on the I/P conflict. The wider conflict involves the whole Middle East and could flare up into a regional cataclysm - say goodbye to those oil fields world! A worst case scenario would be Israeli nukes launched against the oil fields.

Posted by: Harj at April 14, 2009 05:37 PM