From the Comments: Does Israel have the moral upper hand on Palestinians in Gaza?

In the ‘comments’ thread on his excellent post about Israel/Palestine (I hope he produces Part 2 soon), Matthew reveals some of the skepticism he has regarding Israel’s current policy towards Gaza. You should read the whole thing. Matthew does an exceptional job of summarizing the thoughts of millions of Americans – especially younger ones – regarding the US’s relationship with the Jewish state. Here was my response:

I think the allegations of anti-Semitism can be found if you follow along with me while I tease this out.

First, though, an important geopolitical thought. The settlements in the West Bank are the worst policy to come out of a Western government since overthrowing democratically-elected Leftist governments during the Cold War. The settlements are absolutely toxic to peace and prosperity in the region, and for this reason I cannot count myself among the “supporters” of Israel.

The reasoning behind this policy probably has to do with the buffer zone, though. If I were an Israeli I would view the settlements as an important “human buffer,” if you will, to another (another) invasion from the east. I don’t think the settlements are a nefarious attempt on behalf of Right-wing Israelis to ethnically cleanse the West Bank of indigenous Muslims (that is a charge being leveled by some otherwise serious Leftist quarters). My opposition to the settlements in the West Bank is more of a strategic one than a moral one (though the moral argument underlies the strategic). A human buffer zone will not prevent another invasion from the east any more than an Iron Dome will discourage rocket attacks from Gaza. All these settlements do is stir bad blood between already hated enemies, and that is as stupid as you can get.

Speaking of Gaza, I can agree to an extent that Israelis should try to limit civilian casualties as much as possible. This is a standard that should be held up to all of the world’s states (even if it is not). However, Israel and Hamas are fighting an undeclared war and as such I do not think it just to condemn Israel and overlook the targeting of civilians by Hamas. (I am sure you are in agreement on this.) As a rule of thumb I don’t trust governments to take necessary precautions of any kind when it comes to interests of state, but I think the overwhelming scrutiny that Israel faces from the international community pressures it to take precautions that would be unheard of in the non-Western world. Hence I am caught between disavowing war – as all good libertarians must do – and acknowledging that Israel is fighting a just one.

On to the implicit anti-Semitism of Israeli criticism. Usually I can spot anti-Semitism by the reliance upon conspiracies or money to explain events pertaining to Jews or Israel, but the pinkwashing argument – which I suspect is anti-Semitic, or at least anti-Western – is a tougher nut to crack.

Pinkwashing is certainly anti-Western, as you don’t see many organizations – especially those on the Left – criticizing policies of despotic non-Western governments that would be condemned outright in Western states. Anti-Semitism exists, indeed permeates, Arab and European societies in a way that is hard to fathom in places like the United States or, say, India. Thus I conclude that the criticisms of Israel that do not include equal criticisms of Hamas or other non-Western organizations, and that stem exclusively from Arab or European capitals, are anti-Semitic. I know this is a broad brush and there are certainly principled dissenters among the ranks of anti-Israeli critics in these regions, but sometimes all you can do is call a ‘cat’ a ‘cat’.

If you delve into the critiques of Israel that come from European or Arab capitals, you will often find such critiques to be superficial and, indeed, relying upon conspiratorial explanations for Israeli actions. This is of course not true in the American or Israeli media, where critics are often more principled and have a better understanding of the mechanisms of Israeli society.

In this sense, you are right to criticize Netanyahu for dissemblingly conflating Israeli society with Jewish society, but in another sense Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians are dealing with factions that extend far beyond the borders of the United States or Israel, and these are factions that I would describe as being most savage in nature.

Your responses to my analysis would be most welcome. It seems to me that the global Left and the Arab Right is unwilling to look at the issue at fairly. Israel is a state, and it exists in the Middle East. Opponents of Israeli tactics in the most recent fighting hardly mention this, though. Instead, I can barely sort through the muddle of ‘Zionist’ or ‘imperialist’ epithets hurled its way (and at anybody willing to suggest that Israel is not 100% at fault for the violence).

Some of this, especially from Western Leftist quarters, can be viewed as more of an opposition to colonialism than to Israel itself, but for the most part – after reading accounts from many different sides – I find the opponents of Israel to be engaging in a battle that is far removed from reality.

This is not to say that Israel should not be criticized (especially given its socialist roots), but in order for criticism to be effective it has to be smart and objective, and this is completely lacking in the accounts offered up by many Leftists and virtually all Muslims.

Again I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially from our Middle Eastern readers.

4 thoughts on “From the Comments: Does Israel have the moral upper hand on Palestinians in Gaza?

  1. In my mind, if you want a “slam-dunk” argument for the notion that Israel has the moral upper hand in this conflict, you need look no further than the suicide bombings of 1996. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli ultranationalist drove the Israeli electorate into the peace camp, possibly further than they have ever been before or since. Hamas’s response was a wave of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians that ensured Netanyahu’s victory in the next election. If one was determined to exonerate Israel and place all the blame for the current conflict on Hamas, I think that would be one’s best bet.

    • A good theory, Richard, but this stood out to me most:

      If one was determined to exonerate Israel and place all the blame for the current conflict on Hamas

      One could come up with anything they want, whether it be an assassination or unicorn farts, to further their so-called argument. This is where the whole Canaan mess gets, well, messy.

      There is too much focus on exoneration and not enough on moderation. For example, this post was meant to be a moderate response to the recent upswing in violence between Gaza and Israel, but it obviously didn’t achieve its modest task. Israeli settlements in the West Bank mean that I cannot “support” it. The anti-Semitism of the European Left and the Arab Right means that I cannot “support” them. Yet when I point out the bad aspects of all of these factions, I somehow get read as a supporter of Israel. (This is not just you, Richard, as a number of anonymous cowards on reddit had voiced their opposition to my supposed support for Israel.)

      Is reasonable debate possible? Can I condemn Israeli settlements in the West Bank but acknowledge that its most recent bombing campaign in Gaza was just? It seems unlikely at this point in time, which is a damn shame.

    • Sorry but this is setting off my glibness detector. To that end:

      A good theory, Brandon, but this stood out to me most:

      There is too much focus on exoneration and not enough on moderation.

      Need I remind you that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue? Would you say there is too much focus on exoneration in the cases of Duke Lacrosse, UVA fraternities, or Paul Nungesser? In any conflict of any size above trivialities, whether personal or national, every individual charge against either side should be considered separately in the “reasoned debate” of the courtroom. I think that’s axiomatic. I was merely suggesting that we start with the 1996 bombings, and by asking Hamas what the hell they hoped to acheive thereby. If they don’t have a damn good reason for that catastrophic own-goal, the debate wouldn’t even be about Israel vs. Palestine any more, rather Hamas vs. Palestine.

    • Why, Richard, you’re too polite. That old time British charm is something I’ll never be able to resist!

      (By the way, readers, Richard attended the same IHS seminar in Berkeley that me and Rick went to. It was a great time, all around, although Richard has so far resisted my nudges to blog with us here.)

      We have to get our facts straight before we can begin to exonerate factions for their part or non-part in Canaan, no? You are on to something, I think, when you argue that there is a Hamas versus Palestinian issue here, but missing from your analysis is Israel, in its entirety.

      Does the Israeli state bear any responsibility for the savageness of many of the prominent factions in Palestine? In the broader region? Once we get past these questions we can begin to think about guilt and innocence. To date: Israel is the only place in the Middle East where women can show off their beautiful (or not so beautiful) bodies at a beach. It’s the only place you can look at porn without fear. Same goes for consuming alcohol. And so on and so forth. Yet opposition to Israeli policies isn’t dominated by the more savage elements in the Middle East, and this suggests to me that all is not right in regards to the Israeli state. To my mind the settlements in the West Bank, sponsored wholly or in part by the Israeli state, are solely to blame. If you take this factor out of the equation, Israel becomes an ally instead of a pawn.

      Until that happens, though, the Israelis will continue to face harsh skepticism from otherwise reasonable corners.

Please keep it civil

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