History is written by the Victors
For decades, the Middle East has been the centre of political debates, socio-economic studies and historical assessments. From the old days of the Cold War and the creation of Israel in 1948, all the way to the current gory fight in Palestine, this restless region has the eyes of the entire international community once again fixed upon it.
Thirteen years ago, the world followed the Bush administration in its quest to fight and defeat Al-Qaeda, after the sorrowful events of September 2001. Years later, the deposition of Saddam Hussein and the killing of Osama Bin Laden were welcomed with hasty enthusiasm by thousands of American people who saw in Washington’s accomplishment the triumph of the American democracy over the Islamist terror. In 2011, the explosion of the “Arab Spring” -the series of uprisings that have toppled the authoritarian governments in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Tunisia, and shook many others - spread all over the world the assertion that the Arab world was not, perhaps, so different from ours: the Arab people, or better still the Arab youth, was fighting for democracy in a region where democracy never really existed. And again today, in 2014, the Middle East has permeated our homes with reports of yet another bomb launched by the Israeli army against the Palestinians. Another attack, another bloodshed.
The Middle East today is, needless to say, the product of nearly seventy years of history. Both the polarization of the globe caused by the Cold War, and the simultaneous explosion of the revolutionary transformations that followed the post-war dissolution of the colonial empires, have contributed in shaping the region and in altering its dynamics so profoundly that today it is still possible to see the consequences of years of power struggles, internal wars and radical changes.
Among the uncountable events that have punctuated the contemporary history of the Middle East, one emerges as particularly significant, at least in terms of its consequences: the creation of Israel. On the 12th of May 1948, just two days before its formal establishment, the Truman administration was informed that the creation of “A separate Jewish State is inevitable...” and that it was just a matter of days before it would actually be set up. Because of such inevitability, and because of the fact that the recognition of a Jewish State was thought to be “... consistent with US policy from the beginning”, the United States government decided to “... steal a march on USSR”, by recognising it before any other country did. Thus, on May 14, 1948, US President Harry S. Truman recognised the newborn State of Israel. The day coincided with the end of the British mandate for Palestine, a legal commission confirmed by the League of Nations that had made Palestine a British protectorate since 1920. The end of the British mandate is pivotal in the analysis of the geo-political scenario that came to be. For years, British policy-makers had opposed the creation of a Jewish homeland for fear that this would dramatically provoke the Arab world. London considered the maintenance of friendly ties with the Arabs “… vital to the British Empire”, and during the almost thirty years of its protectorate of Palestine, it adopted policies that highly antagonised the leaders of the Zionist movement. The White Paper, which limited the admission to Palestine of Jewish immigrants to 75,000 and no more than that (unless the Palestinians would agree to a higher number), was perhaps the main issue between London and the leaders of the Zionist movement. Thus when the mandate expired, the founding father and future Prime Minister of Israel David Ben Gurion rather unsurprisingly wasted no time in declaring:
Unable to find comfort in the policies designed by the British government, Zionist leaders shifted their attention to the United States, already home of many Jews, finding more sympathetic ears in the American public, and an administration that would not oppose the creation of the Jewish Nation. Indeed, as the United States government waited only eleven minutes before extending recognition to Israel, a number of considerations were made. The tragedy of the Holocaust echoed in the memory of US policy-makers, terrified by the prospect of facing the same criticism that assaulted Roosevelt, accused of “… incompetence, delay, and even obstruction of a variety of rescue efforts…” to save the Jews from the Nazi oppressions. Perhaps, recognition of the State of Israel could offer the United States the perfect chance to redeem itself from the misguided approach adopted by the Roosevelt administration in dealing with the issue of the Nazi persecutions of the Jews in Europe. However, more importantly, recognition worked in line with US Cold War strategies of “… establishing a world in which several centres of power could exist, each exerting a restraining influence upon the other” Indeed, Truman was not moved by the Jewish propaganda, which portrayed Israel as a ‘divine’ Jewish right or as a debt that history had to pay, especially after the Nazi atrocities. A transcript of a conversation he had in 1947 about the issue of Palestine shows that the American President was quite frankly annoyed with the American Jewry and its attempt to press the White House to support the creation of Israel. Speaking about the 35,000 pieces of mail he received, Truman confessed: “I put it all in a pile and struck a match to it -- I never looked at a single one of the letters…”
Cold War, not propaganda, was one of the key factors that motivated Truman to recognise the new-born state of Israel so promptly. If Washington could benefit from the presence of a State in the Middle East directly associated with the United States, it would always have an anti-USSR fortress, regardless of what could happen in the region. On their side, advocates of the creation of Israel knew all too well which string to pull. Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organization, wrote that “The world… would regard it as especially appropriate that the greatest living democracy should be the first to welcome the newest into the family of nations." Democracy was indeed a very appealing concept, particularly in a time dominated by the Cold War.
Since then, the US-Israel relationship developed at blistering pace. Arms sales, joint high-level consultations and economic, political and strategic cooperation, have marked the history of this special friendship between Washington and Tel Aviv. However, it is important to stress that, if on one hand a certain kind of sympathy has always characterised the relationship between these two countries, it was only after the Six-Day war in 1967 that Israel became a precious regional asset for the United States. In fact, prior to that, Washington had always been particularly careful to show excessive support to Israel, given that oil interests and the policy of containment of International Communism required Washington to rely on Arab proxies, and not to antagonise them by explicitly favouring Tel Aviv. However, Israel’s astonishing defeat of the Arab states equipped with Soviet weapons, convinced the White House that Israel could really be a credible deterrent against Moscow’s expansionism in the region. Thus, in a mix of political interests and strategic importance, the relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv was finally cemented, moving from generic friendship to strategic partnership.
As easily deducible, the direct association between United States and Israel has largely benefited the Jewish Nation, and not only from the perspective of military supremacy in the Middle East.
The Cold War has indeed shaped and settled the profound difference between US and non-US world: while the latter, easily identified with the Soviet Union, represented a world of brutal dictatorships “…defined by political terror and an economy organised upon the dominance of the party-state bureaucracy”, the United States was a land of capitalist development and free elections, “… a bastion of ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘liberty’”. Such historical crystallization of the international role of the US, whether defined economically, politically or even morally, has by extension benefited the countries that were directly associated with it. Inevitably, the countries that orbited close to the United States during the Cold War era were carried along in the slipstream.
Israel is the perfect example of how historical association with the ‘democratic’ United States, as opposed to the ‘totalitarian’ Soviet Union, has fixed the idea that Israel is a democracy in the collective consciousness. But what defines a democracy?
Theoretically, as Seymour Martin Lipset argues, a minimalist definition of democracy would be “An institutional arrangement in which all adult individuals have the power to vote, through free and fair competitive elections, for their chief executive and national legislature”.To that extent, Israel is indeed a democracy. But subscribing to such a minimalist notion of democracy is limitative, if not paradoxical, particularly if we apply it to the current tensions in the Gaza Strip. From 1967 to 1994 Gaza has been militarily occupied by Israel, as a result of the astonishing defeat of the Egypt-Syria-Jordan coalition during the Six-Day War. But after the Oslo Accords of 1994, Israel transferred the governmental authority to the Palestinians, completing the withdrawal of its troops in 2005. However, despite the Oslo Accords and its apparent willingness to subscribe to them, the Israeli government has bolstered its authority over the Gaza Strip, by controlling its airspace and waters, its commerce activities, the population registry and the Palestinians’ movements in and out of Gaza, as well as electricity supplies and other inputs. Such control, highly criticised by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was somehow motivated by the transitional phase from occupied to non-occupied territory that began after Israel’s 2005 decision. Such phase allowed Israel to monitor the transition until full self-governmental capacities are achieved. However, Israel’s power over the Gaza strip was again exacerbated by Hamas’s victory in the 2006 elections, a government that Acting Prime Minister Olmert refused to recognise and that has allowed Israel to maintain control over Gaza, while simultaneously extinguishing, as a result of the 2005 withdrawal, its responsibility towards the civilian population.
The paradoxical situation developed after the 2006 elections takes us to the second point of this analysis. Indeed, if we could define democracy exclusively relying on the existence of a system of election for the chief executive and the national legislature, we would have to acknowledge that Hamas, the official government in Palestine, is also a democratic one, since it was voted into power in the elections of 2006 by the Palestinian population. Thus, if we were to consider both Israel and Hamas as ‘democracies’ in light of the fact that both governments have been elected by the people, we would struggle to understand how democracies work and interact with each other. Subscribing to Kant’s Democratic Peace Theory, an idea that dates back to the 18th-century and that argued that democracies generally tend to repudiate war, Lipset suggests in his analysis that a democracy, “… tends to promote international peace” and does not “… wage war with other democracies”. Again, in light of the situation in Gaza, a paradoxical result emerges. Indeed, if we were to combine the two assertions provided by Lipset in the definition of democracy, the free elections and the rejection of war, we would have to acknowledge the democratic Israeli government is engaging in war with the democratic Hamas, thus violating the very nature of democracy. However, among the most agreeable principles for a country to be considered as a democracy, the United Nations enlists one that seems to offer a more complete definition of it: “Respecting human rights, fundamental freedoms and the inherent dignity of the human being.” Indeed, after the horrific experience of World War II, democratic countries around the world joined each other in the effort to prevent similar atrocities from ever happening again, formulating the Human Rights Bill and converting it into international law in 1976. Although the Bill has been the object of different interpretations and controversies over its legal status, it nevertheless expressed the will of the free world to reject brutality in respect of human life. Again, the tragic events of Gaza seem to contradict the assumption that Israel is in fact a democratic country. The respect of the rights, freedoms and dignity of the human being is not only being ignored, but deliberately crushed, which opens several doubts as to what extent a country can be considered democratic, and to what extent non-democratic actions can be tolerated within a democratic framework.
From this preliminary assessment, it seems clear that the notion of democracy is a rather fragile one. While democracy remains, in its idealist assertion, the best form of government, its nature today is nothing more than a product of history. Winston Churchill once said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”, and he could not have been wiser. The historical heritage of decades of totalitarianism still shapes our perception of democracy and still prohibits us from overturning historically consolidated assumptions.
Indeed, when in 1947 Truman launched his doctrine, establishing that the United States would provide “… political, military and economic assistance to all democratic nations under threat from external or internal authoritarian forces”, he marked the moment when the separation between US and non-US world, between democratic nations and authoritarian forces, was forever secured. Now, in light of the brutal events taking place in Gaza, we should question if this assumption should be revisited.
Democracy and War on Terror
The interweaved relationship between the United States and Israel, and the way their policies interact within a broad democratic context, assumes particular relevance in the analysis of the events that took place after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
The terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center in September 2001 are possibly among the most significant events of modern history. Apart from the visual impact of the images of the two planes crashing into the majestic Twin Towers, itself a symbol of American global power, the attacks produced a number of consequences that have reshaped not just US foreign policy, but our perception of it – and with it, inevitably, the very concept of democracy.
Following 9/11, the Bush administration launched a global war on terror, aimed to defeat Islamist terrorism and to prevent similar terrorist attacks against America. This has resulted in a prolonged and exhausting American war in the Middle East that, starting off as a manhunt, soon spread across the entire region in a mix of controversies and allegations.
Three elements of the Bush doctrine are pivotal in this assessment. The first one is that the Bush doctrine is based around the notion of preventive war. Preventive war, differently from pre-emptive war where the threat is immediate, implies in itself that it is based on conjectures rather than on imminent threats, and it is the attempt of one country to forestall a shift in the balance of power with the other country involved, by attacking first.In the wake of the terrorist attacks, Bush ventured in the historical comparison with the events of December 1941, which clearly illustrates Washington’s perception of 9/11 and the way it would deal with it. Bush commented that “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st Century took place today”, and thus committed the American government, as well as many others, to ensuring that it would never happen again. It was the beginning of Bush’s preventive war on terror.
The concept of preventive war echoes well in the history of Israel. Since its creation, the Israeli government has appealed to the traditional problems of its country, such as its being a small strip of land, surrounded by hostile Arab countries, inferior in population and fearful because of a troubled past, in order to move the United States government to provide foreign aid to enhance Israel’s military position in the Middle East. Such an attempt responded to the main concern and objective of Israel’s founding fathers, the bitahon. The bitahon is nothing more than the defence of Israel, or to put it in different words, the “…people’s senses of political, bodily and emotional security” in relation to a threat. Given the geo-political framework, the threat comes from outside.
In the book of Deuteronomy, in the Book of Genesis and in the book of Exodus, the Jews are identified as the ‘chosen people’. In several passages in fact it emerges how God had made the Jews as His chosen: “And God has chosen you to be his treasured people.” (Deuteronomy 14:2); “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants” (Genesis 17:7); “And you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Exodus, 19:6). Because of the Jews historical fate, from the Diaspora to the more contemporary Palestinian situation, and on the basis of the ideological framework provided by the Bible, as outlined above, Israeli policy-makers convinced themselves that only in a Jewish State the Jews could “...become sovereign and self-sufficient”.They believed that the Jews were, in effect, legitimized by God to live in the Promised Land, and it was up to the Israeli government to ensure that this would not change.
The bitahon represents in substance the objective that has guided Israel’s foreign policy and the reason why this has been tied to the United States. As David Ben Gurion commented in the wake of the creation of Israel, “When one climbs a mountain, it is not enough to look at the high peak...One must see the paths which lead to that peak”. In light of such pragmatism, Tel Aviv has committed itself to the achievement of two strategically vital goals. First of all, Israeli policy-makers believed it was important to orient Israel towards America: in fact, after the collapse of European superpowers following the Second World War, US and USSR emerged as the two poles. Since the Soviet way was excluded because of the extremism of the Communist regime (Ben Gurion aligned Stalin’s communism to Hitler’s national-socialism and Mussolini’s fascism) and because of Stalin’s alleged anti-Semitism, the United States, already home of many Jews, became the perfect ally for Israel. Secondly, Israel had to achieve military supremacy, in both arms and technology. Again, an orientation towards America was inevitable because of its “... technological sophistication”: if Israel wanted not only to be able to defend itself but also to stand out of the Middle East on a military level, it needed America to be the supplier of such armaments.
For instance, when in 1955 President Eisenhower withdrew the economic help promised to Egypt in light of his Cold War strategies, the Cairo government turned to the Soviet Union, signing an arm deal with Czechoslovakia aimed to enhance its military capability to face Israel. Terrified by the prospect of a war of destruction against the Jewish Nation, Ben Gurion, Golda Meir et al. worked unrelentingly to boost Israel’s military capability via Washington, adjudging their “… right to existence” as the main reason why the United States should provide military help to Israel. Since then, the notion of “right to existence” has often been used to justify adoption of many an otherwise unfavourable policies.
But Israel’s defence was not based exclusively on the achievement of military supremacy in the region. It needed to prove it. Israel’s main national policy was, and to a certain degree still is, based on the so called “active defence”, whose purpose was to “… keep the Arabs psychologically off balance by repeated reminders of Israel’s alertness and striking capability…” Israel would prevent attacks against its country by attacking first, and would keep the Arabs in a position of psychological disadvantage by conducting preventive retaliatory raids. From the border fracas of the era of Ben Gurion and Nasser, to the more recent ‘search and destroy’ expeditions against Hezbollah and Hamas, Israel’s preventive war finds in Bush’s war on terror a common denominator.
The rhetoric behind the use of preventive war is particularly significant from a cultural viewpoint, which is the second point of this analysis. Among the many outcomes of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, one is that they have moved people to acknowledge, or admit, that, as Santiago Zabala puts it, “… the apparently invincible United States was not invincible after all”.
The cultural significance of the attacks against the Twin Towers does not rest exclusively upon the damage inflicted or the number of victims, or even on the attack itself, but on the fact that the United States was perforated in its own territory, assaulted in the very comfort of its own domesticity. To be fair, the terrorist attacks of September 2001 were arguably a continuation of that of 1993, when a group of radical Islamists detonated a truck bomb below the north tower of the World Trade Center. Yet, it is the audacity of 2001 and the haunting images of the two planes crashing into the Twin Towers that have made 9/11 not only an horrific day, but also a strident symbol of global cultural change.
The incessant media campaign aimed at highlighting the “…Western ‘innocence’ destroyed by an outside ‘evil’”has not only justified Bush’s preventive global war on terror, but has also demarcated an invisible, yet indissoluble, line between ‘us’ and ‘the Other’. Whether acceptable or not, 9/11 has produced in the collective consciousness an image of the Muslim world sharply in contrast with our own. As Amaney Jamal contends, one of the results of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and Bush’s war on terror is that it produced an “… undeniable perception that Arabs are considered as suspicious Other”, that has doomed the Middle East to be seen as an indeed at least suspicious land. Just like the Cold War produced a demonization of Communism, 9/11 has produced a demonization of the Arab world that, as Martin Randall argues, “Has also contributed to racism, cultural paranoia, illegal invasions, war crimes, civil right abuses and global political tension.” Once again, the United States, land of democracy and freedom, was to face the foreign threat of a surely non-democratic evil.
This played well for Israel, with which America had already shared so much. Before 9/11, Bush had condemned Israel’s impassibility with regards to the question of Palestine, an issue that the administration had unsuccessfully tried to tackle. Following 9/11, during Bush’s war on terror, Israel came to be regarded as a precious strategic ally against Arab terrorists, moving to the top of Washington’s list of regional assets. Meanwhile, Tel Aviv did not miss out on the chance to enhance its strategic partnership with Washington by sending constant reminders that “… Hamas…regarded Osama Bin Laden as a hero in the wake of his aerial assault on the United States”. Perhaps because of the historical opposition of Israel to the now ‘immoral’ Arab world, or because the fear of an invasion by an “outside evil” was now shared among Americans as well, opinion polls revealed“…steadily rising support for the Jewish state among the American public, who lumped Hamas together with al-Qaeda.”
But it was not just the American public showing its support for Israel. US policy-makers, champions of democracy, were more than eager to use Israel as a regional proxy for America’s war on terror. Pledging full cooperation with US military operations, Ariel Sharon first and Ehud Olmert later not only secured a bilateral agreement of 3 billion dollars per year in military and economic aid, but also a large level of tolerance for their actions, being now a special ally of the US in the fight against terrorism. Thus, when Israel conducted its brutal war in Lebanon in 2006, the killing of over one thousand Lebanese, many of which civilians, was justified by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as “… the birth pangs of a new Middle East…” But what is this “new Middle East” Rice talked about? This question takes us to the third point of this discussion.
Fearing the almost too easy juxtaposition of ‘Terrorist threat’ with the buried “Soviet threat”, the Bush administration concluded that only the protraction of direct US interventionism in the region would prevent the Middle East from becoming a new anti-US pole. In an attempt to secure such an objective, the Bush administration resorted to a concept dear to the millions of Americans scarred by al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks: democracy.
Addressing the Council of Foreign Relations in October 2001, Condoleezza Rice stated: “We do not seek to impose democracy on others, we only seek to help create conditions in which people can claim a freer future for themselves… Our vision of the future is not one where every person eats Big Macs drinks Coke—or where every nation has a bicameral legislature with 535Members.”While admitting that democracy did not correspond necessarily to the adoption of an American lifestyle, Dr Rice confirmed that the United States’ prime objective was now working to build a democratic Middle East.
Although the fact that the United States has taken the burden to democratise the Middle East is largely debatable, this is however more in line with strategies that belong quite clearly to a pre-9/11 era, even more so than one could think. Social progress, economic development, modernization – all sides of the same ‘democratic’ coin – was John F. Kennedy’s 1960s recipe to stabilise conservative Arab regimes against the revolutionary changes occurring in the Middle East with the rise of Arab nationalism and the collapse of the colonial powers. Kennedy feared that the backwardness of the political and socio-economic system of the Arab monarchies could provoke internal turmoil in countries where the United States harboured either economic (such as Saudi Arabia) or geo-strategic (such as Jordan and Iran) interests. It was through this strategy that the Kennedy administration managed to ensure the survival of monarchies that were otherwise doomed to disappear, strengthening these countries not just through economic and military aid, but through processes of reforms that touched pretty much any sphere of their society.
Forty years later, the Bush administration revived tools that had already been implemented in the global framework of the Cold War. Concluding that the best way to protect US interests was not just by fighting terrorism, it was by exporting democracy, (just like JFK concluded that the best way to fight communism was by pushing programs of capitalist development) the United States government began bombing Afghanistan and Iraq, portraying its effort to democratise the Middle East as a perfectly reasonable, and largely sharable, justification for a war that appeared progressively less justifiable. Democracy was, in the eyes of the administration, the best antidote to anti-US sentiments. In the eyes of the American people, it was the best way to prevent future Islamist attacks against the United States.
For the purpose of this work, the most interesting passage of Dr Rice’s speech reads: “The United States, our NATO allies, our neighbours in the Western Hemisphere, Japan and our other friends and allies in Africa and Asia all share a broad commitment to democracy, the rule of law…” This quote is particularly interesting, because with a few words the Secretary of State managed to find a world-wide justification of the American war on terror, again by stressing the difference between the US and its allies, the democratic side of the world, and those who belonged to a different category. Once again, by siding with the United States in a fight against non-democratic forces, a country would automatically be carried in the slipstream and be regarded as a democracy, in spite of actions that more or less clearly clash with the notion of democracy.
Needless to say, this broad commitment to democracy and the rule of law has been amply abandoned in protection of the interests of those committed to its very establishment. It is important, however, to stress how the cultural framework within which the war on terror was carried out, one characterised by fear, alarmism and a general phobia of the Arab world, has led the international community to tolerate actions that are clearly anti-democratic with the hope that they will eventually lead to the establishment of democracy.
It is quite clearly a paradox, if not a failure, of our democratic system. September 2001 and Bush’s following war on terror have altered our idea of democracy, if not its very nature. It has made us perceive democracy as a pre-set product that can be exported to other countries, imposed from above, established as required. Democracy, people have then assumed, also consists of military interventions, more or less grave bloodsheds, frequent and unexpected political changes, and the evergreen foreign occupation. Democracy can also justify the scary concept of preventive war, particularly if this is carried out against a non-democratic country. Democracy has marked once again a line between “us” and “them”, between US world and non-US world. Democracy has also become the tool through which one defends its own home from non-democratic forces. Democracy, after 9/11, allows US partners to act as they please.
Gaza, 2014: Old rhetoric
With a death toll increasing day after day, this new round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taken the world of international affairs by storm. Once again, just a few years after we witnessed the astonishing phenomenon of the so called “Arab Spring”, we look to the Middle East with uncertainty and concern, silenced in our attempt to explain yet another bloodshed and unable to make any prediction about what will be next in Gaza.
The kidnapping and killing of three young Israeli students in the West Bank set in motion a series of events that culminated in the umpteenth conflict between the Netanyahu government and Hamas, for which, as is always the case, the Palestinian population is paying the highest price. Tel Aviv was very quick to attribute the responsibility of the killing of its three youngsters to Hamas, the government in Gaza since the elections in 2006, and its response is as brutal as it could be expected. Operation “Protective Edge”, arguably the deadliest military operation since 2008, was launched by the Israeli government on July 8, and is the result of the escalation between the two factions that followed Israel’s fierce quest to find the abductors and murderers of the three students. After the rounding up of hundreds of Palestinians, allegedly affiliated to Hamas, carried out by the Israeli government in mid-June with the operation “Brother’s Keepers”, the hostilities between the two factions have tragically renewed: Hamas fires rockets against Israel, Israel fires against Gaza, and both factions cause the death of thousands of undefended Palestinians civilians in a vicious circle of escalating violence.
The international community has tried to intervene and mediate between the factions involved, failing. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has urged the Israeli government to “exercise maximum restraint" and to stop the bombing of Gaza, condemning the “atrocious action" of a government whose reprisal policy is costing hundreds of lives. Yet, without the strong support of the United States, the UN has little chance to exercise any influence on Tel Aviv. The government in Cairo, led by President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi after the events of the Arab Spring a couple of years ago, seem to have lost credibility in the eyes of Hamas’s leaders. After the military coup that brought him to power, al-Sisi has not limited his means to persecute the members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s ideological partner in Egypt, and to stiffen his attitude towards the leaders in Gaza. Despite its key role in the region and the successful mediation operated by Cairo during the previous Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Egypt struggled to exercise a positive role in bringing the two factions to a life-saving cease-fire. And still to this day, despite the fact that Cairo’s mediation was eventually accepted, tensions are not completely eliminated. Tony Blair, official envoy of the ‘Quartet on the Middle East’, a foursome group established in Madrid in 2002 with the goal of mediating between Israelis and Palestinians, seems unable to do better. Palestinian representatives have strongly criticised his work, which appears to be limited to that old rhetoric unable to lead towards some sort of agreement: "Always the statement of the Quartet really means nothing because it was always full of what they call constructive ambiguity that really took us to nowhere", commented Mohammed Shtayyeh back in 2012, an aide to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and not much has improved since then. On the contrary, Blair’s attempt to establish a tripartite mediation over the conflict – the Quartet, al-Sisi and Israel – has further fuelled Hamas’s hostility, quite literally cut out of the equation. Thus, in a negotiation process doomed since its very beginning, neither faction has disengaged.
As the conflict drags on, the world watches, horrified at the extermination of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in what increasingly appears to be a cold-blooded execution rather than a strategic military operation. There are still no evidences of the correlation between the murderers of the three Israeli students and Hamas – on the contrary many believe that the abductors belonged to a different cell –and yet, Israel has found in this event a new justification for carrying out its objectives of foreign policy. Indeed, Israel was arguably simply terrified by the agreement between Hamas, the government in Gaza, and Fatah, the government in the West Bank, given that the fracture between Fatah and Hamas worked very well for the Netanyahu government, who benefited from the internal rivalry between the two governments. As commented by Peter Beaumont, the unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah “…poses big challenges both to any attempt to revive a peace process with Israel”. Even more dangerously, Beaumont continues, it could cause “… punitive measures from the government of the Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu”.Scarily enough, Beaumont was right: shortly after the agreement, Israel began the bombing.
So, what does Israel really want?
In general, Israel wants to maintain the status quo of Gaza and West Bank separated: “If Gaza is the only outlet to the outside world for any eventual Palestinian entity…” commented Chomsky, “… whatever it might be, the West Bank—if separated from Gaza, the West Bank is essentially imprisoned—Israel on one side, the Jordanian dictatorship on the other.”After taking what it wants from the West Bank to integrate it with its own territory, Israel would leave nothing more than a prison to the Palestinians. Furthermore, if the two entities were to be unified, Israel would lose the argument that has allowed it to evade negotiations until now, the argument that it cannot negotiate with the Palestinians if they are divided. But there is more to this geo-strategic analysis. In a recent article for the New York Times, Avraham Burg, chairman of Molad, The Center for Renewal of Democracy and author of “The Holocaust is Over: We must Rise from its Ashes”, argues with dismay that Israel is becoming much less a democracy and much more a theocracy.Now, Burg contends, Israel is no longer tied to other world democracies by that set of humanitarian values that constituted the foundation of the post-war democracies, but by “a new set of mutual interests: war, bombs, threats, fear and trauma”.The radicalised coalition of Orthodox Jews that is in power in Israel, echoes Bassam Abu Sharif, one of the main initiators of the Oslo accords, has adopted an approach that does no longer contemplate the possibility of co-existence of both Arabs and Jews, but is based on the ambition to conquer “...by force the lands of the Palestinian people”. Such objective, he continues, is not presented merely as an objective of foreign policy, but as a right obliged by God and, as such, able to justify the brutality of the actions of the Israeli government: “Only God may judge them”, sorrowfully concluded Sharif.
Such analysis, though influenced by more than a month of brutality that now prevents anyone from keeping a non-partisan stand, does not appear too far from reality. On the contrary, the actions of the Israeli government seem to confirm the interpretations provided above and one does not need to look too far back to notice a pattern emerging. Indeed, a cable dated October 2008 published by WikiLeaks, reports that “Israel will use disproportionate force upon any village that fires upon Israel, ‘causing great damage and destruction”, as part of the so called Dahiya Doctrine¸ aimed at deliberately targeting and destroying civilian villages. Thus, in 2008, nearly 1,500 Palestinians, mainly civilians, were killed in what the Israeli Deputy Defence minister called “... a bigger shoah...” against Gaza, caused again by the conflict with Hamas. However, in spite of the disarming declaration and brutal actions, nothing changed for Israel, which continues its indiscriminate murders of the Palestinian population to this day. The nature of Israel’s posture with regards to its actions in Gaza today has a double explanation in the eyes of the international community: firstly, Israel is allowed to fire missiles against Gaza because Hamas is firing missiles against Israel. Secondly, Israel is allowed to destroy Gaza because of Hamas’s underground tunnels that run from Gaza into Israel. Such assumptions have helped Tel Aviv to mark the “defensive” nature of its Palestinian policy and thus justify the horror in Gaza as a right to “self-defence”. Israel portrays itself as an ‘innocent’ country that is fighting a terrorist organization in an effort to avoid the peril of an external threat, once again appealing to the concept of self-defence, right to exist and, especially, terrorist threat, one that always finds very sympathetic ears in the United States.
But in what is almost unilateral violence it is hard to recognise the defensive nature of Israel’s military operation. In an article appearing on The Guardian on July 31, 2014some figures are reported: over 1,400 Palestinians have perished, 8,200 were wounded, and over 200,000 displaced. More than 103 UN facilities were attacked, with schools, hospitals and shelters destroyed. More than 80% of the Palestinian victims are civilian.And while Netanyahu numbly commented that “a country’s got to do what a country’s got to do”, Washington’s position remained ambiguous to say the least. In a recent interview for Fox News dated July 21, Secretary of State John Kerry has commented: “You have a right to go in and take out those tunnels… We completely support that. And we support Israel's right to defend itself against rockets that are continuing to come in." Just a couple of days before, on July 19, President Obama crafted similar remarks: the United States respects Israel’s right to self-defence and invites it to respond to Hamas’s rockets “in a way that minimises civilian casualties.”Although the notion of minimising civilian casualties is itself debatable, it is interesting to see how the rhetoric of “self-defence” used today echoes perfectly in the history of US-Israeli relationship.
By the beginning of August however, Obama’s discontent with Israel became more apparent. The administration condemned Israel’s attacks against schools, hospitals and UN facilities, commenting that “the United States… was ‘appalled’ by the ‘disgraceful shelling’…”of civilian buildings. Arrogantly, Netanyahu then told Kerry and Dan Shapiro, US Ambassador to Israel, "not to ever second-guess me again" about his actions towards Hamas, and things eventually moved on with the usual formula: “The nature of our relationship is strong and unchanged”, was the final comment of the State Department. This position is hardly a surprising one. Although the Obama administration does not hold much sympathy for the Netanyahu government, the United States has an immutable interest in keeping close ties with Israel, with which Washington can collaborate to pursue its goals in the region (among which preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons). Thus, even though Obama does not necessarily feel a special, friendly bond with the Israeli Prime Minister, he does not hold back from stressing that “… we do not have a closer friend or ally than Israel and the bond between our two countries and our two peoples is unbreakable. And that's the reason why on a whole spectrum of issues we consult closely."
The events of Gaza and US position with regards to Israel’s actions are a clear testament to the volatility of today’s democracy. Although both countries have historically been regarded as bastions of freedom, democracy and liberty, today their actions appear more and more clearly and sharply in contrast with such principles. Geo-political and strategic interests prevail over common sense, while one of the main pillars of democracy “Respecting human rights, fundamental freedoms and the inherent dignity of the human being”, succumbs under the weight of an imperialist foreign policy more and more untouched by democratic considerations. This is perhaps nothing new. After all, the tendency of the United States to close more than one eye whenever its interests are at stake has long been acknowledged. For instance, Egyptian President al-Sisi was welcomed by the White House despite his premeditated massacre of nearly one thousand Egyptian protesters during the events of the Arab Spring a couple of years back.Or even before the Arab Spring, Hosni Mubarak, the dictator forced to resign by the Egyptian uprisings, had largely benefited from US support, granted because of his commitment to the Camp David accords signed in 1979 with Israel. A cable of March 2009, leaked by ‘WikiLeaks’, perfectly sums up the American geostrategic advantage in supporting Mubarak’s regime: “Egypt remains at peace with Israel, and the US military enjoys priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace".The United States and Israel had achieved their goals, and now Egypt is still under a military dictatorship that was established after the military coup in 2013to overthrow the elected President Morsi. The new, authoritarian government in Cairo is now unsurprisingly backed by the American and Israeli democracies.
It is therefore hard to imagine an end to the endless spiral of violence that is taking place today in the Middle East. Israel’s actions of terror in the Gaza strip, and the unconditional support of the United States, are still justified through a rhetoric that appeals to the concept of “greater goods” (one could for instance have a look at the rhetoric used by the United States government during the invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq), able to present certain conducts of foreign policy as a somehow justifiable necessity. Israel’s rhetoric is in fact the subject of the next analysis.
A new vocabulary
“And remember, it’s not what you say that counts. It’s what people hear.”With this sentence, Dr Frank Luntz opens the book “The Israel’s Project 2009: Global Language Dictionary”, a booklet commissioned in 2009 by a group called the “Israel’s Project”, born with the purpose of improving Israel’s rhetoric in front of the American and international audience. The Israel’s project is a non-profit organization that was established in the United States in 2002 with the purpose of providing “… factual information about Israel and the Middle East to the press, policy-makers and the public”. Practically, the group was committed to show and sell Israel’s side of the story to the American audience.
Following the events of 2008, the group asked Dr Luntz, a well-known Republican consultant on the language of politics, to help Israel “… succeed in winning the hearts and the minds of the public”, particularly with regards to the issue of the settlements in the West Bank. The housing construction operated by the Israeli government in the West Bank, a region regarded by the Palestinians as the centre of their future state, was indeed among the main reasons for the friction between Obama and Netanyahu, and one of the least appreciated actions of the Israeli government by the American public. With his book, Dr Luntz worked to secretly re-shape the international community’s perception of Israel and its foreign policy through the adoption of a different, less cold rhetoric. Luntz’s booklet contains in each page the mark “not for distribution or publication”, but it was almost immediately leaked to Newsweek Online.It is easy to understand why the group wished to keep Luntz’s work secret: the booklet is in its essence a shameless list of dos and don’ts for Israeli leaders and spokesmen, to help them cover up and justify their actions in Gaza and the West Bank.
Luntz suggests to use a positive language, show sympathy towards the Palestinians, avoid harsh tones and in general spread the belief that Israel is committed to peace. Just as argued above in relation to September 2001 and the perception of Israel in the United States during the war on terror, Luntz makes the point that Israeli leaders should “Draw direct parallels between Israel and America- including the need to defend against terrorism”, again by appealing to the similarities between the 9/11 attacks and those that Israel suffers from Hamas or Hezbollah. He also recommends to stress that Israel is America’s democratic ally in the Middle East, “…In contrast to those in the Middle East who indoctrinate their children to become hate-mongers and suicide bombers”. And again, the invisible line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is exploited and strengthened by Luntz’s recommendations. Luntz also teaches Israeli leaders how to mitigate the fact that hundreds of children have died under Israel’s bombs, using phrases such as: “I want to recognize those Palestinians that have been killed or wounded, because they are suffering as well. I particularly want to reach out to Palestinian mothers who have lost their children. No parent should have to bury their child”; he also suggests ways to switch the focus from Israel’s terror to Hamas’s: “When people hear the words of the Hamas charter, Israel goes from bully to victim – and sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians dissipates.”Luntz also quotes Netanyahu to give an example of what he calls “Words that Work”: “So that’s what we must do, and Israel is ready to be a partner. Butit’s also time for someone to ask Hamas: What exactly are YOU doing to bring prosperity to your people?” Though Luntz perhaps forgets, or chooses to ignore, that Israel counts the calories allowed to Palestinian children and its economic policy has reduced Gaza to poverty and misery (Israel’s policy is to “… put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger”, as candidly admitted by Olmert’s advisor, DovWeisglass, backin 2006).
Luntz’s 116-page long work is a shameless, hypocritical guide designed to alter our perception of Israel’s brutal policy in Gaza and the West Bank. It is based on Luntz’s research and polls on what the American audience does and doesn’t like to hear, whether this being a concept, a sentence or even a word (Luntz suggests to change a term like ‘allow’, which suggests “A patronizing, parental tone [that] will turn Americans and Europeans off” with more instructive and hopeful words). Luntz strongly recommends that Israel presents itself as an actor striving for peace but arrested in its effort by the terrorism of Hamas. Furthermore, Luntz urges Israel to avoid openly declining the “two-state solution”, given that a poll he conducted in 2009 shows that “over 78% of Americans support a two-state solution”. But Luntz has a remedy: “… it is important to note that there are effective ways to uphold the ultimate goal of a Palestinian self-government while legitimately questioning how soon the solution can be reached. This is the rhetorical area in which you need to operate.”
When “The Israel’s Project 2009: Global Language Dictionary” was leaked to Newsletter Online, many have started questioning Israel’s foreign policy. After all, why would anyone need a ‘Dictionary’ to explain the nature of its actions if these are oriented towards the ultimate goal of peace? Patrick Cockburn, eminent journalist and author who has been writing about the Middle Eats since 1979, statesthat “… on television and radio and in newspapers, Israeli government spokesmen such as Mark Regev appear slicker and less aggressive than their predecessors, who were often visibly indifferent to how many Palestinians were killed.” Thus, the reason why today Israeli leaders and spokesmen appear more upset about what is happening in Gaza than their predecessors, is because their words, gestures and comments are very carefully crafted to arouse sympathy for the Zionist cause among the American and European public. But the argument that the Israeli leaders want peace, as suggested by Dr Luntz, does not match their actions. The occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza are hardly going to be a solution to stop the attacks against Israel, because the threat is different from that of 1967, for example. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a coalition of Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria moving an actual war against Israel. And even if that was to happen, Israel defeated them in six days in 1967. Now, with the level of military and technological sophistication it has achieved with the help of the United States, it would probably take six hours. That is why the concept of “self-defence” appears more and more insufficient to justify the brutality of the Dahiya Doctrine.Surely, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a threat to Israel, but it is hard to think that the new moderate President of Iran Hassan Rouhani would move war against the Jewish state. The threat against Israel’s territory today comes from terrorist Islamist organizations, and Israel’s brutal occupation of the West Bank or its devastation of Gaza will not provide any help to the bitahon. It would be, as Peter Beinart puts it, “… like trying to contain a brush fire by dousing it with gasoline”.
But the lucidity of a geo-political analysis does not take root in a collective consciousness moulded by skilfully manipulated rhetoric. Luntz, and thus for extension Zionist leaders and spokesmen, know very well which strings to pull to create sympathy for Israel’s actions and again ‘democracy’ is a term that appears too often in “The Israel’s Project 2009: Global Language Dictionary”. In fact, in his 116 pages, Luntz mentions the word democracy twenty-five times, urging Israeli leaders to constantly remind the public that Israel is a democracy in the Middle East, as opposed to the non-democratic countries that surround its territory. But today it is hard to embrace the notion that Israel is a democracy. As Ariealla Azoulay rightfully argues, for years the world has accepted the “false temporariness of ‘the Occupation’”, the notion that Israel would occupy foreign territories until a peaceful solution to the issue could be achieved, but has disregarded a long history of deceitful sabotages of any negotiation attempted, economic policies aimed to keep the Palestinian in a condition of continuous precariousness, and the massive financial investments carried out with the settlements. Now, after yet another brutal devastation in Gaza, the world should really ask itself if we can still abide by the notion that Israel is a democracy.
In August 1960, John F. Kennedy stood in front of the Senate and read a speech that described Israel as an entity that“… carries the shield of democracy and it honours the sword of freedom”. Although in a time dominated by the Cold War such a statement probably fit rather well with the American strategy of containment of Communism, today nothing appears more distant from reality. The international conduct of the Netanyahu government and the inability of the United States to invert the course of its bilateral relationship with Israel opens, or should open, a serious debate on the level of the democratic nature of two countries that have traditionally been considered as democracies.
Surely, the Middle East is a troubled region in the world, with a long history of conflicts, struggles for power and revolutionary transformations, and made even more obscure by the profound cultural difference that exists between Islamism and westernised world, further sharpened by the events of September 2001. But this cannot be a reason to ignore what happens today in Gaza, where thousands of people suffer the consequences of a progressively more ambiguous, and surely more vicious, policy carried out by Israel. And even though today, after the massacre of the Palestinian population, important political figures such as Hilary Clinton keep professing that “… Israel did what it had to do to respond to the [Hamas] rockets. Israel has a right to defend itself”, the international community should really question if fundamental democratic principles can be crushed for political, economic or strategic interests, and brutality can still find a plausible justification through the use of an old and now obsolete rhetoric.
Perhaps today, whether because we are less used to witnessing violence against undefended children, or because we have access to a whole new range of information sources, we are more aware of what is happening in the Middle East. After all, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, “Israel was one of the most admired countries in the world. Now it’s one of the most feared and despised countries in the world.” But there is no easy solution to this endless conflict, unless a radical change occurs.
Israel is now in a very comfortable position. If Hamas stops firing rockets, then the Netanyahu government will just carry on its usual policy in Gaza and the West Bank. If Hamas does not, Israel will have a ‘justification’ to continue the massacre. Only the United States can change this trend, but the position has to be firm. History has proven that half-measures (a Suez crisis-type of condemnation) are not only useless but can even exacerbate the danger. Only if the United States changes the route of its relationship with Israel, by exercising tremendous pressure on the Netanyahu government, something could probably be achieved. Yet, even this auspice contains intrinsic limitations. Is Washington really in the position to teach a lesson on democracy after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have caused thousands of civilian casualties? Probably, sadly, not.
Antonio Perra is a doctoral student at King’s College London under Dr Stacey Gutkowski in the department of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies. His research examines the Kennedy administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East, with particular emphasis on the Arab-Israeli dispute and on the relationship between Arab Nationalists and Arab Monarchies.
He has taught MA students at King’s College London, where he also organized the first Arts and Humanities cross-disciplinary conference. He has written extensively about the US foreign policy in the Middle East during the 1950s and 1960s. He has also participated in two international conferences, and published a paper about the Arab Spring in Egypt.
Prior to moving to London, Antonio completed an MA in International Relations at the University of Political Science in Cagliari (Italy).
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