Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Security Risk

Two recent, and related, stories got a surprisingly small amount of press here, and even among the shmoozerati there hasn't been much notice about them. A short while ago, Haaretz publicized the Israeli data base of settlement activity in the West Bank. The punchline, presented nicely in the Times online, along with some neat other stuff, is not good: in some seventy-five percent of the settlements, construction took place without, or contrary to, official permits. In 30 settlements, construction took place on land owned by Palestinians (there's a word for this). Keep in mind, please, that these figures are not just about those settlements labled by the Israeli government as "illegal", but those claimed to be "in accordance with international law."

In thinking about the settlements, it's important to keep in mind the lessons of Gaza. Not the recent war, but the withdrawal. If it wasn't common sense before hand, it was proven by demonstration: settlers assume their homes are permanent.

"Well, duhhh" do I hear you say? Hardly. For years - for decades - there has been the official claim that the settlements are "bargaining chips," with their future status "pending negotiation." But if they're bargaining chips, if the status of the land they're on is uncertain, why establish permanent homes, with schools, synagouges, infrastructure, the whole nine yards, and fill those homes with people who don't plan to move? What the Speigel report demonstrates is that the Israeli government has been engaged in a project - illegal under it's own laws - to informally annex increasingly large chunks of the West Bank.

Now, it's true that lots of countries do and have done lots of illegal things, and many of them - including the USA - are enjoying the fruits of their own land grabs with impunity. The real problem, though, is one of Israel's own safety. Isreal's single greatest security need is a stable, Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, at least moderately prosperous and at least moderately democratic. That being the case, anything that hinders or delays the establishment of such a state endangers Israel and its citizens; threats to the creation of the State of Palestine are threats to continued existance of the State of Israel.

The argument is not whether the settlement project has hurt the prospects for peace, it is only whether it has killed it completely. And yet (and this is the second story) Israel continues to build, unable to face the true costs for what it needs as much as it needs an army.

The existential danger to Israel created by the continued occupation has got to become part of mainstream American Jewish discourse, whether in "insider" conversations synagogues and the meeting rooms of the major Jewish philanthropies, or in public addresses to the Administration. To do less would be disloyal.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

gaza talk


And then what do I say? I’ve been observing two entirely different discourses: there’s that of the organized Jewish community, and there’s that of, well, just about everyone else, and, well, you know, there’s not been a whole lot of contact between the two. It’s pretty clear to me that Hamas is a nasty organization, not just in regard to Israel, but in general; only the most na├»ve anti-Zionist would see a Hamas government as empowering to its residents. Clear, too, that lobbing mortars and rockets at Israeli civilian centers is inexcusable and criminal, not to mention mind-bogglingly stupid as a strategy to get Israel to lift the siege. These two facts are crucial to any discussion of the war.

Yet these two facts neither answer nor preclude two central questions:
1) Was the war a wise and appropriate approach to Israel’s legitimate long-term security needs?
2) Was the war prosecuted in accordance with international law?

You’re all as smart as I am, you have access to the same sources as I do, you can try to answer these for yourselves. But that’s the point – we need to get to a place where we can, indeed, try to answer them.

Concerning the first question, I’d like to note that “Because the bastards deserve it” while necessary, is not, by itself, a good reason to go to war – notwithstanding Bush’s attempt to retroactively apply it to Iraq. I’d also like to note that questioning the wisdom of a country’s policy, even arguing that a policy is wrongheaded and doomed to fail, is not an attack on the country. Nations, even democracies, do wrong-headed things, and it’s worth remembering that the official Israeli report described the second Lebanon war as a blunder, the result of an inadequate decision-making process. In the words of Justice Winograd, “Israel did not use its military power wisely or effectively," Would it have been anti-Israel to say this during the war?

As to war crimes, well, the accusation that the Israeli military may have committed war crimes is an ugly one, and it should be, because war crimes are bad things to do. But they’re bad things even if the good guys do them, and even if the bad guys are committing war crimes, too. This isn’t a zero-sum morality, where if one side is bad they’re entirely bad and the other side is entirely good. God knows (and God does know) that the US isn’t pure, nor is Britain, nor any other country. And we demand an accounting especially when the “good guys” commit them because we want them to remain the good guys – and that doesn’t happen if you begin to believe that goodness and justice are categorical attributes, not qualities that require ongoing commitment.

I’m worried about the long-term security of Israel, because Israel’s most pressing security need – a reasonably stable, reasonably democratic Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza – seems further and further away. But I’m worried, too, about a Diaspora Jewish community that does not have a way of engaging in a serious, reasoned, discussion of Israel. Something, by the way, we’re going to need more and more in the coming years.