THE FAILURE OF AMERICAN AND ISRAELI PEACE ORGANIZATIONS
COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 13 Mar 2010
The prospects for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have never been worse, primarily because of the rightward shift of the Israeli government and public opinion and, secondarily, because of the end of hopes that the United States would help "save Israel from itself." And yes, I assign little or no responsibility to the Palestinians: they are the victims not the perpetrators; the Palestinian political leadership in the West Bank has never been more impressive and more anxious for a two-state peace settlement; and contrary to the standard but ill-informed view, there are strong indications that in the context of a complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and an end to the economic siege and all other forms of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, Hamas in Gaza would agree to a long-term "truce" that in all likelihood would become a permanent two-state settlement.
Is there any hope at all? The best chance for peace, of course, would be a sea-change within the Israeli public. However, Israeli peace groups have not succeeded in convincing mainstream opinion that their country’s policies are both a moral and a long-term security disaster. For this reason, many on the Israeli left have long hoped for — sometimes surreptitiously, and sometimes quite openly — serious American pressures on Israel to agree to a just and viable peace settlement.
However, the Obama administration’s abandonment of its mild initial efforts to persuade Israel to change its policies has now dashed those hopes and in the absence of a major shift in public and congressional attitudes, there is no chance of change in the traditional US policies of near-unconditional support of Israel. Consequently, the primary function of the leading U.S. peace groups — Americans for Peace Now (APN) and, more recently, J Street. — must be to persuade American opinion that those traditional policies are detrimental both to the best interests of Israel and U.S. national interests.
Even those who deny the existence of an Israel lobby that dominates U.S. policies towards Israel are not likely to deny that the Jewish community is the most important sector of American public opinion on all issues pertaining to Israel. Consequently, domestic politics ensures that there will be no change in American government policies in the absence of strong Jewish support for sustained pressures on Israel. And if they are to have any chance of success, those pressures must include making U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military assistance of Israel conditional on major changes in its policies.
A number of my fellow liberal Jewish bloggers in Israel and the United States see signs of hope from the fact that an increasing number of American Jews are expressing strong dissent over Israeli policies and U.S. complicity in them. Some of my colleagues even argue that "we" are winning, and that better days are on the way.
I don’t share their optimism: on the contrary the Israeli government is getting worse and worse, and the Obama administration has essentially surrendered. We may be winning the battle for the hearts and minds of a small minority, but we are still losing the much more important battle: to persuade the dominant majority in both the U.S. and Israel of the need for radical changes in Israeli attitudes and behavior towards the Palestinians. Indeed, even the Israeli attack on Gaza last year and the subsequent Goldstone report (hereafter referred to as Gaza/Goldstone) have failed to turn around U.S. public opinion and government policies.
In light of both Israeli and American mainstream opinion, it is undeniable that the peace groups in both countries confront a strategic dilemma. On the one hand, an open acknowledgement of the true depth of Israel’s moral collapse and even its capability of recognizing and acting on its rational self-interest might backfire: if the peace groups move too far to the left of the mainstream they may well be seen as illegitimate and lose even more influence. On the other hand, the situation is desperate, requiring a more forthright strategy, whatever the risks: if the peace groups continue to be too timid in their criticisms of Israeli policies and the complicity of the United States in them, they will become increasingly ineffectual and irrelevant.
In any case, the failure of the peace groups is not simply a strategic one but one of understanding and analysis as well: an inability to fully confront the overwhelming evidence that demolishes the most cherished mythologies in Israel and the American Jewish community. This is clearly the case with Peace Now in Israel and APN in the U.S. and there are signs that it may also be true of J Street.
Worse, even B’Tselem (The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), Israel’s most important and prestigious human rights organization, is failing its responsibilities on the Gaza/Goldstone issue. In part, this may be the case because of disturbing indications that B’Tselem itself is reluctant to face the full truth about the Israeli attack on Gaza. However, as I shall shortly argue, it is also likely that B’Tselem’s recent timidity is partly a consequence of its understandable concern that increasingly harsh Israeli attitudes and government policies are endangering its own future.
The Rise and Fall of the Peace Organizations
As I have suggested, the two most important challenges facing the Israeli and U.S. peace organizations today are how to respond to the Gaza/Goldstone issue and whether to urge the American government to bring serious pressures to bear on Israel to end its occupation and repression of the Palestinians and agree to the creation of a genuinely viable and independent Palestinian state. I shall examine the positions of APN, J. St, Peace Now, and B’Tselem with regard to those issues.
Americans for Peace Now
As is the case with its parent organization, Peace Now in Israel, APN is highly critical of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and it has issued several statements supporting the Obama administration’s early efforts to convince Israel to end their continuing expansion. However, APN has been weak to the point of irrelevance or even incoherence on the Gaza/Goldstone issue and on whether U.S. aid to Israel should be conditioned on changes in Israeli policies.
Either because it can’t make up its mind on the issue or because it wants to avoid antagonizing both the critics and defenders of the Israeli attack on Gaza, APN has wobbled over Gaza/Goldstone: it has sought a kind of middle ground, not joining in the chorus that has been attacking Goldstone personally, but going no further than calling on Israel to conduct an internal investigation of the charges that Israel committed war crimes.
To be sure, the Goldstone Commission itself called on Israel to first conduct its own internal investigation before the UN should consider turning the matter over to the International Criminal Court for possible war crimes prosecutions. However, the Commission was required by international legal procedures to follow that process, even though it clearly had little or no expectation that an Israeli investigation would be meaningful: in several places in the Commission’s report it pointedly noted that "there are serious doubts about the willingness of Israel to carry out genuine investigations in an impartial, prompt and effective way."
In any case, whatever the required procedures or, perhaps, the political considerations taken into account by the Goldstone Commission, it is vacuous to believe that the truth has yet to be discovered or will be by means of an internal Israeli investigation. Thus, there is nothing to prevent independent peace groups and human rights organizations from drawing the obvious conclusion: the cumulative evidence is overwhelming that Israel — as a matter of high government and military policy — has been guilty of criminal behavior against the Palestinians in general and, in particular, the residents of Gaza.
None of the official policy statements listed on the APN website deal directly with the Israeli attack on Gaza or the Goldstone report. However, one of them (undated, but clearly after the attack), deals with some of the central issues. On the one hand, the statement repeats the usual mantra: "Israel has the right to protect its citizens from attacks and threats." On the other hand, the statement warns Israel of the consequences of the use of military force: it may bring about "short-term tactical gains," but military force "alone" can’t eliminate the problem and "risks playing into the hands of extremists."
What might supplement military force "alone?" Perhaps for Israel to simply end its occupation and oppression of the Palestinians? No, APN won’t go that far. The organization’s preferred course is the establishment of "a meaningful political process…[and] negotiations to deal with the core issues." Negotiations with whom– perhaps Hamas in Gaza as well as the Palestinian authority in the West Bank? Well, the statement concludes, while there must be "a new, serious policy toward Hamas…it need not, necessarily, mean engaging Hamas directly."
Officially, as an organization APN has had little to say about the Goldstone report, other than a two sentence statement urging Israel, "in its [own] interests," to undertake an internal investigation of the "alleged violations of human rights and international law that may have taken place in the context of the Gaza war, including those documented in the…Goldstone Report." However, several writers closely associated with APN have discussed the issue in greater detail.
For example, recently Leonard Fein, a member of APN’s Board of Directors who frequently writes for the organization, published a long analysis of the Goldstone report on APN’s website. Most of Fein’s argument constitutes an apologia for the Israeli attack on Gaza. He writes that "the most inflammatory element of the Goldstone report is…its assertion that the extensive damage Israel inflicted, not only on human life but on infrastructure, was…intentional." Not so, Fein rebuts: "the Israelis invested considerable effort in avoiding harm to innocents….it does not strain credulity to suppose that Israel’s hope — indeed, its policy — was to minimize [civilian] casualties." (emphasis added)
Continuing with what has become a favorite straw man argument made by Israeli defenders, Fein writes: "Those who hold that Israel wanted to kill as many civilians as it could are badly, and, one supposes, purposely mistaken. (emphasis added) Had Israel wanted to kill as many civilians as it could, the number of dead and wounded would have been vastly greater…" Of course neither Goldstone nor any other serious critic of Israel has argued that Israel wanted to kill as many civilians as it could: the charge is not genocide, merely war crimes. Fein ends his defense of Israel with the standard war-is-hell ploy of those who have deliberately or indiscriminately attacked civilians: it is not they who are responsible, but war itself. As Fein puts it: "Sad, tragic, but war is like that….It is hellish."
Yet, in the end Fein himself expresses some concerns about Israel’s behavior. In particular, after initially rejecting Goldstone’s argument that the belligerent statements and overt threats by high-level Israeli government and military officials were relevant to the question of Israel’s policy intentions, he suddenly admits that he has now come to believe that they were! "With or without a formal decision to wreak havoc in Gaza," he writes, "the dogs of war were straining at the leash." Moreover, he asks, "Was there really no other way" for Israel to deal with the issue of Hamas terrorism, one that would have prevented "all that blood…all that ruin and new recruits for terrorism?"
Perhaps a two-state settlement following negotiations with all relevant Palestinian parties, including Hamas — or even a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories? Fein does not discuss these possibilities.
Yossi Alpher and APN
In effect though not officially, APN’s primary spokesman on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is Yossi Alpher, a former high Mossad official, later a senior adviser to Ehud Barak during the Camp David negotiations, and still a pillar of the Israeli military/intelligence establishment. APN regularly publishes political commentary by Alpher, under the heading "Hard Questions, Tough Answers With Yossi Alpher."
At least until the Israeli attack on Gaza and then the Goldstone report, Alpher was essentially a centrist in the spectrum of Israeli public opinion, maybe even a little left of center: he worried about the settlements, the overall Israeli occupation, and sometimes the Israeli methods — but only because they had undesirable consequences for Israel (were "counterproductive," one of his favorite terms), rather than because they were morally unconscionable.
Alpher is also the co-director for the weekly Israeli publication bitterlemons, where he often elaborates on his APN commentaries. For example, during the 2006 massive Israeli attack on Lebanon, Alpher wrote that Israel was committing a "strategic mistake": some of the civilian suffering in Lebanon and Gaza was "a deliberate act on Israel’s part… intended to generate mass public pressure on the [Lebanese and Palestinian] governments," but it was not producing that result. Similarly, in Janurary 2009 January Alpher denounced "the folly of collectively punishing 1.5 million Gazans for the sins of Hamas….Starving masses of Palestinians is a counter-productive strategy." And a month later he wrote that "economic warfare against Gaza…has failed totally and can even be deemed counterproductive," because the Gazans have not turned against Hamas and Israel’s international standing has been seriously undermined.
Recently, however, Alpher has moved considerably to the right, especially on the Gaza/Goldstone issue. Indeed, it sometimes appears that he is simply losing control, reacting with apparent rage and downright bizarre arguments to the charges of Israeli war crimes. Here are some examples:
Shortly after the end of the Israeli attack on Gaza, Alpher wrote that "Israel should not be accused of war crimes because it took more than reasonable precautions to prevent them…" "More than" reasonable — meaning its measures to protect Palestinian civilians were too extreme?
Alpher continues: yes, there had been some "inevitable lacunae" in Israel’s "unusually thorough measures during the war to alleviate humanitarian suffering on the part of the Palestinian people," perhaps even some "excesses," but ones which were "proportional" and "constituted the exception." ("proportional excesses": an original concept in moral theory) Consequently, "the war crimes accusations against Israel can only be seen as a kind of selective witch hunt waged by religious and ideological extremists, political opportunists and Israel-bashers."
Then came the Goldstone report. In a October 2, 2009 column in the Jewish Daily Forward ("The Goldstone Disconnect") , Alpher argued that Israel was right not to cooperate with the Goldstone Commission’s investigation, because "by Goldstone’s standards, virtually all Gazans are civilians, and all structures in Gaza are civilian structures," so that "the fact that the Israeli military…[sought] to ensure that civilian casualties were kept to an absolute minimum would have made no impression on Goldstone whatsoever."
Two months ago, Alpher summed up his views on Gaza and Goldstone in his regular interview with APN. From the strategic point of view, Alpher said, the consequences of the war had been "a decidedly mixed bag." On the one hand, it did add to Israel’s "deterrence," as evidenced by the marked drop in Hamas attacks in the last year which, along with the fact that during the war there were few Israeli military or civilian casualties, had made the war "far more tolerable for the Israeli public." On the other hand, Alpher conceded, the large numbers of "enemy" civilian casualties had "radically exacerbated…the [international] drive to delegitimize Israel–a drive that the Goldstone report, probably unintentionally, played into." (emphasis added)
Moreover, Alpher continued, "Goldstone singled out Israel at a time when far worse civilian casualties were being inflicted by the United States and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan and by Sri Lanka in Jaffna, with few if any international questions asked. But nobody wants to hear these Israeli responses. Nobody wanted to hear that very true and courageous statement by British Colonel Richard Kemp, veteran of the Afghan war, that ‘the IDF did more to safeguard civilians than any other army.’"
Well, there are some morally relevant differences between the Israeli actions in Gaza and the U.S. and allied actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. We now know that it was unnecessary for the U.S. to go to war in Iraq in order to prevent a psychopath from getting nuclear weapons, but removing Saddam Hussein from power cannot be said to be a morally unjust cause, or at least not nearly so unjustifiable as Israel’s war to crush resistance to its occupation and repression of the Palestinians.
Similarly, while the causes for which the U.S. has been fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan may or may not be sufficiently urgent to embark on war, after 9/11 and the subsequent resurgence of al-Qaeda the U.S has had a strong and legitimate claim of self-defense, for unlike Israel it is not using force to crush resistance to an occupation and repression of another people. (For a full discussion of the self-defense argument in the context of the Israeli attack on Gaza, see my articles cited in Note 1)
As to the U.S./allied methods of warfare, unlike the case of Israel, there is no serious argument that the U.S. deliberately wishes to cause civilian suffering. Indeed, it is widely recognized within the U.S. military that unwanted and unintended civilian casualties are undermining the war effort — and steps have taken to minimize that "collateral damage." There is no comparable effort in the Israeli government and armed forces, despite Alpher’s apparent endorsement of the quaint notion, recently repeated by Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak, that "Israel has the most moral army in the world," a view that no longer has many adherents outside of Israel, give or take a British colonel or two.
Finally, in a March 1 bitterlemons column, revealingly entitled "Hypocrisy," Alpher wrote that the strong condemnation of the near-certain Israeli murder of a Hamas militant in Dubai "constitutes a near- universal exercise in hypocrisy." He continues with two non-sequiturs. First, he writes that Dubai "is the region’s main sanctions-busting transshipment station for Iran and its banks a laundering station for drug money from Afghanistan," apparently suggesting that this should be taken into account by those who criticize the assassination of an Hamas official that happened to take place in Dubai. Anyway, who says that Israel did it, Alpher implies? He writes that the Dubai police "appear to have no hard evidence whatsoever linking Israel to the deed," and if the chief of police "passed the real assassins in the street tomorrow he wouldn’t recognize them."
Yet, the rest of Alpher’s column takes it for granted that Israel was behind the assassination, for he proceeds to tote up its pros and cons. On the one hand, it added to Israeli "deterrence" of other Hamas leaders, and he scornfully describes their visible "panic" in the days following the assassination. However, in the next breath Alpher worries that Hamas might "take revenge." Moreover, the assassination has caused further damage to Israel’s increasingly bad "image" and "its growing reputation of lawlessness and disregard for international norms." Finally, as in his earlier analyses, Alpher points to the failure of Israel’s strategies for dealing with Hamas, including the economic siege of Gaza which he again calls "collective punishment," which is bad because it is "counterproductive."
Following this statement, Noam Shelef, APN’s Director of Strategic Communications, praised Alpher for his "lucid and realistic review of the troubling situation in Gaza," and thanked him "for being the voice of pragmatism."
Pragmatism, indeed. The finest moment of Israel’s Peace Now organization — and perhaps, for that reason, its greatest influence — came when it led mass public protests against the 1982 Israel attack on Lebanon that resulted in the killing of an estimated 10,000 Lebanese civilians, as well as the complicity if not the collaboration of the Israeli army with the terrible Lebanese massacres of Palestinian women and children in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Beirut. What Peace Now objected to was not that the massacre of innocent civilians was "counterproductive," or even that it harmed Israel’s "image," but that it was evil.
In short, so long as its de facto chief political analyst is Yossi Alpher, APN can provide no guidance to those who think that the moral issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be taken seriously and analyzed coherently.
Other than its position on Gaza/Goldstone, the main test of the seriousness of purpose of any Israeli or American peace organization is whether it supports serious and sustained U.S. pressures to induce Israel to end the occupation and repression of the Palestinians. As with Gaza/Goldstone, the APN waffles on this issue.
The official policy position of APN dismisses the use of American diplomatic, economic, and military assistance as leverage with Israel: "Annual U.S. assistance is a key element of U.S. support for Israel. It helps Israel maintain its vital strategic military edge in the region and helps keep Israel strong and secure. Continued robust U.S. assistance for Israel sends an important signal of U.S. support for and solidarity with Israel."
On the other hand, APN has recently issued a new statement on the aid issue: "APN to Obama: Time to Play Hardball, For the Sake of Peace." For the first time, APN appears to suggest that the U.S. should use pressure — to be sure, against "both parties"– in its efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and even states that "the US must not sit by while Israel continues further down a self-destructive path."
A strong statement indeed — but it is immediately followed by a section revealingly entitled "Changing Our Tone." After recommending that the U.S. should "adopt a tough tone and use tough language, in public and private…and sharply criticize the intransigence and delaying tactics by the parties," the statement quickly adds, "This is not a call for the US to threaten aid to Israel or the PA."
Perhaps it is too much to ask APN to stop treating the Israelis and Palestinians as presumably equally responsible "parties" to a "conflict," but it should not be too much to ask that its policy recommendations have some real teeth in it. A number of comments on the APN statement made that point. John Karlik said, "You’re still playing softball — all talk, no action." Jeff Warner elaborated: "Playing hardball means doing something, or threatening to do something that the parties really don’t want;" Israel, he continued, doesn’t worry about U.S. criticism and "tone," which for years it has ignored with impunity; the only thing it really cares about, Warner adds, is "American diplomatic, financial and military support," an option that the APN statement "takes off the table."
J Street was formed in 2007 in order to actively lobby on behalf of those American Jews who do not wish their views to be represented by AIPAC and other rightwing Jewish groups that constitute the "Israel lobby." After a promising start, J Street has been a disappointment, for it has been even weaker than APN on the two key recent issues, Gaza/Goldstone and aid to Israel. Indeed, on these issues it has not differed all that much from AIPAC, calling into question its very raison d’etre.
After the Goldstone report was released and then criticized by the Obama administration and, of course, attacked in Congress, Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s founder and leader, issued a statement calling for the U.S. government "to make every effort to oppose and defeat the one-sided and biased" UN resolutions that would refer the report to the International Criminal Court for possible war crimes prosecutions.
To be sure, Ben-Ami later distanced himself from the most extreme critics of the Goldstone report, saying that "we are not going to engage in a personal character assassination of Judge Goldstone" whose "indictment" of Israel "needs to be investigated" — by Israel, of course. That apparently satisfied the Netanyahu administration, for Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, who had been strongly criticizing J Street, then "changed tack and commended the group for its positions on the Goldstone report and Iran."
No doubt Oren would also commend J Street for its position on U.S. aid to Israel. Its official policy position states that "American assistance to Israel, including maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, is an important anchor for a peace process based on providing Israel with the confidence and assurance to move forward on a solution based on land for peace."
In an Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Ben-Ami elaborated: it was "absolutely essential" that the "special relationship" with Israel must continue, that Israel should always have military superiority in the region, and that therefore "military aid should not be on the table." He even added: "Those are things that have been achieved by lobbying, by what some people would call the ‘Israel lobby.’ J Street is very happy with these achievements…and we respect and admire much of what groups like AIPAC and others have done over the years."
The kindest explanation of these Ben-Ami statements is that they are an attempt to defuse rightwing criticism, as is suggested by his gratuitous remark to Goldberg that "I hope that we have a very strong left flank that attacks us…because I would characterize J Street as the mainstream of the American Jewish community." That may well be so, but the views of mainstream Jewry on Israel are a big part of the problem, not the solution. So what then is the point of J Street?
Peace Now in Israel
For a number of years most important Israeli peace organization was Peace Now, founded in 1978. As noted above, in the past Peace Now mobilized strong dissent and public protest demonstrations against Israeli policies, first in Lebanon and later in the occupied territories of West Bank and Gaza.
The Settlements Watch section of Peace Now continues to do excellent work in revealing the facts about the ever-expanding Israeli land grabs and settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Other than that, however, Peace Now has become increasingly timid or perhaps simply more conservative: as an organization it has been invisible on the Israeli economic siege, the numerous military attacks on Gaza, and on the Goldstone report. Consequently, it has become increasingly politically and even morally irrelevant.
Founded in 1989, for a number of years B’Tselem has been by the far the best, most courageous, and most useful of all the Israeli and U.S. peace or human rights organizations. As Gideon Levy of Haaretz wrote: "Without B’Tselem, it might have been easier for us to say we did not know…that such shameful things were being done in our name."
No doubt Levy had in mind, among many other things, the particularly forthright and courageous 2006 statement, "A Form of Collective Punishment," by B’Tselem’s Director, Jessica Montell: "the suffering of the [Palestinian] population is not merely a byproduct of Israel’s attacks on militants. It is an intentional part of Israeli policy. The clear intention of the practice is to pressure the Palestinian Authority and the armed Palestinian organizations by harming the entire civilian population."
In the last few years, however, B’Tselem has grown considerably more cautious, even evasive, as noted by Levy: "the organization has changed much since its early days. It has become less political, abrasive, and subversive, and now strives, albeit in vain, to be politically correct, aiming for the center of Israel’s political map. It has become restrained, at times overly cautious….In terms of results on the ground, B’Tselem has failed miserably: The parade of occupation and settlements still races ahead, but Israelis care less than ever before."
Moreover, when Levy wrote, the full extent of B’Tselem’s waffling on Gaza/Goldstone was not yet apparent. Shortly after the end of the Israeli attack, Montell wrote: "The extensive harm to the civilian population is not, in and of itself, proof of violations of the laws of war….Such a judgment requires a legal rather than a purely moral reckoning." She went on to say that there was "grave suspicion" that Israel did indeed breach international humanitarian law….This suspicion relates not only to the conduct of individual soldiers, but also and perhaps primarily to policy decisions." However, her conclusion was the usual ineffectual if not hypocritical one: "the only way to render a definitive judgment" was for Israel "to conduct a comprehensive impartial and independent investigation."
In January 2010 Ethan Bronner of the New York Times wrote an article about Israel’s reaction to the Goldstone report, concluding that "virtually no one in Israel, including…B’Tselem, thinks that the Goldstone accusation of an assault on civilians is correct." In support, he quoted Yael Stein, B’Tselem’s research director, as saying that while an investigation of the charges was necessary, "I do not accept the Goldstone conclusion of a systematic attack on civilian infrastructure. It is not convincing."
It was an astounding statement, in the first instance because of the long history of Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure in Palestine and elsewhere, as well as what B’Tselem itself and other Israeli commentators — including even Yossi Alpher and other pillars of the Israel establishment to the right of him — had openly called the intentional "collective punishment" of the Gazans. Moreover, the evidence was overwhelming that Israel had indeed conducted a systematic attack on civilian infrastructure, thanks to the widespread reports during the attack by leading Israeli, European, and U.S. newspapers — even including the New York Times — as well as the subsequent investigations and highly detailed evidence amassed not only by the Goldstone Commission but also a number of investigations and analyses by other international and Israeli human rights organizations.
The Bronner story and, in particular, the Yael Stein statement, generated considerable outrage by critical U.S. bloggers, and led to a response by Jessica Montell on Phil Weiss’s Mondoweiss website. Montell acknowledged that the Times’ quote of Stein was accurate, but stated that Bronner had chosen to emphasize only " a very small part of our views on the Goldstone report and Cast Lead, and not what we choose to emphasize at this point." Further, she pointed out that "B’Tselem has voiced extremely harsh criticism of Israel’s conduct, including grave suspicion of war crimes;" had "invested tremendous resources over the past year to research and publicize the extent of civilian harm caused during Israel’s military operation last winter and to hold Israel accountable;" and had "provided extensive assistance" to the Goldstone commission during its investigation on the ground.
Moreover, Montell agreed that there was no doubt that the Israeli siege of Gaza, followed by the military attack, had caused widespread civilian destruction. Nonetheless, she was still not willing to conclude that there had been a "willful, premeditated destruction of civilian targets with no military justification." To determine that, one had to know "the motivations and objectives of the Israeli military," which must be determined by a "thorough, independent" Israeli investigation.
As I have noted above, surely Montell knows that there is no chance that the Israeli government will conduct such an investigation, let alone that that it would charge itself with committing war crimes. Consequently, like Americans for Peace Now, and J Street, B’Tselem has largely marginalized itself on the Gaza/Goldstone issue.
What accounts for B’Tselem’s depressing descent towards irrelevance on what is the most important human rights issue in recent Israeli history? Perhaps its leaders simply are unwilling to acknowledge even to themselves the full extent of Israeli criminality. That would appear to be the case for Yael Stein, but it seems unlikely to be true of Jessica Montell, particularly in light of her previous statements about Israel’s policies in Gaza.
It seems more likely, then, that B’Tselem has decided that the domestic political climate in Israel is such that it must move to the right. If so, that is certainly understandable, in light of the fact that since the Gaza attack and then the election of Netanyahu, the Israeli government, with the backing of a majority of its citizens, is increasingly pressuring and even repressing not just the Palestinians or Israeli Arabs–that’s old news– but even Jewish peace and human rights groups.
In the last few months, a number of news stories have reported on what Bradley Burston of Haaretz has called "a sudden and ferocious campaign against human rights organizations…coinciding with new human rights outrages against Palestinians and foreigners." Among the recent events have been the emergence of far-right Israeli ngos demanding investigations of Israeli human rights groups; the introduction of legislation currently before the Knesset that would restrict and punish those groups in a number of ways; and — especially — the extensive police harassing, beatings, and arrests of nonviolent Jewish demonstrators protesting the expanding Jewish settlements and dispossession of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem,
The implications of this radical shift to the right of both the Israeli government and general society are staggering, calling into question not just the willingness or capacity of Israel to reach a settlement with the Palestinians, but Israeli democracy itself. Of course, Israeli "democracy" has primarily meant democracy for the Jews, but even that is now seemingly on the way to being reduced to a democracy for the Jews who support the government. Consequently, courageous and forthright investigations, reports and statements by both Israeli and American peace and human rights organizations have never been more crucial — and the just-to-the-left-of-the-mainstream strategies of those groups more ineffectual.
Yes, it is easy for me to call for more courage–unlike the Israeli left, I won’t suffer any real consequences. It is also true that a more critical and vigorous dissent risks backfiring. Yet, what is the point of human rights organizations if they allow themselves to be marginalized at precisely the time they are most needed: for regional peace, for justice to the Palestinians, for what remains of Jewish honor and morality, and for the future of Israeli democracy itself.
1. I have summarized the evidence in my article, "A Perfect Moral Failure: Just War Philosophy and the Israeli Attack on Gaza, Tikkun, March-April, 2009 , and in two long essays in my blog, On the U.S. and Israel (jeromeslater.com), "Moshe Halbertal and the Goldstone Commission Report," January 3, 2010 and "The Goldstone Commission Report, Part 2: Did Israel Deliberately Attack Gazan Civilians," January 4, 2010.
2. Barak Ravid, "Israel Moves to Sideline J-Street After Snub to U.S.Congressmen," Haaretz, February 19,2010 (http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1151024.html)
4. "They Won’t Allow Us Not to Know," Haaretz, Nov. 27, 2009.
6. See Note 1, above
Jerome Slater is professor (emeritus) of political science and University Research Scholar, State University of New York at Buffalo.
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