On March 3rd, 2012, Professor John Mearsheimer and Professor Stephen Walt published an article in the Financial Times under the heading, “Mr Obama must take a stand against Israel over Iran.” This, as one would expect, is a well written, precisely argued appeal to the American President to resist the pressure he is coming under to order a pre-emptive strike on Iran.
Mearsheimer and Walt’s argument cuts through the hyperbole – while Iran might not be a very pleasant regime, it does not necessarily pose an existential threat to Israel. It certainly does not threaten the United States in that way, and, in any case, all the war-rhetoric in Washington and Jerusalem is probably counter productive – encouraging Iran to pursue the bomb and discouraging any kind of engagement. In short, the US government would better serve the American national interest by reducing tensions in the region than it would by following the current line.
Everything about their argument should make sense whether one is an avowed ‘realist’ in the Walt-Mearsheimer school or not. The only people who seem not to be convinced are those who can perhaps be categorised as neo-conservatives, GOP presidential candidates (some of whom seem to have quite a loose grip on reality anyway), and the two individuals at the top of the Israeli government.
Mearsheimer and Walt go on to explain that, if there really is an existential threat to Israel, then it is actually the unresolved question of Palestine and the Netanyahu government’s unwillingness to come to terms with it. The authors have made this case before, along with claiming that the closeness of the US to Israel is in fact damaging to America’s position and interests in the region, in their (in)famous book, The Israel Lobby (and elsewhere).
I think Mearsheimer and Walt are right about a prospective war with Iran and I am grateful for the fact that when they do take on the ‘arguments’ for war, often they do so with both great proficiency and panache. However, I contend that their argument regarding the existential threat posed to Israel by Palestinians is deeply problematic.
I should clarify. I understand why Mearsheimer and Walt are making this claim. They are coming from a perspective that prioritises US interests; they are not anti-Zionist in the way some other scholars are, and they make this case against US policy and the influence of AIPAC in particular, because it speaks to a broader point about scaling back both the US’ global ambitions and reach. However, I think they are wrong because their approach misrepresents the nature of power in the current global system and what Palestine really means to it.
This is not a new criticism. Among the storm of controversy, exaggeration and embellishment that was published in response to the original ‘Israel Lobby’ article, Joseph Massad’s argument stood out. He argued that the Israel lobby does not in fact manipulate the US in order to pursue the objective of colonising what remains of the Palestinian territories, but rather, Israel’s role in the region serves American imperialism in general.
The arguments put forth by these studies would have been more convincing if the Israel lobby was forcing the United States government to pursue policies in the Middle East that are inconsistent with its global policies elsewhere. This, however, is far from what happens. While US policies in the Middle East may often be an exaggerated form of its repressive and anti- democratic policies elsewhere in the world, they are not inconsistent with them.
Through examining the wider work of the two academics – noting their disapproval of the way US Foreign policy has drifted so far from their kind of realism – one is led to wonder whether there is a element of self-delusion in their approach towards this issue in particular.
Writing last summer in exasperation about yet more think-thank based exaggeration of the importance of an issue, Walt lamented that it showed “poverty of American strategic thinking”and exclaimed that:
The central pathology of American strategic discourse is the notion that the entire friggin’ world is a ‘vital’ U.S. interest, and that we are therefore both required and entitled to interfere anywhere and anytime we want to.
Thus their concern is American interests and the best way in which to pursue and protect it. They are, essentially, American nationalists who reject the US’ pretentions towards imperialism, not out of concern for the impact that expansion has on the agency of others but because the welfare of the American republic is at stake.
It is this level of analysis that is missing from their account of the Israel-Palestine question. Palestinians are presented as an existential threat to Israel without the question being raised: what this actually means in terms of the internal nature of states, or the relationship between states, institutions and individuals.
What is quite clear, of course, from even a cursory study of the history of the ‘Holy Land’ is that it is Israel that poses an existential threat to Palestinians, not the other way round. Indeed, this threat has very nearly been carried out on a number of occasions – the Nakbah of 1948, the Naksah of 1967 and as an ongoing process. Advocates for Israel tend to be caught in a state of denial about these facts, or worse, argue that the ethnic cleansing of Palestine is simply justified.
A common theme throughout all these arguments is a tendency to deny Palestinians the right to speak on their own behalf. They are presented only as a nebulous and, evidently, dangerous ‘other’ whose mere existence is a ‘threat’. Some Palestinian scholars (and some Israelis) have already taken on this phenomenon and identified the denial of Palestinian identity and history as an integral part of Israeli colonialism and imperialism in general. Yet, the discourse persists.
This is clearly racist – even if the differentiation in terms of people’s rights does not necessarily follow traditionally understood racial lines. As Theo David Goldberg has argued:
Racial palestinianization turns on a revulsion and repulsion related to dispositions of abjection, horror, hatred, anger, inferiorization. The Palestinian’s vulgarity and aggression are the source if not the totalization of Israel’s woes. Were it not for the Palestinian there would be no terror, no threat, no insecurity, no challenge to Israel’s very existence, no recession, no economic burden, no refugee problem, no insecurity regarding demographic swamping, no limit on Jewish settlements in Judea and Sumaria. The Holy Land would be complete, unified, God’s historical promise fulfilled. But perhaps too there would be no Israel (as we now know it)! … Racial palestinianization is thus a conceit about contemporary conditions in terms of a projected past conceived in terms of the politics of the present.
Moreover, the acceptability of this racism, presented as it is in the language, technology and methodology of ordinary high-politics, has been replicated in execution of American foreign policy elsewhere in the world, as we know, from examples of Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. In each case, the value of human life is diminished through similar racially-based-devaluation of the designated enemy.
Of course, there is another side to this argument: Israel itself is the product of a reaction to racism and genocide, on a much grander and more brutal scale than anything the world has seen since (while some great crimes have come close – let’s not deny the importance of them either). The holocaust also built on centuries of vicious race-hate that was deeply rooted in European civilizations. This surely has a huge impact on modern Israeli identity and ignoring it should not be an option.
However, the acceptance that both the holocaust constituted an evil virtually unimaginable by modern standards and that Palestinians suffer from Israeli policies directed towards exclusivity is not only possible, but also essential in order to move out of this quagmire. As Sara Roy eloquently explains:
Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians is not the moral equivalent of the Nazi genocide of the Jews. But it does not have to be. No, this is not genocide, but it is repression, and it is brutal. And it has become frighteningly natural.
But it has been the case for some time that Palestinians and others have been engaged in a dialogue in which the topic of discussion has been simply – how can we live together. Various advocates of a binational state solution have framed their arguments with the intention of showing ways in which Palestinians can regain their rights while coming to terms with the reality that Israeli identity is a real phenomenon with its own intrinsic value. Goldberg, again, puts this best:
This critique of racial palestinianization is not to advocate for nor self- loathingly to desire Israel’s destruction, as so many bristlingly respond to any critical reflection on Israel’s modus operandi. I am concerned here insistently to question not Israel’s being, its right to exist, but rather its forms of expression and its modes of self-insistence and enforcement. I have been holding up to scrutiny, in short, the presumed singularity of Jewish ways of being on which the Israeli state is presumptuously predicated, a presumption that ironically reinscribes the restrictive, corrosive, even purging logic from which Jews historically have repeatedly fled. A two-state solution predicated on dismantling – effectively crippling – any of the cohering and enabling institutions of one partner state is tantamount to disabling one twin that the other might thrive.
If we can accept this – then there is no sense in the following proposition: Palestinians represent an existential threat to Israel. It is only the case that the necessity to challenge the racism that is an element of Israeli self-definition – and at the core of some policies – that poses a challenge to Israel as we know it. But some challenges should be embraced because it is in responding to them that valuable lessons can be learned.
In the words of John Maynard Keynes: “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones”… this is something that the stalwarts of realism, like Mearsheimer and Walt might consider.
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