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Middle East Therapy: Why You Are Not Necessarily "Anti-Israel" (Wright)

Robert Wright writes for The New York Times:

Are you anti-Israel? If you fear that, deep down, you might be, I have important news. The recent tension between Israel and the United States led various commentators to identify hallmarks of anti-Israelism, and these may be of diagnostic value.

Israel Special: Obama-Netanyahu Meeting and the Settlement “Surprise”

As you’ll see, my own view is that they aren’t of much value, but I’ll leave it for you to judge.

Symptom no. 1: Believing that Israel shouldn’t build more settlements in East Jerusalem.

President Obama holds this belief, and that seems to be the reason that Gary Bauer, who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, deems Obama’s administration “the most anti-Israel administration in U.S. history.” Bauer notes that the East Jerusalem settlements are “entirely within the city of Jerusalem” and that Jerusalem is “the capital of Israel.”

That’s artful wording, but it doesn’t change the fact that East Jerusalem, far from being part of “the capital of Israel,” isn’t even part of Israel. East Jerusalem lies beyond Israel’s internationally recognized, pre-1967 borders. And the common assertion that Israel “annexed” East Jerusalem has roughly the same legal significance as my announcing that I’ve annexed my neighbor’s backyard. In 1980 the United Nations explicitly rejected Israel’s claim to possess East Jerusalem. And the United States, which normally vetoes U.N. resolutions that Israel finds threatening, chose not to do so in this case.

In short, accepting Gary Bauer’s idea of what it means to be anti-Israel seems to involve being anti-truth. So I don’t accept it. (And if you’re tempted to accept the common claim that Israel is building only in “traditionally Jewish” parts of East Jerusalem, a good antidote is this piece by Lara Friedman and Daniel Seidemann, published on Foreign Policy Magazine’s excellent new Middle East Channel.)

Symptom no. 2: Thinking that some of Israel’s policies, and America’s perceived support of them, might endanger American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (by, for example, giving Jihadist recruiters rhetorical ammunition). This concern was reportedly expressed last week by Vice President Joe Biden to Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. And General David Petraeus is said to worry about the threat posed to American troops — and to America’s whole strategic situation — by the perception of American favoritism toward Israel.

Identifying threats to American troops is part of a general’s job, and it seems to me Petraeus could honestly conclude — without help from dark “anti-Israel” impulses — that some of those threats are heightened by the Israel-Palestine conflict and America’s relationship to it. But Max Boot, writing on Commentary’s Web site, seems to disagree; if Petraeus indeed holds such opinions, that’s a sign of “anti-Israel sentiment,” in Boot’s view.

Now, for a lionized American general to even hint that America’s stance toward Israel might threaten American troops is a serious public relations problem for Boot’s ideology. That, presumably, is why Boot tries to show that this “anti-Israel” view, though attributed to Petraeus, is not in fact Petraeus’s view. Specifically, Boot aims to discredit journalists who attributed this quotation to Petraeus: “The [Israel-Palestine] conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel … . Meanwhile, Al Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support.”

Boot assures us that this passage, far from being a good guide to Petraeus’s thinking, was just “pulled from the 56-page Central Command ‘Posture Statement’ filed by his staff with the Senate Armed Services Committee”. Well, I don’t know who did the filing, but the document itself is titled “Statement of General David H. Petraeus … Before the Senate Armed Services Committee.” So I’m guessing it’s a fair guide to his views — in which case, by Boot’s lights, Petraeus is anti-Israel, right? And in which case I’ll reject Boot’s criterion for anti-Israelism.

Boot has an ally in Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Foxman said the perspective attributed to Biden and Petraeus “smacks of blaming Jews for everything.”

Foxman’s claim may seem hyperbolic, but look at it this way: If he can convince us that blaming any Israeli policy for anything is akin to blaming Jews in general for everything, then anyone who criticizes an Israeli policy will be deemed anti-Semitic — and fear of that label will keep everyone from criticizing Israel. And by virtue of never criticizing Israel, we’ll all be “pro-Israel.” And that’s a good thing, right?

Actually, it seems to me that if we were all “pro-Israel” in this sense, that would be bad for Israel.

If Israel’s increasingly powerful right wing has its way, without constraint from American criticism and pressure, then Israel will keep building settlements. And the more settlements get built —especially in East Jerusalem — the harder it will be to find a two-state deal that leaves Palestinians with much of their dignity intact. And the less dignity intact, the less stable any two-state deal will be.

As more and more people are realizing, the only long-run alternatives to a two-state solution are: a) a one-state solution in which an Arab majority spells the end of Israel’s Jewish identity; b) Israel’s remaining a Jewish state by denying the vote to Palestinians who live in the occupied territories, a condition that would be increasingly reminiscent of apartheid; c) the apocalypse. Or, as Hillary Clinton put it in addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference on Monday: “A two-state solution is the only viable path for Israel to remain both a democracy and a Jewish state.”

So, by my lights, being “pro-Israel” in the sense embraced by Bauer, Boot and Foxman — backing Israel’s current policies, including its settlement policies — is actually anti-Israel. It’s also anti-America (in the sense of ‘bad for American security’), because Biden and Petraeus are right: America’s perceived support of — or at least acquiescence in — Israel’s more inflammatory policies endangers American troops abroad. In the long run, it will also endanger American civilians at home, funneling more terrorism in their direction.

The flip side of this coin is that policies that would be truly good for Israel (e.g., no more settlements) would be good for America. In that sense, there’s good news for Bauer and Boot and Foxman: one of their common refrains — that Israel’s and America’s interests are essentially aligned — is true, if for reasons they don’t appreciate.

Sadly, the Bauer-Boot-Foxman definition of “pro-Israel” — supporting Israel’s increasingly hard-line and self-destructive policies — is the official definition. All major American newspapers, so far as I can see, use the term this way. AIPAC is described as “pro-Israel”, but the left-of-AIPAC J Street isn’t, even though its members, like AIPAC’s, favor policies they consider good for Israel.

No doubt this twisted use of “pro-Israel”, and the implied definition of “anti-Israel”, keeps many critics of Israeli policies from speaking out — Jewish critics for fear of seeming disloyal, and non-Jewish critics for fear of seeming anti-Semitic.

So, if I’m right, and more speaking out — more criticism of Israel’s current policies — would actually be good for Israel, then the newspapers and other media outlets that sustain the prevailing usage of “pro-Israel” are, in fact, anti-Israel. I won’t mention any names.

Postscript: It has been reported that, notwithstanding accounts in Israel’s media, Biden did not, in fact, complain to Netanyahu in private about the threat of Israel’s policies to American troops. Perhaps predictably, the journalist who first reported this is the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who has been described by one New York Times columnist as Netanyahu’s “faithful stenographer.” I don’t doubt that Goldberg found an administration source who downplayed Biden’s remarks to Netanyahu; obviously, once tensions started to subside, and the goal of both America and Israel was to smooth relations, it wasn’t going to be hard to find an administration official who would do that, regardless of the truth about what Biden said. So I attach little significance to the administration’s revisionist account of what transpired between Biden and Netanyahu — especially given the heat the administration no doubt took over the original account of what transpired.

Reader Comments (16)


Hot damn!! Your spot on regarding your analysis!!! To bad most can't see that many of Israel's perceived "pro Israel"(ie settlements and East Jerusalem) actions are actually self destructive. It's like the abused kid abusing his own kids because he knows no better. God if we could only get this mess put to bed we could pay attention to much bigger humanitarain issues across the globe. Until this this will be a sore that continues to fester infecting all! arrggg!


March 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBill

"Until this this will be a sore that continues to fester infecting all!" Typo should have said Until this ends it will be a sore that continues to fester infecting all.

March 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBill

RE "many of Israel’s perceived “pro Israel”(ie settlements and East Jerusalem) actions are actually self destructive." - I totally agree with you here. Last night on Aljazeera's Inside Story, one of the guests also argued that the pro-Israel lobby in the US was doing Israel more harm than good. If you watch the programme it was either John Mearsheimer, author of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, or Ali Abunimah who made the point:

PS - I bet miost of us cann undrstand each others psts wit the typos :-)

March 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

What I have discovered over time is that I'm not anti-Israel, but I *am* anti-Zionist.

March 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

Catherine -

You and I have agreed on many topics and I always enjoy reading your posts, so I felt a need for a quick comment. To me, "anti-Israel" would be more indicative of someone who stands against the policies of the Israeli government..anti-Zionism would be against the notion of a Jewish state, past, present and future. Like you, I agree with the comments in the article Scott posted..but this points to a disagreement with policies of the Israeli government (and in conversely with the arguments of those who may be both "pro-Israeli" and "pro-zionists"). Personally I have no issue with Israelis who simply want a country of their own but do take significant issue with the polices of the government which seem to have no impact but the degredation of the Palestinian people simply in the cause of Jewish statehood.

...perhaps it is just symatics and I am not understanding your comments.

March 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBijan

Petraeus thinks that reigning in Israel behind the Green Line will cause Iran and all of its proxies to beat their swords into plowshares. And he and Obama want to weaken Netanyahu to such an extent that an Israeli attack on Iran will be off the table....permanently. You see, he and Obama want to maintain a failed policy with Iran and Syria. They actually think that Iran will shut down its nuclear centrifuges. Syria, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas and Hezbollah will pass the peace pipe over to them, and American lives will be saved. Shoving Israel against the wall will not make it happen. Obama's whole Middle East policy has failed and he is content with the pursuit of this failed policy. He is content with Iran building its own nuclear arsenal and with the courting of the other anti-American regimes in the region.

Obama's castigation of Israel has only emboldened Palestinian militants, sparking riots and possibly a new intifada. Israel's retreat from Gaza and southern Lebanon has brought more attacks on the Jewish state. Reigning Israel within the armistice lines will undermine Israeli security even further. Those lines are simply not defensible.

March 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave

An anti-Israel policy will not make the Islamic states and the proxy forces change their Anti-American mindset.

March 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Remember that Obama is graduate of Harvard and Columbia. Most of Israel's detractors can be found in America's top universities. These campuses are largely anti-semitic.

March 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave


Don't worry! The Jews, Israelis, Zionists (whatever people wish to call them) will not be going into exile again to wander the earth, nor will they go back to any ghettos or gas chambers. They have done all those things before.


March 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBarry


Thanks for the reply. While I am torn on the issue of a "jewish state" isn't it quite odd that Muslims are the ones most against this? It actually stuns me when you look to any Muslim majority state and its is either an "Islamic State" or it has Sharia as the basis of its law essentially making it one. Hypocrisy? You bet!! I also get a kick out of it when they call Israel and apartheid state. Hello Israel does not ban other religons or openly persecute others because of faith(ie Saudia Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, and Iran all come to mind.)

However back to point Israel has to realize these settlements are not helping but hurting them in the long run. No if and or buts. On flip side the Pals need to let go of the notion all of Israel is theirs.


March 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBill

You're right - thanks for your reaction to my comment. I was indeed using a very broad term, 'Zionism', incorrectly to refer to particular and more modern currents of Zionism. I should have said I have come to be against 'Nationalist Zionism' (forerunners of the Likud Party) and 'Religious Zionism' (proponents of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Jewish control over all of Jerusalem).

RE 'anti-Israel', I'm personally reluctant to use 'anti- + country of choice' to mean 'anti-government of country of choice' because of the possible confusion between the country and its government. But as you point out, the article we were discussing clearly points out that the common usage of 'anti-Israel' refers to the government and its policies. So in the interest of absolute clarity :-), let me re-phrase my comment: I'm not against the country of Israel but I am against Israel maintaining control of the West-Bank and East Jerusalem, the full-scale war against and blockade of Gaza, Jewish settlement beyond Israel’s internationally recognised,pre-1967, the "Wall" and a host of discriminatory laws and practices that target Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.

I could list just as many policies, actions and activities on the part of Fatah and Hamas that I'm against, too, but that's not what you asked about. ;-)

March 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

What about all of the "discriminatory laws and practices" in the Arab countries against Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslims? Nobody ever mentions that.

March 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Catherine -

As usual..we are again in agreement!

March 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBijan

Parvati-Roma posted a very well-written article by Uri Avnery about how he sees Netanyahu's role in the current stand-off between Israel and the US. I didn't see you in the comments of that thread so I hope you're still subscribed to this one.
On the Road to Canossa
by Uri Avnery / March 27th, 2010

March 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

To Bill - Muslims are NOT opposed to Jews having a state. But what they are opposed to is building their state on Muslim land or for that matter on any land illegally acquired. Most of Israel is built upon land that did not belong to the Jews who moved there. Much of it was acquired through terrorism (the Stern gang!), use of force, ethnic cleansing and legal ploys which are still used in in building Jewish settlements on Arab land, whether Christian or Muslim. Why are the Muslims and Christians of Palestine being punished for the crimes that European Christians inflicted upon their Jewish neighbours in the concentration camps of Europe. It has been sixty years since Israel has been inflicted upon the Palestinian Muslims, Christians and indeed some Jews too, it is time that the US and its European allies give notice to Israel's right wing extremist government to either comply without fail with all UN resolutions and international norms or face sanctions and retaliatory attacks if it remains defiant. Let us see these powers use the same tactics that they have used against IRI against their spoilt brat who even many Jews regard as an abomination of everything their noble faith teaches and as the most un-Jewish of states.

Or is EA too afraid to speak and affirm the Enduring Truth when it comes to the bully that Israel is and rather pick on that puny and sprightly little kid - Iran (in comparison - Israel 200-400 nukes v/s Iran 0 (to date).

March 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterrezvan

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