In the era of the mass media and Google, YouTube and e-mail the Advocate for Israel (AFI) is a warrior. I know because I am one.
Granted it is not exactly a heroic role; its main risks are frustration, a dulling of the higher faculties, sometimes boredom and, quite often, a sense of futility. But occasionally it throws up the same morally painful dilemmas faced by regular soldiers.
The essence of these are: how far do you go in strictly following orders (or the norms of your role) in the face of unsettling questions regarding the moral behaviour or policies of your side or your cause? (Side and cause like behaviour and policies are not quite the same thing.)
Many soldiers, and AFIs, don’t bother to even ask that question. They have a job to do and, to many, the question is ridiculous. The “evil” of the other side is so manifest that to worry about (as they see it) the minor blemishes of your own is both stupid and cowardly. Many, perhaps most, are simply not into the business of self-examination and moral introspection.
Others are very different. Calling themselves, and sometimes believing, that they are indeed the real AFIs, they agonise endlessly over actual, imagined and fantasised Israeli/Jewish shortcomings – often loudly in public. Yes, the more prominent of this species do indeed catch flack from the first kind of AFI, but on the other hand they become celebrities of the liberal/progressive/enlightened set and the Western media. That does wonders for the self-esteem and buys a fair amount of more tangible reward in the financial and reputational stakes. An archetype is Mr Peter Beinart, who recently visited these shores.
So where do the rest of us fit in, concerned about the moral dimension but well aware that the two sides to the Israel-Palestinian conflict are NOT equivalent and that in war (and war is what it is) undue moral qualms is itself immoral – a self-indulgence and a self-aggrandising weakness?
But there is another issue: “yes, yes, you’re right” some would say but the battle for public opinion is not going your way. You come across as too uncompromising, too rigid, and indeed too fanatical. You lay yourself open to the accusation of extremism, disloyalty to your host country (if you are in the Diaspora), insensitivity to the suffering of others, wilful blindness to Israeli moral and legal transgressions.
Look at what’s happened in Israel recently: the whole sordid and obscure business of Prisoner X, the assault on an Arab street cleaner by a gang of Jewish youths in Tel Aviv, football racists, Five Broken Cameras which depicts the IDF systematically brutalising a helpless Palestinian population and pervasive settler theft and dispossession of Palestinians in the West Bank. All this is depicted not as isolated incidents but as the real face of a powerful, brutal Jewish state intent on stealing Palestinian land and caring nothing for the indigeneous population of the territory they settled.
“Hey”, you can argue “you are jumping from the particular to the general while making a whole set of unwarranted assumptions while doing so”. Jews are in some ways more indigenous than the Arabs, less so in others. The Jews did not just decide to arrive in the Middle East out of the blue. They came only after centuries of European exclusion, oppression, brutalisation often accompanied by mass murder and, eventually, attempted genocide. They came to their original homeland which, to a significant extent, is also the source of the Judeo-Christian civilization of the West. The amount of land Israel possesses is relatively minute and, until very recently, was apparently devoid of natural resources.
And while we’re about it, “how come the Arab-Palestinian axis gets off scot-free?” “Do 90 000 deaths so far in the “Arab Spring” count for nothing? Not to mention the constant anti-Israel, anti-Jewish incitement, the honour killings and oppression of women, the Islamists and their offshoots exporting Jihad and Sharia law by force and subterfuge, the tyranny and corruption and lawlessness and backwardness.”
“And, most importantly, how come only Israel or Netanyahu or the settlements get blamed for blocking a peaceful two-state solution? What about Arab-Palestinian demands for the return of the refugees, the denial of Jewish connections to the land and the religious-historical sites, the refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, the incitement and indoctrination of children? And don’t forget that Hamas and significant sections of Fatah don’t buy into the two state outcome anyway, and they control Gaza.”
“You demand flexibility and concessions from Israel and a cessation of settlement construction, even though it remains confined to territory Israel will require for security. But Israel has made “concessions” like the evacuation of Gaza – and where did that get them? A terror entity on her border and thousands of rockets and attempted terror attacks. And a world opinion primed to stamp on Israel for any attempt to put an end to these intolerable attacks on its citizens.”
But, most importantly, who says the West Bank “belongs” to the Palestinians? “The UN” you answer “and world opinion.” But the UN is hardly an impartial or even respectable body nowadays and, even at its best, it is more a theatre for various incompatible political formations than an impartial global organisation articulating a universal set of values. To assume that its pronouncements, legal or otherwise, reflect the highest human and political values or a universal jurisprudence is rank and wilful hypocrisy.
World opinion is both ignorant and infinitely malleable by skilled propagandists. No sane country sets its policies according to the vagaries of a nebulous and unproven world opinion.
The fact is that Israel has dug its own pit by not asserting its claims to the West Bank forcefully or coherently enough in 1967. It has allowed the myth to be firmly implanted into the collective consciousness of world opinion, that the West Bank and Gaza belongs to the Palestinian people and that Israel is an occupying country. This has allowed the Palestinian leadership to play the victim while simultaneously ensuring that no reasonable two-state solution is found. Israel in this scenario remains the “brutal occupier” to the boos of the media and the liberal gallery. On Israel alone is placed the onus of finding a “viable two-state solution”.
This is utterly self-defeating.
So why did Israel go along with this distortion of reality? I leave it to others better acquainted with the details to enlighten us, but at least part of the reason it seems to me was the desire to comply with the spirit of the UN partition of 1947, even if the other side had rejected it entirely. Israeli opinion was also split which prevented them from articulating a single and coherent position.
Politics is not sealed off from advocacy and the ambiguity and dithering on the part of Israel has made it difficult for advocates to operate. I believe that Israel’s starting point should be,
- firstly, that the West Bank belongs to her as much as it does to the Palestinians. Israel is not an “occupier” of Palestinian land. Any concessions she makes regarding the disposition of territory is not a question of legality or principle but a pragmatic attempt to solve facts on the ground;
- secondly, Israel is not responsible for the formation of a viable Palestinian state. It will leave it to the Palestinians to make their own decisions as to how they wish to use their independence – alone or joined in some sort of political union with a pre-existing Arab state (if any are to be found in the next 5 years).
- thirdly, and finally, Israel’s most fundamental interest is in its own physical security and it will take those steps necessary to ensure that this is assured insofar as realistically possible.
Such a platform allows AFIs in the Diaspora to argue from a coherent and unambiguous position. To change the public perception regarding Israel in the Middle East will require a cohesive and coherent campaign which no longer puts Palestinians at the centre of the equation as victims, which does not take a “two-state “ outcome on modified 1967 borders as a default position and which entitles Israel to security in the Middle East, free of attacks, threats and provocations from its neighbours. Given recognition of these rights, Israel is prepared to look at all outcomes which maximise peace and self-expression for all people of the region.
This should be a starting point of a public campaign to change the perception of Israel in the public mind. Of course, this will not stop Israel’s enemies from seizing on every blemish within Israeli society or its interactions with its neighbours as a stick to beat her with. It is the Israelis themselves who need to tackle such matters on the ground. But a perfect Utopia is not achievable, by definition, and advocates will simply have to put such events in context – not to try to justify the unjustifiable. Israel must do the rest
If advocacy is to be successful we need a reasonably coherent and credible message. I put this forward as a starting point.