The Politician’s Speech (3)
As I continue a close reading of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress, I am learning to appreciate just how relevant George Orwell is for our understanding of contemporary politics. In this post, I will draw upon Orwell’s work once again in order to explain what Netanyahu really means when he uses words like “peace,” “stability,” and “security.” But first I would like to expand upon a theme that I had mentioned in an earlier post, i.e., the way in which Netanyahu’s speech creates a stark dichotomy between “our side” and “their side.” This discussion will set the stage for an Orwellian analysis of Netanyahu’s political language.
In the following passages, notice how the speaker introduces in quick succession a number of very strong binary oppositions.
Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no better friend than Israel. (Applause.) We stand together to defend democracy. We stand together to advance peace. We stand together to fight terrorism. Congratulations, America. Congratulations, Mr. President: You got bin Laden. Good riddance! (Cheers, applause.)
In an unstable Middle East, Israel is the one anchor of stability. In a region of shifting alliances, Israel is America’s unwavering ally. Israel has always been pro-American. Israel will always be pro-American. (Applause.)
My friends, you don’t have to — you don’t need to do nation- building in Israel. We’re already built. (Laughter, applause.) You don’t need to export democracy to Israel. We’ve already got it. (Applause.) And you don’t need to send American troops to Israel. We defend ourselves. (Cheers, applause.)
The rhetorical purpose of these binary oppositions is to set up a stark choice for the audience. From Netanyahu’s viewpoint, the United States must choose between favoring Israel and favoring other Middle Eastern nations (including the Palestinian people). The assumption is that if Americans possess even a tiny amount of intelligent, they will obviously choose to favor Israel. In effect, the Israeli Prime Minister is suggesting to the members of Congress that the United States has only two options in this matter; that these two options are mutually exclusive; and that one of these options — favoring Israel — represents the correct choice. In reality, of course, there is a third option as well, i.e., the United States can choose to treat all sides in a fair and just manner and in accordance with International Law. This third option is not in Israel’s best interest, as Netanyahu sees it, which is why he keeps this option off the table.
Netanyahu constructs his dichotomy by claiming numerous virtues for Israel while attributing the corresponding vices to the Arab nations. This part of his speech resonates deeply with his audience, since he is deliberately confirming most of the negative stereotypes of Arabs and Palestinians with which Americans are already familiar. In Netanyahu’s view of the contemporary Middle East, Israel stands for democracy (while others are undemocratic); Israel wants to promote peace (while others prefer conflict); Israel fights against terrorism (while others promote terrorism); Israel is a stable country (while other countries are unstable); Israel has been an unwavering supporter of the United States (while others have often shifted their allegiances); Israel is already a nation (while others need American help for nation-building); Israel is capable of self-defense without the help of American troops (while others need American troops to defend them).
After introducing these strong binary oppositions, Netanyahu goes on to add a few more.
This path of liberty is . . . paved when governments permit protests in town squares, when limits are placed on the powers of rulers, when judges are beholden to laws and not men, and when human rights cannot be crushed by tribal loyalties or mob rule. Israel has always embraced this path in a Middle East that has long rejected it. . . . We have a free press, independent courts, an open economy, rambunctious parliamentary debates . . . .
Notice how the above statements consolidate the dichotomy that places Israel and all the other Middle Eastern countries on the opposite sides of an unbridgeable divide. Israel allows protests in its town squares (while other countries do not); Israeli judges are unbiased in applying the law (while other countries’ judges are corrupt or partial); Israel protects human rights (while others governments crush human rights); Israel has a free press (while other countries suffer from censorship); Israel has an independent judiciary (while other countries’ lack free courts); Israel has an open economy (while Arab economies are state-controlled); Israel has a free parliament that allows unrestrained debate (while the Arab countries are either ruled by autocrats or their parliaments have very limited freedom).
The reader can see that by presenting a long series of strong binary oppositions, the Israeli Prime Minister is painting a portrait of his country that is very similar to the sanguine image that most Americans have of the United States. He is saying, in effect, that Israel is almost identical to the United States because they are both exceptionally virtuous. The two nations have the same values and enjoy the same freedoms, which makes them natural allies. In sharp contrast, other Middle Eastern countries do not have the same values as the ones shared by Israel and the United States, nor do they enjoy the same freedoms as “we” do — their failures and deficiencies place them firmly on the other side of the fence.
Notice what makes the above argument so seductive. If Americans agree with Netanyahu’s description of Israel, they receive an immediate psychological reward — a warm, happy feeling resulting from a sense of their own nation’s moral superiority and righteousness. Netanyahu is offering his audience a deal that is too pleasurable for them to refuse: he is allowing them to admire Israel while simultaneously admiring themselves.
There are at least two unacknowledged, not to mention questionable, assumptions underneath his argument: First, countries or nations can be categorized into two non-overlapping camps (democratic/undemocratic; freedom loving/freedom hating; peaceful/violent; modern/anti-modern). As I have already suggested, this dichotomy has an inherent appeal to the American audience, partly because it builds upon the West/East dichotomy that has a long history in European and American cultures, and partly because it allows “us” to feel good about ourselves — we are led to believe that we are more virtuous, more legitimate, and more blessed in comparison to all of “them.” Second, in supporting Israel, Americans need not concern themselves with the particularities of Israeli policies, let alone the moral and legal justification for those policies. Israel, after all, is a mature and responsible nation that can make its own decisions. By favoring a nation that is so similar to their own, Americans are not supporting a foreign country; they are simply lending a helping hand to what is practically a sibling, for Israel is just like one of the American states.
I would now like to analyze certain keywords that appear in the passages quoted above, and to show how these keywords help consolidate the us/them dichotomy that forms an important premise in Netanyahu’s argument. Perhaps the most important of these is the word “peace.” One reason for its importance can be noted by doing a simple word count. In the text of Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress, the word “peace” appears no less than fifty-two times. It follows that if we do not understand what the Israeli Prime Minister means when he utters the word “peace,” we would completely miss the significance of his speech.
To find out the implicit definition of a given word, we must begin by looking at how that word is used in different contexts within a particular text. For starters, let’s examine a sentence that I have already quoted.
We [Israel and the US] stand together to advance peace.
I believe that the above sentence reveals as much about Netanyahu’s understanding of “peace” as all the remaining fifty-one instances combined. Netanyahu is suggesting that his definition of “peace” is identical with the United States’ own understanding of this word. When the Israeli Prime Minister proudly proclaims to his American audience that both nations “stand together” in their commitment to “advance peace,” he is suggesting, at the very least, that Israel and the US agree on the nature of whatever it is they are trying to advance. This tacit suggestion of a common understanding of “peace” implies that Israel has been trying to “advance peace” with its neighbors, especially the Palestinian people, in exactly the same sense in which the United States has been trying to “advance peace” throughout the world. What a scary thought!
Here is another sentence from Netanyahu’s speech that seems to confirm the above observation:
The peace with Egypt and Jordan has long served as an anchor of stability and peace in the heart of the Middle East.
Notice the close proximity between the word “stability” and the word “peace.” In Netanyahu’s mind, the concept “peace” is semantically linked with the concept “stability.” I find this linkage very unusual. If someone asks me to guess the missing word in the phrase “peace and _______,” I would respond: “justice.” Now, I confess that I may be completely wrong on this point, but I am inclined to think that most English speakers will probably give the same answer. I am assuming, of course, that in the minds of most people “justice” is the concept that is most closely linked with that of “peace,” and that this connection is probably due to the cultural influence of Biblical religion. On the contrary, modern political language assumes that the concept “peace” is most closely related to the concept “stability.” And it’s not just Netanyahu. The words “peace” and “stability” frequently appear together in the statements and speeches of US Presidents and other representatives of the US government. This is hardly insignificant, since Netanyahu believes in advancing “peace” in the same sense in which the United States has been advancing “peace.” Yet, neither in Netanyahu’s speech nor in the statements of various US administration do “peace” and “stability” mean anything close to what the majority of English speakers think these words mean.
As Noam Chomsky has pointed out in his book The Fateful Triangle, the word “stability” is a political euphemism whose actual meaning is “the maintenance of specific forms of domination and control, and easy access to resources and profits.” I suspect that something equally sinister is going on with the word “peace.”
To find out what the wizard is doing behind the curtains, we must expand our view and take into account the political situation of the speaker who is using the word “peace.” As George Orwell has said, “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues . . . .” This is particularly true of language; the way we speak, the words we use, and the meanings we imply — all of these are shaped and colored by our political realities.
Now politics is a matter of distributing power among groups of people. A political structure that is significantly asymmetrical in how it divides power between two groups of people constitutes what is called a “domination system.” In a domination system, the powerful and the powerless are, by definition, the oppressors and the oppressed. Because of the intertwining of politics and language, the meaning of “peace” in a domination system depends on whether the person who utters this word is at the top of the hierarchy or at the bottom, whether the speaker is an oppressor or an oppressed.
From the viewpoint of the powerful, “peace” is that desirable state of affairs in which there is little or no resistance, opposition, or rebellion on the part of the powerless, nor is there any significant danger that such a threat might arise in the near future. On the other hand, from the viewpoint of those who are victimized by a domination system, “peace” is that desirable state of affairs that holds for them the promise of a more or less complete freedom from oppression, exploitation, and violence. Thus, whereas the powerful think of “peace” as the absence of any challenge to their quest for maximizing their narrowly defined self-interest, the powerless think of “peace” as resulting from the fulfillment of their needs for freedom, safety, dignity, and equality. To put this point more bluntly, the difference between those who define “peace” in terms of “stability” and those who define it in terms of “justice” stems from the fact that the former possess a great deal more power than the latter. In the end, whether we prefer “stability” or “justice” depends on whether or not we wish to maintain the present distribution of power. Interestingly enough, the word “justice” does not appear anywhere in the text of Netanyahu’s speech.
Despite what I would like to believe, the above interpretation is not at all original. In George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), “War is Peace” is one of the three slogans inscribed on the “Ministry of Truth” (the other two being “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength”). In modern political language, Orwell is saying, the word “peace” often refers to its exact opposite, “war.” As a telling example, we may recall that the Israeli military invasion of Galilee in 1982 was called “Operation Peace for Galilee.” This phenomenon can be easily noted in the word “pacification.” On the surface, “pacification” is supposed to mean “making peaceful” or “peacemaking.” The actual meaning of “pacification,” as used in the colonial and neocolonial discourse, involves forcing a population into submission by subjecting it to organized violence; the purpose of such violence, which is often carried out on a large-scale and/or a long-term basis, is to crush rebellions and to terrorize the conquered or occupied people with the aim of showing them who’s in charge. For instance, the French military operations in North Africa from 1835 to 1903 were called “Pacification of Algeria.” The word “pacification” was frequently used to describe the US war in Vietnam.
It should now be clear why the so-called “peace process” and “peace talks” between the Israelis and the Palestinians have failed to produce any progress in resolving the conflict. The two sides cannot come to a consensus on how to achieve “peace” between them, primarily because they do not share the same understanding of “peace.” What Israel believes to be the essential requirement for “peace” is that the Palestinians promise to become docile and submissive; to the Palestinians, this Israeli condition sounds absurd because it demands them to give up what they see as the very basis for achieving “peace,” i.e., their right to resist injustice.
To show that Netanyahu’s view of “peace” is incompatible with the Palestinian view, I would like to direct the reader’s attention to the following excerpts from his speech.
But you know very well that in the Middle East, the only peace that will hold is the peace you can defend. So peace must be anchored in security. (Applause.)
“Peace must be anchored in security.” Fair enough. Note, however, that Netanyahu is referring to “security” for the Israelis only; not for the Palestinians. He goes on to assert:
But Israel under 1967 lines would be only nine miles wide. So much for strategic depth. So it’s therefore vital — absolutely vital — that a Palestinian state be fully demilitarized, and it’s vital — absolutely vital — that Israel maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River. (Applause.)
To paraphrase, Israel and Palestine will be two separate states in Netanyahu’s vision, with the following caveat: Israel will “maintain a long-term military presence” in the region while Palestine will not be allowed to have a military of its own. Why this discrimination? In Netanyahu’s mind, and in the minds of the US Senators and Representatives who were his primary audience, the justification for this asymmetry is so obvious as to be self-evident. This explains why the Israeli Prime Minister did not feel any need to justify his point, and why his audience wasted no time in showing their agreement by cheering and applauding. It seems to me that the meeting of the minds between the speaker and the audience was total: Military strength is not a right that everyone enjoys, but the privilege of the responsible few. Now, it goes without saying that “we” are far more responsible than “they” can ever be; we cannot expect the other side to show the same self-restraint and calm rationality that we routinely exhibit. After all, “they” cannot be trusted with a military because they hate us for no good reason; on the contrary, “we” are perfectly trustworthy because, as already established, we happen to be pro-democracy, freedom-loving, rational Westerners — just like the Americans.
Aside from the imperial hubris and a strong contempt for the “natives,” there is a far more important reason for Netanyahu’s insistence that Israel needs “security” to defend itself against the Palestinians while the Palestinians do not need any such arrangement to defend themselves against Israel. This Israeli condition may seem unfair and arbitrary at first glance; it makes perfect sense, however, if we take into consideration the fact that Netanyahu is speaking from his exalted position at the top of a domination system.
What is Netanyahu’s implied definition of “security”? From the viewpoint of the powerful within a domination system, it is in the best interest of all parties that the system itself is protected at all costs, that it remains out of the reach of any rebellion that might challenge its legitimacy. The word “security” is therefore a political euphemism which really means “a mechanism for surveillance and organized violence whose sole mandate is to protect the asymmetry of power on which a political system rests.” In order to ensure the preservation of a domination system, it is necessary to keep the oppressed in their proper place. This requires two things: first, an apparatus for collecting information and keeping a close watch on the movements and activities, even thoughts, of potential rebels (i.e., everyone who is at the bottom of the hierarchy), and second, an apparatus that can be used to threaten the population with, and occasionally subject them to, organized violence. The scientific term for the latter, as the reader may recall, is “pacification.”
A domination system can function only as long as it is able to preserve itself; hence survival is its highest priority. As such, a domination system can allow “peace” only to the extent that its own survival is not jeopardized. A permanent asymmetry of power is therefore indispensable for maintaining such a “peace.” Once we take into account this political reality, Israel’s “absolutely vital” need to maintain a “long-term military presence” does appear as entirely justified and self-evident. Similarly, it will be suicidal for a domination system to allow the people it victimizes — the potential rebels — to have at their disposal any means of self-defense. Consequently, it is “absolutely vital” that the future Palestinian state must be “completely demilitarized.”
It is easy to conclude from the above analysis that Netanyahu’s vision, should it be implemented, will not lead to a “just peace,” but that it will definitely produce a “stable peace.”