On May 24, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech to a joint session of the US Congress, a speech that I find endlessly fascinating. I previously posted four installments of my analysis of this speech, trying to decipher (with some help from George Orwell) Netanyahu’s use of such words as “peace,” “friend,” “security,” and “state.” If you assumed that my discussion of Netanyahu’s speech was over, you were not alone; I too thought that there was nothing more to be said — until I realized that I hadn’t addressed the crux of the matter.
There is one last point that I still need to make, and that point relates to the original context of Netanyahu’s speech, i.e., the Palestinian initiative to get United Nation’s recognition for a Palestinian state. It is precisely this possibility, this “threat,” that motivated the Israeli Prime Minister to visit the United States in the first place and to speak not only with the US President but also address the US Congress. There may not have been such a flurry of diplomatic initiatives if the United Nations’ recognition of Palestine were not a real possibility that his government genuinely feared.
If your opponent advises you not to use a particular strategy, you can be sure that that’s precisely the strategy you need to use!
This is what Netanyahu said about the Palestinian initiative:
The Palestinian attempt to impose a settlement through the United Nations will not bring peace. (Applause.) It should be forcefully opposed by all those who want to see this conflict end. I appreciate the president’s clear position on these — on this issue. Peace cannot be imposed. It must be negotiated. (Applause.)
Notice the word “impose.” According to the dictionary, the word “impose” means to force (something unwelcome or unfamiliar) to be accepted or put in place. To paraphrase Netanyahu, Palestinians are trying to force a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that Israel is unwilling to accept. If anyone wants to see the end of this conflict, Netanyahu says, they must oppose the Palestinian initiative since it “will not bring peace.” This is because, he goes on to emphasize, “Peace cannot be imposed. It must be negotiated.”
I find this to be a very convincing statement, and I don’t know if any rational person would disagree with Netanyahu on this issue. A peaceful settlement of any conflict must be one in which the needs of both parties are satisfied, so that both parties have equal stakes in ensuring the success of the settlement. In contrast, any settlement in which the needs of one party are met at the cost of the needs of the other party will never lead to a lasting peace. Sounds like a perfectly fair and just principle.
Several problems arise, however, as we look at this matter closely.
First, whenever there is a conflict between two unequal parties — especially when one of them is many, many times more powerful than the other — it makes perfect sense to use the word “impose” with respect to the stronger party, but it makes no sense to use it with respect to the weaker one. If anyone has been “imposing” its will in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can only be the party that has the ability to do the “imposing.” For the stronger party to blame the weaker one for trying to “impose” its own brand of settlement is not only unjustifiable, it is also disingenuous. This use of the word “impose” distracts the audience from the issue of the difference in power between the two sides. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can neither be understood nor resolved if the issue of unequal power is kept off the table. In many ways, the entire conflict is about power. The belief that it’s a conflict between equal parties is itself the result of an unfair exercise of power; such an assumption is not conducive to a just settlement.
Second, consider the word “negotiation” which is used by Netanyahu in contradistinction to “impose.” The Israeli Prime Minister is adamant that you cannot unilaterally “impose” a settlement and thus achieve peace. You must, on the contrary, enter a process of “negotiation” with the other side and arrive at a mutually agreed-upon settlement, for only such a settlement can produce peace. The two concepts are mutually exclusive. If you are trying to “impose” your will, you are obviously not trying to “negotiate,” and vice versa. As a general principle, most people would agree that it is always better to “negotiate” than to “impose.”
Yet, the text of the same speech reveals the main reason why the two decades worth of “negotiations” between the Israelis and the Palestinian have been unsuccessful: the Israelis are not truly “negotiating,” mainly because they are the stronger party and can get away with “imposing” their will. As the Israelis continue to “impose” their will, Palestinians are being asked to give up more and more of their rights through “negotiation.” If it’s true that “imposing” is the exact opposite of “negotiating,” then Israel is guilty of “imposing” its own version of the settlement for several decades while blaming the Palestinians for not “negotiating” (i.e., for not being sufficiently submissive).
In reality, there is no such thing as “negotiation” unless there is a relative parity between the two sides. In cases where one side is significantly stronger than the other, we need a third-party, a mediator, to ensure that no bullying or “imposing” takes place. This is precisely the principle on which our legal systems are based. If a stronger party, such as a government agency or a corporation, is perceived as “imposing” its will on a weaker party, such as an individual or a group of individuals, the latter cannot possibly have any hopes of receiving justice through direct “negotiation,” and must, therefore, take its case to a third, objective party, i.e., the courts. At least in theory, the courts are supposed to act in an impartial way and to ensure that no one’s rights are violated. In other words, the disparity of power between the two sides in a given conflict is precisely the reason why we have set up legal systems in the first place. A conflict between unequal sides is the breeding ground for injustice, for unfair consequences are likely to result through one side “imposing” its will without the other side’s consent. Given the tendency of unchecked power towards corruption, the impartiality of the judiciary is meant to level the playing field by empowering the weaker party, so that genuine “negotiation” can become possible.
In the case of “negotiations” between the Israelis and Palestinians, the problem is that the mediator has traditionally been United States, a superpower that is hardly a neutral party in this conflict. If it is true, as Netanyahu says in the same speech, that “Israel has no better friend than the United States,” then this “special relationship” between the two countries already puts an end to any hope that the US can act as an impartial mediator. Consequently, Palestinians have every right to take their case to an authority that they believe is capable of acting impartially, i.e., the United Nations. They would do so not to “impose” their will on Israel but to ensure that Israel is not able to “impose” its will on the Palestinians.
Third, Netanyahu is demanding the Palestinians to follow a principle that he would himself find unacceptable should it be applied consistently. Take a look at the history of this conflict. The state of Israel came into being not through a process of “negotiation” but as a result of a unilateral declaration that was, literally, “imposed” on an unwilling population against their will.
According to Netanyahu, the problem has always been the Arabs’ refusal to accept a “Jewish state.” He said the following in the same speech:
In 1947, the U.N. voted to partition the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews said yes; the Palestinians said no.
Here, the Israeli Prime Minister is referring to the United Nations resolution 181, also known as the “Partition Plan,” that was adopted on November 29, 1947. The resolution was adopted by the General Assembly, not by the Security Council. As such, it was a non-binding recommendation, which meant that its legal status depended on acceptance by the relevant parties. It so happened, as Netanyahu informs us, that the Arabs categorically rejected the resolution. Consequently, according to Netanyahu’s own standards, such a resolution should never have been implemented. Since only one party to the conflict accepted it and the other did not, the resolution had obviously failed to meet the needs of both parties. To implement such a resolution meant that one party would have to “impose” it on the other, unwilling party.
But isn’t “imposing” something that Netanyahu dislikes a great deal? That depends on who is doing the “imposing.” While the Israeli Prime Minister abhors the Palestinian initiative to “impose a settlement,” he seems to have no objection against Israel having “imposed” (its own interpretation of) the “Partition Plan” on an unwilling population.
This brings me to my final point. Netanyahu knows his history but is playing games with logic; yet, truth has a tendency to make itself known, loud and clear. To repeat his statement: “The Palestinian attempt to impose a settlement through the United Nations will not bring peace.” How does he know? Netanyahu is implying, inadvertently and unconsciously, that the Palestinian attempt to impose a settlement through the United Nations will not bring peace just as the Jewish attempts to impose a settlement on the basis of a United Nations resolution have failed to bring peace. Yet, he would not dare to make that comparison. His implied but unacknowledged reasoning goes like this: The Palestinian attempt in 2011 to “impose a settlement” will not work because Israel is unwilling to accept it; this is almost identical to the case that the Israeli efforts to impose a settlement since 1947 have failed to work because the native Palestinians have been unwilling to accept it. What can we infer from this line of reasoning? Both sides must accept a settlement in order for it to work. This is a compelling argument, except that it goes against everything that Netanyahu publicly stands for. The argument is present in the very structure of his reasoning, but he won’t acknowledge it mainly because he is a politician.
In effect, it is grossly illogical for Netanyahu to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state on the basis of a UN resolution while denying the feasibility of the same process in case of the Palestinian state. Here, Netanyahu’s reasoning runs into what must be the bane of all political discourse — consistency. If it’s wrong for the Palestinians to seek a unilateral settlement through the United Nations, why has it been right for the Israelis to claim that privilege since 1947?
Let’s read the above statement once again, and this time let’s look for unacknowledged assumptions:
In 1947, the U.N. voted to partition the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews said yes; the Palestinians said no.
The connotations of this statement are clear as daylight: In 1947, when the Jews said “yes” to the UN resolution, they were making the right choice; when the Palestinians said “no” to the same resolution, they were making the wrong choice. This is the plain sense meaning of Netanyahu’s statement. Now the question that remains unanswered, and even unmentioned, is this: Why? Why was accepting the “Partition Plan” a good thing and rejecting it was a bad thing? It was, after all, a human document that was produced through imperial politics and much arm-twisting. If a group of people thought that the recommendation of the UN General Assembly did not meet their needs, what could possibly be wrong with rejecting it? Netanyahu does not answer this question explicitly, and neither does any of the other pro-Israel commentators who keep referring to the UN resolution of 1947 as if it were as sacred and infallible as the tablets of divine law.
It is crucial to understand this aspect of Netanyahu’s reasoning. What, exactly, made the Jewish choice right and the Palestinian choice wrong?
Let me suggest two possible assumptions, one of which must underlie the Israeli Prime Minister’s reasoning. Netanyahu either believes that (a) the UN is a legitimate authority and its resolutions should always be accepted by all parties; or he believes that (b) you should accept the UN resolutions if they are in your interest and reject them if they are not.
If we assume the former, then it contradicts Netanyahu’s position against the Palestinian initiative. Obviously, if Netanyahu believes that the UN is the legitimate authority in international conflicts, then he should have no objection against the Palestinians taking their case to the UN. In fact, he should be eager to accept whatever the UN decides. If the UN General Assembly gave the right verdict in 1947, it can give another right verdict in 2011.
If we assume the latter, then it contradicts Netanyahu’s position that the Palestinians made the wrong choice when they rejected the UN resolution back in 1947. Obviously, if Netanyahu believes that you should only accept those resolutions that are in your own interest, then he cannot criticize the Palestinian choice since they had found the UN resolution 181 to be against their interest.
As we can see, both of my attempts to answer the “why” question run into irresolvable contradictions, suggesting that there are some deep problems with Netanyahu’s reasoning. But is it really possible that a leader of this stature is illogical in his thinking? I find such a conclusion difficult to accept.
Thankfully, we don’t have to believe that Netanyahu is being illogical. Here’s my solution.
The Israeli Prime Minister believes that his nation is unique and special, so much so that the difference between right and wrong does not depend on any moral or legal principles, but entirely upon whether or not something is in the immediate interest of his people. Consequently, (a) the Palestinian choice in 1947 was wrong because it was against the interest of Israel; similarly, (b) the Palestinian initiative in 2011 is wrong because it is against the interest of Israel. In both cases, the interest of the Palestinian people does not count.
I know that this sounds really harsh, but I can’t think of any other way of explaining Netanyahu reasoning. He is either inconsistent and therefore illogical; or he is fully consistent and therefore a racist. I will go with the latter option, since I find it hard to believe that a Prime Minister of Israel is unable to think logically.
When politicians speak, we ought to listen — but we must listen attentively, critically, and with the understanding that their language is designed to mask the truth rather than reveal it. I am beginning to realize that listening to a politician’s speech is probably as much of an art as speaking like one. Neither of these is my expertise, but this handicap is not preventing me from enjoying the process of dissecting and deconstructing Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress. As I continue in my effort to comprehend, to the best of my ability, exactly what it is that Netanyahu is saying in this text, I am also learning some of the rules for interpreting political texts in general. One rule says that we should always look for unacknowledged assumptions, subtle or tacit suggestions, and assertions that are disguised as arguments. According to another rule, we should pay close attention to keywords, determine the speaker’s implied meanings, notice any inconsistencies, and try to discern the role such words may be playing in creating specific suggestions or motivations in the audience.
Let us now return to the text before us.
In his speech to the US Congress on May 24, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly emphasized that his country has always sought “peace” with the Palestinian people. The fact that this highly desired “peace” has not yet been achieved after more than sixty years is not due to Israel’s fault. Rather, this lack of “peace” is the result of the stubbornness of the Palestinians, their irrational hatred for the Jewish people, and their preference for conflict. Here is what Netanyahu said:
If the benefits of peace with the Palestinians are so clear, why has peace eluded us? Because all six Israeli prime ministers since the signing of the Oslo Accords agreed to establish a Palestinian state, myself included; so why has peace not been achieved?
Because so far, the Palestinians have been unwilling to accept a Palestinian state if it meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it.
You see, our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state; it’s always been about the existence of the Jewish state. (Applause.) This is what this conflict is about. (Extended applause.)
So the real obstacle to “peace,” from Netanyahu’s perspective, is not that Israel is unwilling to recognize a Palestinian state; the real obstacle is that the Palestinians are (and have always been) unwilling to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Is this claim true? Netanyahu has been a member of Israel’s Likud Party since 1988, and the Likud party’s official Platform includes several provisions that may appear to be inconsistent with his position regarding Israel’s willingness to accept a Palestinian state. Here are a few samples of what the Likud Party believes:
The Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza are the realization of Zionist values. Settlement of the land is a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and constitutes an important asset in the defense of the vital interests of the State of Israel. The Likud will continue to strengthen and develop these communities and will prevent their uprooting.
The Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.
The Palestinians can run their lives freely in the framework of self-rule, but not as an independent and sovereign state. Thus, for example, in matters of foreign affairs, security, immigration and ecology, their activity shall be limited in accordance with imperatives of Israel’s existence, security and national needs.
Jerusalem is the eternal, united capital of the State of Israel and only of Israel. The government will flatly reject Palestinian proposals to divide Jerusalem, including the plan to divide the city presented to the Knesset by the Arab factions and supported by many members of Labor and Meretz.
Can Netanyahu reconcile his own position with that of the Likud Party regarding the question of a Palestinian state? The answer to this question is in the affirmative, but with certain qualifications. Yes, a Palestinian state is quite acceptable to Israel (1) so long as this state does not include the West Bank or East Jerusalem; (2) so long as it is understood that this state will be neither independent nor sovereign; (3) so long as it is agreed that this state’s “foreign affairs, security, immigration and ecology” will remain under Israeli control; (4) so long as Israel gets to decide precisely where the borders of this state will be drawn; (5) so long as the Palestinians accept that their state will be completely de-militarized; and (6) so long as it can be ensured that this state will be “without control of its airspace.” This last point is from Netanyahu’s 2009 speech, in which he first announced his embrace of the two-state solution.
Israel and its Prime Minister are indeed willing to accept a Palestinian state — provided that the six conditions mentioned above are satisfied. Looking at the conditions, however, one must ask the obvious but crucial question: What kind of state would that be?
I would like to suggest that in Netanyahu’s use of the word “state,” we are faced with yet another Orwellian situation.
The Israeli Prime Minister frequently mentions “Jewish state” and “Palestinian state” in the same sentence or the same paragraph, implying through this juxtaposition that he has in mind a single, straightforward definition of the word “state” that applies equally to the two cases. A casual listener is likely to assume that both phrases refer to the same, unproblematic concept of “state,” with the only difference that the “state” happens to be “Jewish” in the first case and “Palestinian” in the second case. In view of the six conditions that Israel wants to apply to any future “Palestinian state,” however, such an assumption would be a serious error. But notice how the speaker encourages his audience to accept that assumption as true.
Two years ago, I publicly committed to a solution of two states for two peoples — a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state.
The phrase “two states for two peoples” suggests that there will be parity between them. An even stronger impression is created by the word “alongside,” which evokes a visual image of equality, and perhaps of cooperation. As we have seen, however, Netanyahu has absolutely no intention of allowing a Palestinian “state” any kind of parity or equality vis-a-vis Israel. He is merely conveying a vague but positive idea because it makes his position appear more rational and altruistic than it actually is.
The Israeli Prime Minister then goes on say:
We seek a peace in which they’ll be neither Israel’s subjects nor its citizens. They should enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable and independent people living in their own state. (Applause.) They should enjoy a prosperous economy, where their creativity and initiative can flourish.
These remarks are supposed to show the speaker’s generosity and sincere goodwill towards the Palestinians, while reinforcing the assumption that the meaning of the word “state” is perfectly stable. Notice the succession of emotionally positive words that Americans are especially likely to find appealing: national, life, dignity, free, viable, independent, own state, enjoy, prosperous, creativity, initiative, flourish. Yet, in light of the conditions that must be fulfilled before Israel will allow a Palestinian “state,” an attentive and critical listener should be able to see through Netanyahu’s rhetorical screen of smoke and fog.
In using the word “state,” Netanyahu is performing a sleight of hand, a magical trick. When Netanyahu utters the phrase “Jewish state” he has one particular definition of “state” in mind, but when he uses the phrase “Palestinian state” he is implying an entirely different definition. Using the same word twice, so close to each other, while implying — but not acknowledging — two drastically different meanings is nothing short of deliberate deception. Only a politician can pull this off so effectively.
Since the meaning of the word “state” is so unstable in Netanyahu’s text that it doesn’t remain the same even within a single sentence, we have every reason to be suspicious of his claim that Israel is willing to recognize a “Palestinian state” but the Palestinians are unwilling to accept a “Jewish state.” According to the Israeli Prime Minister’s own position, there is no comparison between the “state” that he wants to have for the Jewish people and the “state” that he is offering to the Palestinian people. The two entities — one real and the other proposed — are so different from each other that they cannot possibly belong to the same category or be given the same title. If we take a car and remove its engine, seats, doors, wheels, tires, and windshields, is it still okay to call it a car? After we take into account the full impact of the debilitating conditions that Israel wants to impose, we cannot escape the conclusion that “state” cannot be the right word to describe whatever it is that the Palestinians are supposed to receive with gratitude. Perhaps “slave colony” would be a better substitute.
As we notice the deceptive way in which Netanyahu uses the word “state” with two incompatible meanings, the hollowness of his claim becomes apparent. It is not the case that the Palestinians are unwilling to accept a”Jewish state.” What they are unwilling to accept — and quite rightly so — is the Israeli concept of what a “Palestinian state” should look like. They are refusing to be content with eating bread crumbs off the floor and are demanding a seat at the dinner table just like everyone else. Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinians are being unreasonable is tantamount to the claim that the few crumbs they are getting are as nutritious as the seven course dinner that he himself is enjoying at the table. They are both “food,” aren’t they?
Thus, in Netanyahu’s view of history it is the Palestinian people who have been the single most important obstacle to “peace.” He finds it incredible and pitiful that they have missed so many golden opportunities for improving their lot. In his own words:
In 1947, the U.N. voted to partition the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews said yes; the Palestinians said no.
In recent years, the Palestinians twice refused generous offers by Israeli prime ministers to establish a Palestinian state on virtually all the territory won by Israel in the Six Day War. They were simply unwilling to end the conflict.
Let’s try to recognize the unacknowledged assumptions behind these statements.
Netanyahu is claiming that for more than sixty years the Palestinian people have been consistently acting against their own best interests. This assertion raises important questions: Why have the Palestinians preferred “conflict” over “peace” for so long? Why did they miss so many opportunities to establish their own state? Why have they behaved in such self-defeating ways?
Netanyahu does not answer these questions directly, but the sentence at the end of the last quote may offer us a clue to his thinking: “They were simply unwilling to end the conflict.” Note the connotations of the word “simply.” We often use this word to express a sense that a given phenomenon is beyond our capacity to fully grasp or explain; that it is just the way it is — there is nothing anyone can do about it and there is no point in asking why it is so. It simply is.
Hence, to say that the Palestinians were simply unwilling to do the right thing is meant to suggest that they had no reasonable grounds for the choices they made. They simply made them — as if they were simply incapable of rational thinking or they were simply ignorant of what was happening around them or they were simply caught up in their stubborn hatred for the Jewish people. Netanyahu’s use of the word “simply” is also intended to absolve Israel of any and all responsibility, since everyone knows that Israel has sought nothing but “peace” with its neighbors. In other words, whatever may be the explanation for the puzzling behavior of Palestinians, it is absurd to even think that it could have any causal connection with anything that Israel had done or was doing to them.
Read the sentence again: “They were simply unwilling to end the conflict.” I can see at least three unacknowledged assumptions underlying this sentence: (1) continuing their conflict with Israel was never in the best interest of the Palestinian people; (2) the Palestinians were always fully aware that continuing their conflict with Israel was not going to help them get what they wanted; (3) the decision and power to either continue the conflict or to end it immediately was always and entirely in the hands of the Palestinians. Once these tacit assumptions have been brought to light, the speaker’s message becomes crystal clear: The Palestinians could have ended their misery at any time, simply by choosing to end their conflict with Israel, but they simply did not. Incomprehensible as this behavior may appear to Israelis and Americans, the regrettable fact is that the Palestinians are simply their own worst enemies.
Once again, we can notice the imperial arrogance in Netanyahu’s tone and choice of words, as well as his contempt for the non-European gentiles. In his view, the Palestinian people are so bereft of commonsense that each time they are offered an opportunity for statehood they deliberately squander it without any good reason. By not giving any explanation for the behavior of the Palestinian people over more than sixty years, while describing that behavior as completely stupid and self-defeating, Netanyahu is relying upon, and perpetuating, the old Orientalist dichotomy between a rational West and an irrational East. The irony is that the same dichotomy was used in the nineteenth century by European gentiles to justify their own disdain for the Jewish people!
There is an additional significance to Netanyahu’s use of the word “simply” — it suggests that the whole Israeli-Palestinian issue is itself very “simple” (as opposed to complex, multidimensional, or contested). This reading is consistent with his view that the entire credit for seeking “peace” goes to the Israelis and the entire blame for maintaining the conflict belongs to the Palestinians. Apparently, the Israeli Prime Minister is convinced that his own way of interpreting the problem is the only rational way of doing so, which is why he sees no point in trying to understand the predicament of the Palestinian from their viewpoint. He can find no valid reason why, as he puts it, the Palestinians are “unwilling to end the conflict.” It does not occur to him that Israel’s “offers” of statehood may have been “generous” from the Israeli viewpoint but they were not so from the Palestinian viewpoint. I am allowing these people to eat all the bread crumbs that fall from the table, and they do not find this generous? What’s wrong with them?
A close reading of Netanyahu’s own words can help expose the real causes behind the continuing conflict in the Middle East. First, his refusal to make any effort to understand the Palestinian perspective — or to even entertain the possibility that they may have legitimate grievances and demands — indicates his unwillingness to treat his neighbors as equal human beings; the same conclusion can also be reached by looking at the six conditions he wants to impose on any future Palestinian state. Second, his inability to comprehend why any Palestinian in their right mind would reject Israel’s “generous offers” of statehood indicates his unwillingness to empathize with the very people who are supposed to be his negotiation partners.
It seems to me that if the stronger party in a given conflict refuses to empathize with the other side’s viewpoint, and if that stronger party also insists on treating the weaker side with contempt, then I need not look anywhere else to explain why the conflict is not coming to an end.
One last point. Notice the phrase “territory won by Israel in the Six Day War” in the passage quoted above. Netanyahu’s nonchalant use of the word “won” in relation to “territory” is quite significant in that it reveals, perhaps inadvertently, an otherwise unacknowledged element of imperialist and colonialist thinking. In premodern times, it was indeed the case that kingdoms and empire could “win” new territories through war and conquest; moreover, this was believed to be a legitimate enterprise by the colonizing empires of Europe well into the twentieth century. However, with the end of the Second World War and the establishment of the United Nations, and especially with the signing of the Fourth Geneva Conventions in 1949, acquisition of land by means of conquest is no longer considered a legitimate way of expanding one’s dominion. This legal reality makes Netanyahu’s phrase “territory won by Israel” an illegitimate euphemism for “territory occupied and annexed by Israel in violation of International Law.” More ominously, Netanyahu’s total lack of self-consciousness as he said the words “territory won by Israel” suggests certain dangerous assumptions on his part, including “ends justify means” and “might is right.”
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.”