Posts Tagged ‘Israel’

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.

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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.”

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In my previous post, I commented on Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated use of the word “friend” during his speech to the US Congress. I tried to apply a hermeneutic of suspicion in order to reveal what is really going on when he says something like “Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no better friend than Israel.” I would now like to draw upon George Orwell’s work to further illuminate the Israeli Prime Minister’s use of the word “friend.”

In his classic essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), Orwell points out how certain kinds of words are “often used in a consciously dishonest way.” He explains that “the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.” As I continue to reflect on Netanyahu’s speech, it becomes apparent to me that Orwell’s insight is particularly helpful in reading that text. There are several keywords in the speech that Orwell would have recognized as “consciously dishonest” use of language, e.g., peace, democracy, terrorism, security, compromise, modernity. I intend to discuss each of these words, but for now I want to highlight that the word “friend” falls in the same Orwellian category. The Israeli Prime Minister has in his mind a very peculiar definition of “friend,” a definition that the vast majority of English speakers do not share with him, but most US Senators and Representatives do.

The common understanding of the concept “friend” necessarily involves the presence of goodwill, i.e., if a person is my friend, then, by definition, he or she desires my well-being. In other words, my friends would not want anything for me that, from their viewpoint, is likely to harm me; if they do, then they cannot be my friends. Consequently, if I was about to make a choice that, in the opinion of my friends, is bad or harmful for me, I fully expect them to do everything in their power to prevent me from making that choice. For instance, if I ask my friends for rat poison because I want to commit suicide, not only would they not comply with my request but they would also take other steps to keep me safe from myself. Similarly, if I ask my friends to lend me their handgun because I want to rob my neighbor, I will get the same reaction. On the other hand, it is possible to imagine scenarios in which they will actually fulfill my requests while still remaining my friends, i.e., if, for whatever reason, they sincerely believe that committing suicide by drinking rat poison is in my best interest, or that robbing my neighbor at gun point will enhance my well-being.

The lesson is clear. A commitment of unqualified support cannot be reconciled with the condition of goodwill towards the other that is inherent in the concept “friend.” If a person says to me that he or she will help me do anything that I choose to do, including acts that are immoral and/or criminal — acts that will harm me either immediately or in the long run — then that person cannot be my friend. In fact, it’s a good guess that such a person is my enemy.

In sharp contrast to the common understanding of “friend,” Netanyahu seems to believe that the United States is a friend of Israel if, and only if, it supports Israel in all its choices, including those that violate International Law. As evident by their cheers and applauses, the US Senators and Representatives are also operating with the same definition of “friend.”

Let’s look closely at a concrete example. During his speech to the US Congress, the Israeli Prime Minister made the following statement:

The vast majority of the 650,000 Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines reside in neighborhoods and suburbs of Jerusalem and Greater Tel Aviv. Now these areas are densely populated, but they’re geographically quite small. And under any realistic peace agreement, these areas, as well as other places of critical strategic and national importance, we’d — be incorporated into the final borders of Israel. (Applause.) . . . Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967. (Cheers, applause.) So I want to be very clear on this point. Israel will be generous on the size of a Palestinian state but will be very firm on where we put the border with it. 

Notice the phrase “beyond the 1967 lines.” It’s a political euphemism that Netanyahu uses in place of the more accurate but politically inconvenient term, “occupied territories.” The purpose of such euphemisms is to avoid naming, and therefore confessing, one’s own crimes and misdeeds by giving them a neutral or pretty title, e.g., “enhanced interrogation techniques” instead of “torture.” In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell has a particularly scathing passage on the menace of political euphemisms. Orwell notes:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Countless instances of politically deceptive euphemisms can be found in pro-Israel texts, and, as expected, I found many brilliant gems in Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress. Thus, when the Prime Minister says “Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines,” what he is referring to are Israeli settlements in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem, and in the Golan Heights. These areas (along with Gaza Strip) were conquered by the Israeli military in the June 1967 war, and are considered “occupied territories” under International Law. Even more inconveniently, an international consensus exists on the illegality of these settlements since they are in brazen violation of the Fourth Geneva Conventions (1949), which include the following provision: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies” (Section III, Article 49). The settlements are also illegal according to the verdict of the International Court of Justice.

In the passage quoted above, Netanyahu’s true intention cannot be more explicit, even though he tries to soften the blow by introducing several euphemisms. He uses the vague word “incorporate” since the appropriate term “annex” will sound like an illegal and indefensible act — which is precisely what he is proposing. Similarly, the phrase “other places of critical and national importance” is meant to suggest an element of rational and scrupulous decision-making, but is really a respectable sounding substitute for “any areas we like.”

Allow me to translate Netanyahu’s Orwellian statement quoted above in straightforward English: Israel is going to annex most of the occupied areas in which it has built illegal settlements since 1967, as well as any other areas that it believes to be useful or desirable. Israel has a fully justified monopoly over deciding its own borders; it will not consider anyone else’s rights, needs, or demands in doing so. The Palestinians are welcome to establish a state in the areas that will be left over after Israel is completely satisfied with its own borders.

The problem, obviously, is that the intentions expressed here are in open violation of International Law. The annexation of occupied land is prohibited according to the Hague Conventions of 1907-09 as well as the United Nations Charter. Such annexation is categorically illegal according to the Fourth Geneva Conventions (Section III, Article 47):

Protected persons who are in occupied territory shall not be deprived, in any case or in any manner whatsoever, of the benefits of the present Convention by any change introduced, as the result of the occupation of a territory, into the institutions or government of the said territory, nor by any agreement concluded between the authorities of the occupied territories and the Occupying Power, nor by any annexation by the latter of the whole or part of the occupied territory.

There you have it. Israel has been violating the International Law at least since 1967, the same year in which the United States and Israel became each other’s best friends. On Thursday, the Israeli Prime Minister announced to the US Legislature that his country will commit even more egregious violations of the International Law, while also claiming that Israel has no better friend than the United States. Through their cheers and standing ovations, the US Senators and Representatives declared their unanimous and enthusiastic approval for Israel’s intention to further violate the International Law; and they too believe that the United States is the best friend that Israel has ever had. Neither the speaker nor his audience seemed to have recognized any irony in this whole affair–such as the fact that lawmakers are cheering for the lawbreakers.

What can we say about a friend who does nothing to stop you from committing immoral and criminal acts but actually supports you in violating the law? The very least we can say is that this is not how the vast majority of English speakers understand the word “friend.”

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