The Israel-Palestine Conflict and the true meaning of ‘security’

Governments are not representative. They have their own power, serving segments of the population that are dominant and rich.

– Noam Chomsky

States are not moral agents, people are, and can impose moral standards on powerful institutions.

– Noam Chomsky

It is the absolute right of the state to supervise the formation of public opinion.

– Joseph Goebbels

The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.

– Sir Winston Churchill

You may deceive all the people part of the time, and part of the people all the time, but not all the people all the time.

– Abraham Lincoln

Security’s a term which is bandied about a lot. While security’s important, it has at least two definitions. The one that people are familiar with and you can find in any dictionary, and the one used to describe what ‘security’ means in political discourse. Civil liberties, the core of any free and decent life, are typically counterposed against security needs. Therefore, what security means, and what consequences this meaning entails, are extremely important to understand. This post uses the Israel-Palestine Conflict as a case study to identify the meaning of security and flesh out the ramifications involved. This will hopefully have instructive conclusions for how populations should regard states and, as a result, what actions they should therefore pursue.

Security means protection for, and advancement of, the interests of whoever has the means to influence and utilise states, or equivalent entities. Therefore, this primarily means elite interests, and peripheral, secondary care for the interests of everyone else, with level of attention being more or less commensurate with socioeconomic status. Other elements come into play, such as racism and sexism, but they’re subordinate to the preeminence of material resources and the political power they provide for those who possess them. Indeed, elites often create, or at least take advantage of and manipulate, racist and sexist tendencies in order to meet their own essentially financial objectives. The Israel-Palestine Conflict’s an excellent example of this. The following discusses the history of the conflict, and analyses what so-called ‘security’ means for the three primary actors involved: the US, Israel and the Palestinians.

In the late 19th century, Zionist Jews, mainly from Eastern Europe, began to settle in Palestine with the vision of establishing an exclusively Jewish state in Eretz (Greater) Israel (Pappe, 2006, pp. 10, 282; Finkelstein, 2003, pp. 10-20). By today’s geography, this vision included Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and Transjordan (Jordan), though it typically no longer includes Jordan (Finkelstein, 2003, pp. 10-20). Their numbers and lands were small compared to the indigenous Palestinians, making up only 6% of the population in Palestine in 1914 and 16% in 1928, by which time they owned 4% of the land (Pappe, 2006, pp. 282-83). As an early point, it’s worth noting the fact that, in 1947, the Zionists won a state comprising roughly 56% of a region in which they had existed for less than 70 years, were still a minority, and owned a mere 5.8% of the land (Pappe, 2006, pp. 34-5). This illustrates the political favour which the Zionists had curried with the world’s great powers, most significantly Britain, which supports the meaning of security put forward in this post. Not to mention that this was despite the fact that Britain’s own Peel Commission recommended in 1937 that just 33% of Palestine be assigned for a future Jewish state, from which, incidentally, indigenous Palestinians would need to be removed (Pappe, 2006, pp. 284).

Perhaps even more interesting, the US King-Crane Commission noted in 1919 that, although it had “a deep sense of sympathy for the Jewish cause,” to impose a Jewish state on the Palestinian people “would be a gross violation of the principle [of self-determination], and of the people’s rights, though it kept within the forms of law” (Chomsky, 1983, p. 91). Consequently, it recommended that Jewish immigration be limited and the goal of a Jewish state be abandoned (Chomsky, 1983, p. 91). Nevertheless, as British Secretary of State, Lord Arthur Balfour, author of the Balfour Declaration, put it in 1919:

The four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land (Chomsky, 1983, p. 90).

Clearly, since they didn’t have the means to influence British policy, the present needs and future hopes of the Palestinians were of little moment against the Zionists. Unsurprisingly, the King-Crane Commission’s conclusion was “disregarded by the great powers, including the US” (Chomsky, 1983, p. 91). This demonstrates that security means serving the interests of those with the ability to influence states, often with scant or no regard for law, morality or justice.

To further substantiate the meaning of security proposed in this post, it’s useful to look at the period 1917-47 to see what the Palestinians and Zionists were doing, and compare how Britain responded to each group’s actions. Indeed, Britain’s responses throughout the period are very telling. Palestinians vociferously protested large-scale Jewish migration to Palestine. Both were engaged in terrorism. In 1931, Zionists formed the Irgun, a terrorist paramilitary organisation founded to support more militancy against Arabs. In 1938, its bombings killed 119 Palestinians. That same year, Palestinian bombs and mines killed 8 Jews. Subsequently, Britain deployed military reinforcements to quell the Palestinian rebellion protesting mass Jewish migration and Britain’s complicity in the events.

Further, as mentioned, the 1937 Peel Commission recommended partitioning Palestine into two states after Britain abandoned proposals for a bi-national state when the Zionists opposed them. That same year, Britain dissolved all Palestinian political organisations. In 1939, Britain approved a White Paper which planned conditional independence for Palestine after 10 years and the immigration of 75,000 more Jews over the next 5 years. And, fatefully, in 1947, being weary and bankrupt after WWII, Britain declared its withdrawal from Palestine, knowingly leaving an enormous power vacuum which resulted in the 1947 UN Partition Plan, in which Zionists received a share of Palestinian lands wildly disproportionate to their population. When you compare the treatment that each group received from Britain, it’s clear that the ability to influence politics was decisive, not justice or law.

This same reality has defined the Israel-Palestine Conflict since 1967-70, with the US replacing Britain as the hegemon providing the support Israel needs to carry out its designs (Chomsky, 2003, p. 161). During 1947-67, however, Israel continued somewhat without the powerful ally to which it’d so far been accustomed. In fact, in this period, the US had, at times, a tenuous, frosty, and even hostile relationship with Israel (Chomsky, 1983, pp. 20-3). For example, in the Suez Crisis in 1956 the US ordered Britain, France and Israel to stop as they invaded Egypt to attack the Suez Canal. However, it must be noted that even prior to 1967, Israel still “received the highest per capita aid from the U.S. of any country”, though this can’t compare to the tremendous, essentially unwavering and consistently increasing support that Israel’s received from the US since 1967-70 (Chomsky, 1983, pp. 9-12). Largely due to this support, Israel’s developed the world’s fourth most powerful military, an advanced industrial economy, and very successfully waged wars and smaller military offensives against its neighbours, including Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, as well, of course, as ongoing domination and subordination of the Palestinians (Chomsky, 1983, pp. 9-10). These include the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the First Lebanon War in 1982, and smaller military incursions into Gaza: Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, and Operation Protective Edge in 2014.

To understand why US foreign policy on Israel shifted during 1967-70, we’ll analyse what security means for the US. First, we’ll identify what motivates US foreign policy, why this motivates it, and what this means for US foreign policy on Israel-Palestine. Second, we’ll look at why the US-Israeli relationship became what it is today during 1967-70. This covers two key events which illustrate that the meaning of security in contemporary global politics is indeed as this post proposes.

Mearsheimer and Walt (2006) point out that the US-Israeli relationship is unusual, since it’s not based on a compelling moral case for supporting Israel and doesn’t greatly benefit US strategic interests (p. 2). Indeed, oftentimes it’s detrimental to stated US interests and objectives – and yet:

For the past several decades, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, the centerpiece of US Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel…Since the October War in 1973, Washington has provided Israel with a level of support dwarfing that given to any other state. It has been the largest annual recipient of direct economic and military aid since 1976, and is the largest recipient in total since World War Two, to the tune of well over $140 billion…This largesse is especially striking since Israel is now a wealthy industrial state…Washington also provides Israel with consistent diplomatic support. Since 1982, the US has vetoed 32 Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, more than the total number of vetoes cast by all other Security Council members. It blocks the efforts of Arab states to put Israel’s nuclear arsenal on the IAEA’s agenda. The US comes to the rescue in wartime and takes Israel’s side when negotiating peace…One American participant at Camp David in 2000 later said: ‘Far too often, we functioned…as Israel’s lawyer’…This extraordinary generosity might be understandable if Israel were a vital strategic asset or if there were a compelling moral case for US backing. But neither explanation is convincing (Mearsheimer & Walt, 2006, pp. 1-2).

Why are the strategic asset and moral explanations not convincing? As a strategic asset, Israel’s often costly, burdensome and even counterproductive for the US. During the October War in 1973, $2.2 billion in emergency military aid given to Israel triggered an Opec oil embargo which damaged Western economies. This support wasn’t cheap, even for the US, and yet, ironically, Israel was still unable to protect US interests in the region, as the US couldn’t rely on it when the Iranian Revolution in 1979 threatened the security of Middle East oil supplies, having to resort to its own Rapid Deployment Force. Further, Israel couldn’t participate in the Gulf War in 1990 or the 2003 invasion of Iraq, despite having the world’s fourth most powerful military, being eager to be involved, and being a close US ally, since its participation would’ve jeopardised the anti-Iraq coalitions the US had developed.

Nor does Israel help to prevent terrorism. Indeed, Israel’s actions generate terrorists who pose threats to the US and other states around the world. In fact, “saying that Israel and the US are united by a shared terrorist threat has the causal relationship backwards: the US has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel, not the other way around” (Mearsheimer & Walt, 2006, p. 3). This equally applies to the so-called rogue states in the Middle East, since “they are not a dire threat to US interests, except inasmuch as they are a threat to Israel” (Mearsheimer & Walt, 2006, p. 3). Indeed, “even if these states acquire nuclear weapons…neither America nor Israel could be blackmailed, because the blackmailer could not carry out the threat without suffering overwhelming retaliation” (Mearsheimer & Walt, 2006, p. 3). To make things worse, “[Israel] does not behave as a loyal ally. Israeli officials frequently ignore US requests and renege on promises (including pledges to stop building settlements and to refrain from ‘targeted assassinations’ of Palestinian leaders)” (Mearsheimer & Walt, 2006, p. 3). Plainly, the strategic asset case has many weaknesses.

As for the moral case for supporting Israel, some argue that, because of the unique suffering of the Jewish people throughout history, the US, as the world’s supreme economic and military power, ought to support and protect Israel. However, whatever one thinks about the claim that Jews have uniquely suffered more than any other people, the creation of Israel “brought about fresh crimes against a largely innocent third party: the Palestinians” (Mearsheimer & Walt, 2006, p. 5). Indeed, even David Ben-Gurion admitted that:

If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country…we come from Israel, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that? (Mearsheimer & Walt, 2006, p. 5).

Therefore, the moral case for supporting Israel holds no water.

The question then becomes, if these reasons don’t explain why the US supports Israel, what does? Mearsheimer and Walt argue that “the explanation is the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby…the loose coalition of individuals and organisations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction” (Mearsheimer & Walt, 2006, p. 6). This argument has some merit (Chomsky, 2007, p. 229). However, it mistakenly embellishes the power of the Lobby because it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of so-called ‘US democracy’ (Chomsky, 2007, p. 229-30). If you assume the US is a functioning democracy in which the people decide what policies their state pursues, and yet the US’s foreign policies largely threaten the people’s interests and security, it’s reasonable to deduce that the democratic process must be being manipulated and undermined by some abnormal and powerful force. This reasoning led Mearsheimer and Walt to the Israel Lobby, but this isn’t a novel argument (Chomsky, 1983, p. 13). Indeed, many other people have drawn the same conclusion for more than 30 years, and have all succumbed to the same illusions as Mearsheimer and Walt (Chomsky, 1983, p. 13).

The genuine answer lies in the reality of so-called ‘US democracy’. Despite pronouncements of being the leader of the free world and a paragon of functioning democracy, the US is anything but. In political systems with parties which depend on capital to survive, the people with the greatest access to capital will always have the most political influence – the elites (Baker, 2006, p. v; Chang, 2009, pp. 31-7). Since this is true of the US, and its business community’s exceptionally wealthy and entrenched, this translates to elites with considerable political power, which in turn disenfranchises the majority of the American population (Baker, 2006, p. v; Chang, 2009, pp. 31-7; Herman & Chomsky, 1988). This is what Gilens and Page (2014) found when they analysed American ‘democracy’. They found that the US is best characterised by Economic Elite Domination and Biased Pluralism, both of which involve elites having disproportionate political power that excludes and marginalises the majority of the population (Gilens & Page, 2014, p. 2). Indeed, “economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence” (Gilens & Page, 2014, p. 2). The referent object for the US is therefore the privileged interests of the American business community, not the people or the state, which is merely a tool in the hands of the elites.

Tying this back to the Israel-Palestine Conflict, the key point is that supporting Israel is in the interests of the elites. For example:

A State Department analysis of 1945 described Saudi Arabia as “…a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” The U.S. was committed to win and keep this prize. Since World War II, it has been virtually an axiom of U.S. foreign policy that these energy reserves should remain under U.S. control. A more recent variant of the same theme is that the flow of petrodollars should be largely funneled to the U.S. through military purchases, construction projects, bank deposits, investment in Treasury securities, etc. It has been necessary to defend this primary interest against various threats (Chomsky, 1983, p. 17).

The material prize, which has since extended from Saudi Arabia to mean Middle East oil reserves more generally, therefore serves the interests of the American business community through revenue for US corporations and strategic power by which the state, animated by elite interests, can force the rest of the world to follow Washington’s orders if it wants access to Middle East oil. That’s the true reason behind US foreign policy on Israel: it acts as a regional Sparta enforcing US control of Middle East oil, and receives support to carry out, and as thanks for, its services. The US was convinced that Israel could play this role during 1967-70, which is why the US and Israel developed, and have since maintained, such a special relationship.

So what happened during 1967-70? On two occasions, Israel displayed its military capabilities and convinced the US that it could act as a regional Sparta enforcing American foreign policy. There’s an important background to these events. Chomsky (1983) points out that independent, secular Arab nationalism is a threat to US control of the Middle East and its oil reserves, since the indigenous people, if given the chance to exert their will democratically, might prefer that they benefit from their own resources, rather than American corporations (pp. 20-1). Incidentally, the US has to subvert democracy in the Middle East and support friendly dictators and monarchs who cooperate with its policies. For example, this is why the US supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq, installed the Shah in Iran, and has long supported the Hashemite Monarchy in Jordan and the King of Saudi Arabia. In this context, the events in 1967 and 1970, to which we now return, explain why the US chose to forge such remarkable and enduring ties with Israel.

In 1967, Nasser in Egypt was the world’s main source of secular Arab nationalism (Chomsky, 1983, pp. 20-1). The potential spread of Nasserite Arab nationalism, especially to the Gulf oil-producing states, was a threat to US interests in the Middle East, against which Israel was seen as a buffer (Chomsky, 1983, pp. 20-1). At the same time, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, perhaps the US’s most valuable ally in the region, were engaged in a proxy war in Yemen (Chomsky, 2007). Thus, when Israel attacked Egypt during the Six-Day War in 1967, it blocked the spread of Arab nationalism and damaged an enemy of Saudi Arabia (Chomsky, 2007). This was an enormous service to Washington. In 1970, Jordan was massacring Palestinians in the West Bank during so-called Black September. For a time, it seemed as though Syria might intervene against Jordan and come to the Palestinians’ defense (Chomsky, 2007). The US was mired in Indochina and couldn’t personally support its Jordanian ally, but, at Washington’s behest, Israel mobilised and Syria backed down (Chomsky, 2007). Again, this won Israel major favour in the halls of American power.

Henceforth, Israel received the lion’s share of US economic and military aid, as well as unparalleled diplomatic support at the UN and passionate ideological support from US media throughout their broad sphere of influence. Since US interests remain the same and Israel remains willing – often enthusiastic – to be America’s private Sparta, the US-Israeli relationship has continued to grow and deepen along those lines up to the present. Thus, the critical factor at play is the ability to gain support from the elites who truly wield American power, as was the case with Britain before the US. Plainly, the particular hegemon involved isn’t important, since the meaning of security and the resulting power relations are exactly the same regardless.

While US interests are therefore the decisive force behind the Israel-Palestine Conflict, the interests that motivate Israel and the Palestinians are also worth looking at, since they further corroborate the meaning of security proposed in this post. Israel’s interests are the same ones which Zionist settlers first began to pursue in the late 19th century – an exclusively Jewish state in all of Eretz Israel, from which the indigenous Palestinians must be somehow removed (Finkelstein, 2003, pp. 16-7). Chomsky (2010) substantiates that this is, and always was, Israel’s ambition:

[Israel’s illegal policies of occupying, settling and annexing Palestinian lands, which have] roots in the pre-state period, trace back to the earliest days of the occupation, when the basic idea was formulated poetically by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who was in charge of the occupied territories: “the situation today resembles the complex relationship between a Bedouin man and the girl he kidnaps against her will…You Palestinians, as a nation, don’t want us today, but we’ll change your attitude by forcing our presence on you.” You will “live like dogs, and whoever will leave, will leave,” while we take what we want (p. 103).

This involves ongoing illegal settlement building in the West Bank and periodic incursions into Gaza which are euphemistically referred to in Israel as ‘mowing the lawn’. Israel’s referent object is therefore Eretz Israel, not the population or the state, both of which are, in fact, needlessly endangered by pursuing this lasting objective when Israel could easily have accepted a two-state settlement with the Palestinians along the internationally recognised pre-June 1967 border anytime since at least 1976 (Chomsky, 1983, p. 67; Hari, 2010). However, because there’s enough money bound up in Israel’s ongoing militancy, this continues to be the referent object and the great interest that shapes the imperatives of Israel and the US (Honig-Parnass & Haddad, 2007, pp. 123-7).

Meanwhile, the Palestinians either suffer in obscurity and neglect, or increasingly resort to radical Islam and terrorism for solace, revenge and to try to make political gains, just as Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress did against the brutal and intransigent South African apartheid regime. Therefore, the referent object for the Palestinians is their rightful land, as defined by UN Resolution 242, which both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority publicly recognise as the border for a Palestinian state in a two-state solution with Israel (Pappe & Chomsky, 2008). However, since they don’t have anything to offer the American or Israeli elites who shape their states’ policies, the US remains committed to Israel and Israel remains committed to gradually annexing all Palestinian lands (Finkelstein, 2003, pp. 16-20).

Thus, as a case study, the Israel-Palestine Conflict unambiguously demonstrates that the meaning of security in contemporary global politics is protection for, and advancement of, the interests of whoever has the means to influence and utilise states, or equivalent entities. If we reflect on this conclusion, it has important messages for how we ought to regard the states which presume to act on behalf of the populations from whom they derive legitimacy (at least in the supposedly democratic West), and what actions that regard might therefore justifiably entail.

References

Baker, D., 2006. The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. 1st ed. Washington, DC: Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Chang, H.-J., 2009. Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism. 1st ed. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Chomsky, N., 1983. Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel & the Palestinians. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press.

Chomsky, N., 2007. Beware of State Power [Interview] (1 April 2007).

Finkelstein, N., 2003. Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict. 2nd ed. London: Verso.

Gilens, M. & Page, B. I., 2014. Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens. Perspectives on Politics, 12(3), pp. 564-581.

Hari, J., 2010. Is Gideon Levy the most hated man in Israel or just the most heroic?. [Online]
Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/is-gideon-levy-the-most-hated-man-in-israel-or-just-the-most-heroic-2087909.html

Herman, E. S. & Chomsky, N., 1988. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Updated ed. of 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books.

Honig-Parnass, T. & Haddad, T. eds., 2007. Between the Lines: Readings on Israel, the Palestinians, and the U.S. “War on Terror”. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Mearsheimer, J. J. & Walt, S. M., 2006. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. London Review of Books, 28(6), pp. 3-12.

Pappe, I., 2006. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. 1st ed. London: Oneworld.

Pappe, I. & Chomsky, N., 2008. On the Future of Israel and Palestine: An Interview With Ilan Pappe and Noam Chomsky [Interview] (6 June 2008).

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