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Thought experiments (one last time) and a reply to David Rothkopf

Courtesy of Philip Weiss's blog, here is another thought experiment from New America Foundation's Daniel Levy. Note: it's not a transcript; it is Weiss's summary of a portion of a conference call that Levy conducted two days ago:

[Levy] said: We all hear, oh, the U.S. would do the same thing if Canada or Mexico were firing rockets at us. We would have a duty to respond. And yes, I think, Israel has a duty to respond, Levy said.

But then he went on to explode that analogy, and get at the core issue: Lack of Political Sovereignty. Canada and Mexico are states. Palestinians have no state. Remember, he said, that Gaza is just 4 percent of the Palestinian territories. The other 96 percent are still occupied. They have been for 40 years. And imagine that the 4 percent had been under siege, since they were unoccupied 3 years ago. And the occupied parts were crisscrossed with checkpoints and colonies.

Would it really be that surprising if in Canada or Mexico there was a hardline opposition that took over the government? And was deeply opposed to the occupier? 'I'll leave that to your imagination.'"

It bears repeating that the real value of these analogies (or "thought experiments") is not to justify any particular course of action (although plenty of politicians have been using them that way). Reality is too complicated for that, and its usually easy to argue that a particular analogy doesn't fit the concrete case one currently confronts. Rather, the real purpose is to help us examine the facile, good-versus-evil stereotypes and conventional assumptions that constitute much of the discourse about difficult political issues, and especially the Israel-Palestine conflict.

My new FP blogging associate David Rothkopf objects to my initial thought experiment, which asked whether U.S. policy might be different if the Israeli and Palestinian situations were reversed. In doing so, he demonstrates how hard it is for some people to retain their objectivity and rhetorical poise on these issues. He accuses me of being on an "jihad" against Israel (note the loaded language), and claims that I've joined an "anti-Israel lobby" whose ranks include former President Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

I'm flattered to be placed in such distinguished company, but here Rothkopf is committing the all-too-common error of assuming that critics of certain Israeli policies (and critics of the current "special relationship") are "anti-Israel." In fact, the special relationship (i.e., the policy of nearly-unconditional and uncritical support) is increasingly harmful to the Jewish state, as it makes it almost impossible for the United States to oppose Israeli actions that are misguided (such as settlement-building, or Israel's ill-founded strategy in the Lebanon War of 2006). The United States would be a better friend to Israel if we had a more normal relationship, and if U.S. leaders could talk more openly about these issues.

As for Carter, consider what former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami writes in his excellent book Scars of War, Wounds of Peace:

Carter did not hesitate to criticize Israel publicly, threaten her and even put pressure on her.  As it turned out, it was this kind of President—George Bush [the elder] in the later 1980s is another case in point—who was ready to confront Israel head on and overlook the sensibilities of her friends in America that managed eventually to produce meaningful breakthroughs on the way to an Arab-Israeli peace" (p. 167, my emphasis).

The current President Bush is often described as the most "pro-Israel" President in history. Yet his policies have helped make Hamas stronger and more popular, and his cheerleading for Israel’s ill-advised war in Lebanon in 2006 ended up costing more Israeli lives and left Hezbollah in a stronger position in Lebanon. His policies also facilitated settlement expansion and made a two-state solution harder to achieve, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 ended up improving Iran's strategic position, which is hardly good for Israel. All this reinforces a point I made a few days ago: it is high time to redefine what "pro-Israel" means.

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