Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What Motivates Israeli Policy and Actions

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I use the opportunity of being interviewed to discuss current developments.

By Barry Rubin

Vice-President Joe Biden has visited Cairo. Do you think his summit with President Husni Mubarak could be useful for solving the Gaza crisis? Is Egypt a strong voice inside Palestinian world?

No, in fact the Egyptians have given up in disgust as they have failed. They worked hard for years to bring Hamas and the Palestinian Authority together and Hamas rejected their efforts. Incidentally, they were just as frustrated trying to move Yasir Arafat toward peace in the 1990s.
Remember that Egypt has a blockade on the Gaza Strip just as much as Israel does. And their reason for doing so is self-interest. They know Hamas is a revolutionary Islamist group close to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. A Jihadi state in Gaza will subvert Egypt, becoming a base for propaganda and terrorism. Moreover, Egypt’s government knows that Iran is an increasing threat to itself, and an Islamist state in Gaza accepted by the world and free to function is also a base for Tehran on the Mediterranean.

Incidentally, Egyptian soldiers regularly shoot and kill refugees trying to cross the border and have opened fire on Palestinians from Gaza on a number of occasions but the world is indifferent to such things since the obsession is to condemn only Israel.

Do you consider the Gaza crisis a possible new reason for tensions between Israel and the United States? Their relationship is getting worst till the beginning of this year. Is there any solution?

So far the U.S. government position has not been good in the sense of actually supporting an ally whose previous handling of the Gaza issue has been approved by Washington. At the same time, it has not been as bad as many think on this crisis. The U.S. stance seems to be that the blockade should be eased, but in ways that are likely to be acceptable to Israel.

This means that Israel will transport into Gaza, after inspection, goods delivered by volunteer flotillas and will ease the rules on what can be sent into the Gaza Strip. Israel has already agreed on the first point and has constantly been revising those rules. A key question will be the U.S. attitude toward an investigation. It is hard for Israelis to believe that any UN investigation will be fair.

Incidentally, according to the Pechter poll, seventy one percent of Israeli Jews dislike U.S. President Barak Obama with more than half, forty seven percent say they strongly dislike him. In all, sixty-three percent of those polled are dissatisfied with the U.S. government's reaction to the incident.

What about the Israeli public opinion? Are they conscious that there isn’t any possibility except for giving more concessions to the PA, regarding the settlements, and ending the embargo of Gaza?

The idea that Israel must give in does not seem either realistic or necessary to Israelis. I agree. Just because others panic and draw their own conclusions does not mean Israel has to make unilateral concessions that damage its security. In addition, people should understand that Israelis have a long experience of making such concessions only to have them be quickly forgotten and more demanded. Among these, of course, was Israel's complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, from which came not peace or quiet but a Hamas takeover; frequent terrorist, mortar, and rocket attacks; and now this current situation.

In my opinion, this current crisis will not change the facts on the ground very much. Western countries are not going to normalize relations with Hamas or demand an end to the embargo. Public opinion and media coverage is important but it is not the same as national policy decisions. Government leaders understand the reality enough to know that Hamas is a very destabilizing and deadly organization.

But let’s look at Israeli public opinion, based on a Pechter poll released today. Of those Israeli Jews interviewed, 39 percent said that not enough force was used, 46 percent said the right amount. Only 8 percent said Israel used too much force. These people understand, by the way, that the Israeli soldiers were attacked, taken hostage, and had to fight their way out.

Sixty one percent felt that Israel should not adjust its tactics to elicit a more favorable international reaction. And fifty-six percent indicated that Israel should not agree to an international inquiry committee to investigate the incident.

Do you look at the Netanyahu government and its majority in the Knesset as a strong influence on the country? Is there any risk of it falling?

According to the poll cited above, fifty three percent (53%) were satisfied with the job Prime Minister Netanyahu did while only forty one percent (41%) were satisfied with Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s performance. Remember that those not satisfied in many cases felt that the tactics of the operation were not handled well, which is one reason for the gap between Netanyahu and Barak in the poll.

It is important to understand three things:

--Israelis are acting on the basis of their knowledge and experience. Some people abroad write in bewilderment as if Israelis are paranoid or don’t know what the world thinks. They know very well what the world thinks. They also know that hundreds of Israeli lives were lost as a result of the belief in the 1990s that the Palestinians and Syrians were ready to make peace and in response to promises that the world would support Israel if it took risks for peace. They also know the nature of Hamas, as well as Hizballah and Iran.

Incidentally, no people in world history have tried longer and harder the approach of apologizing, conceding, avoiding violent responses even while being slaughtered, trying to prove their worthiness as citizens (or even to be allowed to live), depending on logical arguments to persuade those who hate them, and throwing themselves on the mercy of others than have the Jewish people. Having tried such things for centuries, and within living memory, Israelis are understandably skeptical about the utility of such methods, despite more of the same constantly being recommended to them.

--Israelis know that when people are lying about them and slandering their country the response is not to blame their leaders but to give low credibility to their critics or those who claim to know better how they can obtain security. Just as revolutionary Islamists are being taught by Western reaction that being intransigent and violent produces gains, Israelis are being taught that making concessions ultimately means greater dangers, no compensation, and even more criticism.

I always think here of an essay written by Ahad ha-Am, the great essayist who lived much of his life in Tel Aviv. A century ago, he wrote along these lines: How do we know that we are right and our critics are wrong? Because we know ourselves and we know that we don’t use the blood of little children to make matzos. The same situation applies today.

By the way, lest you think the above is archaic, today at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, the Syrian representative, Rania al-Rifaiy claimed:

“Israel…is a state that is built on hatred…Let me quote a song that a group of children on a school bus in Israel sing merrily as they go to school and I quote 'With my teeth I will rip your flesh. With my mouth I will suck your blood.'"

It was one hundred and seventy years ago that a major blood libel case erupted in Damascus. Apparently not much has changed since then. And, by the way, no Western representative protested this statement. Where, by the way, do we hear songs somewhat resembling this one? From Hamas and Palestinian Authority official media, that's where. In fact, here is such a song actually sung on PA television's morning show by children in the last few days:

"And tomorrow, when the war starts,I won't care about you [my enemy], or about the West. And tomorrow when the war starts,I won't care about you [my enemy], or about the West. And we shall strike Israel, we shall strike Israel, And return you [to us], land of my ancestors;And return you [to us], land of my ancestors."

[This is what appears on the television of the "pro-Western" "moderate" PA. What has been put onto Hamas children's shows is much worse. The words about Israel don't surprise me. What does surprise me is the open hostility to the West, the people mainly funding the PA.]

Presumably, few in the West will hear about either the Syrian statement or the PA song. So they can be excused for thinking that Israel overestimates the radicalism and hostility it faces.

--There is no viable alternative. No matter how many people talk about how easy it would be to make a compromise peace or to make radical, openly genocidal Islamists moderate, Israelis know from observation and experience that these things aren’t true. They also know what is said in Arabic in places like official Palestinian Authority and Hamas media but never translated by the Western media into English.

It is interesting to note that the opposition has not been able to come up with a single persuasive option for a different policy. Indeed, outside the farther left, even opposition voters generally share in the national consensus outlined above. The basic Israeli view is this: We are ready for a two-state solution, we are ready to turn almost all of the West Bank over to a Palestinian state. But we don’t believe there is a real partner for such an agreement.

This government, by the way, is not a right-wing government but a national unity government that includes the main party of the left, Labour. The religious parties are at about the weakest point in power that they’ve been in Israeli history. And even Avigdor Lieberman, whatever his shortcomings, is not a stereotypical rightist and he does favor a two-state solution.

So this government is very solidly in power and will certainly serve until next year. If elections were to be held today it would win. Indeed, when one sees how unfair and misinformed a lot of the foreign criticism is, and how these same places constantly make demands for concessions and then don’t keep their promises, this only solidifies the national consensus supporting the government and understanding the need for continuing—albeit with reasonable changes—the current policy.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (PalgraveMacmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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