Friday, January 30, 2009

Stacking the Deck: The Power of Special Relationships

The January 26th edition of The Nation included an article by Naomi Klein calling for a boycott of Israel in response to their actions in Gaza. This article can be found here.

Naturally, as occurs any time Israel is criticized in the press, there was a highly emotional (and, needless to say, critical) response to Klein's article in the very next edition. This response, along with Klein's retort, can be found here.

The problem with Klein’s call-to-boycott is that it was published in The Nation and The Nation’s readership amounts to the most centrist viewpoint that would still accept the idea. As Pollin’s response shows, even readers of The Nation are sometimes too enamored of Israel to accept any real criticism of it, suffering at most to say that their brutal actions are a response to equally brutal actions brought upon them.

A “special relationship” exists between Israel and America today. This relationship, now continued in President Barack Obama’s explicit recognition of it1, is an interesting thing. It means that more American aid money goes to Israel each year than to any other country2, despite Israel‘s AA- credit rating and high levels of personal wealth3. It means that we have a constant ally in the United Nations, even when we vote to legalize absurd things like the extension of the Cuban embargo to foreign subsidiaries of American companies and nearly the whole world stands against us.4 It means that when the American press discusses Israel, it does so with a deference not granted to nations opposed to Israel. It means that when people criticize Israel, they are often faced with charges of anti-Semitism, or simply just “siding with the terrorists.”

Pollin’s response is a perfect example of the way that the special relationship translates into this one sided debate existing today. Take this sentence: “I agree entirely that the Israeli occupation is brutal. But Hamas is also brutal.” Here Pollin says little while excluding much. It is obvious on its face that the happenings in the Gaza strip are brutal to life on both sides, and saying it doesn’t hurt the Israeli occupation forces at all, because they are responding brutally to a brute attack. What they are responding to, however, is not obvious. According to Pollin Israel is responding to Hamas. Hamas is the name of the elected, ruling party of the Palestinian state as it exists in the Gaza strip today. Therefore, Hamas’ actions are the actions of Palestine. Rather than addressing this as a conflict between Israel and Palestine, Pollin addresses the conflict as one between Hamas and Israel, with a dual reaction. First, Americans recognize that Hamas is the name of a terrorist group, and so associate the rocket attacks on Israel as a terrorist action. Americans, as history has shown, have their own brutal streak when it comes to avenging terrorist attacks, and so Israel‘s actions are more easily forgiven. Second, by de-legitimizing Hamas’ sovereignty in Palestine, Pollin opens up the door to legitimizing the US-backed Fatah party’s dominance over all of Palestine.

In the remainder of the paragraph Pollin continues:

“To date, the only thing preventing Hamas from being less lethal than Israel in the damage it inflicts is its limited resources. Hamas is deliberately firing rockets into Israel with the aim of killing and terrorizing civilians. Should Iran, for example, succeed in supplying Hamas with more effective weapons, Hamas will become more successful in killing and terrorizing Israeli citizens.”

The first sentence here assumes that Israel has the right to be more lethal than Palestine, which is interesting. Sovereign nations have the right to defend themselves against their neighbors - but again, this is not a sovereign nation. This is the terrorist group Hamas, so building its strength represents a far more sinister view.

Can we also assume from the writer’s words that, because Hamas is less lethal than Israel, Palestine is suffering more greatly at Israel’s hands than Israel at Palestine’s? Even if we cannot, the numbers support it, as they generally do when Israel engages Palestine. A total of 13 Israeli’s were killed in the Gaza attacks - as many as 1284 Palestinians were killed5, a ratio of nearly 100 Palestinians for every Israeli. Surely greater weapons capability would have increased the Israeli numbers, but with the US on its side, you can be sure that the Palestinian death toll would have risen commensurately. But let’s look more closely, because the sentence is loaded. “Hamas is deliberately firing rockets into Israel with the aim of killing and terrorizing civilians.” By extension of our previous formula, we can now say “Terrorists are deliberately firing rockets into Israel with the aim of killing and terrorizing civilians.” This, rightfully, is an abominable action and evocative sentence. However, the sentence can also be worded thus: “Israel is deliberately firing rockets into Palestine with the aim of killing and terrorizing civilians.”6 This sentence, just as true as the first sentence about Hamas, completely neuters Pollin’s argument, while hopefully remaining just as emotive. The next sentence, “should Iran, for example, succeed in supplying Hamas with more effective weapons, Hamas will become more successful in killing and terrorizing Israeli citizens” is another stab at demonizing the Palestinians. “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”7 If this history were written by the other side, the quote might well have been: “Should the US, for example, succeed in supplying Israel with more effective weapons, Israel will become more successful in killing and terrorizing Palestinian citizens.” The US, however, has supplied Israel with more effective weapons, and its Security Council position in the UN secures Israel’s immunity in using them.8

You cannot claim to fight a war against terror while also participating in terror yourself, but that brings us to the final unquestioned assumption of Pollin’s argument: that Hamas should be condemned for targeting civilians. The short, right answer is that they should. However, for an American citizen to attempt to condemn Palestinian human rights abuses is amusing at best. From the firing bombing of Dresden to the 1986 raid on Libya, from Hiroshima to nearly every interaction we‘ve had with nearly every South American country, the United States has made it a point to target and engage civilian populations as the most effective method of demoralizing opposition.

. . .

Written plainly the ongoing war between Israel and Palestine is typical to most conflict: it is not a war of ideology, of Semite vs. anti-Semite, of terror vs. life. It is a war for resources, or to use a wholly ironic word, a war for lebensraum. It is true that Palestine, under Hamas governance, has said that they do not recognize the existence of the Israeli state. But what, in the 60+ years of Israel’s existence, demonstrates Israel’s willingness to accept Palestine? The problem of the war in Gaza, thus laid out and free of the special relationship, becomes one of a thoroughly modern, militarily advanced nation suppressing the rebellion - and the right to live9 - of a smaller, neighboring, state. How this differs from past situations in Kuwait, Korea, Vietnam, Poland or Cuba - all of which provoked outrage and, eventually, US response - is not readily apparent from a humanitarian standpoint . . . Perhaps it’s just one of those quirks that develop in special relationships.

1Henry, Ed. 2008. Obama closely monitoring Gaza, adviser says. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from

2United States. Census Bureau. 2009. The 2009 Statistical Abstract. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from
This fact holds true insofar as the United States is not at war with a particular country during the time frame in question. If the US is at war with a country its accounting somehow allows this to be translated into “foreign aid” to that country, so the figure greatly increases. Thus, if we exclude Afghanistan and Iraq, foreign aid to Israel amounts to USD 2.6bn versus USD 1.8bn for Egypt, the next highest country (and the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel), in 2006. By way of contrast, Zimbabwe - a country suffering so badly that it recently abandoned its currency due to hyperinflation - received USD 29.8mn.

3Bloomberg. 2009. Credit rating unaffected by Gaza war, S&P says. Jerusalem Post. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from

4Pipes, Daniel. 1997. How Special is the U.S.-Israel Relationship? Retrieved January 30, 2009 from

5Younis, Khan. 2009. Final Gazan Death Toll Hits 1284. Taipei Times. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from

6Associated Press. 2009. Israel Faces Heat Over White Phosphorous. MSNBC. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from

7Orwell, George. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from

8Larsen, Suzie. Our Beachhead in the Middle East. Mother Jones. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from

9Goodman, Amy. 2008. Days After Calling Israeli Blockade of Gaza “A Crime Against Humanity,” UN Human Rights Investigator Richard Falk Detained, Expelled from Israel. Democracy Now. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from

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