Wednesday, April 01, 2009

As If We Didn't Know Already

John J. Mearsheimer, guest-blogging at Stephen Walt's place (good to see the old gang back together), has a post up which demonstrates quite clearly that he really doesn't understand the dynamics of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It's not that his predictive analysis is wrong -- he is quite right that if Israel pursues a "Greater Israel" policy unchecked, it will mean the eventual demise of the state. But beyond that, he ... how to put this gently? He doesn't know what he's talking about.

First, neither Ehud Barak nor Avigdor Lieberman "are committed to creating a Greater Israel." Barak proved his two-state bona fides at Camp David and Taba, and his Labor Party has been the primary mover in making the two-state solution official Israeli policy for nearly two decades. We can debate whether Barak should have brought Labor into government absent a commitment by Netanyahu to a two-state solution (one he wouldn't get), but there is no reason to believe that Barak will affirmatively use his position to try and create a "Greater Israel" that he has spent his entire political career trying to undermine.

Lieberman may be a racist, fascist thug, but Mearsheimer clearly doesn't know anything about his specific and peculiar brand of politics. Lieberman is most certainly not an advocate of "transferring" Palestinian Israelis (Israeli Arabs) out of the country -- a term which has a very specific meaning (essentially, expelling them). Lieberman wishes to redraw the borders of Israel so that predominantly Israeli Arab villages are incorporated into a new Palestinian state (and, in exchange, primarily Jewish settlement blocs are kept by Israel). This policy is inherently impossible to achieve without creating a Palestinian state. It is true that Lieberman doesn't see the creation of Palestine to be the immediate item on the agenda, but that's not because he's pursuing a "transfer" policy domestically.

Finally, Mearsheimer also doesn't understand the politics of the American pro-Israel community. He asks why "Israel's Jewish backers" think "Greater Israel is good for the Jews." Well, there's a simple answer to that: We don't. The settlements and the idea of Greater Israel are not particularly popular amongst American Jews. And even many (not all) of the more conservative Jewish organizations are not affirmatively in favor of Greater Israel or pro-settlement. They just either don't see the settlements as that big a deal, or think of them as a distraction from the "real" issue of Palestinian terrorism and Israel's security.

What American Jews tend to battle over is the degree to which settlements should be a primary item on the agenda. There are many Jews who will say that the settlements are a bad thing, but we have to deal with the problem of terrorism first. I think that's short-sighted -- I think the settlements are a major issue that has to be dealt with now, because they are continually aggravating the conflict, don't make Israel safer, represent an injustice to the Palestinians, and constitute a ticking time bomb on Israel's ability to maintain itself as Jewish and democratic. But that's the axis where the debate is.

I think the resistance many Jews have to putting the settlements front and center is the degree to which this conflict has been moralized into a game of "who is the worse evildoer." In the discursive climate we have, where there is nothing stupid, only something evil, saying the settlements need to be one of the primary items on the agenda table is read as saying that they are equally morally wrongful to, say, a Palestinian rocket attack on Sderot. Whether they are or not, though, is immaterial to Mearsheimer's completely correct observation that they still are a "remarkably foolish" policy. But until we can talk about Israel that way -- until not everything about the conflict is collapsed into this moral gamesmanship -- I think this debate will still be live.

But that's neither here nor there. At least in my lifetime, it hasn't been Greater Israel versus two-state solution. On that question, Greater Israel is in the definitive minority. The big debate is whether the degrees to which we should direct our energies towards pressuring Israel over the settlements versus pressuring Palestinians on terrorism and extremism. It's a debate I'm committed to winning, because like Mearsheimer and former PM Olmert I think the path Israel is going down with the settlements is suicidal. But Mearsheimer doesn't help his case when he fundamentally misunderstands the mindsets of the relevant players.

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