Israel Finds a New Way to Play the Victim

A report released by the United Nations last year says that Israeli settlers, angered over the destruction of Jewish outposts, could exact revenge on up to a quarter million Palestinians in the West Bank.

It’s not just vague speculation. The report, issued by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Occupied Palestinian Territory, names 22 specific Palestinian communities, with a total population of 75,900, that are “highly vulnerable” to revenge attacks, and another 59, with about 175,000 residents, that are “moderately vulnerable.” It also names numerous road segments and junctions where Palestinians are especially at risk.

The people who wrote this report have obviously been there, observed carefully, and know what they are talking about.

They’ve also listened to the Jewish settlers, who boast openly of their so-called “price tag” policy, by which they exact a “price” from Palestinians in response not just to terror attacks, but also to Israel Defense Forces (IDF) actions to evacuate unauthorized outposts. Of course, since they are more or less helpless against the IDF soldiers, the settlers intend to make Palestinians pay the price.

But the UN report stresses that the IDF is hardly the good guy here: “The main concern is the frequent failure of the Israeli security forces to intervene and stop settler attacks in real time, including the failure to arrest suspected settlers on the spot. … Among the main reasons behind this failure is the ambiguous message delivered by the government of Israel and the IDF top officials to the security forces in the field regarding their authority and responsibility to enforce the law on Israeli settlers.”

“Ambiguous” means that the IDF officially tells its soldiers to enforce the law, even when it means safeguarding Palestinian life. But when Israeli soldiers ignore that instruction, letting Palestinians suffer, the guilty Israelis virtually never suffer any consequences themselves. It’s the Israeli version of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

So the Israeli government, the occupying force ultimately responsible for the West Bank Palestinians’ security, is on notice that it’s facing a real risk of disaster. And it’s no longer a secret in Israel, where the nation’s top newspaper, Ha’aretz, has just made the UN report public.

So far, though, there is no indication that Israeli leaders have taken any steps to head off these revenge attacks. It’s certainly not being treated as a major issue in the Israeli press.

No, the Israelis have other worries on their minds. Right now, the hot new source of anxiety in Israel is an imagined worldwide conspiracy of anti-Semites bent on “delegitimization” – attacking the right of the Jewish state to exist. For many Israeli officials, it seems, this supposed conspiracy is all too real and all too dangerous. Soon they may be on full-scale alert, mobilizing their nation and its supporters to name this threat their “new battlefield,” make it a top priority, and fight back hard.

The idea of the “new battlefield” seems to have been born in the Reut Institute, a think-tank described by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times as “Israel’s premier policy strategy group.”

“Reut was established to serve Israeli government agencies and decisionmakers … from top-ranking politicians to government professionals,” its Web site explains – all at no charge, and no matter which party controls the government. When the current opposition leader, Tzipi Livni, was in the government as foreign minister, one of her advisers praised Reut: “They are very influential and highly respected. … Their alerts sometimes save the day.”

Now Reut is sounding the alert about the “new battlefield,” in a new report that’s been well-covered in the Israeli press. Here’s how Reut founder and president Gidi Grinstein explains it: “Turning Israel into a pariah state is central to its adversaries’ efforts. Israel is a geopolitical island. Its survival and prosperity depend on its relations with the world in trade, science, arts, and culture – all of which rely on its legitimacy. When the latter is compromised, the former may be severed, with harsh political, social, and economic consequences.”

The attack is being directed, Reut claims, from “hubs of delegitimization” – places like London, Toronto, Brussels, Madrid, and Berkeley that are hotbeds of anti-Israel criticism fueled by anti-Semitism.

One piece of this picture – and one piece only – is accurate enough. Worldwide criticism of Israel’s harsh occupation policies is growing rapidly, even among Jews, as well as millions of non-Jews whose moral credentials are spotless. That means the simplistic old charge that all critics of Israel are anti-Semitic is no longer plausible, even as a PR tactic.

So the sophisticated think-tankers at Reut have dreamed up a new way to try to make the stale charge of anti-Semitism stick. Now, it turns out, there is a crucial distinction we must all learn to make. “Soft critics” (including human rights groups like Oxfam) condemn Israeli policy but not necessarily the state’s legitimacy, and that’s apparently OK. Israel’s real enemies are the “hard-core delegitimizers,” fueled by anti-Semitic hatred, who are out to destroy the Jews.

The problem, Reut warns in good McCarthyite fashion, is that the “soft critics” are dupes of the “hard-core” anti-Semites, who want to use the “softies” to blur the difference between criticizing Israeli policy and denying Israel’s basic legitimacy. Reut calls for an all-out effort by Israel’s defenders to drive a wedge between the soft and hard-core critics.

That’s just part of the larger strategy described by Grinstein: “In every major country, Israel and its supporters must develop and sustain personal connections with the entire elite in business, politics, arts and culture, science, and academia.”

For example, a Reut blogger recently wrote, “Promoting Israel studies on campus [in the U.S.] and ‘branding Israel’ – a strategy aimed at associating Israel with positive characteristics unrelated to the Arab-Israeli conflict – are central to improving Israel’s international standing and countering delegitimacy.”

All this might be just a tempest in a think-tank teapot. But it seems that Reut’s claim of influence on the Israeli government is well-founded, at least in this case. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon recently told a group of diplomats in Jerusalem that Israel’s foes now rely mainly on tactics like boycotts and economic and legal sanctions to delegitimize Israel.

Ayalon dubbed it “lawfare” – and apparently the name is catching on. Britain’s attorney general, Baroness Scotland of Asthal, just gave a lecture at the law school of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. The title: “Lawfare: Time for Rules of Engagement?”

But Ayalon took Reut’s intellectual fantasy one crucial step further, into the very real and violent world of the Israel-Palestine conflict, when he charged that the whole “lawfare” campaign is being directed by the Palestinian Authority. Since Palestinian violence has declined so precipitously, Ayalon would have us believe, the Palestinians are taking the struggle to a new phase, centered on the global battlefield of “delegitimizing Israel."

It all makes a neat package – much too neat, in fact. Rather than responding to the moderating trends in both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas with any concessions of their own, these Israeli leaders would rather find a new way to go on portraying Israel as the innocent victim of irrational hatreds, which can never be mollified at any negotiating table.

Ayalon made the punch line of his argument clear enough: The so-called lawfare will “directly damage our relations with the Palestinians and any possibility of a smooth and viable political process.” So, the whole fanciful notion of a Palestinian-directed global campaign becomes another excuse to avoid serious peace talks with the Palestinians.

Ayalon certainly does not speak for all Israelis. He’s a darling of the political Right. But lately some right-wing ideas have had a nasty way of moving toward the center of Israeli politics.

Most disturbingly, this idea may also be picked up by Israel’s the military professionals. Ayalon’s view was repeated almost verbatim by Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin in his latest testimony to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. “The Palestinian Authority is encouraging the international arena to challenge Israel’s legitimacy and its activities,” he told the lawmakers. “The fact that Israel is no longer suffering from terror or from an immediate military threat has made it easier for the international community to accept claims against Israel’s security activities.”

Military officers have always been the most respected voices in Israel when it comes to issues of war and national security. If others repeat Yadlin’s claims, the “new battlefield” theory could easily become the common wisdom among Israeli Jews. And the Reut Institute’s subtle distinction between "soft" and "hard-core" critics of Israel is likely to get lost, as the right-wingers tout the other side of the Reut coin: the nonsensical but often repeated view that all the critics are ultimately driven by anti-Semitism.

That would be a disaster for Israel’s security, which can be improved only by negotiations leading to guaranteed security not only for Israel but for an independent, viable Palestinian state. The fundamental roadblock to peace and security for both sides is the persistent sense of fear and victimization that is the bedrock of political culture for Israeli Jews and for Israel’s apologists around the world.

The rising popularity of the “new battlefield” theory shows how far they will go to hold on to their fear and victimization – to see anti-Semitism, rather than the occupation, as the source of all their woes – and to avoid making the compromises that could open the path to peace.

Author: Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin, and a Foreign Policy in Focus contributor. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.