Framing Israel

It is inevitably so that when two parties are in protracted conflict, neither will be faultless in conduct. Wrongs will be committed, misbehavior will be rationalized, and the sense of one’s own righteousness will excuse even long-term, strategic misdirections in course. The first two of those categories are why political settlements of disputes cannot come from attempting to argue to resolution the “original” wrong: there are always wrongs and Rashomon complexities to grasp onto to make one’s case. The latter is why the Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank and Gaza was such an historic error. Israelis would be happy – even I, inconsequentially, would be happy – never to need argue the same historic counter claims and charges again. There are coincident claims to land. I do not say conflicting claims because conflict is a product of mental attitude: there need not be conflicting claims to the land of ancient Israel, of Palestine, but there are coincident claims. They are either warred over, negotiated to settlement, or endlessly debated in pursuit of some undefined, ultimate judgment of the inherently superior justness of one’s cause. The last may continue up until the moment a settlement is reached.

Many of the parties these days who disfavor Israel wish to continue arguing. They wish to make Israel wrong. There is, in their own minds, an obvious reason for this, a reason that even those who disagree with them should be easily able to recognize: Israel exists, in relative power, more than sixty years after the partition, and Palestinians persist for just so long in various conditions of stateless disenfranchisement. It is impossible for many people to accept – it goes so against fundamental presumptions about human nature – that it is the Palestinians, and their fellow Arabs, who are mostly responsible for this condition, so, instead, Israel must be at fault. The difficulty in this position is that the facts, historically, overwhelmingly refute it. There is, however, a way – there is always a way – to overcome this difficulty.  Facts (ah, those golden shiny nuggets that bear a good bite of the incisor) – facts can catch the light the way you want them too if you turn the right facet to the light. The matter becomes, then, one of presentation, of angling the object of consideration just so, with this side fully revealed to the light, another like the dark side of the moon. Or, as I discussed the matter in those posts on Glenn Greenwald, it becomes a matter of framing, less a question of the facts, but of the facts one chooses to include and exclude and how one frames the narrative surrounding the former.

We know all the framing devices, from casting Israeli Jews as the last horrid conquistadors of the colonial epoch, to denying the millennia-long history of Jews in Israel – even the non-Khazarian Jewishness of Jews – to even the odious comparisons to Apartheid South Africa and, yes, Nazi Germany. To the Palestinian sympathizer who crosses the boundary into Israel demonization, these frames become the means by which to reshape, overlook, and discount all the facts that argue against their perspective. Case in point: a very recent encounter.

The blogosphere today is like a crossroads city in the ancient Levant. There are travelers and merchants converging from many lands, and if one speaks the lingua franca, one is able to do business in the vibrant market of multifarious experience. As it happened, a Twitter friend directed me to a post at Ethical Musings. The proprietor of the Musings blog is George Clifford, “an Episcopal priest, ethicist, and author” who was a Navy Captain in the Chaplain Corps during which time he taught “ethics at the Naval Postgraduate School and philosophy at the Naval Academy.” Clifford’s post, “Building in Israel and Palestine” was based around a video it offered from The Economist showcasing the photography and narration of Bruno Stevens. About the nature of Stevens’ advocacy journalism, you can read here. I was moved to comment at the blog.

One may believe it necessary and just to create a Palestinian state, and still be committed to factual and historical accuracy. Indeed, justice is unlikely without them. Your post stands correction on several points.

To begin, Bruno Stevens’ video is highly biased and inaccurate. He states that pretty much any merchandise of significance enters Gaza through the Philadelphi corridor tunnels. There are, of course, no official statistics, but smuggler estimates have been that perhaps a few thousand tons per month are transferred through the tunnels, and this number would include weapons and armaments materials. Israel delivers 12,000-15,000 tons of supplies per week.

Stevens misleadingly speaks as if the area through which the tunnels run could be policed by the Israelis. Since 2005 and the Israeli withdrawal, this is not so: the tunnels run into Egypt. The border is Egypt’s, and the Philadelphi corridor, on the Egyptian side, is policed by Egypt. The blockade at that border is Egypt’s, not Israel’s.

Stevens functions in this video as a partisan, not a reporter. He states without qualification that the blockade of Gaza is illegal. It would be generous to say that, because of the complexity of the context, expert legal opinion is divided. Investigation will reveal that many more legal experts think the blockade legal than not. The Carnegie Council overview is a good place to start.

You seem to endorse this paraphrase of Stevens: “that the Israelis view the tunnels and associated traffic as providing justification for military incursions into Gaza and for continuing their blockade.” There has been only one Israeli incursion into Gaza since Israel withdrew completely and turned the strip over to the Palestinian Authority. That incursion was not in response to the tunnels, which clearly Israel tolerates: it was in response to many thousands of rocket attacks into Israel over many years. Since the 2008 incursion, those rocket attacks have mostly stopped. Thus there have been no additional incursions.

You state, “Concurrently, Israel continues to build more housing on Palestinian lands.” Again, one may oppose Israeli settlements on the West Bank, and support the idea of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, and remain factually correct. Inaccuracy prejudices rather than supports a final resolution. The West Bank, whatever the future, was never “Palestinian land.” It was part of Mandate Palestine (the name drawn from the historic Roman territorial name, not a people) before the partition and 1948 war, occupied by Jordan from then until 1967, and then occupied by Israel and in part administered by the PA since, with Jordan having relinquished any claim. There is individually owned Palestinian (and Jewish) land on the West Bank, but, historically, no national “Palestinian land.”

Further, to write, as you do, of Israeli housing policies that “the permitting process [is] a process highly contingent upon religion, race, and sometimes gender” without any mention that Hamas, in its covenant and frequent public statements is genocidally committed to the destruction of Israel and the death of Jews, or that West Bank schools still teach virulent anti-Semitism, is prejudicial to the extreme.

Finally, and in light of the above, you further argue that “genuine progress toward peace in the Middle East will not occur until Israel adopts policies consonant with establishing two nations, Israel and Palestine.” This statement appears to be ignorant of Israeli policy through the entire Oslo peace process, and of Israeli proposals for a Palestinian state at Camp David and as recently as fall 2008. It ignores years of terrorist attacks on Israelis and Jews all around the world, and years, this decade, of suicide bombings. It ignores the Hamas covenant and the anti-Semitic education. It ignores the reality that even now, it is the Palestinian Authority, not Israel, that places conditions on negotiations and refuses direct negotiations. It ignores any Palestinian role in the conflict.
The subject requires better.

Clifford responded, in part,

With respect to the legality of the blockade, I’m not a lawyer and have no legal opinion. I strongly believe the blockade immoral. The Palestinians have every right to their own nation, choosing their own government. An essential element of sovereignty is control of one’s own borders, something which Israel currently prevents.

With respect to your claim that the 2008 Israeli incursion into the Gaza strip is the first since Israel withdrew and turned the strip over to the Palestinian Authority, a quick Google search showed incursions in 2007, 2009, and 2010.

With respect to Israel building housing on Palestinian land, your rejoinder acknowledges my point: when Israel turned the West Bank over to the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank became Palestinian land.

With respect to Hamas, Hamas is far from a model of good government, good neighbor, or good citizen in a global community. Hamas’ espousal of the destruction of Israel and killing Jews is wrong, plain and simple. However, those wrongs in no way justify an immoral response by Israel or any other nation, including the U.S.

Israel, in my estimation, pays lip service to creation of a Palestinian nation while working against the realization of that idea. You are correct: the Palestinians similarly represent an obstacle to peace. My aim is to emphasize responsibility for that deadlock rests with both sides, not simply with Palestine as most Americans presume.

Most of my analysis of this response (and clarification on the issue of incursion) is in my follow-up, but note the beginnings of argumentative slipperiness. The point on the legality of the blockade is evaded by shifting to the even more subjective question of its morality, which is the beginning of Clifford’s framing. He has chosen not to focus on the morality of Hamas. My reference to Palestinian administration of West Bank territory is converted into the vague “turned over” in order to evade the question of legal and national possession and once again assert the existence of “Palestinian land,” as if the phrase “turned over,” which I did not use, is legally determinative. Clifford’s final paragraph, and the term “lip service,” further reveals his framing. How does one counter charges of “lip service,” which is an assertion about sincerity that is very hard to support or deny, and which he does not make about the Palestinians? Actions should be telling, no? That mostly comes later. This time:

…it takes only a professional commitment to pursue objectivity for a reporter to present the true nature of expert opinion on the matter rather than state outright, confusing personal conviction for fact, that the blockade is illegal. The morality of the blockade, about which I disagree with you, is a different subject, to be addressed in different terms, but was not the claim Stevens made.

You state, “The Palestinians have every right to their own nation, choosing their own government.” I agree, and suggested that agreement in my original comment, but it might be interesting to discuss on what we base this “right” and how that basis is applied to other populations in the world who desire their own state.

You state further, “An essential element of sovereignty is control of one’s own borders, something which Israel currently prevents.” There is currently no sovereign or other Palestinian state and so no Palestinian “borders.” The boundary lines in question are impermanent, armistice lines from 1948. The borders of a future Palestinian state, however close they may come to those armistice lines are a matter to be negotiated.

Regarding “incursions,” here we are being tripped up by imprecise use of language. I thought the issue was the kind of sustained military operation of late 2008. You are right that news organizations refer to any brief movement of troops or tanks into Gaza, to pursue Hamas combatants or to seek to end concentrated rocket fire, as an incursion – and not to address the matter of the tunnels as you suggested by echoing Stevens. I wonder, would you deny Israel the “right” to respond to such offensive actions against it? And if we consider the very broad, actual definition of “incursion,” which is a “raid” or “hostile entrance into a territory,” could we then agree that, rockets aside, Palestinian combatants, as suicide bombers, made many incursions into Israel until Israel exercised what you correctly state is the right of any sovereign entity – to control its borders?

You argue, “when Israel turned the West Bank over to the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank became Palestinian land.” Israel has not “turned the West Bank over” in any legal sense that acknowledges national ownership or sovereignty. The complex arrangement of distinct Israeli and Palestinian controlling and administering authorities in Areas A, B, and C is provisional pending final resolution of the conflict.

More generally, your final two paragraphs in response to my comment profess a balance in your judgments that seems belied by your chosen emphasis. Indeed, as I feel you state rather too decorously, Hamas is far from a “model” of anything. It is an illiberal and undemocratic organization committed in its theology and political program to intolerant, theocratic rule, the virulent hatred of another religion and the genocide of that religion’s adherents. To speak more assertively of Israel’s immorality in contrast sets up an unsettling contrast.

You may estimate that Israel pays only lip service to a Palestinian state, but nearly forty-five years of the conflict were consumed by the Palestinian refusal to pay even that lip service to Israel, in voicing recognition of Israel’s right to exist. All the years since have seen the same refusal from Hamas. In contrast, as a reminder, Israel accepted an “Arab” state, as it was called, at the time of the partition, and was prepared then to live beside it. Yet you focus on Israel’s lip service, about which I would be happy to review with you the history of Israel’s concrete actions in pursuit of peace – before, during, and despite the error of the settlements – in contrast to any from the Palestinian side. It may be your aim to address the responsibility of both sides, but if you review your post, I think you will see that you did not meet that aim.

Clifford responded,

Negotiation implies equality. Israel refuses to negotiate with the Palestinians as equal. Insistence that Israel has offered to support a Palestinian (or Arab) state for over 60 years is overly simplistic. Israel has offered words, not actions, in support of that claim. If you wish to compare the plight of the Palestinians to another people, their plight most resembles that of black Africans in the South African “territories” during the rule of the white supremacists.

The USSR for most if not all of its life denied the right of the US to exist and wanted to kill US citizens. That did not prevent the US from recognizing the USSR as a sovereign nation, establishing diplomatic relations, etc.

In this moment, power rests with Israel. Regardless of Hamas’ rhetoric, progress toward peace will begin only with movement toward establishing a viable Palestinian state. Co-existence, in time, will abate the fiery rhetoric and enable both states to move towards a middle ground. Defense based on subjugation of another people always fails – at least if history is a guide. Israel’s actions over the last three decades have become increasingly self-defeating.

“Incursions” may be brief or long. If Israel’s actions in response to missile attacks targeted only the allegedly guilty, providing them the full benefit of the Israeli justice system, such responses would be moral. Instead, Israel uses it military to punish the innocent and the guilty, e.g., leveling a large apartment building from which Israel believes the missile was launched or in which a launch participant supposedly resided. Such tactics fuel animosity rather than promote cooperation.

I recommend that you read Jimmy Carter’s book, Peace Not Apartheid. My agenda, like his, is pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. All are God’s children, equally beloved.

Note how in his reply Clifford is unresponsive to my specific arguments. Apparently lacking the specifics with which to counter my own specific arguments, he abandons topics (like that of “Palestinian land”) and shifts ever more to framing devices: some undefined notion of required equality of the parties to substantiate negotiations, lip service (“Israel has offered words, not actions”), the reduction of the nature of Hamas to no more than “rhetoric,” a call for coexistence and the promotion of cooperation only in terms of Israeli actions. Most tellingly, despite pretenses to balance in his concerns, my arguments only push Clifford more openly to express his judgments upon Israel, not the Palestinians, as he now resorts to the apartheid charge. I think, then, it is now time to specify Israeli actions toward peace and question any of the Palestinians

Your resort to the awful South African white supremacist analogy – unsustainable at any point of comparison – reveals the tendentiousness behind your claims of balance. So, too, does your reduction of Hamas to mere rhetoric, and your accumulation of unsupportable pronouncements such as “Negotiation implies equality.” Says who? According to what evaluation of equality, judged by whom? There could rarely be negotiations anywhere about anything under such a requirement, but it does seem that you choose to frame the context so that Israel is structurally in the wrong while giving only, in your words, lip service to Palestinian responsibility. That is the effect, too, of conflating matters of armed conflict – warfare – with criminal justice. You speak of Israel’s words and actions, diminishing the latter, but again never speak of Palestinian action. I suppose your inequality rule renders such a consideration nugatory. I wonder what framing devices will render this list of highlights among Israeli actions toward peace and coexistence as meaningless as you must think them to so completely overlook them. I wonder what list you can offer for the Palestinians.

Actions not Words

1. Israel accepted the 1948 partition, which would have created an Arab (Palestinian) state, while every Arab nation and the Palestinians rejected it.
2. Israel offered to exchange land captured in the 1967 war for recognition in peace. As long as 32 years ago when a nation, Egypt, was willing to accept that exchange, Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt and returned the land.
3. Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan.
4. Israel entered into the Oslo peace process and, as part of the process, officially agreed to the creation of a Palestinian state at the end of a negotiated peace settlement.
5. Israel, at Camp David in 2000, agreed to a settlement, which the Palestinians rejected, in which Israel would have dismantled nearly all of its settlements and that would have created a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza.
6. Israel withdrew from Lebanon.
7. Israel dismantled all of its Gaza settlements and withdrew from Gaza, turning the strip’s administration, its civil, and its policing authority and control over to the Palestinian authority.
8. Israel, again, in 2008, proposed to the Palestinian
Authority directly a peace agreement
, which the Palestinians rejected, in which Israel would have dismantled nearly all of its settlements and that would have created a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza.

Here is Clifford’s reply, where I chose to end the exchange on his blog.

To explore the parallels between Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and apartheid South Africa, read Carter’s book, Peace Not Apartheid.

Negotiation requires a measure of equality because otherwise the more powerful simply dictates to the less powerful, creating an illusion but the reality of negotiation. This precept holds for personal relationships as well as international relationships. My extensive experience as a pastoral counselor bears witness to the former; the history of U.S. “negotiations” with third world countries bears witness to the latter. The power discrepancy between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (as well as other Palestinian groups) is too significant to permit true negotiation.

Israel nominally accepted the 1948 partition imposed by the United Nations. In fact, Israel’s actions since then have consistently demonstrated a rejection of that partition, e.g., in continuing to build settlements in west Jerusalem. In other words, Israeli actions have spoken more loudly than Israeli words.

Israel has made peace with Egypt and Jordan. Israel has never, in my judgment, entered into good faith negotiations with the Palestinians apart from the Camp David accords, the results of which Begin’s death tragically truncated.

You see why I chose to stop. A concrete, specific, and substantive exchange was not going to take place. My list of concrete Israeli actions was completely ignored in return for more subjective and unsupportable framing: “Israel has never, in my judgment, entered into good faith negotiations with the Palestinians apart from the Camp David accords.” Clifford’s judgment counters the facts of my list how exactly? Israel’s acceptance of the partition was nominal. How so judged, on the basis of the immediate Arab attack on Israel? (What’s less than nominal? Would it be outright rejection? Doesn’t fit the frame.) There cannot even be “true negotiation” under current conditions. How’s that for framing. Perhaps if Israel went so far as to give the Palestinians a military force comparable to its own, we would have the equal conditions suitable to true negotiation, or the destruction of Israel in fulfillment of Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s and much Palestinian “rhetoric.”

It is hard not to conclude that Clifford is not actually very knowledgeable about the history. He makes no mention of the nineteen year period between the partition and the Six Day War, when Israel was not permitting settlements on the West Bank because Jordan controlled it and did not give it to the Palestinians for a state. That doesn’t fit the frame. He avoids all my references to the Oslo process, and seems, in fact, to confuse to a degree Camp David of 1978 with Camp David 2000. (We’ll attribute “settlements in West Jerusalem” to ordinary mental error.) In all of Clifford’s many balanced judgments against Israel, there is never any consideration of Palestinian “lip service” or “good faith.” Not only is there no response to my list of specific Israeli actions, there is no acknowledgement that there can be no comparable list of Palestinian actions. None of all of this will fit the frame.

This is the nature of the debate now. If the Jews aren’t really Jews, the remaining facts don’t matter. If the Jews didn’t really live in Israel three thousand years ago, the remaining facts don’t matter. If Jewish nationalism and self-determination, among all nationalisms and cultural yearnings, is racist and colonial, the remaining facts don’t matter. If any individual judges in his own mind that Israel, whatever its apparent actions, is not acting in good faith, or offers only lip service, the actual facts don’t matter. If, rather than attention to detailed consideration of events and circumstance, Israel can be thumb nailed in one more excuse of paltry analogy for an argument, the facts don’t matter. If the whole history of Arab and Palestinian anti-Semitic rejectionism, and war, and genocidal threat is ignored, or reduced only to a funhouse mirror reflection of Israeli actions, the facts do not matter.

That’s the framing of Israel.



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13 thoughts on “Framing Israel

  1. Hello!
    Just wanted to say thanks for some excellent blog entries! Elder of Ziyon brought me to this site through a twitter post, and I must say I’m impressed!

    I’ll be reading through some of your older posts on Israel tomorrow. Excellent stuff, and keep it up.

  2. Leftists who support jihadists need to be scorned, ridiculed, thrown out of their jobs, “revealed” as spies to their allies, and if necessary punched in the face.

    Arguing with them over their constructs is like debating with a three year old.

  3. Thanks for another thoughtful post, Jay. This is a much longer discussion, but, what I find most interesting about Clifford – and similar commentators – is their “powerful vs the powerless” narrative – a paradigm, I would argue, that influences the politics of many “progressive” critics of Israel

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