The Battle for Legitimacy
January 16, 2009
One of Israel’s sternest critics, Professor Richard Falk, the UN Special
Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the , said this week that Israel was losing the battle for legitimacy. What
did he mean?
The answer came from the angry crowds demonstrating in cities across the
world. For them, Israel’s cruel assault on the helpless population of
means that the Jewish state has lost its honour, its good name (or what small
part of it is still intact), its threadbare claim to live by ‘civilized Western
Some demonstrators carried banners comparing Israel’s cruel actions to Nazi
barbarism against the Jews. The massacre in Gaza is just one too many to
stomach, one too many after the long list of atrocities, from Deir Yassin
onwards, that Israel has perpetrated against the Palestinians, the Lebanese
and other Arabs since it emerged brutally at the heart of the region six
Yet, most Israelis cheered on their soldiers in their gruesome task.
Brainwashed by cynical leaders and by a compliant media, they seemed to
believe that their country is waging a ‘just war’ in Gaza. The rest of the world
knows better. And so do a handful of far-sighted Israelis, who — to their
great credit — represent the troubled conscience of their violently aggressive
Uri Avnery, Israel’s oldest and most relentlessly consistent peace campaigner,
wrote this week: “What will be seared into the consciousness of the
world will be the image of Israel as a blood-stained monster… This will
have severe consequences for our long-term future… In the end, this war is a
crime against ourselves too, a crime against the State of Israel.”
Another wise Israeli is Avi Shlaim, Professor of International Relations at
Oxford University. Israel, he believes, has become a rogue state: “A rogue
state habitually violates international law, possesses weapons of mass
destruction, and practices terrorism — the use of violence against civilians for
political purposes. Israel fulfils all of these three criteria.”
An American rabbi, Michael Lerner, is the editor of the progressive interfaith
magazine Tikkun. “It breaks my heart,” he lamented, “to see Israel’s
stupidity… As a religious Jew, it confirms to me how easy it is to pervert the
loving message of Judaism into a message of hatred and domination.”
Perhaps the most severe criticism of Israel by an Israeli has come from
Professor , author of The of Palestine, his
devastating account, published in 2006, of how Israel terrorized, killed and
chased out the native population of Palestine in 1947-48. His verdict on the
Gaza war is damning: “ is an ideology that endorses ethnic
cleansing, occupation and now massive massacres. What is needed now is
not just a condemnation of the present massacre but also delegitimization of
Zionism, Pappé argues, has been exposed as ‘”racist and hegemonic
ideology.” This, of course, is not news to its Palestinian victims, nor indeed to
most Arabs and Muslims. “Let us hope,” Pappé pleads, “that significant
voices in the world will tell the Jewish state that this ideology and the overall
conduct of the state are intolerable and unacceptable and as long as they
persist, Israel will be boycotted and subject to sanctions.”
What all these dissident Israeli voices are saying is that Israel has lost the
battle for legitimacy. By reducing Gaza to ruins, by terrorizing and
slaughtering its inhabitants, it has not only permanently damaged its ‘image’
— so important in today’s media-dominated world — but it has also
severely undermined its political and moral standing, so essential for its
So why is Israel doing it? As the world watches in horror as the F-16s and
Apache helicopters flatten Gaza over the heads of its martyred inhabitants,
two explanations might be advanced. One is that there is something
profoundly irrational in Israel’s search for absolute security for its own
people, whatever the cost to others — an attitude which can perhaps be
explained as a delayed response to the terrible suffering endured by the Jews
in Europe in the last century.
This past trauma may explain why Israel seems unable to tolerate any
resistance to itself, however feeble. Hamas’ largely futile rockets seem to
induce in it into an insane homicidal rage. How dare a rag-tag Arab militia
challenge the might of the Jewish state, which has fought so hard to establish
its absolute military dominance over any possible Arab combination,
and which has insisted on America guaranteeing its military edge over all
But irrational may not be an adequate description of Israel’s behavior. Its
actions seem to reveal a profound psychological disturbance, suggesting that
the United States has perhaps been unwise to put lethal weapons in the
hands of professional killers, of uncertain sanity.
Another explanation of Israeli behavior is quite different, and points to
a wider and more sinister Israeli goal than simply satisfying an exaggerated
and paranoid need for security.
Since 1948 — indeed since Britain’s Balfour Declaration of 1917 — Israeli
leaders of every political colouring have been determined to frustrate any
move towards Palestinian statehood. They feared — and still fear — that this
would undermine their own national project. They have acted systematically
as if there were no room for two states in historic Palestine. They want
the whole territory for themselves. How else to explain that Israel refuses to
define its borders and keeps relentlessly pushing outwards?
Some Israeli leaders, like Itzhak Rabin for example, have talked peace, but
without matching actions to their words. The creeping annexation of the West
Bank has proceeded apace, whether under Labour or Likud or, more recently,
The war in Gaza looks like a desperate attempt to sink, once and for all,
any possibility of a of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What
alternative do Israel’s leaders have in mind? Clearly, they would like
to hand Gaza over to Egypt, thereby ridding themselves of responsibility for
this mass of suffering humanity, while dealing a massive blow to the
Palestinians’ aspiration for statehood. Egypt has been most reluctant to
open the — even at the risk of facing the anger and contempt
of Arab opinion –precisely because it suspects that this is Israel’s ultimate
, Israel’s former Prime Minister, withdrew Jewish settlements
from Gaza in 2005, in order to consolidate Israel’s hold over the West Bank.
That policy is still very much alive. The West Bank settlers have by now
become so numerous and so powerful as to be virtually immovable. They
have no interest in peace. They want land and still more land.
Can Obama’s America reverse this dangerous trend? Hilary Clinton, the U.S.
secretary-of-state-designate, has said that the vision of Israelis and
Palestinians co-existing in peace and security must not be abandoned. We
have heard this talk before. But she was rash enough to add that the United
States would not speak to Hamas. This would seem to be her first big mistake.
How does she hope to make peace between the two combatants when she
refuses to speak to one of them?
Only a concerted effort by the United States, the European Union, Russia and
the UN — acting together and with real muscle — can bring Israel to its senses
and give peace a chance.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the
of The Struggle for ; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East;
and : A Gun for Hire.
Copyright © 2009 Patrick Seale