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FOOLING MOST OF THE PEOPLE MOST OF THE TIME IS WHAT AMERICAN POLITICS ARE ABOUT, EVEN WHEN IT COMES TO THE THREAT OF NUCLEAR WAR

John Chuckman

I read a column recently, and it was imbued with hopeful thinking about America’s political establishment dealing with its constituents concerning the now increasing threat of nuclear catastrophe.

The author said the piece was intended as “Drano” to clear the political pipes, but I am afraid that much as I sometimes enjoy the same author’s pieces, this one for me had to be characterized as illusion. It may have a lot to do with the author not being a native of the United States, and I do think my background in that country and having studied its history removes any possibility of illusion ever seriously taking hold.

When did America’s establishment ever discuss, in elections or at other times, issues of war and peace for the people’s understanding and consent?

Virtually never.

There was no mandate for Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq, Libya, Syria, or a dozen other conflicts.

Of course, once a war gets going, there is a tendency for Americans to close ranks with flags and ribbons and slogans such as “Support our troops” and “Love it or leave it.”

The senior leaders know this psychological pattern, and they count on it, every time.

The fundamental problem in America’s government is an elaborate political structure much resembling democracy but with actual rule by a powerful establishment and a set of special interests – all supported by a monstrous security apparatus and a huge, lumbering military, which wouldn’t even know what to do with itself in peace.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there is any apparent solution to this horrible political reality, and, while once it affected primarily Americans themselves, today it affects the planet.

There is an intense new element that has been added to America’s governing establishment: the drive of the neo-cons for American supremacy everywhere, for complete global dominance, and it is something which is frighteningly similar to past drives by fascist governments which brought only human misery on a vast scale.

The neo-cons’ underlying motive, I believe, is absolute security for America’s colony in the Middle East, Israel – put another way, their concern is for Israel’s hegemony over its entire region with no room for anyone else to act in their own interests. It is only if the United States is deeply engaged all over the planet that Israel can constantly benefit from its strange relationship with America.

It did not require the neo-cons to interest America’s establishment with interfering in other people’s affairs. America has a long history of doing so, stretching back to the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, the brazen seizure of Hawaii from its people and going right up to the pointless War in Vietnam and Cambodia in the hope of keeping the Pacific Ocean effectively an American lake. But the neo-cons have added a new force, a new impulse to something which would be better left alone, and they are very influential in American affairs.

Ordinary Americans are not interested in world affairs, and there is a great deal of evidence to support that statement. American Imperialists of earlier times disparaged this tendency to just want peace at home with the pejorative name, isolationism, and avoiding isolationism became an excuse for a whole series of wars and interventions.

So, Americans today cannot be allowed to fall back into their natural tendency of not caring. Thus we have the drive of the neo-cons and, tragically, thus we have America being driven into direct confrontation with Russia. And with China, too, of course, but Russia is my focus since Russia is the only country in the world literally capable of obliterating the United States. There is unquestionably a sense here of Rome wanting to go after Carthage, although cavalry, swords, spears, and catapults no longer can settle such conflicts.

The situation is compounded by the American establishment’s dawning realization that its days of largely unquestioned supremacy in the world are fading into memory, as other countries grow and develop and have important interests in world affairs. In many respects, it has been a long downhill slide for the average American since the economic heyday of the 1950s. Decline in real incomes, decline in good job opportunities at home, the export of American industries abroad to areas of less costly labor, and the virtual collapse of American towns and cities in many places, Detroit being perhaps the most sorrowful case of many – all these are evident year-in and year-out.

I do think the American establishment simply does not know how to handle its role in a brave new world, but do something it clearly thinks it must, and that is an extremely dangerous state of mind. It is armed with vast armies and terrible weapons so that it retains a sense of being able to act in some way to permanently reclaim its place, an illusion if ever there was one.

We know from scholars of the past the role that the mere existence of terrible military power can play in disaster. Huge standing armies were one of the major underlying causes of the First World War, a conflict in which twenty millions perished. Germany repeated the effort with Hitler’s government working tirelessly to create what was to become the finest and most advanced army the world had ever seen until that time, but it, too, ended in disaster, and of even greater proportions. America has not discovered the secret to making itself invulnerable, although I fear that its establishment believes that it can do so, and that represents the most dangerous possible thinking.

Contrary to political speeches, America’s establishment has never shown great concern over the welfare of ordinary Americans, and today its lack of concern is almost palpable. Washington’s white-maned, over-fed, crinkly-faced Senators spend virtually every ounce of effort in two activities: raising funds from special interests for re-election (estimated at two-thirds of an average Senator’s time) and conspiring on how to keep America dominant in the world. Anything else is just piffle. America’s unique place in the world of 1950 took care of ordinary Americans, not any effort by government. Again, the utter contempt for ordinary Americans perhaps offers a dark element in the thinking of America’s establishment when it comes to possible nuclear war.

Russia is not, of course, a direct threat to neo-con interests, except when it comes to matters like Syria, a deliberately-engineered horror to bring down the last independent-minded leader in the Middle East and to smash and Balkanize his country, parts of which, Israel has always lusted after in its vision of Greater Israel. The coup in Ukraine, which borders along a great stretch of Russia, represented a direct challenge to Russia’s security, offering a place ultimately to be filled with hostile forces and missiles and American advisors – all of which was expected to silence Russia’s independent voice in the world and its ability to in any way thwart neo-con adventures, if not, in the longer-range, savage dreams of some, to provide a platform for the ultimate destruction or overthrow of Russia herself.

Russia’s effective countering with skillful moves in its own interests both in Syria and Ukraine has driven some of America’s establishment to the edge of madness, and that madness is what we see and hear in Europe. Europe is once again being turned into a vast armed camp, and it is now seething with anti-Russian rhetoric, threats, and activities such as huge war games, the largest of which occurred around the anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Russia, the single most destructive event in all of human history.

America has created deliberately a situation almost as dangerous as the days of the Cuban missile crisis, which itself arose from the American establishment’s belief that it had every right to interfere in Cuba’s affairs.

We have another element, now compounding the danger, in a far greater variety and level of sophistication of weapons, including some nuclear weapons whose controlled yields are regarded by America’s military as being perhaps “usable” in a theater like Europe. The installation of anti-missile systems near Russia is very much part of this threat since these systems not only are intended to neutralize Russia’s capacity for response to a sudden, massive attack but to provide a cover for future covert, easily-done substitution of other kinds of missiles into the launchers, faster-arriving, nuclear-armed missiles which would indeed be an element in such an attack.

Russia, a country twice invaded with all the might of Germany and before that by Napoleon’s Grande Armeé, cannot be expected just to sit and do nothing. It won’t. It cannot.

The world must not forget that America’s military, a number of times in the past, created complete plans for a massive, surprise nuclear attack on what was then the Soviet Union, the last of which I am aware was in the early 1960s, and it was presented as being feasible to President Kennedy, who is said to have left the Pentagon briefing sick to his stomach.

Nuclear war, just as with any other kind of war, can happen almost by accident through blunders and careless acts and overly-aggressive postures. Just let the blood of two sides get up enough, and an utter disaster could quickly overtake us. Constantly decreasing the possibilities for accidents and misunderstandings is a prime responsibility of every major world leader, and right now the United States is pretty close to having completely abdicated its responsibility.

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JOHN CHUCKMAN

 

Some Israelis are fond of comparing Israel’s displacement of Palestinians to the historical experience of North Americans in displacing indigenous people, but the comparison is inaccurate on almost every level. First, comparing events of two hundred years ago and today is misleading: norms of human rights and ethics and law have changed tremendously in that time. Besides, people all over the world see and read of such injustices today, something not possible at an earlier time.

Second, the indigenous people of, for example, Canada consist of roughly one million out of a national population of 35 million, whereas Palestinians have reached slightly more than half the population of Israel-Palestine which is about eleven million. The scale and relative size of any event are important, as we are reminded time and again concerning the Holocaust

Third, the original indigenous North American people lived in a non-intensive economy of hunting and gathering and early agriculture, activities not compatible by their very nature with European settlement and development in a given region. But the Palestinians often are shopkeepers and farmers and tradesmen and professionals, activities fully compatible with the European development Israel represents.

Fourth, and most importantly, all of North America’s indigenous people are full citizens of their countries with rights to move and to work anywhere and the right to vote in elections and the freedom to marry anyone or claim any benefit owing to a citizen, whereas Israel holds the best part of five million Palestinians (Gaza, West Bank, and East Jerusalem) in a seemingly perpetual state of having no rights and no citizenship. A Jewish Israeli cannot even marry a Palestinian Israeli without serious consequences. The million or so Palestinians who are Israeli citizens – owing to the accidents of war in 1948 and certainly not to Israel’s embrace of diversity – are only technically so, having passports but having many restrictions and constant suspicions placed upon them. More than a few influential Israelis have spoken to the idea of driving them entirely out of the country at some point.

If, as Israel always insists as a pre-condition for peace talks, Israel were to be formally recognized by Palestinians as “the Jewish state,” what happens to the million or so Palestinians who are now (nominally) Israeli citizens?

Israel long has been concerned with the relative rates of growth of Jewish and non-Jewish populations in Israel proper and in the occupied territories. The populations are now roughly equal for the first time, and from now on the Jewish population likely will diminish as a fraction of the whole. These relative growth rates reflect the advanced European and American status of many Ashkenazi Jews, the people who largely run and own Israel. Advanced people today in all Western countries do not replace their populations. That is why even stable old European states are experiencing social difficulties with large in-migrations.

Significant in-migration always changes a country. Even a country such as Britain which we are used to thinking of in a well-defined set of characteristics is undergoing change, but the truth is our thinking about the character of a place like Britain is illusory. Britain over a longer time horizon was Celtic, Roman, Germanic, and Norman French with bits of others such as Vikings thrown in – all these going into the make-up of what we call the British people, what we think of as represented by, say, Winston Churchill with derby, umbrella, cigar, and distinctive accent, but, of course, Sir Winston also was half American (his mother).

Ethnic purity of any sort is a nonsense, and one hesitates even to use the phrase after the lunacies of the Nazis. Oddly, early in the Third Reich, the Nazis had considerable difficulty agreeing on what defined a Jew for purposes of the infamous 1935 Nuremberg Laws. After years of preaching hatred against Jews during their rise to power, you might think the Nazis clearly understood exactly what the object of all that hatred was, but that proved not to be the case. Under the compromise reached between various factions of the party, “three-quarter Jews,” those with three Jewish grandparents, were considered Jews. “Half-Jews,” those with two Jewish grandparents and two “Aryan” grandparents, were considered Jews only if they practiced the faith. “Quarter Jews” were considered as non-Jews. Attempting to rationalize the irrational always leads to absurd, not to say dangerous, results.

And yet, in a bitter paradox, Israel perpetuates a version of this thinking. A conception of just who is a Jew is necessary because all those regarded as Jews have the right to immigrate to Israel and to receive generous assistance in settling there. But as with any such conception, it suffers disagreements and adjustments over time, a recent one involving whether to recognize certain African groups holding to ancient variations of Jewish belief. Moreover, inside Israel there are great disagreements about rules set by one group of Jews, the ultra-orthodox, governing important parts of the lives of other groups of Jews.

As for today’s population shifts, the larger a country’s population, the more easily it absorbs in-migrants with minimal disturbance, but countries the size of Denmark or even Holland have experienced serious disturbances given the generosity of their past acceptance of refugees. And just so Israel, whose small population has struggled with huge in-migrations of Russians and others in recent decades. Many older Israelis have been irritated by them, and many of the Russians irritated at what they find in Israel. Smaller groups of in-migrant Jews and of refugees, ones with dark skins, have aroused some very ugly scenes recently in Israel, especially among the ultra-orthodox, scenes not altogether different to those of Bull Connor’s Birmingham, Alabama.

The Arab population in Israel-Palestine grows along the rates of third-world populations which have not experienced full demographic transition, something demographers have identified as an historic event in all advanced countries, a one-time population adjustment from the ancient human pattern of high birth and death rates to a modern one of low rates for both. High birth rates yield a young and growing population in any land where high death rates once claimed the lives of many children and kept population growth suppressed, but vaccines and improvements in diet and hygiene have lowered traditional infant mortality in many parts of the world. In advanced countries, the pattern has been for birth rates to fall once lower death rates are seen as the new reality, yielding slow to non-existent or even declining population growth. This last part of demographic transition requires a degree of prosperity to be achieved, something which Israel’s occupation makes impossible for Palestinians.

Countries with modern, non-replacement levels of fertility must rely on in-migration to grow and, in many cases, just to keep their populations where they are. All of advanced Europe and the United States and Canada are in this situation. A declining population has many implications, from shortages of key skills and talents to a decreased pool for soldiers and an outright decline in a country’s economic output. All advanced nations today maintain their populations through immigration.

Israel has been built almost wholly through immigration. Because Israel defines itself in such limiting terms as a state for only one group of people, with that group being a tiny fraction of world population (about 15 million out of 7 billion), Israel faces likely an insurmountable problem obtaining required future migrants. Its last source of substantial population growth was from Russia, and there are no more large pools of Jewish population left in the world willing to trade their situation for that of Israel. Jews now living comfortably in Europe and North America are certainly willing to visit Israel and perhaps donate and perhaps even do a business deal, but most are not willing to pack up and move there.

And why should they? Life is good in Europe and much of North America. In modern Israel there are endless tensions and arguments and difficulties, and immigrants face everything from national service requirements (for men and women) to punishing taxes and high costs of living and, in more than a few cases, intense prejudices. It is not surprising that recent World Bank data show significant net out-migration for Israel over the last 5 years, something new in the country’s brief history.

Why does Israel hang on to the occupied territories, the source of great stress and conflict, with their Arab population approaching 5 million? The answer, to a great extent, is found in a concept called Greater Israel. Greater Israel is supposed to reflect information from the Old Testament about the extent of biblical Israel. It includes the West Bank and Gaza, a slice of Syria, much of Lebanon, and other bits, all depending on which of several definitions you accept, there being no maps in biblical literature and words having been used with far less precision than we accept today. And there is something almost silly and chimerical about taking so literally ancient writings which include people being swallowed by a whale or turned into a pillar of salt. Whether chimerical or not, It is easy to see how dangerous the concept is today.

Many astute observers believe Israel’s 1967 War was deliberately engineered to seize much of the territory required for Greater Israel. At the time, France and the United States, while promising security for Israel, warned it not to use the war to increase its territory, but Israel did use the war that way. One of the explanations for Israel’s intense attack on the USS Liberty, a well-marked spy ship about which Israel had been informed in advance, was to silence America’s minute-to-minute information as Israel hurriedly turned its armored forces from Egypt towards the north and murdered hundreds of Egyptian prisoners of war to expedite the operation. Israel’s own behavior since 1967 certainly supports the idea of conquest as the war’s goal.

One suspects many Israeli leaders secretly believe in Greater Israel, with a number of them having spoken about it. It is important to know that the ultra-orthodox – whose parties are required for either major party’s forming a government – are the fiercest and most unapologetic believers in Greater Israel. For them “the promised land” must be as promised thirty centuries or so ago. Of course, believers in Greater Israel are not typically heard to explain what would happen to millions of Palestinian residents, other than such flip notions of their all moving to Jordan where they supposedly belong. What we see in Israel’s regular building of new settlements in the occupied territories does, for all the world, resemble a policy of slow-motion ethnic-cleansing towards creating Greater Israel. It certainly is a policy extremely hostile to any hopes of peace and stability.

How can you be so hostile and yet say that you search for peace? You cannot, at least in the real world. So how does any realistic person interpret Israel’s continued stealing of other people’s homes and farms? Israel calls these periodic thefts “facts on the ground” towards negotiation, but that ambiguous expression much resembles Israel’s public pledge never to be the first in the region to employ nuclear weapons, yet we all know that Israel does indeed have nuclear weapons while no one else does (most recent estimate is 80 nuclear warheads and a stockpile of fissile material adequate to better than double the number). While many Israelis rail against liberals who criticize such things, the simple fact is that the very definition of liberal-minded makes it impossible to accept them.

No place can sustain a sense of crisis indefinitely, something Israel has done since its founding, and the continued occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Syria’s Golan Heights only add greatly to that sense of crisis. The costs in material terms and in psychological ones are high. Indeed, it is an unnatural thing for any state to sustain itself as a garrison state, a garrison state being a fortified place where service in the armed forces, various secret services, and a large bureaucracy concerned with such matters, provides an unhealthily large part of the national economy. Such institutions consume great amounts of wealth and produce little beyond basic security, and any nation with an inordinately large set of such institutions is at a comparative disadvantage to other nations not so burdened.

Apart from the immense cost of occupation, Israel’s army is showing increasing signs of unhappiness and demoralization with its role in the occupied territories. Adding to the general malaise expressed by hundreds of soldiers and veterans, the recent government commitment to subject the ultra-orthodox to military service for the first time is sure not to prove a happy experience. It is the ultra-orthodox parties who have most driven the ferocity of Israel’s position with its neighbors. These are the people who every once in a while run out and seize Palestinian land, building shacks on it and calling it a settlement, or who chop down ancient olive groves so that the Palestinians who own them cannot make a living. And these are the people who absolutely will not live with others who are different, including even many other Jews. Their men will not ride with women on a bus, and there is a long history of attacks on people living near or passing through their neighborhoods, as the defacing of non-orthodox temples, the physical assaults on outsiders in the streets, and such extreme acts as burning down the homes of women regarded as loose, sometimes with the occupants inside. When their young men and women have to wear uniforms and do duties in the occupied territories and at borders – and note women as well as men are drafted into the army – they are going to be very unhappy, but if the government fails in its intentions, there will be continuing unrest in the larger part of Israel, many of whom regard the ultra-orthodox as an embarrassment and a national problem.

Israel hopes with such measures as drafting the young ultra-orthodox to better integrate them into society, but this seems a hopeless idea. Can you integrate old-order Mennonites into society at large? To even attempt to do so is to destroy the foundation of their beliefs, much like America’s futile attempts to alter behaviors of fundamentalist Muslims in Afghanistan.

Since the beginning there have been internal conflicts in Israel between the ultra-orthodox and others. Many outsiders are not aware of the extent of the secular, indeed worldly, nature of a great part of Israel’s population. A very large part of Israel’s population is secular, estimated at well more than 40% while the orthodox and ultra-orthodox are about 20%. Yet many social rules legislated in Israel are to please the ultra-orthodox – after all, they do hold the balance of power in Israeli elections – and since a great part of Israel’s population is not observant in religion, regarding its Jewish identity as cultural, most Israelis live under legislation with which they are uncomfortable, but it is difficult to imagine how these differences and irritations can ever be rectified. Indeed, within Israel’s Jewish population, the only people with larger-than-average birth rates are the ultra-orthodox. Much as with Mennonites or old-fashioned Mormons, the ultra-orthodox eschew many of the benefits of modern society and live to some extent as though it were still the 19th century, including 19th century rates of fertility.

It is also demoralizing for a good part of the population to realize that their country is in much the same business as past discredited societies such as apartheid South Africa. How else can it be, given the occupied territories and Israel’s notion of itself as the Jewish state? It is also demoralizing to read overwhelming expressions of disapproval in the world’s press and to see the reactions of others when travelling on an Israeli passport. Indeed, the Israeli government has gone to the desperate extreme of paying thousands of students to counter criticisms of Israel on internet commentary and social sites around the world.

The elite class of Israel consists largely of Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and North America. Recent historical research and DNA testing do tend to support an old but unproven idea, once subject to the accusation of anti-Semitism, that their origin is not the ancient Hebrew people but a 7th to 9th century people from the Caucasus called the Khazars, converts to Judaism. And, to add more irony to the situation, historical research (and some DNA testing) supports the idea that today’s Palestinians are in part descendants of the Hebrews. There is no record from Rome of its having expelled the population when it conquered the region, nor would such an act be characteristic of Rome in its many conquests. Whatever the final truth of the matter, these ideas, now taken seriously by some world-class scientists and scholars, can only add to the unease and discomfort of modern Israelis.

Israel, since its founding, has been the most subsidized state in the world, maybe even in the history of the world. Israel’s economy for that reason cannot be sensibly compared to anything. It receives about $500 per year per Jewish citizen from the United States, and it has done so for decades. But that is only the beginning. There are periodic loan guarantees of tens of billions. There is constant access at the highest level for this nation with the population of Ecuador, something no other country, even a far more important one, has.

It has a plum free-trade agreement – indeed, without exporting its subsidized crops Israel’s agriculture would disappear – a costly gift to Israel because it has no tangible benefits for Americans. The opportunity cost of the water Israel squanders on tomatoes and clementines to export is unbelievably high because it is the cost of desalination-plant water. It thus sends subsidized produce to the United States under free trade, produce the United States doesn’t even need.

Israel receives billions worth of intelligence and defense cooperation every year from the United States, something few other countries receive. The billion and a half dollars a year going to Egypt is a bribe paid on Israel’s behalf by Americans since the Camp David Agreements. Israel receives heavily below-cost natural gas from Egypt, the result of U.S. pressure. Everyone knows this is scandalous, and the U.S. offered to pay a subsidy if Egypt raised the price. Israel also receives billions from the Jewish communities of America and Europe, and it receives important business intelligence and connections.

The great privilege granted to American Israelis to be recognized as dual citizens, a status of which the United States in general disapproves, means they move back and forth regularly, all the while sharing business and other intelligence. Israel’s farms and cities and water supply were all taken with absolutely no payment or reparations from other people, that being the biggest subsidy ever received, the very substance of the nation. Israel has received tens of billions in reparations from Germany – wholly appropriate in view of the past – but still a subsidy, and today Germany still subsidizes things like submarine construction. The list is even longer than this, but I think the point is clear: Israel is, in no meaningful sense, an independent national economy. It is in truth a gigantic international welfare case.

Israel, despite the subsidies, does not offer a good living for a great many of its citizens. Huge demonstrations – much hidden in the Western press – revealed great discontent in a country where the costs of basics like home ownership are intimidating. And it is hard to see how it can be otherwise in a very small, economically-inefficient country with military and security costs like no other.

Subsidies do not continue forever, and many of the sources of Israel’s subsidies must eventually tire of its never honestly trying to create meaningful peace. Many Jews in America, while continuing to support Israel, increasingly are irritated and embarrassed by its counter-productive policies and often outrageous acts. How long can they be depended upon?

Israelis like to complain of Western liberals and their views of the country, but they fail to remember who their historic allies and enemies were. Today’s “friends of Israel” represented by the likes of Dick Cheney or Newt Gingrich or America’s religious right were the very types who exuded anti-Semitism and admired Nazis a bit more than half a century ago. How secure are such attachments?

The Holocaust generation will completely disappear soon, taking with it a great deal of the intense fear and guilt which powered Israel’s creation. The efforts of ideologue Zionists for decades would never have made Israel a reality. It took the immensity of the Holocaust, influencing both Jews and nations like the United States – which could have accepted refugees before the Final Solution, but flatly refused, sending boatloads back to Germany – to create modern Israel. The United States position on Israel has always been riddled with hypocrisy, imposing a terrible burden on Palestinians for something which was neither their fault nor anything they could have prevented and giving huge aid to Israel instead of helping with compensation for Palestinians rendered refugees in their own land.

The virtual industry we have seen in building museums and publishing books dedicated to the Holocaust largely goes against normal human nature: people have a built-in capacity to forget great pain and turn to the stuff of living. Saying that does not mean that the Holocaust will be forgotten, only that it will assume its place in history with so many other terrible events and great upheavals, events and upheavals which are hard historical facts, not ever-present sources of pain and fear. But the Holocaust as a continued rationalization for the injustice and abuse we see in Israel-Palestine is losing its force both inside and outside Israel.

No democratic state can thrive under the long continued presence of a large military and intelligence establishment, the United States being the world’s premier example of this truth. For its size, Israel’s military-intelligence establishment is quite huge. Such institutions simply do not operate under democratic rules, and they do not promote democratic values within society. Quite the opposite, through their training of cohorts of young people, their secret demands on politicians, and secretive operations, they erode democratic values and respect for human rights. That fact combined with Israel’s continued occupation and abuse of millions and the fundamental fact that Israel’s idea of democracy begins with one group making all decisions do mean that Israel’s democracy is a rather poor one.

Moreover, it is an historical fact that democracies, not protected by a Bill or Charter of Rights, will everywhere and always abuse minorities. Power, however granted, is power, and there is nothing magical about democratically-granted power which protects any group or party differing in its views. Yet, by its very nature, Israel can never have a Charter of Rights, and therefore Israel can never be a proper democracy.

Last, Israel plays a decisive role in keeping in place the very dictatorships and monarchs around it that its politicians regularly decry in speeches aimed at American audiences. Why was the Egyptian Revolution, for example, completely turned around so that eighty million people are back to living under a junta? Why was a clean democratic election with Hamas, a party which represented genuine reform from Fatah, treated as a terrorist event, leading to elected officials being arrested wholesale and their leader openly threatened with assassination, a bloody invasion of what is essentially a giant refugee camp, piracy on the high seas, and a years-long punishing blockade? Israel does not want, and will not allow, democracy in any meaningful sense to emerge amongst its neighbors. And the fundamental reason for this is that Israel knows the popular will of virtually all of its neighbors is not friendly to Israel’s most selfish interests. So does that mean that all of Israel’s neighbors are doomed to tyrannies or monarchs in perpetuity? I think it does, so long as Israel is the kind of state that it is.

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, one extremely wealthy American supporter of Israel supplied Newt Gingrich with the best part of $20 million towards Gingrich’s ambition of becoming the Republican candidate. Even in America’s money-drenched political system, such generous support does not come free. The price in this case was Gingrich’s periodically announcing in speeches that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian,” an echo of Golda Meir’s years-ago, dismally dishonest claim. Do Jews in Israel or America really enjoy hearing such paid-for nonsense from American politicians? More than anything, Gingrich resembled a pet monkey on a chain dancing for his supper. Such performances only demonstrate desperation by Israel’s apologists, a kind of frenzied wish-fulfillment to make a tremendous real problem disappear, and I’m sure many are embarrassed or disturbed by them.

Many of Israel’s Ashkenazi people hold dual citizenships, America and other countries having made an exemption to their traditional opposition to dual citizenships. While it might have been an adventure or a special opportunity to live in Israel or an expression of religious or cultural attachment, it is very likely many of them increasingly will take advantage of their situation to return to the lands of their birth. There is a better life for almost any class of people to be had in Europe or North America than in Israel. Better economies, greater opportunities, higher standards of living, no military draft for children, no daily scenes of abuse, no need to rationalize or apologize about your citizenship, no intense, unresolvable internal conflicts, and no sense of being surrounded with hostility.

No matter how many ultimately leave, large numbers of Jews will continue to live in the Middle East, but a purely Jewish state is no more sustainable in the long run than was the Soviet Union with its built-in anti-economic assumptions generating perpetual economic weakness. So, too, a state based on fear, which is in part what Israel is today. Fear does not sustain and ultimately cannot be sustained in any population. Stalin’s Soviet Union operated on fear for a considerable amount of time, but in the end even the dedicated communists desperately wanted to end fear. The many Jews who do remain will have to accommodate the realities of the region. They will come to accept Albert Einstein’s idea of Zionism: Jews living in the Middle East without the apparatus of a special state and a large army and living with respect for their neighbors. Perhaps, what will ultimately emerge is a single nation living in genuine peace. At least we can hope.

THE ANNAPOLIS CONFERENCE: DEAD MAN WALKING

John Chuckman

The Annapolis Conference was, like so many political and diplomatic events of our time, highly choreographed, finely stage-managed, and heavily marketed. Yet, as soon as it was over, it was apparent little had happened, much as when a child opens a much-advertised, expensive plastic toy on Christmas, a brief, glitzy, big-eyed moment followed quickly by tedium. You might compare it to a George Bush press conference or any American presidential debate. Indeed, such choreographed non-events make up a fair portion of what Americans see on their evening news, a phenomenon we might call virtual or synthetic news.

I am reminded of a Bush summit with the oleaginous Tony Blair, both of them standing at parallel podiums, pontificating and smiling as though they regarded themselves as re-incarnations of Roosevelt and Churchill, which undoubtedly they do. When they finished saying nothing glibly (glibly, at least in Blair’s case) they turned towards each other and walked like two cuckoo-clock figures to meet and turn again, marching out in lock step along a red carpet, for all the world the just-crowned king and queen of the high-school prom leaving the dance floor. Or I recall Richard Nixon’s inspiration to have guards at the White House dressed in powder-blue uniforms complete with feathered marching-band hats and horns blaring “Hail to the Chief” each time the great man appeared. It was the court of Louis XIV as furnished by Wal-Mart.

It is actually hard to understand what precisely motivated the conference. It is clear that Condoleezza Rice, an utterly forgettable Secretary of State without an achievement worth citing, someone who likes to talk and hear herself talk, to shop for expensive shoes on Fifth Avenue, and to play the role of child prodigy up from America’s backwoods at White House soirees, hoped to do something substantial with this conference. It is a practice that’s called “leaving a legacy” by the American press. It’s a grand old tradition. All Presidents and Secretaries of State are supposed to leave some kind of legacy, just as the first female Secretary of State, Ms. Albright, left tens of thousands of children dead with sanctions on Iraq or Colin Powell left us with the lasting memory of lying through his teeth at the United Nations General Assembly in order to promote the invasion of Iraq.

It’s equally clear that something desperately needs to be done in the Middle East. It’s sinking into perpetual, bloody insanity. Israel’s near-paranoid ideas about its own security are sucking much of the planet’s resources into the political equivalent of a black hole from which nothing emerges. Israel never has enough security. Occupation, reprisals, and wars haven’t supplied enough. Arrest and torture haven’t supplied enough. Spies and assassinations haven’t supplied enough. Atomic weapons haven’t supplied enough. Walls do not supply enough.

The poor Palestinians pay a terrible price for crimes against the Jews with which they had absolutely nothing to do. The self-righteous United States is only too happy to see them paying it. After all, the greatest opportunity there was to avoid the Holocaust was for the United States to open its doors, which it adamantly refused to do for even a single boatload of Jewish refugees in the 1930s.

Well, where someone else is paying the freight, America loves assuming idealistic poses, making gestures and speeches about peace and rights and all good things human. Indeed, over decades of American posturing and blubbering, conditions in the occupied territories have become worse in many ways: more than a quarter million Israeli “settlers” now live on what can only be honestly described as stolen Palestinian land in the West Bank, and a giant wall, far more massive and foreboding than the infamous wall that once separated East and West Berlin, sits on still more Palestinian land, separating families and destroying their commerce and livelihoods.

Almost certainly over time, Israel’s wall will generate a considerable dead zone even further into the West Bank, ready at some point in the future to be “re-claimed” by more settlers. It’s worth noting that the Palestinians today control just over twenty percent of Palestine, a territory that once was entirely theirs and that according to maps drawn in the international diplomacy that pre-dated modern Israel was to be divided equitably between Jews and Arabs.

Many Jews, perhaps most, subscribe to the notion that they have an ancient claim to Israel because of the Bible stories, an argument pretty much comparable to Greece making claims on the coast of Turkey because ancient Greece won the Trojan War as recorded in the Iliad and the Odyssey. This of course totally ignores history, and the many conquests of ancient Israel, a land Jews occupied only a small fraction of the time they did not over the last twenty-five hundred years or so. Moreover, if you take such an argument literally, then the land of Israel actually belongs to descendents of the ancient people, Canaanites and Philistines, of the Bible stories, whoever they may be. I suppose the Egyptians have a claim, too, since Egypt controlled some the area as part of its empire a very long time ago. Then, too, there’s the potential claim of the ancient Phoenicians whose alphabet we still use. Clearly, this kind of claim reduces to silly stuff, but it has emotional power for Jews and for Christians raised on Old Testament stories.

Well, every people is entitled to national myths, and the rest of us do not have to regard seriously the claim that George Washington never told a lie or that Rome was founded by babes raised by a she-wolf. The trouble with this particular Israeli myth is the dangerous modern extension to which it leads. Conservative Israelis and virtually every leader since the state’s foundation in fact believe they are entitled to what they regard as all of ancient Israel, something that includes the West Bank and Gaza and indeed the Southern part of modern Lebanon and a bit of Syria. Of course, there are no maps of ancient Israel on papyrus preserved in clay containers, only modern creations based either closely or loosely on Biblical scholarship, but in any event as dependable as all efforts based on scraps of ancient text which itself is full of myths and exaggerations.

I believe that dedication to the dream of ancient Israel, what is often called Greater Israel, has been the major barrier to peace since the modern founding. That is not a widely accepted proposition, but there are many reasons to regard it as a true one. Disinformation and black operations of many kinds have left the general public, at least in America, with the idea that Israel was content with its borders and that it was only the fury of “irrational” Arabs that preventing Israel’s living in peace. The truth is that virtually all Arab leaders accept the existence of Israel, have no intention of trying to destroy Israel, and, anyway, do not have the means for doing so. They would however like very much to see some justice, as would millions of others.

The example of the Six Day War is perhaps the most revealing of many instances of disinformation and black operations. We have the views of many astute contemporary observers four decades ago, including one of the world statesmen of the time, President de Gaulle of France, that Israel manipulated conditions for that war, using Arab anger over a long series of provocations to get the war it wanted, knowing well that it could win and that ultimately, in any event, its security was guaranteed by the United States. This operation was a complete success, leaving Israel with real estate it desired and leaving the world’s general public with the psychologically important (false) impression of little David standing up to the Philistines. Who doesn’t admire the gritty little guy standing up for his rights?

Forty years later, Israel still holds most of these conquests, treating the inhabitants shamefully, as badly as ever apartheid South Africa treated the people it did not want, and Israel continues to launch attacks or provocations over other areas of Greater Israel, southern Lebanon and Syria, while gradually bricking over the West Bank. It gave Egypt back the Sinai because world pressure was overwhelming after Sadat’s stunning act of statesmanship in coming to Israel. The pressure was reflected in sharing the Nobel Peace Prize earned by Sadat with an Israeli Prime Minister who was an unapologetic old terrorist associated with the Irgun (a group responsible for, among other terrors, the King David Hotel bombing, 1946, and the Deir Yassin massacre, 1948) and an ardent supporter of Greater Israel to his death, something he repeatedly reminded President Carter of at Camp David. The Sinai is not one of the world’s hottest pieces of real estate and in return for giving it up, Israel gained peace with the only Arab country capable of being a serious threat. Moreover, the United States opened its check book to cement the peace with economic assistance to Egypt now second only to the huge amount given to Israel, and Israel received several billion dollars to relocate defences in the Sinai. An equivalent set of conditions does not apply to any of the other occupied territories.

When Israel announces a “freeze” in West Bank settlements, as it routinely feels obliged to declare for a conference such as Annapolis, it does not mean a halt to road and other construction projects already underway in the last batch of property seized from others, and it does not even mean enforcement against liebensraum-crazed settlers who always charge out with their submachine guns to grab someone else’s olive grove and start some new informal settlements with beat-up trailers, flags, and razor wire.

It is ironic that the United States seems so little concerned about the settlers, matters around ownership and property in other lands always assuming overwhelming importance in American foreign policy. Wars have been fought over it. The long dirty terror war against Castro started over just such issues. The only explanation for the vast slaughter in Vietnam was that people’s choosing the wrong economic system, the leaders in America’s rump-state ally being dictators as surely as those in the North. This behavior by Israelis is as lawless as any fleecing of foreign investors in Moscow by the Russian mafia or the uncompensated nationalization of American corporate assets in what were once commonly called banana republics, this last being the cause of a whole series of secret, violent interventions by America.

The problems involved now with returning to the Green Line, as U.N. resolutions and the needs of genuine peace require, seem almost insurmountable. How do you move more than a quarter of a million people in any reasonable time? And if the people refuse to be moved, as is very much likely to be the case with many on the West Bank? The Israeli Army recently had a difficult time with a relatively small number of settlers who lived in a hopeless colony behind razor wire in Gaza. One can only imagine what a comparable change in the West Bank would involve.

I should observe here that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza is best understood as a tactic, the West Bank being a place of far greater immediate interest. Gaza has been called a giant open prison, and that description is not far from the truth. Its 139 square miles are jammed with about 1.4 million people, more than ten times the population density of Israel, and it enjoys no access by land, sea, or air without Israeli permission. No one can regard it as having any potential as an independent, viable state. The ultimate fate of Gaza in Israeli government thinking may be either to remain as an isolated, undefined entity, providing a pool of cheap labor as required, or a place to be made so uncomfortable over time that most of its people flee.

The idea of causing people to flee from a hopeless situation is an old one in Israel. We have statements going back to the late Moshe Dayan in his prime to that effect concerning the territories. As to cheap labor, the simple demographic fact is that Palestinians have birth rates comparable to certain other poor areas of the world such as West Africa. This maintains a young and growing population. Israel’s birth rates, except for the ultra-orthodox minority, compare to those in other advanced states whose populations have passed through demographic transition. No advanced Western society can replace its own population through natural increase, and that is why migration is beginning to be important in lands where once it played a small role. Gaza’s gates over the decades have been opened or closed many times to the many workers in Gaza employed in Israel according to changes in the political and security environment.

Many Israelis, not just settlers, do not want to return land recently taken from Palestinians. There is actually a wide spectrum of opinion in Israel on this matter, running from those who never want to give anything back to Arabs to those willing to return to the Green Line. Polls show this last group is not dominant and that most Israelis believe in holding onto at least some of the territories. A vision of some form of Greater Israel still holds sway over much of public opinion.

And the difficulties associated with a return to the Green Line are only heaped up with other insurmountable problems such as the right of return of Palestinian refugees early Israel terrorized into running away. United Nations’ principles supposedly assure the right of return of any people cast out in this fashion, but Israel is never going to agree with this principle because its democracy is based on an assured overwhelming Jewish majority in perpetuity.

During the same decades of adverse change in the Middle East, conditions also have changed within the United States. They have changed in several ways. First, America has become, unabashedly, an imperialist power. For many decades there was a kind of Jeffersonian fig leaf over the rise of America’s empire, which ironically began with Jefferson himself. It was always advertised as a bastion of liberty, a place of refuge, a society that embraced human rights – all arising from the revolt of a young, scrappy people against the world’s last great imperial power. But since World War II, and increasingly since the fall of the Soviet Union, Americans have started saying there’s nothing wrong with being an empire and using military muscle where they see fit. Some of the boldest words around this changing attitude, attempting to palatably market what was once considered unpalatable, come from the neo-cons who have enjoyed such great influence under the weak and ineffectual Bush. They call openly for America to assume the imperial purple of Rome on a planetary scale. You have the military power, America, use it. To hell with what the other ninety-five percent of humanity thinks or fears.

Central to the neo-con effort is a drive to make Israel what they consider more secure, the most noted neo-cons being rather intense defenders of Israel’s excesses. This security need, of course, was the major impetus behind the invasion of Iraq. It was also the impetus behind America’s support for Israel’s bloody attack on Lebanon. And it is the impetus behind all the noisy threats against Iran.

Israel is discussed by the neo-cons in terms of democracy and enlightenment in the Middle East, ignoring the fact that Israel limits its population by religious identity, which really is not quite what most of us mean by democracy. And with regard to human rights and enlightenment, holding millions in seemingly perpetual bondage is a very odd interpretation. Few Americans know that there is no such thing as a Bill or Charter of Rights in Israel. Such a document would require a great feat of imagination when your population is defined by religious identity and you hold others in bondage. While about 19% of Israel’s population is Arab, that fact alone is a source of constant unease in Israel. These people are descendents of those who refused to flee under the violence of Israel’s creation, and today in many respects they are not treated as equal citizens.

Israel has become an important component in what neo-cons see as the American Empire. It sometimes serves as a proxy actor for American interests in the region, an imperial pied-à-terre, it has been armed and equipped to resemble a miniature geo-political replica of the United States, and, perhaps most importantly, Israel has a set of ruthless policies the neo-cons would very much like the United States to adopt almost in their entirety. Under Bush, this last has come near to becoming reality.

No national American politician today speaks in anything but exquisite political correctness about the Middle East – unless he or she is talking about Iraq or Iran or Syria, in which case threats of bombs and hellfire are always deemed appropriate – never forgetting to lavishly praise Israel for its long search for peace, even when the search involves mass slaughter in Lebanon with cluster bombs or the cold-blooded murder of UN observers. Indeed, politicians of either political party today literally run a gauntlet of American Jewish organizations, attending rubber-chicken dinners wearing de rigueur yarmulkes, making pledges for Israel more solemn-sounding than anything they make about any other part of the planet.

You’d think it was a service club environment during the Cold War, and the pledges concerned the unspeakable horrors of communism, but it’s not the Cold War, and the Palestinians are not enemies, just victims fighting back with largely ineffectual means. What’s more, Israel – as it has proved so many times with its extensive and damaging spying, dirty tricks and black operations, secret projects such as those for developing nuclear weapons or assisting South Africa to do so, high-handed turns in policy, and misuse of American-supplied armaments in violation of signed agreements – is often not even a particularly good friend to the United States.

Now, American politicians do not make pledges of undying devotion out of sheer emotionalism. Emotions for American politicians generally are things only to be manipulated for effect. So why the pledges? The most important reason concerns the structure of American national politics. Lobbying is a central part of how Americans are governed, almost resembling a fourth branch of government. In addition, American politics are totally driven by money, much the way national consumer products are pushed into existence by expensive marketing and advertising campaigns. Effective advertising has been proved a profitable technique in selling products and in selling politicians. Money is literally the oxygen of American political life. Special interests supply most of this political oxygen. The better lobbyists have learned how to market their support and to lever their resources for the greatest possible effect. They use their resources to help their supporters and to hurt those who oppose them.

Every thinking American knows Israel’s lobby is today a very powerful force in American politics, no matter the endless name-calling against such a non-inflammatory and thoughtful book as Mearsheimer and Walt which only documents what people already know anecdotally. Indeed, the very size and noise of the opposition raised against that calm, scholarly, rather dull book are measures of its accuracy.

The Israeli lobby has a conventional formal face in AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee), but it consists of much more than just that organization which follows along the similar lines and is subject to the same rules as hundreds of lobbies in Washington. The whole Israeli lobby involves many organizations working towards the same general goals and includes a large number of columnists and broadcasters who periodically focus on certain issues almost resembling a flock of birds landing on the same roof.

The cooperation between these group and individuals is largely informal, greatly resembling the loose structure that exists between the White House and the mainline media in the United States around foreign policy. Yes, America has freedom of the press, but that does not mean that those who actually own a press will pursue the broader public interest. It is demonstrable that they often do not. The New York Times or ABC do not call to ask the White House what they should or should not print or broadcast about Iraq or many other matters: they generally know from long association and common interests. These business organizations – and that is just what newspapers and broadcasters are, business organizations, not idealistic organizations dedicated to truth – want to keep their government sources, and they want to keep their advertisers, and they want generally to keep their credibility with establishment interests.

Israel’s total aggregate lobby has a shared informal understanding of, and intense emotional involvement with, the “King’s great matter” as Cardinal Wolsey described Henry VIII’s need for a divorce. The great matter in this case is a shared perception of Israel’s constant need for winning and appearing positive in all things from public relations to war.

One of Israel’s great supporters today in America is the Religious Right, people who are the very ones you might reasonably suspect of anti-Semitism – the authentic, virulent stuff, not the stuff of phoney accusations now routinely hurled at any critic of Israel. After all, haters are haters, and these people have leaders who rant and scream in public against anything or anyone a little different than themselves. They have a long record of being on the wrong side of nearly every important movement from civil rights to women’s rights. An earlier generation of them was among the extremely vocal against accepting Jewish refugees in the 1930s, and they were among those who flirted with Hitler and Nazism in now near-forgotten movements like the American Bund.

Perhaps nothing better represents some of the bizarre confusion associated with American policy towards Israel than the support of these people. I think we all know they are not the kind of people who would welcome a large Jewish migration to the United States even today. Their support of Israel is part of a religious mysticism in thrall to lurid nightmares from The Book of Revelations concerning the Second Coming of Christ, Anti-Christ, the “mark of the beast,” and great wars and upheavals signifying the end of time. I suspect enjoyment of this violent stew has at least something to do in part with secret cravings of anti-Semitic appetites, hardly the kind of friends for which anyone could hope. Their approach today seems to be to expedite the coming of Armageddon.

We have a great and enduring irony in that only when America pushes does Israel respond. It is an irony because the difficulty of pushing increases with the influence of the Israeli lobby, which today is almost certainly larger and better established than ever. Judging by the last half century of history, one has to say that Israel on its own has never shown much statesmanship or generosity towards its neighbors in the Middle East. Visions of Greater Israel are a large part of the explanation. The great gestures have come from others. Israel’s policy from the beginning has been best characterized by the phrase “the iron wall,” an expression coined by an early Zionist to prescribe Israel’s appropriate future posture towards Arabs.

Reports told us weeks before Annapolis that Bush had been told – by, among others, Senator Lieberman, someone who talks about Israel as though he were speaking of a neighbourhood in his Senate district – that Olmert must not be pushed at this time. His political situation is too precarious. That alone doomed any hope of genuine progress. As it proved, the conference was nothing more than a kick-off ceremony for talks that are supposed to take place over the next year between Olmert and Abbas. One hesitates to point out that were there any genuine interest in such talks, they could have occurred, without Condoleezza and without Annapolis, at any time since Arafat’s death in 2004, but Abbas has been pretty consistently ignored over that time by Israel, treated as a doorman or janitor. He has received some token gestures – a limited amount of the Palestinians own funds released and a few hundred prisoners here and there out of the nine thousand Israel illegally held – only after his convulsions with Hamas in Gaza.

Speaking of Hamas, the absence of one of the major parties to the conflict absolutely dooms the prospects of talks. Israel justifies this by saying it won’t treat with terrorists, but this is ridiculous considering the role terror played in Israel’s own founding. Judging by the number of innocent civilians killed just in recent years, I think it fair to say that the IDF qualifies as at least as great a terrorist organization as any Palestinian group or party. Something like 1,500 civilians killed with little excuse in southern Lebanon? Buildings full of civilians in Gaza blown up in efforts to assassinate one man? Punishment-slaughter expeditions like Jenin or Rafah?

Regardless, to make peace you do not have to like your neighbor. Hamas has made it clear it was ready to reach an understanding with Israel, but all such suggestions are arrogantly ignored. Such an understanding over time would have allowed Israeli and Palestinian officials to work together to solve problems. A great irony here is that Israeli secret services once subsidized Hamas to create competition for Fatah, and that is exactly what has happened now, a wasteful civil conflict has been generated between Hamas and Fatah. One feels sure Israeli leaders are more than a little amused in private at a situation they always regard with stern faces in public. Hamas is not and has never been a genuine threat to Israel’s security. The truth is that Hamas might have made a better partner in peace arrangements than Fatah with its long history of internal corruption. Of course, too, Hamas was elected in an election cleaner than that which put George Bush into office.

But you have to start by actually wanting peace. Peace is not having a neighbor who follows your every wish and whim and fulfills exactly the conditions you lay down before even talking. That isn’t peace, that’s tyranny.

Peace, following long conflict, never comes without sacrifice, but many Israeli leaders and American apologists for Israel speak as though that were not the case here. The offer Ehud Barak made to Arafat at Camp David – the offer of a perpetual Bantustan with all kinds of segregationist rules about who could travel on what road – entailed little sacrifice for Israel, unless you want to call simply accepting the idea that any Palestinians should continue to live in the West Bank and Gaza a sacrifice. And perhaps that is not an exaggeration. New settlements have been created year after year since, Israel calling the settlements “facts on the ground,” a deliberately vague phrase that could mean anything from bargaining chips to the new permanent reality. To the outside observer, it is difficult to see this growth of settlements as anything but a slow-motion version of ethnic cleansing on the relatively small part of Palestine Israel does not now call its own.

From the distance of a satellite in orbit, the settlements’ growth must somewhat resemble cancer metastasizing into a body as new clumps of buildings appear and roads and barriers form like connective webs of tissue. It is a dismal reality, and it has nothing to do with peace.