Israeli democracy, or the lack thereof: a conversation with Alternet’s Joshua Holland

I recently spoke to Alternet’s Joshua Holland about law and politics in Israel. Our conversation focused on the image of Israel as a Western style democracy coping with legitimate security concerns versus the reality of Israel as an ethnocratic state managing its demographic peril through authoritarian measures approved by the Jewish majority. The discussion can be heard here. Below is a transcript via Alternet:

Joshua Holland: Max, I don’t want to talk about Iran today. I don’t want to talk about the Israeli lobby in the United States, and I don’t want to talk about the Occupation. I want to talk about something I don’t think gets enough attention in this country, which is the sharp rightward turn of the Israeli government.

One of the great non-sequiturs of our political discourse is that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. And I say it’s a great non-sequitur because it’s usually used as a response to, for example, criticism of the Occupation. You say this Occupation is terrible, and people say it’s the only democracy in the Middle East.

Anyway, Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition Kadima Party, accused Benjamin Netanyahu recently of, “an attempt to transform Israel into a type of dictatorship.” Kadima lawmakers said that recent legislation passed by the Knesset represented, “the gravest challenge to democracy since the establishment of the state in 1948.” Tell me about the sharp rightward lurch. When did this happen, because I remember when I was a kid Israel was almost a socialist country.

Max Blumenthal: Well, by not wanting to talk about Iran you’re an anti-Semite and I condemn that.

JH: Max, I’m a self-loathing Jew — please get this straight.

MB: Part of Netanyahu’s goal in focusing on Iran is taking the Palestinian question off the table, and so it’s good that you’re talking about this. Israel has never been a democracy in the sense that we think about a democracy. It’s a settler, colonial state that privileges the Jewish majority, which it created through violent methods of demographic manipulation over the indigenous Palestinian outclass.

That’s true even inside Israel. So when you hear people like Tzipi Livni — who is for now the head of the Kadima Party but soon to be ousted, and actually came out of the Likud Party and was aide to Ariel Sharon – when you hear liberal Zionists, people on the Zionist left, warning that Israel is turning into a fascist state what they’re talking is the occupation laws creeping back over the green line, and that these right-wing elements are actually starting to crack down on the democratic rights that have been afforded to the Jewish majority inside Israel. So Jews who are left-wingers, who are dissidents and speak out against state policy are actually beginning to feel a slight scintilla of the kind of oppression that Palestinians have felt since the foundation of the state of Israel. That’s where this criticism is coming from.

I think we really need to get beyond the discourse of occupation and the discourse of fascism, and instead to talk about institutional discrimination and apartheid, which is what has been present since the foundation of the state of Israel.

JH: Now I want to talk about some of the specific measures that have been proposed, some of which have passed. There are some things that have been pulled back or tabled temporarily due to international pressure, and other have actually gotten through and become law. Tell be about the crackdown on NGOs.

Continue reading

Israel’s bogus case for bombing Gaza obscures political motives

This piece was originally published at Al Akhbar English

In the last two days, Israeli forces have killed at least 15 residents of the Gaza Strip and wounded over 30. Among the dead are two young boys (see here and here), while the wounded included a reporter from the Ma’an News Agency and his pregnant wife. Militant factions in Gaza have responded to the Israeli assault by launching several homemade rockets at Southern Israel, leaving two injured and no one dead.

The Israeli army claimed that it initiated the assault on Gaza in order to kill two alleged militants who supposedly “masterminded” a brazen and deadly terror attack near the Israeli city of Eilat in August of last year. The army also claimed the two were planning a new operation. According to Al Jazeera English’s Jerusalem correspondent Paul Brennan:

The Israeli army is saying these two people it targeted with its clinical airstrike on Friday night were senior militants who were plotting an attack.

The Israeli army says that last year’s attack on the road that runs alongside the Egyptian border, where eight people were killed and 25 Israeli soldiers were wounded, was masterminded by the two men they targeted.

“Zuhair Al-Qaissi and Mahmoud Al-Hannani were said to have been behind these attacks, and the Israeli army said that these two men were planning a similar attack and that is why they launched their aerial clinical attack.

The Jerusalem Post, which functions as a virtual bulletin board for the Israeli army, told a similar story: “The IDF said it decided to bomb Qaisi’s car due to intelligence that he was plotting a large terrorist attack along the border with Egypt,” the paper reported, “similar to the one the [Popular Resistance Committee] carried out last August that killed eight Israelis.”

As is so often the case, the Israeli army is lying.

Continue reading

1 State conference critic Foxman once suggested “fully integrating the Palestinian Arabs into the Israeli body politic”

This weekend’s One State Conference at Harvard University has prompted predictable cries of outrage and calls for cancellation from the Israel lobby and its allies in Congress. Senator Scott Brown, a Republican from Massachusetts, is the latest Friend of Israel to join the chorus of condemnation, calling for Harvard to ban the conference altogether. The campaign of intimidation and smears highlights America’s pro-Israel community as the political element most devoted to suppressing free speech and academic inquiry on campuses across the United States.

Abraham Foxman, the national director for the Anti-Defamation League, is at the helm of the campaign to censor the discussion at Harvard of equal rights in Israel-Palestine. In an op-ed for the Boston Globe, Foxman wrote, “Let’s be frank. The term ‘one-state solution’’ is a euphemism for the destruction of the Jewish state of Israel.” He attacked the conference participants for their ” alleged concerns about Israel’s ‘occupation’’ and treatment of the Palestinians,” claiming that their true goal was to “make anti-Semitism more acceptable and more likely.”

In light of Foxman’s assaults on the academic discussion of equal rights for all living under Israel’s control, it is worth recalling an angry letter he sent to the editors of the New York Times on June 20, 1984. In the letter, Foxman took issue with an editorial the Times published calling for a two state solution that would have required Israel to give up control of the West Bank. Foxman criticized the authors for casting Israel’s undemocratic control of the West Bank in a negative light, insisting that Israeli control of the Palestinians was not “deleterious to [Israel's] well being.” And in the end, he suggested that Israel should consider”fully integrating the Palestinian Arabs into the Israeli body politics.” This is the very concept that will be discussed and promoted at the One State Conference this weekend at Harvard.

Below the fold is the full text of Foxman’s letter, which I retrieved from Lexis-Nexis:

Continue reading

Progressive hero Elizabeth Warren tows AIPAC’s pro-war line

Few congressional candidates have excited the progressive base of the Democratic party as much as consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren has. With her tenacious advocacy for a consumer protection agency to fight unfair lending practices and her consistent framing of economic issues in terms of structural inequality has earned her enthusiastic promotion from major progressive figures from Markos Moulitsas to Rachel Maddow to Michael Moore.

Warren has focused her race against incumbent Republican Senator Scott Brown almost entirely around issues of economic justice, placing her quixotic battle for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at the center of her campaign narrative. During an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Warren boasted that she succeeded in creating the bureau despite opposition from “the toughest lobbying force ever assembled on the face of the earth.”

While progressives celebrate Warren for her fight against the big banks and the financial industry’s lobbying arm, they have kept silent over the fact that she has enlisted with another powerful lobby that is willing to sabotage America’s economic recovery in order to advance its narrow interests. It is AIPAC, the key arm of the Israel lobby; a group that is openly pushing for a US war on Iran that would likely trigger a global recession, as the renowned economist Nouriel Roubini recently warned. The national security/foreign policy position page on Warren’s campaign website reads as though it was cobbled together from AIPAC memos and the website of the Israeli Foreign Ministry by the Democratic Party hacks who are advising her. It is pure boilerplate that suggests she knows about as much about the Middle East as Herman “Uzbeki-beki-stan-stan” Cain, and that she doesn’t care.

Warren’s statement on Israel consumes far more space than any other foreign policy issue on the page (she makes no mention of China, Latin America, or Africa). To justify what she calls the “unbreakable bond” between the US and Israel, Warren repeats the thoughtless cant about “a natural partnership resting on our mutual commitment to democracy and freedom and on our shared values.” She then declares that the United States must reject any Palestinian plans to pursue statehood outside of negotiations with Israel. While the US can preach to the Palestinians about how and when to demand the end of their 45-year-long military occupation, Warren says the US “cannot dictate the terms” to Israel.

Warren goes on to describe Iran as “a significant threat to the United States,” echoing a key talking point of fear-mongering pro-war forces. She calls for “strong sanctions” and declares that the “United States must take the necessary steps to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon” — a veiled endorsement of a military strike if Iran crosses the constantly shifting American “red lines.” Perhaps the only option Warren does not endorse or implicitly support is diplomacy. Her foreign policy views are hardly distinguishable from those of her Republican rival, who also marches in lockstep with AIPAC.

The same progressives who refused to vet Barack Obama’s views on foreign policy when he ran for president in 2008, and who now feel betrayed that he is not the liberal savior they imagined him to be, are repeating their mistake with Warren. With AIPAC leading the push for war at the height of an election campaign, there is no better time to demand accountability from candidates like Warren. Who does she serve? The liberal grassroots forces that made her into a populist hero or the lobby seeking to drag the US into a dubious, potentially catastrophic war? It is far better for progressives to grill her on her foreign policy positions before the campaign is over than after the next war begins.

Congress promises Iranian people strangulation and catastrophe

Yesterday, the New York Times reported on the depressingly predictable consequences of US-led sanctions against Iran: they have reinforced the regime’s hold on power and enriched the elite while wrecking the lives of millions of middle and working class Iranians. The Times’ Robert Worth made prominent note of the fact that sanctions were motivated at least as much by President Barack Obama’s domestic political ambitions as they were by American foreign pollicy interests:

Yet this economic burden is falling largely on the middle class, raising the prospect of more resentment against the West and complicating the effort to deter Iran’s nuclear program — a central priority for the Obama administration in this election year…

Ordinary Iranians complain that the sanctions are hurting them, while those at the top are unscathed, or even benefit. Many wealthy Iranians made huge profits in recent weeks by buying dollars at the government rate (available to insiders) and then selling them for almost twice as many rials on the soaring black market. Some analysts and opposition political figures contend that Mr. Ahmadinejad deliberately worsened the currency crisis so that his cronies could generate profits this way.

More pointless, politics-driven economic warfare is on the way. At the prompting of United Against A Nuclear Iran, a neocon front group whose board members have already urged “military action” against Iran, the Senate Banking Committee recently approved a new round of sanctions that would force the “Swift” telecommunications industry to expel Iranian banks. The New York Times noted that the Swift sanctions “would be financially catastrophic for Iran if carried out fully, according to proponents and sanctions experts.”

One Democratic congressional aide who supports the Swift sanctions touted the Senate legislation as a collective strangulation of the Iranian population, remarking to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “every time that a new sanctions bill is passed, the noose gets tighter around the neck of the Iranian economy.”

A co-sponsor of the Swift sanctions, Republican Senator Mark Kirk, has been the largest single recipient of AIPAC-related donations in Congress. Kirk’s desire to collectively punish the Iranian people for anything their government might or might not have done is unconcealed. In an October 2011 appearance on a Chicago-area radio show, Kirk spent his time harumphing over a transparently trumped up Iranian government terror plot. But the host interrupted the senator with an important question: “Are you really going after the government of the country, or are you taking food out of the mouths of the citizens?‘”

Kirk’s reply neatly encapsulated the sadistic consensus in Washington: “It’s okay to take the food out of the mouths of the citizens from a government that’s plotting an attack directly on American soil.”

Romney’s Man on Iran

In 2005, a group of graduate students at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced and International Studies (SAIS) participated in the school’s annual diplomatic simulation. The high-pressure scenario required the students to negotiate a resolution to a standoff with a nuclear-armed Republic of Pakistan. Mara Karlin, a student known for her hawkish politics on Israel and the Middle East, played President of the United States.

Though most of the participants were confident they could head off a military conflict with diplomatic measures, Karlin jumped the gun. According to a former SAIS student, not only did Karlin order a nuclear strike on Pakistan, she also took the opportunity to nuke Iran. Her classmates were shocked. It was the first time in 45 years that a simulation concluded with the deployment of a nuclear weapon.

That year, Karlin received a plum job in the Bush administration’s Department of Defense where, according to her bio she was “intimately involved in formulating U.S. policy on Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel-Palestinian affairs.” Lebanon was a special area of focus for Karlin. She claims to have helped structure the Lebanese Armed Forces and coordinated relations between the US and Lebanese militaries.

According to the former SAIS student, Karlin was a favorite of Eliot Cohen, an ultra-hawkish professor of strategic studies at SAIS, which is regarded in American foreign policy circles as a training ground for the neoconservative movement. Through Cohen’s connections among the neocons occupying key civilian posts in Bush’s Defense Department, the former student claims Cohen was able to arrange an attractive sinecure for Karlin. Besides Karlin, the ex-SAIS student told me Cohen has promoted the career ambitions of many former pupils, including Kelly Magsamen, who worked under Cohen in the Bush administration and now oversees the Iran portfolio in the Obama administration’s State Department.

Today, Cohen is among Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney’s top campaign advisers. He is the primary author of Romney’s foreign policy white paper, which attacks Obama for “currying favor with [America’s] enemies” and “ostentatiously shunning Jerusalem.”

The paper urges a policy of regime change in Iran including possible coordination with Israel on military strikes to prevent the Iranian regime from developing a nuclear weapon. It is an aggressive Republican election season document presenting a concoction of post-9/11 unilateralism and unvarnished neo-imperialism as the antidote to a sitting president Cohen accused of “unilateral disarmament in the diplomatic and moral sphere.” More importantly, it suggests that a Romney administration’s foreign policy might look remarkably similar to – and perhaps more extreme than – that of the Bush administration.

Continue reading

The Bibi Connection

“US President Barack Obama is ‘naïve’ and needs to face up to the threat presented by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East, Israel’s National Security Council concluded during a strategic discussion several days ago,” Israel Hayom reported.

The Israeli National Security Council consists of Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s closest advisers. And Israel Hayom is not just another right-leaning Israeli tabloid. Referred to by Israelis as the “Bibiton,” or Bibi’s mouthpiece, the paper is an instrument that gives him extraordinary political leverage. The obviously planted article in Israel Hayom rang like a bell sounding the start of Netanyahu’s own campaign in helping the Republican Party oust Obama from the White House.

Israel Hayom’s genesis demonstrates the depth of Netanyahu’s connections in Republican circles. It was created by one of Netanyahu’s top financial supporters, a Las Vegas-based casino tycoon named Sheldon Adelson, who is also a major donor to the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Adelson’s closest relationship is with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a longtime ally of Netanyahu who has been running a rancorous campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

Netanyahu’s less than subtle intervention has become an open issue in Israeli politics. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni of the Kadima Party has criticized Netanyahu for damaging the US-Israeli relationship. “Netanyahu spoke about consensus,” Livni said in May, “and if there is a consensus in Israel, it’s that the relationship with the US is essential to Israel, and a prime minister that harms the relationship with the US over something unsubstantial is harming Israel’s security and deterrence.”

But Livni’s warning has been ignored. Rather than hesitating, the prime minister and his inner circle are moving full steam ahead in their political shadow campaign whose ultimate goal is to remove Obama. Bibi’s war against Obama is unprecedented. While Israeli prime ministers have tried to help incumbent presidents, none have ever waged a full-scale campaign to overthrow them.

Netanyahu has engaged enthusiastic allies in the Republican Congress, led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and within the right-wing media. His neoconservative allies in Washington are launching a “Super PAC” to generate emotional attack ads against Obama and any candidate that might be an obstacle to his policies. And his campaign has even broadened into an attempt to discredit The New York Times, whose editorial page and foreign policy columnists, Thomas Friedman and Roger Cohen, have been critical of him.

Netanyahu’s shadow campaign is intended to be a factor in defeating Obama and electing a Republican in his place. He opposed Obama’s early demand to freeze settlements on the West Bank as a precondition for reviving the peace process, a process since the Oslo Accord that Netanyahu has attempted to stall or sabotage, despite his signing of the Wye Agreement under pressure from President Clinton. Since his adamant stand against the settlement freeze, Netanyahu has undermined every effort to engage the peace process. He appears dead set on consolidating Greater Israel, or what many Israelis call “Judea and Samaria,” and has signaled a strong desire to attack Iran.

By all accounts, Netanyahu’s personal chemistry with Obama is toxic. Obama bristles at his belligerence. But Netanyahu’s hostility has reaped rewards from him, having stopped the peace process in its tracks. The latest effort by the Quartet seems doomed to failure. And Netanyahu’s rejectionism has put Obama on the defense. Most of the US Jewish establishment has remained a bulwark for Bibi’s policies. Obama, meanwhile, has been forced to declare America’s “unshakable bond” with Israel, even as Bibi thwarts Obama’s initiatives and attacks him in the Israeli press.

As political strategy, by tainting Obama as less than full-throated in support of Israel, Netanyahu bolsters the Republican themes that the president “apologizes” for US power, is weak on national security, and is an agent of “decline.” By depicting Obama as “weak” on Israel, Netanyahu’s campaign excites right-wing Jews and evangelical Christians, who overwhelmingly accept the biblical claims of the Jewish state’s historical right to Greater Israel, Judea and Samaria. Bibi’s deepest attack line against Obama merges theology with ideology.
His campaign against Obama is a high-stakes gambit that will almost certainly color US-Israeli relations well past Election Day. Already, Netanyahu has succeeded in polarizing the political debate, as his agenda is singularly aligned with the Republican Party. Yet Bibi’s short-term objectives are rapidly turning the US-Israel relationship, at least under his aegis, into a partisan issue, another litmus test of conservative ideology rather than national interest.

Continue reading