America First in the Middle East

There’s a sullenness about the current cover of The American Conservative. During a week in which the United States has witnessed the inauguration of its first black President, the house journal of reactionary isolationism ignores that milestone and instead rails … Read More

By / January 23, 2009

There’s a sullenness about the current cover of The American Conservative. During a week in which the United States has witnessed the inauguration of its first black President, the house journal of reactionary isolationism ignores that milestone and instead rails against what it regards as Israel’s self-defeating iniquities in Gaza. Leading the pack of the disaffected is John Mearsheimer, co-author of The Israel Lobby. Mearsheimer has two goals: firstly to demonstrate the innate cruelty of the Zionist project, secondly to insist, rather as Comical Ali did in another context, that Israel emerged from the recent conflict in Gaza as the loser. He says that Israel has inflicted "massive pain" upon the Palestinians and he is angry. Is it righteous anger? When it comes to Mearsheimer, it’s always worth bearing in mind that the realist school in which he is a leading figure depicts power as the primary factor in international relations. Morality, if it is considered at all, is subsidiary. Back in 1993, Mearsheimer acknowledged the barbarism of Serbia’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, but then suggested that the international community bow to the inevitable by administering Belgrade’s goals. "[W]hether we like it or not," he wrote in the New York Times, "borders in the Balkans are going to change. Serbian military power has seen to that. Wouldn’t it make good practical and moral sense to organize and plan the border changes rather than to allow the chaos of war to decide them? Wouldn’t it make better sense to move populations peacefully rather than at the end of a rifle barrel?" One could, utilizing the logic of realism, make a similar argument in the case of the West Bank. Mearsheimer, though, is not going to do that. So, either he’s revised his views since the Serbian genocide, or there is something about Israel specifically which irks him. Given that Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt wrote a book arguing that the Israel Lobby cajoles the US into doing things in the Middle East which it otherwise wouldn’t do, I lean more towards the second supposition. Indeed, the suspension of balanced judgment which "The Israel Lobby" involved is on spectacular display in the piece under discussion.

Mearsheimer admits that the tunnels underlying Gaza are used by Hamas to smuggle weapons; yet a consequent examination of what Israel should do in response, given that these same weapons will be deployed in an offensive capacity, is apparently verboten. Hamas itself is portrayed as a victim, unable to mature politically because of the actions of Israel and its "so-called friends in the Disapora." A reader wanting to inquire into the marshaling of Palestinian civilians as human shields, as reported by the Italian journalist Lorenzo Cremonesi in Corriere della Serra, won’t find it here. Those seeking more information about the one hundred Palestinians executed by Hamas, as reported by Juan Miguel Muñoz in El Pais, should seek elsewhere. Most fantastical of all is Mearsheimer’s revelation of Israel’s true goal. Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Zionist leader, is deciding the critical strategic questions from his grave. The Israel we see now is an Israel in miniature, poised to convert itself into "Greater Israel." And if those Israeli leaders who are actually breathing, walking and eating regular meals say otherwise, they are lying. The shadow of Jabotinsky looms large here. Mearsheimer makes frequent reference to "The Iron Wall," a phrase of Jabotinsky’s which was also the title of a book by the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, whose article, which was previously published in The Guardian, appears alongside Mearsheimer’s. And like Mearsheimer, Shlaim is adamant that Israel fights for territory rather than in self-defense; like Mearsheimer, he thinks that Hamas would moderate if only Israel and its allies would let them. All these assertions are in keeping with the idea of Israel — more pronounced, if one is to be scrupulously fair, with Mearsheimer than with Shlaim — as having been forged in original sin. Israel wants territory for Jews before anything else; ’twas ever thus. Given that the problem with such essentialist accounts of history — whether of the Jews, or anybody else — would require a series of articles, I want to briefly suggest an alternative way of looking at the problem. Israel faces what realists call a security dilemma. Each measure that it takes to enhance its security can diminish it by the same token. If Israel withdraws from territory to make itself safer, as it did in 2005, then such a move, perceived by its adversaries as flowing from weakness, can encourage further attack. If it accumulates or annexes territory to make itself safer, and then ends up imposing its rule on around two million hostile persons, it is again leaving itself vulnerable to attack. To argue that such a dilemma can be resolved with the formula "trust Hamas" is just fatuous. God knows, this is a discussion which needs to be had. But The American Conservative, whose churlish America Firstism overlaps ever more creepily with the anti-imperialism of the far left, is not the venue for having it. Because if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should ever get to a more congenial place — I won’t use the word "resolution" — my bet is that Pat Buchanan will still be writing blog entries like this one.

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