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    Being a Good Friend to Israel

    Israel has always needed its friends. And now that Israeli forces have killed nine civilians on the high seas, and Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defense Minister, has followed up by blaming the aid flotilla to Gaza for "political provocation", Israel is going to need its allies' friendship more than ever. Over the next few days, there is going to be a loud outcry from some quarters inside the United States that the US is not backing Israel enough, that they are letting Israel down. Those voices are wrong. The United States has already let Israel down, and so have the people who will complain that Israel is not getting enough support. If we had been better friends to Israel, this terrible and wicked thing would not have happened in the first place.

    The best friends are the ones who want the best for you, not the ones that want to make the biggest show of friendship. And when you're in need, the best friends are the ones who give the best help and the soundest advice, not necessarily the ones who are focused on displaying their loyalty. That advice includes talking sense to you when you need it, and the friend who won't or can't do that is a sorry friend to have.

    If you've had too much to drive, the best friend you have is the one who takes your car keys away. The worst is the one who loudly declares that if you say you can drive, you can drive, and tells you not to listen to the haters. The guy who unconditionally supports your decision to drive while plastered really is sincere, and he wants you to know how much he likes you. It's just that you may never see him again. The guy who tells you you're drunk and lets you curse him in a rage, but ends up driving you home, is the guy.

    For a long, long time now, American political discussion of Israel has been dominated by the better-friend-than-thou camp, the people concerned with demonstrating their superior loyalty to Israel. And those people have shouted down anyone who doesn't back every Israeli action, no matter how foolish or self-destructive, as not true friends of Israel: indeed, tried to brand anyone who talks sense to Israel as its enemy, an anti-Semite or "self-hating Jew." These people have been more concerned in displaying the intensity of friendship than in living up to the full obligations of friendship. Think that killing civilians is counter-productive? Then, according to the self-proclaimed friends of Israel, you're an anti-Semite, and you should shut up. If you were a real friend, you would support any military action by Israel, no matter how bad a strategy it is in the long run. Are you saying Bibi Netanyahu can't hold his liquor?

    Self-declared friendship for Israel has won out over candid friendship in American politics, to the extent that American administrations have felt either unwilling or politically unable to restrain Israel's strategic mistakes. No one in high office is allowed to take Israel's keys, and anyone who suggests that they shouldn't drive faces enormous pressure to show their "support" for Israel (by slapping them on the back and even buying them one for the road). Even as the Israeli government has grown more short-sighted and reckless, we've become more passive and enabling, more reluctant to preserve Israel from self-destruction. At this point, they don't believe we will ever have the guts to take their keys, which makes them more reckless still.

    If we had been better friends to Israel, they would never have gone so far down a road that risks so much and leads to so little. If we had been better friends to Israel, we would have tried to talk sense to them long before this. If we had been better friends to Israel, they would never have felt that they could forcibly board ships flying NATO flags in international waters. But we haven't been. We've only pretended to friendship, and let them go to hell. This week pundits will complain that we've stopped being real friends to Israel, but the truth is that we haven't even begun.



    How exactly true.

    Middle East's problems don't start with Israel they start in Washington and New York.

    A good example being US politicians condemnation of the Goldstone report written by none other than a widely aclaimed Jewish jurist. It was obvious for anyone to see that almost none of these "leaders" had read the report and indeed Robert Goldstone a staunch Zionist himself was trying to be a good friend to Israel.

    Until Washington changes its absurd illogical so called "support of Israel" nothing will change. Spend billions on building a wall to imprison a population its obvious to expect a response such as home made rockets.

    My heart goes out to the protestors families and to the young people who even if naively never expected the level of brutality from the Israel. These protestors weren't protesting for themselves they were protesting against injustice to others.They deserve the greatest respect and we can honour them by making sure sanity can return to the US political system.


    Good advice, doctor. But maybe 10, 15, 20 years too late. Israel has driven drunk for so long that it revels in doing so: "Hey, I drive better when I'm drunk!"

    And just try taking away its keys. You'll find you're not really as close friends as you thought. No, the best thing is to stop inviting it to your parties.

    Yeah, well, it's too late to just cut them adrift. It's worth asking what's gone wrong these last fifteen years, and what part we played in that. And it's worth noting that Israel isn't just one drunk dude; there are shrewder and less self-destructive voices in its politics. But the sober Israelis havent had the keys for a while.

    People complain, with widely varying levels of justice, about the influence of the American Israel lobby is US politics. But what no one mentions is that the American Israel lobby isn't just influencing our politics. It's also intervening, indirectly and sometimes unwittingly, in Israel's domestic politics.

    Those less self-destructive voices you speak of exist, doctor. Gideon Levy, David Grossman, Amos Oz, courageous Amira Hass -- among thousands of others I've never heard of. But all are far from Israel's new political center. In fact, all are far from from politics per se. And it is Israel's deficit of political leadership that has been destroying it, and that is evident in the latest crisis.

    I really do blame Israel's form of proportional representation, which rewards single-issue parties, fragmenting the electorate and necessitating backroom horse-trading -- in turn fostering the most corrupt political system outside the U.S. Congress. Decades of pandering to the fringes have led to a situation where voters must choose between Netanyahu, Lieberman, Livni and Barak as leaders. This is all that is on offer. No wonder Tel Avivians and other secular Israelis tune politics out, go lie on the beach, and dream of emigrating.

    Maybe. Amos Oz's piece in yesterdays NYT warmed my heart. And the proportional representation in the Knesset is a real structural problem.

    But at the end of the day, the pro-negotiation side has to make its case to the Israeli voters. All those secular Israelis need a voice to represent them. SUre, an appeal to sanity won't work the first day you make it, or even for the first few years. That's why you have to get started early.

    It's true that the Israeli electoral system has serious structural problems and that Israelis have grown apathetic, but military action still has widespread domestic support. For instance, 91 percent of Jewish Israelis supported the Gaza offensive last year.

    I had at first hoped that the flotilla killings would prompt Israelis to recoil at their military policy, but judging from newspaper editorials and an email from an Israeli friend, they're circling the wagons instead.

    I wonder whether censuring Israel would have much effect. With all due respect to the good Doctor, the drunken friend analogy is a stretch. Israel and the U.S. are allies, not drinking buddies. International criticism, even from allies, often provokes nationalistic defensiveness--in Israel as well as in most other countries. Case in point, Israelis seem to be focusing on what they see as misinformation and hypocrisy rather than questioning the military action. If the U.S. has any leverage with Israel, I would rather see the government pressure them to halt the settlement building rather than self-righteously shout reprimands across the ocean even as our own troops are killing in Afghanistan.

    Well, Im not sure censuring Israel for this would be the right action either, although the US is in a pretty serious diplomatic box. Vetoing a Security Council Resolution, or even abstaining, pretty much means the end of any diplomatic credibility with Arab and Muslim nations. And the NATO issues are also

    I agree, that it would have been more productive to urge restraint on the settlements years ago, but the key phrase is "If the US has any leverage with Israel." The Netanyahu government has not merely been unreceptive to advice about the settlements, they've gone out of the way to embarrass Joe Biden over the question.

    Yes, I think a word in the ear is a much better option than a public scolding, always. The questions are whether this Israeli government will listen, and whether we should have whispered harder truths earlier. What I would like to see happen is for the US to broker some face-saving concessions by Israel, starting with the end of the Gaza blockade. (The blockade is now moot anyway, since this incident has ended Egypt's cooperation. Blockading all but one of Gaza's borders is strictly symbolic, and in this case it's the worst symbolism possible.) Israel does need to climb down from its current position, and letting the US be seen to have a positive influence, who can productively mediate between the Israelis and the rest of the word, would be helpful to just about all parties.

    Oh, and as for the hypocrisy point: I surely wish some of our allies had tried harder to get the keys away from us, especially in 2003.

    Doctor, I marched. I emailed politicians. I blogged. The best I could do was persuade our prime minister to stay out of the "coalition of the willing."

    In exchange for opting out, of course, he had to agree to send troops to Afghanistan, where about 150 have since died. I try to tell myself that's fewer than we would have lost in Iraq.

    The U.S. didn't need to veto any Security Council resolution, since it managed to water it down to the point that the deaths on the high seas seem to be the result of some freak storm.

    Remember that H.W. Bush tried to go to the wall with Israel over expanding settlements but got sabotaged and undermined, mostly by Democrats in Congress.

    The blockade is not yet moot. Egypt's opening of the Rafah crossing is temporary and limited -- a way to placate internal anger over the government's complicity with Israel. Maybe the next few aid ships should sail to Egypt instead of directly to Gaza and challenge it to embargo the cargo.

    Well, the day Egypt has scheduled to close the Rafah crossing again would be a pretty good day for Israel to end the embargo on their end.

    Any day would be a pretty good day for that. First we have to wait for the day that the United States signals for real that it wants the embargo to end. So far, all it's ever called for is a piecemeal easing, in order to make it less of an international embarrassment. No wheelchairs, pencils, cement or pasta for you!

    The United States is the only country that has any leverage with Israel, but when push comes to shove the levers never get pulled. It's not a choice of expressing censure vs, halting settlements -- the States is doing and will do neither. No, November's elections are too close, so the White House trumpets keeping the moribund "proximity talks" on life support as some kind of success story. As a reward for which, Obama was about to kiss and make up with Netanyahu this week (if not for the unpleasantness on the high seas).

    Since the U.S. clearly can't or won't make its tiny ally behave rationally, the rest of the world has to act: disinvestment, boycotts, economic sanctions. (It worked with South Africa -- who knows?) The idea is in its infancy, but I think more and more people have begun to see Israel as an existential threat to the peace of the world. Of course you're right, Genghis, Israelis will react with nationalistic defensiveness. Which will differ exactly how from their current hubris at every military excess?

    I used to agree with Dr. Cleveland that the rest of us had a duty to coax both sides to understand how a permanent peace was in both their interests. As late as the 2006 war on Lebanon, rational voices were raised in Israel about the logic and morality of military action as the default solution to every problem. Operation Cast Lead, however, changed everything. The national consensus that Genghis mentions shocked me almost as much as the unbridled violence (white phosphorus over packed cities, for God's sake).

    The attack on the aid flotilla, leaving nine dead and dozens injured, is just a blip. But millions of people will view it, and the circling of wagons in its wake, as evidence of a country united in defiance of international law and ordinary human norms. The "whole-world-is-against-us" theme sells well at home. Will it be as popular when it actually comes true?

    I don't think that it will come true. Politically, the U.S. can push harder than it does, but no politician will push Israel as aggressively as the world pushed South Africa. There was no South African diaspora here to vote American leaders out of office or disrupt boycotts. So I doubt that the political will exists to push Israel to the point that will force its leaders to act.

    I think that the most important people to persuade are Jews, particularly American Jews. We are more-or-less kin, and our opinions matter more to Israelis than those of the rest of the world, of which the country has always been suspicious (not without reason). We can't be accused of anti-Semitism. If the boat had been filled with American Jews instead of Turkish Muslims, you would have seen much greater soul-searching in Israel.

    The good news is that the views of American Jews are changing, gradually. We are much more likely to question the myths that we grew up with. Memories of the Holocaust and Israel's precarious infancy are fading. People are more critical.

    But returning to my first point, I also think that some humility is in order. Nation states have long proven resilient to external pressure. Foreigners can sanction and goad, but ultimately, the citizens need to conclude that what their own society is flawed. In the end, it is Israel that needs to move beyond its founding mythology and memories of persecution, to see Palestinians as victims rather than mortal enemies. As Cleveland argues, a good friend seeks to discourage his friend from engaging in immoral or dangerous behavior, but he also has to acknowledge that his friend has a will of his own.

    Speaking of humility, let me add own caveat. Maybe united international pressure will work. I don't know, and it's worth trying. I was just expressing my cynicism about solving an extremely complicated problem that has long defied solutions. What I stand by with confidence is my assertion that Israelis have to themselves conclude that the blockade is wrong. Maybe international pressure will help them to do that, but don't underestimate Israel's pride or its national perception of itself as a righteous victim of malevolent enemies.

    Genghis, I don't for a moment underestimate Israel's perception of itself. And I'd put my own cynicism up against anyone's. It's that cynicism that persuades me that the world can no longer leave Israelis as the sole arbiters of the rightness or wrongness of their policies. It won't work; they no longer even ask the question. "The IDF is the most moral military in the world!" How could anyone think otherwise? White phosphorus and aerial flechettes aside.

    The status quo is barbaric and untenable, no matter how comfortable Israelis have become with it. Maybe international sanctions won't change anyone's mind -- that's not really the test. Fact is, remaining silent and passive is no longer an option. The rest of us have to take a moral stance, or else we're complicit.

    Sorry, I wasn't under the impression that you had remained silent on this matter. ;)

    But seriously, your test is a poor one. I'm not terribly concerned about my soul or yours. If moral condemnation is indeed futile, then it amounts to little more than cluck-clucking to make ourselves feel all warm and righteous inside. I don't mean that hypothetically. I think that there are plenty of people who thoughtlessly condemn Israel and other international pariahs for precisely that reason--in the same way that so many courageous American freethinkers condemned Islamic opposition to depictions of Mohammed.

    True, there are thousands who thoughtlessly condemn Israel and thousands of others who thoughtlessly support it. I've put more thought into my positions on international relations than most of my friends and family think is healthy, but I think most people err in the other direction.

    My opposition to senseless war and conflict is deep-rooted, beginning in Vietnam. That war too appeared intractable, but ended when both sides recognized they had nothing more to gain. The Israeli-Arab conflict will also end, though probably not in my lifetime. All I can do is nudge the solution along in whatever tiny way I can. That I cannot see any positive results is irrelevant.

    Nudge away, my friend.

    Perhaps I am less pessimistic then you after all. Conflicts have a habit of unpredictability--enduring for decades beyond what anyone imagined and then suddenly collapsing more rapidly than anyone thought possible.

    The good news about history is the bad news: things change. You don't always expect them.

    I grew up expecting that I would die before the Berlin Wall fell. When I was a teenager, I more or less expected that Nelson Mandela would die in prison. I had no reason to think differently. I certainly didn't expect to see an African-American elected President as soon as I did. (I was counting on another, younger, person getting there first. I'm still a little upset that my guy didn't make it.)

    Sure, the last ten years have been full very different historical events. September 11 did damage that won't be undone soon, and we're probably living through the ecological death of part of the Gulf. But those sharp, sudden shocks have brought good news, too. And I dont think I'll ever get entirely over the experience of the late 80s and early 90s, seeing the world changing suddenly for the better.


    Genghis is right: I'm more pessimistic than either of you. I too was elated when the Soviet empire collapsed -- not because it was so evil (it had gotten a bit less evil over time) but because of the "peace dividend" that everyone quite rightly expected. Disarmament, smaller militaries, cures for cancer, education and clean water for everyone. How did we allow our "leaders" to screw up all that potential for good?

    I don't know about you, but I was too busy watching E! to give a shit.

    Yes, of course, the Israelis have to decide for themselves, as any country would. I never meant to imply otherwise, and I'm sorry if I did.

    I was thinking about high-level diplomacy, rather than an international pressure campaign. And I certainly believe that Israel must be addressed as an ally, rather than as a client. I certainly didn't mean to imply otherwise.

    I understand that Israel's national self-perception is grounded in the fact that has very real enemies, many of whom are startlingly malevolent. And I understand that they feel besieged.

    I don't think the South Africa example matches up so well, partly for the reasons Genghis mentions and partly because Israel does have legitimate security concerns. So the South African case was cleaner-cut from the outside, and more about power-sharing than survival. If the ANC leadership or other major anti-apartheid parties had been talking about driving white South Africans out of the country by force, the parallel would be more apt. Being told that your country has no right to exist doesn't put you in a bargaing mood.

    I may have made too much of your drunken friend analogy. But what exactly is "high-level diplomacy" anyway? Hillary Clinton doesn't have magic powers of diplomatic persuasion. A behind-the-scenes lecture wouldn't accomplish much. Government-level sanctions would never happen. The U.S. could and probably should threaten to withdraw aid, but I think that Israel would just tell us to go fuck ourselves. They don't need our aid anymore.

    Think about it this way. An Israeli prime minister who spits in America's eye won't suffer much in the polls, as Bibi aptly demonstrated a few months ago. But an Israeil prime minister who is perceived to undermine Israel's security will lose his government in the event of a successful Hamas attack.

    A blockade-running boat manned by American Jews? Excellent idea, Genghis! Actually, I suspect its occupants would be treated as badly or worse than the current batch. But yeah, it would raise some interesting questions among the thinking public.

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