Saturday, November 5, 2011

Richard Goldstone's Latest Climbdown: No Apartheid in Israel?

For reasons that commentators have yet to divine fully (but that surely relate to the post-facto abuse he took - including exclusion from his grandson's bar-mitzvah), Richard Goldstone has been trying to climb down from his celebrated (or infamous - depending . . .) "Goldstone report" on the Israeli devastation of Gaza in the (truly infamous) "Operation Cast Lead" of 2008-2009.  This week, the NY Times published his latest apologia for Israeli policy, in which he rejects as "slander" accusations that Israeli policy entails a version of the apartheid regime formerly applied to black Africans in white-dominated South Africa.

No one - including I - is going to challenge Judge Goldstone's fundamental decency, including his heroic role in undermining apartheid in his South Africa homeland.  But several commentators have called him out for his parsing of words and straw-man arguments in making his case.  Paul Pillar (at The National Interest) lays it out:

Earlier in his piece Goldstone refers to a definition of apartheid in the 1998 Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court. The core of that definition is “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group.” Even though these words describe exactly the current situation in the West Bank, Goldstone uses two strained arguments to contend that it does not. One is that the roadblocks, the walls, the restrictions on movement, and all the other aspects of the oppression and domination are a response to Israelis feeling threatened by terrorism. This is a dangerous and open-ended rationale, because almost every group of oppressors has used a threat from the oppressed group as justification for its own actions—at least as a public rationale, and often reflecting a genuinely felt threat. Many Afrikaners certainly felt threatened by the black majority in South Africa.

Goldstone's other argument is that the arrangement in the West Bank is not intended to be permanent; Israel, he says, has agreed “in concept” to a Palestinian state. But concepts do not displace realities. After forty-four years of the reality of Israeli occupation, how much longer will concepts suffice? Indeed, introducing the idea of Israeli concepts makes the comparison with South Africa all the more appropriate. Insofar as Israeli prime minister Netanyahu has given any indication of his concept of a Palestinian state, it looks a lot like the bantustans of South African apartheid. Underlying all this is the reality that Goldstone does not mention at all: the continued Israeli colonization of occupied territory that has now reached half a million settlers and is intended to create facts on the ground that will be the basis for making some version of the current arrangement permanent.

It is appropriate to look beyond the present to the future in discussing the use of the term apartheid, because in addition to describing the current situation it can fairly be used to assess the choices Israel must make when facing the reality of demographic trends. Over the long term, Israel cannot be a Jewish state and retain all the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River and be free and democratic. If it chooses in favor of the first two, it will be an apartheid state indefinitely. In thinking about the future, we also should remember that apartheid in South Africa ended—not just as a “concept,” but as a reality. But Israel has still not produced an F. W. de Klerk (and the Palestinians have not produced a Nelson Mandela).

Apartheid has such significance in the history of South Africa—and because of the importance of that experience, in the history of human oppression generally—that it is understandable if a South African would be sparing in applying the term to other situations. Maybe out of respect to South Africa, any discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian situation could eschew the term and instead say “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group.” But that's twelve words rather than one. And if the one word fits—as it certainly does in this instance—it will be used, and appropriately so.

Jerome Slater (at his "On the US and Israel" blog, which I heartily recommend as a source of informed, astute, eloquent analysis) likewise takes Mr. Goldstone to task:

 Goldstone wishes to distinguish between Israel’s policies within its own borders, towards the Israeli Arabs, and its policies in the occupied territories. Inside Israel, he asserts, “there is no apartheid,” and “nothing there comes close” to the international legal definition of apartheid: “systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group…”

True, the situation of the Israeli Arabs is not nearly so bad as that of the South African black population under apartheid—but (as others have pointed out) the argument is a straw man, since few if any serious critics of Israel have claimed that its policies and behavior towards its own Arab minority—as opposed to those in the occupied territories—is equivalent to apartheid. Nonetheless, while Goldstone concedes that there is too much “de facto separation" between the Jewish and Arab populations, and some Israeli “discrimination,” he ignores the proven facts that the Israeli Arabs are distinctly second-class citizens, systematically denied equal economic, social, cultural, and increasingly even legal rights.

“The situation in the West Bank is more complex,” Goldstone allows, but—and this he obviously believes is his trump card—“there is no intent to maintain an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by oneracial group” (my emphasis), a “critical distinction” in Goldstone’s view, because “South Africa’s enforced racial separation was intended to permanently benefit the white minority,” whereas “by contrast, Israel has agreed in concept to the existence of a Palestinian state in Gaza and almost all of the West Bank, and is calling for the Palestinians to negotiate the parameters.”

Here and elsewhere, close attention must be paid to Goldstone’s language: characteristically he asserts something that is clearly designed to give a certain impression, but at the same time, if read literally and the ambiguities are ignored, might provide him with an out when he is challenged on the facts, allowing him to claim he has been misunderstood.

In the first place, one may suspect that Goldstone's emphasis on the racial component of apartheid--as opposed to systematic oppression that may not be essentially racial in intention--is designed to support the argument that Israel's behavior towards the Palestinians does not constitute apartheid.  Even if not, of course, it doesn't necessarily follow that Israeli oppression is less onerous than was that of South Africa--or indeed, even worse, as a number of former South African antiapartheid activists have written. 

Perhaps my suspicion of Goldstone's true intentions in this case is mistaken--but surely not in other cases.  For example, consider again Goldstone's bald statement that “Israel has agreed in concept to the existence of a Palestinian state in Gaza and almost all of the West Bank, and is calling for the Palestinians to negotiate the parameters”--a perfect example of a statement that is literally true but in all essentials a lie. Yes, Israel has agreed to the “concept” of a two-state settlement, but as every serious observer of the conflict understands, not the reality. Further, of course, the statement is clearly designed to convey the impression that it is only the Palestinian refusal to negotiate that is blocking a settlement—another lie embedded in a perhaps technically and narrowly true statement.

In another example of Goldstone’s polemical techniques, he writes: “The security barrier was built to stop unrelenting terrorist attacks; while it has inflicted great hardship in places, the Israeli Supreme Court has ordered the state in many cases to refute it to minimize unreasonable hardship.” You almost have to admire the technique, for in one literally true statement it tells three lies.

First, as everyone knows, another and probably the main purpose of the “security barrier” was to grab more Palestinian land and to protect the illegal Jewish settlements beyond Israel’s accepted boundaries. Second, if the Supreme Court “in many cases” ordered a change in the route of the barriers, it follows that in other cases--probably most other cases--it has refused to do so. Third, in any event the Israeli government and military have often ignored Supreme Court rulings or "interpreted" them in such a way as to essentially defeat their purpose.

In characterizing the overall Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Goldstone also makes technically true statements that nonetheless embody false symmetries and conceal the real truths. For example, he characterizes the conflict as one in which there “are claims and counterclaims,” where “attacks on one side are met by counterattacks from the other,” where there is “hostility and suspicion on both sides,” and in which Israel “sees” its behavior as “necessary for self-defense,” whereas the Palestinians “feel” oppressed. No realities then—no Israeli oppression, no Palestinian victimization, just conflicting perceptions.

Finally, and perhaps worst of all, Goldstone clearly wishes to provide an excuse for Israel's occupation and repression of the Palestinians when he writes that "Israel, unique among democracies, has been in a state of war with many of its neighbors who refuse to accept its existence.  Note that he doesn't say that Israel "is" in a state of war, just that it "has been;" yet he says Israel's neighbors "refuse"--as opposed to "refused"--to accept its existence.  The characteristic trickery is obvious: if he had put everything in the past tense, that would lead to the conclusion that Israel would no longer have any excuses—even assuming that in the past it had--for its occupation and repression of the Palestinians. So, there's scarcely any doubt that Goldstone once again is being deliberately misleading---and that's a polite way of putting it. 

Surely Goldstone knows the facts. Israel's closest neighbors are Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. The Israeli-Egyptian conflict ended 
with the 1979 peace settlement, and the Israeli-Jordanian conflict ended in 1994--in any case, both conflicts were not primarily over any refusal 
to accept Israel's existence. For the last thirty years, Saudi Arabia has been attempting to settle the overall Arab-Israeli conflict on terms which not only fully accept the "existence" of Israel but call for full normalization of diplomatic and economic relations between Israel and the Arab world--and all 20 states of the Arab League are now on record as supporting the Saudi plan. As for Lebanon, of course it is Israel which has engaged in repeated massive attacks on that country, not the other way around.

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