IMPORTANT TUESDAY 3 P.M UPDATE BELOW
Haggai Ram teaches the history of the Middle East at Israel’s Ben Gurion (Negev) University. The most recent book to emerge from his research and teaching is Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession (Stanford University Press, 2009).
This week, just before a United Nations Security Council committee was to discuss Iran as a “nuclear threat”, Ram offered a brief overview of his book in a column he wrote for Juan Coles’ Informed Comment.
In his book and in his online essay, Ram describes the ways in which Israel has “time and again (ab)used the specter of the ‘Iranian threat’ in order to cover up, and divert attention away from, both domestic oversights and the continuing apartheid regime in the Palestinian territories.”
Ram points to Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s incumbent Foreign Minister, as an example of how the Israeli government uses Iran as a diversion, spinning a tale of imminent threat that frightens its own population and increases support from the US.
He reports on a media interview with Lieberman after the devastation that the Israeli military “had sown in Gaza last year”. In the interview, Liberman was asked: “What [do] you think is the first most strategic threat to Israel.”
Lieberman responded: “Iran, Iran, Iran… As long as there’s no solution to the Iranian problem we will deal with neither the settlements nor the settlers… Only after we will have taken care of … Iran it will become possible to talk about… the problem in Judea, Samaria, and the Golan Heights.”
Ram frequently uses a phrase in his book and his column, “radical alterity” or radical otherness, that captures Israel’s attitude in dealing with Iran and the Palestinians. It is “otherness”–a term also used frequently by Edward Said–that describes how a colonial empire like the US, and its partner in the region, Israel, always perceives “revolutionaries” on the “other side”.
The 1979 revolution that threw out the Shah of Iran, long a western puppet, and brought in a religiously-oriented government, stirred a great fear in Israel and the US, that power in the region was getting away from their military control. They chose not to understand the desire of a people to rule themselves, and instead branded all rebellions against the West as inherently evil.
“Radical alterity” as Ram notes, became the only way the US and Israel could see Iranian or Palestinian or Lebanese indigenous populations, who were in fact people who dared to claim authority over their own lives.
Ram concludes his Informed Comment column with this challenge to the government of Israel:
These fanciful expressions concerning the existential threat posed to Israel by Iran are misleading for two reasons: First, because when compared to the extraordinary misery and depredation which the Iranian government has exacted on its own people, the actual threat which it poses to the Jewish state pales into insignificance; and second, because such expressions have thus far enabled the Jewish state to exacerbate, rather than help to alleviate, the Palestinian problem. It is this yet-to-be resolved problem — and not Iran — that presents the Jewish state with the most serious challenge to its survival.
Pundits and politicians may argue all they like over why Bibi Netanyahu is defying Barack Obama and world opinion by refusing to grant Obama even a small peace gesture as modest as a “freeze” of Israel’s decades-long settlement building program in the Occupied Territories.
They can stop arguing. Bibi won the “spin” battle by selling the paranoid narrative that Israel remains dangerously vulnerable to “outside” forces.
In order to protect its “security”, Israel goes after public support where it matters–the US Congress, North American Religious Zionists, and a compliant American media. Israel produces whatever “spin” works at the moment to keep its tight grip on US public opinion. The “spin” changes, depending on the season–e.g. “no partner for peace”, or the ever-faithful demand that Israel must be recognized as a “Jewish state”.
But since 1979, when revolutionary Iranian forces overthrew a US-backed government, the major spin used to protect Israel’s “security” has remained, as Avigdor Lieberman insists, “Iran, Iran, Iran”.
When Barack Obama became president, it appeared that, finally, after Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II, a US president would bring some Niehburian realism to the Israel-Palestine struggle. Or at the least, Obama would refuse to be bullied by Israel’s spins.
In recent years, Israel’s actions as a powerful occupying military force have been so overwhelmingly brutal and oppressive that Israel’s spinmeisters have had to work overtime to protect the world’s fourth largest military power from attacks by “outsiders”.
Surely, Obama would change that. As a new president he tried mightly, starting slowly with an easy request to Israel’s right wing government, “please stop settlement building for at least a few months”.
Instead of giving Obama a few crumbs by accepting his softball request, Bibi and his American backers watched US domestic politics long enough to conclude that the new president’s popularity had declined, thanks to the health bill fiasco and Obama’s inability to bring stability and/or success to the two wars he inherited in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Uri Avnery, the elder statesman of the Israeli peace movement, reached the pessimistic conclusion that Obama was badly defeated in this round with Bibi.
Netanyahu has won, and in a big way. Not only did he survive, not only has he shown that he is no “sucker” (a word he uses all the time), he has proven to his people – and to the public at large – that there is nothing to fear: Obama is nothing but a paper tiger. The settlements can go on expanding without hindrance. Any negotiations that start, if they start at all, can go on until the coming of the Messiah. Nothing will come out of them.
The automatic rejection by the US of the Goldstone Report followed. Bibi did not even say “thank you”. He expected nothing less.
The Report found fault with both sides in the Gaza invasion. The Report’s nod to the unlawful rocket attacks from Hamas against Israel, however, did not mask the overwhelming one-sided nature of Israel’s all out assault on the Gaza civilian population (more than 1400 killed, including at least 250 children under the age of 16).
The Report’s findings evoked Israel’s usual paranoia. Obama’s UN representative, Susan Rice, quickly pushed it aside, with the dismissive comment that it was “time to look forward, not backward”. Rice’s words had an unpleasant ring to them since it was the same excuse that the Obama administration used to avoid any torture prosecutions of high level Bush officials.
The freeze fight, and the US failure to give the Goldstone Report any traction, represent two major US setbacks. But if President Obama will look beyond his team of advisers and narrow-minded policy wonks, he would see that there remains signs of hope for justice for both the Palestinians and the Israelis.
That hope comes from “the spirit of resistance” against injustice, inspired by Israeli Haggai Ram, and US Palestinian-Americans like Ali Abunimah, who wrote recently on his website, Electronic Intifada:
This spirit of resistance is expressed in millions of daily acts and refusals by individual Palestinians, but also in highly directed, creative and organized ways such as the weekly demonstrations against Israel’s apartheid wall in the West Bank, or the rapidly expanding Palestinian-directed international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).
Official complicity with Israel’s crimes — such as the Obama Administration’s despicable decision to attack and quash the Goldstone report — are likely only to spur further support for BDS. These sources of power are still comparatively small compared to Israel’s military and diplomatic might, but their momentum is increasing and official Israel’s panic in the face of the growing challenge is palpable.
Let Israel keep its spin machine going. Spinning only goes so far. The American public is stirring. When it finally wakes up and discovers the lies it has been fed for so long, the change in American foreign policy could be swift. Inshallah.
UPDATE 3 P.M. TUESDAY:
Glenn Greenwald was a guest on MSNBC’s Morning Show with Huffington Post founder and editor Arianna Huffiington earlier today. She was introduced as “just back from Israel”, which tells you all you need to know about her perspective. Her trip was to Israel, true enough, but she also made a brief pit stop in Palestine. Her columns from Israel have been in the Tom Friedman “Israelis who love me” camp. She supports, endorses and shills for, Bibi’s and Israel’s spinning about Iran’s intentions.
Greenwald makes the case, very effectively, that the media’s drumbeating for attacking Iran is irresponsible and dangerous. Huffington exposes herself as a true blue PEP (Progressive Except on Palestine). You owe it to yourself, your children, and your grandchildren, to take ten minutes to watch the MSNBC exchange (linked at the opening of this Update).
And, while we are on the topic of PEPs, if you have any connection to the Protestant and Orthodox churches, or are curious as to how organized religion is dealing with social issues these days, take a look at what Mondoweiss does to the National Council of Churches‘ most recent foray into advising “both sides”–a favorite straddle technique of the NCCC–on how God wants us to approach this issue. The NCCC statement is shameful. All who participated in this “both sides” straddle, are hereby formally moved to the top of the PEP honor roll of shame.