Friday, April 21, 2006

Jere Riemer on Judt's defense of M&W ... with some further thoughts of my own

[Some further thoughts on Tony Judt's New York Times op-ed defending Mearsheimer & Walt's "Israel Lobby" manifesto, "A Lobby, Not a Conspiracy" (4/19/2006), which was also posted on the Engage website website and discussed in my previous post about Tony Judt on Mearsheimer & Walt. The first part below comes from a message I sent as part of an exchange with a good friend of mine, an Israeli political sociologist. I later discovered that Jeremiah Riemer had addressed some of the same issues in a cogent and insightful way ... and a bit more concisely than I had. --Jeff Weintraub]

[First, my thoughts on some interesting, and probably revealing, formulations in Judt's op-ed discussion. --JW]

P.S. Incidentally, I noticed a few intriguing formulations in Judt's piece. Op-eds get edited down to the bone by copy-editors, and sometimes this oversimplifies or distorts what the author actually means, so these formulations may not convey precisely what Judt meant to say ... but then again, they might.
Is Israel, in Mearsheimer/Walt's words, "a liability in the war on terror and the broader effort to deal with rogue states?" I think it is; but that too is an issue for legitimate debate.
What's interesting here is that it's not Israel's policies that are the problem, or the failure of the US to be "even-handed" in the Arab-Israeli or Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, as the standard cliché goes. This formulation suggests that Israel (i.e., Israel's existence) is a liability to the US. Well, I know this is what a lot of foreign-policy "realists" have thought for more than a half century (the George Balls of the world, not to mention the Pat Buchanans), and I suspect it's what M&W actually think. I wonder if it's what Judt meant to say. He has, after all, made it clear in the past that he now thinks Israel's creation was a bad idea, and that it is an "anachronism" whose continued existence is hard to justify--let alone something worth supporting.
Thus it will not be self-evident to future generations of Americans why the imperial might and international reputation of the United States are so closely aligned with one small, controversial Mediterranean client state.
Note the formulation here. It is not Israel's policies that are "controversial," it is Israel that is "controversial." Actually, this is true. Whether or not Judt meant to do so, his formulation here has stripped away the usual pious cant about the Arab world's objections to Israeli policies, to Israel's oppression of the Palestinians, to the "uncritical" support of Israel by the US, etc. The Arab world's fundamental grievance has always been Israel's existence, and they would resent any US support that helped preserve Israel's survival.

(Of course, an Arab-Israeli peace agreement that included a two-state Israeli-Palestinian would enormously improve the situation and lower the emotional temperature. But the only reason that some Arabs have, over the decades, grudgingly come to accept this possibility is that the preferred "Algerian" solution to the Israel problem just doesn't seem realistically possible. If the US were to move closer to the consensus of "the rest of the international community"--as Judt puts it--and abandon its support for Israel, then that would cut the ground out from under the feet of any potential peace camp that exists in the Arab world ... and, in the long run, mean the end of Israel. Anyway, if the US decided to let Israel become military weaker and more vulnerable, then it would become a real strategic liability--Kuwait with no oil.)
It is already not at all self-evident to Europeans, Latin Americans, Africans or Asians. Why, they ask, has America chosen to lose touch with the rest of the international community on this issue?
Right. Once again, the phrasing is delicate and allusive, but it's worth asking what this really means. It is true that many people in "the rest of the international community" wonder why they should care one way or another whether "that shitty little country," as the French ambassador to Britain put it in 2001, lives or dies. A lot of these people are not actively committed to the end of Israel, nor do they necessarily wish to see the Jews driven into the sea. But they can't see why either they or the US should lift a finger to help prevent this outcome--especially if doing so involves any political, diplomatic, or economic cost. In many European political and intellectual circles (as I noted in Mearsheimer & Walt on the Zionist Conspiracy ), "the primary sentiment seems to be a sense that Israel and its concerns are just massively inconvenient--though the failure of Israel and its supporters to avoid complicating matters for bigger and more significant countries often does lead to a sense of exasperated irritation" and a slide into less genteel forms of anti-Zionism.

But at least it's worth being honest about the real issues involved, rather than resorting to the usual euphemistic and disingenuous code-phrases implying that it's only a matter of US support for being too "uncritical," or suggesting that such people are concerned with the interests and well-being of Palestinians and/or Israelis for their own sake. If people want to promote policies that will increase the long-term likelihood of Israel's destruction (either intentionally or, in the case of Mearsheimer & Walt, simply as a by-product of policies pursued on the basis of other concerns), that is their privilege. But it's dishonest for them to pretend to be surprised when some other people get upset.
I think this essay, by two "realist" political scientists with no interest whatsoever in the Palestinians, is a straw in the wind.
I think that may well be right--and, if so, this is a worrisome possibility.

[Jeremiah Riemer had come to some similar conclusions independently. This message is reproduced here with his permission. --JW]


This is an instance where one simple choice of words by Judt trumps all his claims to complex multi-faceted understanding.
Here's what I wrote to an American historian friend (who writes about religion and politics) who had asked me earlier what I thought of Mearsheimer-Walt:
-------- Original Message --------
Subject: (The late) Hertzberg vs. (shall we call him "the controversial"?) Judt
Date: Wed, 19 Apr 2006 11:03:39 -0400
From: Jeremiah Riemer


This is the kind of criticism of Israel I respect (from an obituary in today's NYT):

"... Yet despite his strong Zionist views, he [Hertzberg] stood out as a habitual and often idiosyncratic critic of Israeli policies. In an op-ed article in The Times in 2003, he urged the Bush administration to deduct the cost of maintaining Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza from the annual pot of American aid." (See full story below.)

I could go along with the spirit and substance of that suggestion.

Unfortunately Hertzberg's obituary is overshadowed today by the op-ed piece of Tony Judt (who has consistently argued that in our supposedly post-national world - meaning his mental projection of the EU's admirable achievements onto the Mideast and most of the rest of the world where it doesn't apply [as opposed, ironically, to strict Realist Mearsheimer, who denies that post-nationalism has any applicability even to the EU, where transnational attitudes have demonstrably been a great success and postwar Europe's most durable reality] - that Israel is an obsolete construction ... should I say "entity"?), asking "why the imperial might and international reputation of the United States are so closely aligned with one small, controversial Mediterranean client state." In spite of all of Judt's pretensions to complexity, it really all boils down to that attitude that there shouldn't be so much bother over this puny "controversial" state. (To what other state would he really apply that adjective?)

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