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Israel, the United States, and truth: a reply to Emanuele Ottolenghi

About the author
Anatol Lieven is a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC. A new, updated edition of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, was republished in September 2012 by Oxford University Press.
Anatol Lieven is responding to Emanuele Ottolenghi's sharp attack on the chapter of his book America Right or Wrong: an anatomy of American nationalism which discusses Israel and the Arab world. For an extract from this chapter, click here

Perhaps this exchange of views with Emanuele Ottolenghi can act as a substitute – an utterly inadequate one, of course – for the debate on Israeli policies, and United States support for them, which has been such a conspicuously missing element of the American election campaign. This failure of the American political elite to discuss this critical issue has betrayed the national interests of the American people and of loyal American allies, including Britain, and has helped tarnish the image of American democracy abroad.

In a true debate on these issues, in which all shades of opinion were represented, I would find myself in a moderate or centrist position, to all intents and purposes identical with that of the present British government. To make this clear, let me restate my basic positions on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, as already set out in my book America Right or Wrong: an anatomy of American nationalism.

I believe firmly in the right of the state of Israel to exist, as a specifically Jewish (and not “binational”) state, within the internationally recognised borders of 1967, and with any adjustments to those borders which may be agreed with a legitimate Palestinian authority. Within those borders, Israel should enjoy the full support of the United States and the west in general.

Beyond those borders, Israel has every right under international law to continue a military occupation of the Palestinian territory. This occupation however must be conducted under the terms of the Geneva conventions. It can continue until the signature of a peace treaty with neighbouring Arab states and with a Palestinian government which can guarantee reasonable controls over further violence by Palestinian extremists – let us say, to the level achieved by the government of the Irish Free State after the signature of the treaty with Britain in 1921. To suggest that such a position constitutes some kind of malignant hostility to Israel is a gross offence against common decency.

I have never opposed the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip as such. Like so many people – Israeli, American and European, Jewish and non–Jewish – what I oppose is the use of that occupation to confiscate Palestinian land and plant Jewish settlers. Legally, this is contrary to international law as presently recognised. Morally, it recalls the dark days of previous imperial settlements, and is linked to religious beliefs which make any settlement, negotiation or even discussion of this issue much more difficult. Practically, the settlements have played an absolutely disastrous role in undermining the Oslo peace process and in inflaming Palestinian radicalism.

This has been attested not only by a long series of opinion surveys among the Palestinians, but by senior US officials involved in the peace process. In supporting Israel while condemning the settlements, I am not setting out a radical or anti–Israeli position. This is the official position of the British government, and has been the official position of every US administration until the present one.

Like successive British governments, I also believe that America’s massive support for Israel – financial, military and diplomatic – gives Washington both the right and the duty to use that support as a lever to change Israeli policies in line with the wishes and interests of the US and critical US allies like Britain. This is a position so natural and logical that it would not even be a matter for serious discussion in any other international context.

A polemic, not a critique

Emanuele Ottolenghi claims to have written a critique of my approach to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, to radical Zionism, and to the relationship of these issues to contemporary American nationalism. In failing seriously to address the settlement issue and my arguments concerning it, he makes it clear that his aim is not in fact any kind of serious intellectual debate, but only the production of a polemic of his own.

I certainly did not suggest that the settlement issue is the only one acting as an impediment to peace, only that it is a very important one. Ottolenghi admits this, but instead of discussing just how important, and what should be done about it, he immediately slides away to other subjects and other attacks. In this, of course, he is following the line of the Israel lobby in the US, which has to a great extent succeeded in banishing discussion of this issue from the American national debate – as witnessed once again in the US election campaign.

If Ottolenghi were genuinely to admit the importance of this issue, he would be logically bound to agree that the US should indeed put serious pressure on Israel to stop settlement construction. And please don’t use US aid to Egypt and Jordan as some kind of excuse. It is not just that this aid is given for clear–cut geopolitical reasons which do not exist in the case of Israel; it is also to a considerable extent an outgrowth of US support for Israel – it originated in the desire to gain Arab allies in the cold war struggle against the Soviet Union, but also in the desire to reward and support Arab states willing to make peace with Israel and to break with the radical “rejectionist” camp.

I want nothing to do with people who call for Israel’s destruction. And while I have some respect for the idealism which motivates calls for a binational state, I oppose this firmly in my book. In fact, like so many of the Israelis whom I quote, my criticism of present Israeli policies is rooted in a belief that if continued they will in fact make a two–state solution impossible.

As Avraham Burg and others have warned, in this case Israel will either abandon democracy and become a form of apartheid state, or will ultimately find itself with a Palestinian majority, and almost certainly sooner or later in a state of full–scale civil war and ethnic cleansing. Either outcome will be disastrous to Israel, to peace in the region, and to the interests and safety of the US, where I work, and Britain, the country of which I am a citizen.

Ottolenghi writes that I have “a thing about Jews” – a barely veiled and extremely discreditable accusation of anti–semitism. On the one hand, I should be intrigued to know how one can possibly write about Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish diaspora without writing about Jews. On the other, however, I made it very clear that the Israel lobby in the US is not a “Jewish lobby”; and that in particular, the Christian right plays a critical role in it.

But Ottolenghi is not really concerned in his remarks either to deal with anything that I have actually written, or to think seriously about the terms of an Israeli–Palestinian and Israeli–Arab peace. He reveals this especially at two points.

The first is where, in an offhand remark, he comments on my position on “the refugee issue” – clearly referring to my opposition to any general right of return for Palestinian refugees – by saying parenthetically: “here, Lieven sides, surprisingly, with Israel”. Clearly, if he had paid any attention to my actual beliefs – rather than to a propagandist Feindbild (enemy image) of his own construction – he would realise that my stance on this question is completely consistent both with my support for the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish state, and with my beliefs concerning the necessary terms of a peace settlement.

The second point at which he reveals his true colours is in his abrupt dismissal of the Arab League initiative on the Israeli–Palestinian issue of 2002. Now I did not suggest that this statement was adequate in itself as the basis for a peace treaty. It did however provide a clear basis for further negotiation. By refusing even to look at the contents of this offer, Ottolenghi shows clearly that he is not in fact interested in any serious negotiations with Arab states, but only to dismiss them as serious interlocutors on the basis of a set of contemptuous remarks about their culture and traditions.

On that score, I did not address the manifold faults of the Arab and Muslim worlds at length in America Right or Wrong, because it is a book about American nationalism and the various influences on it from within the US, and neither Islam nor Arab nationalism have any such influence.

However, my views are clearly set out in other writings; for example in my essay for the British magazine Prospect [October 2001 (subscription only)], reprinted in the book How Could This Happen? (New York, Council for Foreign Relations, 2002).

Unlike the straw man erected by Ottolenghi, I too am quite convinced that the ultimate roots of Arab and Muslim extremism do indeed lie in Arab and Muslim history: a thousand years of mostly triumphant advance followed by four centuries of social, economic, political and cultural decline, and geopolitical defeat and humiliation at the hands of western power. This history has given rise to pathological movements, and to pathological attitudes to the outside world.

Israel’s challenge

Israel of course is not responsible for any of this. But what Israel has done in recent decades however is to provide a catalyst for these deeper sentiments – exacerbating them, ensuring them greatly increased support, and in particular turning them against Israel’s ally and sponsor, the United States.

Of course, much of this hatred stems originally from the very creation of Israel, which is obviously not something Israel can or should do anything about. But in view of the absolutely overwhelming weight of evidence from opinion surveys, official reports, and journalists’ interviews, it should not be possible for any reasonable person to deny that the daily images of Palestinian suffering being broadcast throughout the Muslim world are having a disastrous effect in fuelling – not creating, but fuelling – Islamist extremism and terrorism, and therefore in strengthening the enemies of Israel and the west.

Concerning what Ottolenghi calls the “nuanced” positions of the Christian right concerning Israel and Palestine, I quoted at length from Senator James Inhofe and others precisely in order to demonstrate that there is no nuance whatsoever in their approach, and that it is just as utterly obstructive of peace as are the beliefs of Palestinian radicals. Does Ottolenghi support such views on the part of the US Christian right and the Israeli religious right? If not, why does he not publicly condemn them, as is his clear duty?

As for Alan Dershowitz of Harvard and Abraham Foxman of the Anti–Defamation League, these are quite obviously not the marginal figures Ottolenghi tries to suggest. Readers can find their books, and judge for themselves whether my characterisation of their views is accurate. Whatever Ottolenghi may say, I cannot regard a man like Dershowitz, who argues for judicial torture as a liberal in any recognisable contemporary sense of that word. Of course, as I have argued, he does resemble in some respects a pre–1914 national liberal. We are supposed to have moved on a bit since then.

How far we have moved, or need to move beyond nationalism – the wider issue Ottolenghi addresses towards the end of his attack – is one I have wished to leave aside in order to answer Ottolenghi’s more twisted charges about Israel and anti–semitism. His article as a whole contains numerous other evasions and distortions, but rather than addressing them I have asked the editor of openDemocracy to publish a second extract from my book which offers them sufficient rebuttal.

Those interested can read this extract and the book itself, compare Ottolenghi’s presentation and attacks – and then judge both who is correct and who has behaved more honourably in this debate.


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