Arguing over Israel
I'm Israeli, though I haven't been there since I was a kid. As a result, I've been in my share of arguments about the Israeli-Arab conflict. In fact, I've argued on both sides, as my views on the subject have changed over the years. Another topic on which my views have changed is arguing itself. Nowadays, I prefer to avoid arguments of any sort, though at times I can't help myself.
Anyway, the idea behind this post is to share a little of my experience regarding how arguments about Israel can get stuck. My main basis is various arguments I've had with family members. They are pretty left-leaning. Not quite as much as me, but still to the left of Israel's Labor party. They are also strongly opposed to the settlements and are not especially attached to Jerusalem. If such people made up the majority in Israel, I think there would have been peace in the area long ago. But, in spite of all this, arguments between us about Israel's wars inevitably reach a dead-end. Here are some of the sticking points, as well as some other points.
WARNING: the following has not been proofread or properly edited and may not meet your standards for decent writing. My apologies, but that's the way it is.
1. Israel's moral superiority (perhaps you're familiar with the phrase "the most moral army in the world"). I think it's pretty clear that the morality of the two sides is an important and contentious issue. To many folks, it's a relatively simple issue: Israel is the oppressor, and the Palestinians are the oppressed. But to many others it's quite the opposite. They see things such as suicide bombings of buses and rockets attack on population centers, and conclude that the primary aim is to kill Israeli civilians. In comparison, Israel at least attempts to hit military targets. And when a unit kills an unarmed family, etc., this is viewed as an aberration rather than policy, and there is an investigation. Of course, the investigation is often complete baloney. And there may not even be an investigation if the incident isn't reported by the media or groups such as Breaking the Silence. But the mere fact that Israel pays lip service to trying to minimize civilian casualties stands in contrast to the 'terrorist' strategy of civilian casualties as the primary objective. Again, one can point to the blockade of Gaza and much of the rhetoric among politicians about making the Palestinians feel the pain and what-not. But, here too, there is typically an attempt to justify it using military necessity and so on, rather than coming and saying the goal is to kill civilians.
Now, my view regarding this is that this choice of tactics is a luxury that Israel can afford due to the extreme power differential. It's just the nature of asymmetric warfare. You can't expect Israel to adopt as a goal killing as many Palestinians as possible (it'd be called 'genocide'). Nor can you expect Hamas or Hezbollah to stop launching rockets at towns and cities (if they did, Israel would feel even less of a need to do anything about the occupation). But my point is typically not well-taken. Many Israelis see it as Israel having to fight with one hand tied behind its back while the Palestinians get to do whatever they're able to and still get sympathy as the underdogs. As a result, they consider that Israel's measures are justified by the restraint that they entail and the lack of restraint on the other side. And, of course, they can draw comparisons to other countries (e.g. exercise for the readers: what do you think the US would do if its towns were being hit with rockets from Mexico?).
2. You can't do nothing. This is one I find particularly unnerving. It is a variation on the idea of deterrence. Very few people are silly enough to suggest that a war with Gaza could lead to deterrence that is 100% effective. The more common view is that something like Cast Lead gets some level of deterrence for some time, and that at some point another war becomes necessary to reestablish deterrence. Now, we're a few days into this current war and there have already been 3 Israeli civilians killed. And Tel Aviv had now had its first real siren since the Gulf War. Even if (as many but not all Israelis are wont to do during a war) one ignores the casualties on the Palestinian side, it can't be denies that these wars cost a great deal in both human and monetary terms.
So why have them, then? Let's discard electioneering--though this may be a valid reason for Netanyahu, it would certainly not be considered valid by the average Israeli. One reason I've encountered is that doing nothing is simply not an option. For one thing, they claim that doing nothing would embolden Hamas since they wouldn't be taking any risk. Thus, as bad as war is, doing nothing would ultimately be worse. This is speculative enough that it becomes implausible to argue about it based on evidence (who of us actually knows what would happen if Israel restrained itself completely in the face of rocket attacks, weapons smuggling, etc.?). Another argument is that, even if doing nothing would actually result in less death and destruction, it's simply not an option. Defending its citizens is a vital role of the government (in fact, Obama often claims that's his first duty, not defending the constitution as in his oath of office), and one that can't be abdicated. I'm not sure if the idea is that the citizenry wouldn't accept it or what. But it is plausible. Just think back to how much trouble Gilad Shalit's captivity stirred up for the government because his family and many other people felt not enough was being done to get him back. Now imagine what would happen if the government adopted a policy of doing nothing in response to rocket fire from Gaza. At such a point, there's really nothing I can say. It seems like a genuine impasse: even if the government adoped the short-term policy I recommend, the only result would be it would get tossed out before too long.
3. Double standards and anti-semitism. Here I have to say I'm torn. There is little doubt in my mind that Israel gets a disproportionate amount of criticism. The Israeli government's admittedly outrageous policies get much more attention that far more outrageous policies in other countries. Israelis often make the claim that Israeli Arabs are freer than Arabs in any of the Arab countries. And even if this isn't quite true, there is something to that. e.g. torture in Bahrain:
Torture during the Bahraini uprising (2011–present) has been described in many human rights reports as being widespread and systematic; 64% of detainees (1866 individuals) reported being tortured. At least five individuals died as a result.
Or consider the genocide in Darfur: granted it has at various times received a lot of attention, but I'd say it involves what is an entirely different level of atrocity. Now, the thing to say about the double-standard is that it doesn't justify Israel's actions. That's true. But, at the same time, it is always there in the background.
4. Zionism and the Holocaust. We must keep in mind that Israel is the only Jewish country in the world. Many people think that Israel being official a Jewish country is racist, etc. And maybe they're right. But the vast majority of them live in a country where their religion (or their family's religion) makes up the majority of the population. And anti-semitism is very real (though it's far less of a problem in the US than in Europe), as the bar scene in Borat vividly made clear (UPDATE: apparently the scene might have been misleading in that it was only part of his perfromance, but there are many real examples of anti-semitic incidents every year) , as did the Holocaust of course. Comments such as Helen Thomas's, besides the hypocrisy involved in light of the US's own history with America's natives, betray a lack of understanding of the fact that the Jews simply have no home outside of Israel.
Now, to wrap up, let me point out that I've avoided completely any talk of peace or ending the occupation. That is a separate matter. Of course, that is the only real solution, so the issues are intimately related. However, when there's a war, the focus of discussion is naturally the war itself.
Disclaimer: as usual, YMMV. And if I come off as too pro-Israel here, all I can say is it's all relative. For some perspective, try conversing with a Likudnik and then reread what I wrote.