Micah Zenko
The National (Analysis)
May 26, 2011 - 12:00am

To an outsider, the title of the panel discussion seemed to sum up all that is wrong and depressing about the views of Palestinians that many Israelis and their American supporters hold.

"Israel Improving Palestinian Lives," the conference programme read. The occasion for imparting the self-serving message - occupation is good - was the annual policy conference this week of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the most influential pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States.

The lesson-bearers were three luminaries certain to spellbind an audience made up of the mostly young and the already converted: Michael Herzog and Baruch Spiegel, two retired Israeli generals, and Robert Danin, a former US diplomat for Middle East affairs and now senior fellow at the august Council on Foreign Relations.

These veterans of Middle East diplomatic and shooting wars treated the modestly sized crowd to a history of elusive peace punctuated by episodes of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation and served up with large dollops of self-congratulation.

At the heart of their narrative was Operation Defensive Shield, launched in 2002 to quell the Second Intifada and becoming the largest Israeli military operation in the West Bank since the Arab-Israeli War 35 years earlier.

"We basically cleaned up their infrastructure," observed Mr Herzog, about an offensive that ushered in an era in which hundreds of checkpoints were erected across the West Bank, severing Palestinian towns and villages from one another and decimating a nascent Palestinian economy that had grown during the mid to late 1990s.

"And that, I think, was the basis for later developments in both security and economy," Gen Herzog said.

That upside-down view of Palestinian economic development was a theme also taken up by Mr Spiegel.

"So far we are in a positive, bottom-up process [of] upgrading the fabric of life of the Palestinians because we succeeded so far to reach a satisfied level of security and we gave back the IDF, the security services, the feeling of security," said Gen Spiegel.

Israeli security, as is common in these kinds of pro-Israel assemblies, was the gold standard by which all other factors were measured.

The fact that a few years after the outbreak of the Second Intifada and Operation Defensive Shield, negotiations could be re-started and the Palestinian economy showed signs of recovering seemed "rather remarkable" to Mr Danin.

Not quite as remarkable, perhaps, as General Herzog's contention that in spite of years of blockade, there was "no humanitarian crisis in Gaza", not now, and not a year ago when Israel blocked all but the bare essentials from reaching the 1.5 million Palestinians locked into the tiny coastal strip.

That assertion did receive the mildest of rebukes from Mr Danin, who noted that the imposition of the blockade was intended to turn Gazans against Hamas, and was therefore a "coordinated effort to make the conditions in Gaza barely tolerable".

There was only one problem. The blockade did not force the rejection and expulsion of Hamas from Gaza, a point conceded by Mr Danin. Nor indeed did Israel's benevolence in the West Bank - where after the hundreds of checkpoints were erected some have since been removed - render any Palestinians there more susceptible to giving up their right of return, their claims to Jerusalem or the 1967 borders. It was this show of ingratitude that undoubtedly left many in this audience puzzled.

The audience also seemed puzzled as to why Palestinians would name a square after a "terrorist", a symbolic act that, to thunderous applause, was denounced by General Herzog as "totally unacceptable".

That such actions are a way for Palestinians to offer a show of defiance and independence was difficult for this audience to comprehend. Statehood for Palestinians was in fact irrelevant, according to Dexter Sullivan, a student activist at Oral Roberts University who delivered the opening remarks at the session.

"My ties are with Israel, and I don't think recognising [the Palestinians] beyond the PLO would even matter until the [security] situation is improved," he said.

Amid the descriptions of the Herculean efforts of Israelis to improve their lives, there was barely a mention of the fact that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza live under military occupation.

Outside of the confines of the Aipac conference such ideas were not so perplexing.

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, said: "The fact of the occupation is cited by all multilateral institutions as the single biggest threat to its eventual success in the long run. That's one of the great paradoxes of the programme of building a state under occupation, in spite of the occupation, in order to end the occupation."


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017