Carlo Strenger
Haaretz (Opinion)
February 8, 2012 - 1:00am

I have for years opposed Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and I continue to be appalled by Israel’s continuing expansion of settlements. But I'm running into a linguistic problem: if I use ‘appalled’ for Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, what term is left for Assad’s butchering of his own people for almost a year?

It would be of great importance for Israel’s more one-sided critics to acknowledge, once in a while, that Israel is located in a pretty rough neighborhood. Israel’s citizens would feel a bit more understood, if these critics were to express sympathy for Israel’s genuine, if flawed, attempt to maintain a liberal democracy in the midst of regimes that often commit outrageous crimes against humanity. At times, when I hear some of the critical comments on Israel, one might think that Israel is Belgium, and that for unintelligible reasons it keeps attacking helpless Luxembourg.

Because Israel’s precarious situation is rarely acknowledged, many Israelis end up voting for boorish people like Lieberman whose basic attitude is inspired by Putin: the Free World’s hand-wringing, he believes, is nothing but a sham, hypocrisy thinly disguised as moral outrage when it comes to Israel, and acquiescence to the inevitable when it comes to the surrounding Islamic countries. The world, he claims, made a huge fuss when Israel stopped the Mavi Marmara and, unfortunately, killed nine of its passengers, but chose to ignore that the Turkish Army killed many Kurds at the same time.

The automatic response of some of Israel’s left-leaning critics both in the U.S. and Europe is predictable: how does Assad’s butchering of his compatriots justify the occupation?

My answer is: it doesn’t. But Israel’s critics would do well for the sake of fairness and integrity to acknowledge that it quite frightening to live in a neighborhood in which dictators kill at the scale of the Assad family. Because Israelis wonder: what if these guys, one day, win against us? What exactly will they do to women and children here, if they kill their own? And some of Israel’s critics conveniently forget that Hamas, which in the past won Palestinian elections, has been Assad’s protégé until it decided recently that it is wiser for it not to be seen as supporting him.

I assume that some of my readers might be surprised to read this blog post and wonder: has he finally snapped? Has he gone over to the right?

The answer is no: my positions have remained essentially the same: I think that Israel’s post-1967 policies have been a disaster, and I think that Ben-Gurion was right in predicting that holding on to the territories would endanger Israel’s future. But, given the situation since the Second Intifada, I continue to think that the fears of ordinary Israelis are quite understandable.

Most Israelis are not ideological right-wingers. To this day two-thirds of Israel’s Jews believe that the two-state solution is the only chance for peace. But they are afraid to move ahead with it: what will happen if we go for the two-state solution, and Hamas, vowing to destroy Israel, will come to power again?

They want assurances that scenarios like the shelling of southern Israel will not be repeated in Israel’s heartland; and nobody can give such assurances as long as Hamas doesn’t explicitly renounce armed struggle against Israel and recognize Israel’s legitimacy.

I judge Israel by the standards of the Free World, and I want no other standard to be applied to it. I am happy that Israel is seen as part of the Free World, and not compared to countries that freely murder their own citizens.

But watching the utter horror of Assad’s genocidal actions, it becomes understandable why many Israelis feel that indeed the world is applying a double standard; that the condemnation of Israel and that of the countries around it are in no proportion with each other.

I wish nothing more than an Israel that conforms to the moral standard of the Free World. But even here there is a certain amount of double standard: Israel’s targeted killings of terrorist suspects are often attacked as outrageous. But Obama, a leader whom I greatly respect, has approved of targeted killings at a scale never even envisaged by Israel, and I haven’t heard much protest. For some reason it seems quite acceptable if the drones killing members of al-Qaida in Yemen are directed from Langley, Virginia, whereas drones killing those planning terror attacks in Israel are criticized if they are directed from Tel Aviv.

This being said, Israel’s current government has made it well nigh impossible for the Free World to have empathy for Israeli fears. Nobody in the Free World believes that Israel’s rational concerns justify the maintenance of isolated settlements; nobody accepts Israel making Palestinian lives miserable at checkpoints for the sake of the security for a few starry eyed settlers who are convinced that every stone in the West Bank is eternally promised to Jews.

And the behavior of our government doesn’t help either: Time and again I hear from Western politicians, diplomats and commentators how utterly outlandish Lieberman behaves; time and again they tell me how unreliable Netanyahu is. They are unimpressed by Netanyahu’s constant harping on the Holocaust theme; they see Lieberman as a kind of freak of the international diplomatic scene, and avoid meeting him if they can.

Hence, while the Free World’s excessive tendency to condemn Israel for its actions must be analyzed in depth, and in some cases condemned, we must not let the Netanyahu government off the hook: its intransigence and lack of civility greatly contribute to the Free World’s dwindling understanding of Israel’s difficult predicament.


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