Why the prisoner release reinforces the Occupied/Occupier relationship.

I don’t always agree with Jeffrey Goldberg, and I suppose that ultimately I’m not entirely in agreement with him now, but he’s raised an important point that I believe reflects a reality underlying the entire Israeli-Palestinian relationship, one that we (and in that “we,” I’m boldly including President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry) should bear in mind as peace negotiations move forward.

On Monday, Goldberg wrote that:

The government of Benjamin Netanyahu would sooner release murderers from prison than stop building apartments on the West Bank. In traditional Zionist thought…possession of all the biblical heartland wasn’t understood to be a moral and spiritual necessity, if such possession would undermine the safety of Israelis or the moral and political standing of Israel itself.

For members of Netanyahu’s party and his broader coalition, however, the possession of these biblical lands is paramount. They have become idol worshippers, and their idol is land. How else to explain what just happened: An Israeli government decided to venerate land over justice, and over life itself.

Yes, I agree with this. I agree that Israel’s right has forged a Golden Calf out of the occupied territories, and that it is willing to sacrifice (or overlook the sacrifice of) real human lives to the cult of that idol. I also agree that there is something essentially anti-Zionist about the entire process.

But I think that there is, in fact, an additional way, an even more essential way, to explain what just happened. Netanyahu’s actions—and those of 65 years of Israeli officialdom—also reflect something much less poetic, much less Biblical, much more banal, and fundamentally much more human.

When Israel releases Palestinian prisoners, the subtext is entirely of a piece with the subtext of the whole occupation infrastructure: We control your lives. We decide who may go where, and when. We build walls, we issue permits, we arrest, we release. Your lives—down to and including your very bodies—are under our control.

On the other hand, the subtext to freezing apartment building on the West Bank is “Palestinians are allowed to help shape Israel’s future as well as their own.” Adjusting the settlement enterprise, in any way, is an acknowledgement that Palestinians have a right to say something about it in the first place, and that’s something Israeli officials are not predisposed to acknowledge.

There are a number of reasons for this, not least that acknowledging Palestinian rights threatens Israel’s hold on the West Bank. Given that Israel’s government has long done all it can to deepen the occupation, the notion that Netanyahu will loosen that grip easily is a little fanciful (witness all the hard work Kerry has put in, and still the settlements grind on). And of course, as resonant as the prisoner release is for Palestinians, as emotionally challenging as it is for Israelis, sending a few dozen people back home (murderers or no) doesn’t actually change or threaten the occupation.

But beyond that, there’s all that subtext. Official Israel has almost never been able to acknowledge that Palestinians have a right to an independent opinion on any of this. The entire relationship has always been predicated on the presumption that Israel is in the right, the Palestinians are in the wrong, and only Israel may set the parameters of discussion and the region’s future.

Consider the language that official Israel so often uses: The government will or will not “allow” the establishment of a Palestinian state, it will “grant” the Palestinians this concession or that. Veteran negotiator Uri Savir discussed this very issue in his book about the Oslo Accords, The Process:

The bureaucrats and officers who ruled the Palestinians had been asked to pass on their powers to their ‘wards.’… We had been engaged in dehumanization for so long that we really thought ourselves ‘more equal’… [Those bureaucrats and officers] tended to begin by saying ‘We have decided to allow you…’.

Israelis and Palestinians like to believe ourselves special and our conflict unique, but bottom line, this is classic Subject/Other, Occupied/Occupier behavior.

When men tell women how they may be women; when white Americans define citizenship for black Americans; when the US forcibly transferred Native American children to white schools and Japanese Americans to internment camps; when Israel threw a fit because Palestinians had the gall to use the word “state” before Israel had said they could—in all such cases, people in positions of power tell those with less power who they are and what they may do. The Subject strips the Object of agency, and then reacts very badly when the Object reclaims that which has been taken.

Releasing Palestinian prisoners reminds the Palestinian people who’s boss; freezing settlements gives them part in the project at hand. The first comes to Israel very easily—as for the latter, we’ll have to see what Secretary Kerry can do.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

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Let’s Talk About The Israel Lobby.

Yesterday, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg posted a brief—and (to this Jew) amusing—note about turning down a request to join a discussion on French television about the “how the Israeli lobby influences American foreign policy.”

The amusing part of the post was when he said that he’d misplaced his horns and would have to find them before Rosh Hashana. I actually love jokes like that and make them all the time, often to the horror of my friends.

The less amusing part, however, was that he refused to join the discussion, and likened (in jest? Maybe?) the very request to an act of anti-Semitism.

I’ve read Goldberg for years, and even, many years ago, had the opportunity to give his book Prisoners a very positive review. Sometimes he and I agree on the issues that stand before Israel and the Jewish community. Sometimes we really, really don’t. So it goes.

But I confess to not only disagreeing with, but being genuinely flummoxed by, his reaction here.

In a post that was 127 words long (yes, I counted) and titled “An Offer I Could Refuse,” here is all the background information provided about the request he’d received:

I found this note in my in-box earlier this week, from a certain French television network: “Invitation to participate in the english debate to discuss Israel’s influence on American vis-a-vis Iran.” The text that followed read, in part, “We would love to have your insights on how the Israeli lobby influences American Foreign policy. I look forward to hearing from you.”

It is entirely possible that the “certain French television network” is one known for outlandish, provocative and/or anti-Semitic coverage, a place no one who takes themselves seriously should appear or support. It is at least equally possible that the rest of the email gave clear indication of outlandish, provocative and/or anti-Semitic intent.

However, in the absence of more information, what I see here is a straight-forward request to have a conversation about a lobby that was established in order to influence American foreign policy and whether that lobby succeeds or fails at that goal.

I will admit that the use of the word “Israeli” might be a bad sign (the lobby is American, and lobbies in support of what it perceives to be Israel’s interests), but again, in the absence of more information, I would tend to chalk that up to the fact that a foreigner was writing in English. It looks like a mistake, is what I’m saying—though sure, it would be entirely reasonable to clarify that one word before moving on.

But, look. I am not (I rush to mention) a moron. I know that the words “the Israel Lobby” can be code for “ZOMG Jews rule the world!!!”—a sentiment which I think we can all agree is the very essence of anti-Semitism.

But given a chance to talk about that lobby—a lobby which, like the Dairy Board and the tobacco industry and every other lobby in American politics, actually exists in order to have an impact on American policy—why not take the chance to clarify the prickly nature of the issue?

Why not say something like “Yes, this lobby exists, like every other lobby in American politics, in order to have an impact on American policy, but [fill in the blank with whatever you see to be the truth about the Israel lobby’s relative successes and failures].”

Despite not being a moron, I honestly don’t understand. Truly.

It is not anti-Semitic to say that the Israel lobby exists, and that said lobby has goals toward which it works. It is factual.

How we choose to frame the conversation going forward is then up to us.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.