A recent op-ed in the Washington Post offers an instructive example of elite opinion towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the kind of logic, or lack thereof, which guides U.S. policy.
Richard Cohen, in an article entitled, “They Honor Us With Their Hate”, begins by reminding his readers of news that on September 11, 2001, “the Palestinians were cheering the deaths of about 3,000 innocent people in America”.
He then proceeds to explain that this was “before America’s retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan or the war in Iraq”, before “Guantanamo became shorthand for abuse of the president’s constitutional authority and before the outrage of Abu Ghraib”; “In other words, the demonstration by Palestinians (in the Lebanese refugee camp of Shatila) preceded most of the usual reasons given for why America today is held in contempt by much of the world.”
Cohen informs his readers that he’s been to Shatila and mentions Israel “allegedly abetting the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Lebanese Christian forces.” He notes, “The Palestinians have been mistreated by just about everybody, including, of course, their own inept and often corrupt leadership.”
“Still,” he continues, “the chief reason for the cheering on Sept. 11 was U.S. support for Israel. Sometimes that support has been mindless and sometimes it has been over the top, but fundamentally it is based on certain truths.” Among these “truths”, is that “Israel is a legally sanctioned state, created by the United Nations in 1948”, Iran and “a host of militant organizations — Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and, of course, al-Qaeda — fervently wish for Israel’s destruction.” Cohen then adds that “There is no way the United States could appease these groups and not, in the process, trample on its own moral values. Israel on occasion is wrong — and the settlements are an abomination — but its existence is right.”
Although the Bush administration has “made matters worse”, “in a way, America has little choice about being hated in some parts of the world. The United States is never going to be truly popular as long as it insists on adhering to certain principles.”
In conclusion, Cohen writes, “It’s always nice to have friends. Sometimes, though, it’s more honorable to have enemies.”1
In short, while Israel is sometimes in the wrong, we must support that country out of principle and should hence feel a sense of honor for adhering resolutely to our “principles” rather than seeking to “appease” Israel’s enemies, even when doing so causes them to hate us as well.
It’s an interesting argument, the examination which provides some useful insights. Cohen begins by invoking an image of “the Palestinians” rejoicing about the attacks of September 11. In fact, Palestine officially condemned the terrorist attacks and the images of Palestinians celebrating represented only a small group. It is certainly condemnable for people to praise such a horrible tragedy. But how many Americans cheered on the attack against Afghanistan, resulting, after just the first few months of conflict, in more civilian deaths than caused by the terrorist attacks of September 11? How many Americans cheered on the attack against Iraq? According to the most scientific study to date of mortality rates in Iraq as a result of the war, published in the Lancet medical journal, there have been 655,000 excess Iraqi deaths.2 How many Americans have glorified violence such as this? Cohen himself once wrote, “In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic.”3 Perhaps it was also “therapeutic” for those Palestinians to celebrate the use of violence.
The relevance of the incidents of Palestinians celebrating the attacks, for Cohen’s purpose, is to show that the U.S. was hated by them even before “most of the usual reasons given” for why America is hated today. The intended implication as that, prior to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Palestinians had no reason to hate the U.S. The corollary, reiterated again later in his article, is that the U.S. will be hated no matter what it does, even for no good reason, so we must stay the course with present policies.
Of course, Cohen acknowledges that the Palestinians weren’t completely without reason for disliking the U.S. and recognizes that “U.S. support for Israel” was a cause for hatred of U.S. policy even before “the usual reasons” came to be. Other than U.S. support for Israel, however, the U.S. apparently never gave cause for contempt from people in the Middle East before the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq.
Never mind that we created the situation that led to the rise of the Taliban and the al-Qaeda organization by funding, arming, and training the most radical Islamists — whom President Reagan later regarded as “freedom fighters” — in an effort to overthrow the Afghani government; funding which began in part, according to then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, in order to “induce a Soviet military intervention” — a policy carried out with no inconsiderable success. Brzezinski even bragged about having had “the opportunity of giving the USSR its Vietnam war”, despite the overthrow of a progressive government which sought to improve rights for women and its replacement with warlords intent upon establishing their repressive versions of Sharia, or Islamic law.4 In fact, when the Taliban rose to power they were initially greeted as liberators for ridding the people of the warlords, some of whom have since regained power as allies of the U.S. in the war to overthrow the Taliban.5 The Soviet-Afghan war left more than a million dead Afghans and five million refugees; but this is of little concern to Brzezinksi and other U.S. government policy-makers.6 And for Cohen and his ilk, such policies and their devastating results are easily enough wiped from memory.
And never mind that the bombing of Iraq didn’t begin in March 2003. Bombings had continued intermittently since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, escalating sharply in 1998 and continuing regularly since then until 2003, when the bombing once again escalated in the “shock and awe” campaign and subsequent invasion. The U.S. also bears primary responsibility for the U.N. sanctions that resulted in the deaths of over a million Iraqis, most of whom were children. According to the U.N., by 1999 the sanctions had resulted in the deaths of over half a million children.7
Denis Halliday, then Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and coordinator of humanitarian relief to Iraq, resigned in 1998 in protest of the sanctions. “We are in the process of destroying an entire society,” he said at the time. “It is as simple and terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral.”8 As he later put it, “I had been instructed to implement a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide: a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals, children and adults.”9
Halliday’s successor, Hans von Sponeck, also resigned in protest in 2000. As a result of sanctions, he said, putting it mildly, “We can expect people entering adult life much less well prepared than their parents were in facing civic responsibility, in having an ethical and moral grounding when they were taught mainly how to survive under sanctions. The chances are pretty good that we will see a generation that will not be so favorably inclined towards countries in Europe and North America.”10
But never mind all that. Before Bush went and screwed things up, we’d never given anyone in the Middle East cause to hate us.
There are no shortage of other examples of U.S. policies and actions in the Middle East that would incur the wrath of anyone who happened to be unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end, and yet Cohen would have his readers believe that the U.S. had little nothing to provoke hatred prior to 2001. It’s doubtful that this is due to ignorance and far more likely the result of dishonesty.
Cohen next attempts to demonstrate his objectivity by mentioning the slaughter of civilians in Sabra and Shatila in 1982. But he caveats his statement by saying that Israel only “allegedly” abetted this war crime. In truth, complicity was admitted. The Israeli Defense Force, under then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, instructed the Christian Phalange militia to enter the camp.11 Israel’s commission of inquiry into the massacre, the Kahan Commission, found Sharon personally responsible and concluded that “it is impossible to justify the Minister of Defense’s disregard of the danger of a massacre”, adding that “this danger was certainly to have been anticipated”.12
After the onset of the slaughter, U.S. special envoy Morris Draper demanded of Israel that “You must stop the massacres. They are obscene…. You ought to be ashamed. The situation is rotten and terrible. They are killing children. You are in absolute control of the area and therefore responsible for that area.”13 Israeli writer Amos Elon likened it to “A man who puts a snake into a child’s bed and says: ‘I’m sorry. I told the snake not to bite. I didn’t know snakes were so dangerous.’ It’s impossible to understand. This man’s a war criminal.”14 Ze’ev Schiff, another well known Israeli writer, similarly commented that “whoever allowed the Phalangists to enter the refugee camps on their own can be compared to one who allows a fox into the chicken coop and then wonders why the chickens were all eaten.”15
But Cohen’s use of the word “allegedly” serves its purpose: Palestinians are evildoers who celebrate terrorist atrocities, while Israel is a good state worthy of our support despite occasional mistakes, real or “alleged”. Presumably, U.S. support for the 1982 invasion of Lebanon of which the Sabra and Shatila massacres were a part were one of those occasions when U.S. support was “over the top” — but in the end, in Cohen’s formula, necessary in order to adhere to our moral principles.
Besides our moral principles, we must also support Israel because “Israel is a legally sanctioned state, created by the United Nations in 1948.” This, simply stated, is a fabrication—though an often enough repeated one that blame for its propagation cannot be placed with Cohen. The United Nations did not create the state of Israel in 1948. The U.N. neither has the authority to take land from one people and give it to another nor has it ever presumed to usurp such authority. On November 29, 1947, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a non-binding resolution (only U.N. Security Council resolutions are legally binding) recommending the partition of Palestine, subsequent to the end of the British “mandate”, into Arab and Jewish states.16 Though Jews were a minority of the population of Palestine (608,000 Jews to 1,269,000 Arabs at the end of 1946), the plan apportioned a majority of Palestine, including most of the best land, to the Jews (approximately 56 percent to 43 percent). The Arabs, naturally, rejected the proposal. When the British withdrew from Palestine on May 15, 1948, the Zionist leaders under David Ben-Gurion unilaterally proclaimed the existence of the State of Israel.17
According to Cohen’s logic, we must support Israel against the Palestinians simply because Israel is a “legally sanctioned state” while the Palestinians are stateless. The fact that this is a historical myth aside, it’s instructive that according to Cohen’s argument, it is adherence to “principals” to support the oppression of one people over another based simply on the status of their statehood. According to this formula, the U.S. should have supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against the Kurds because Iraq was legally a state while the Kurds were stateless. How this position is reconcilable with serious moral principles seems a mystery, but this doesn’t stop Cohen from laying claim to the higher moral ground.
In his effort to lay such claim, Cohen adds that Iran and various militant groups “fervently wish for Israel’s destruction.” Israel is thus the victim while its opponents are monsters which threaten its very existence. This is a dramatic departure from reality. First, even if were as Cohen says, the fact that some “wish for Israel’s destruction” doesn’t mean they are capable of destroying Israel. Israel’s existence has never been threatened, as history has demonstrated repeatedly, the most outstanding example of which was the June 1967 war. Again, at that time, there was speak of a genocidal threat to Israel, a threat to the very existence of the state. Yet the outcome of the war was never in doubt, only how long it would take Israel to win a decisive victory. U.S. intelligence estimates were very near the mark and it took only six days for Israel to achieve its aim.
Second, the truth of this characterization is questionable. In one prominent contemporary example, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been widely quoted as having said that Israel “must be wiped off the map”.18 This translation uses the English idiom meaning “to obliterate totally”,19 and the quote has often been cited as proof that Iran harbors the intent to commit violence and wishes “for Israel’s destruction”, a veritable call for genocide.
The only catch is that Ahmadinejad never said any such thing.20 He quoted Ayatollah Khomeini as saying, “This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history.” The context of his speech was concerning oppressive and illegitimate regimes, of which Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Shah’s Iran were also included.21
Even the New York Times, while incredibly defending their use of “wiped off the map” and suggesting Ahmadinejad may have been calling for war, acknowledges that Ahmadinejad never said “Israel”, but “occupying regime of Jerusalem”, and that he actually used a metaphorical expression with an approximate meaning of “pages of time or history” and not literally “map”.22
His conclusion, based on the assertion that Israel’s enemies “fervently wish for Israel’s destruction”, is that the U.S. must not “trample on its own moral values”, but must rather, even though “the settlements are an abomination”, continue to support Israel because “its existence is right.”
The pen of the propagandist thus makes it a moral obligation for the U.S. to continue to support Israel’s ongoing wiping of any viable future Palestinian state from the map because its enemies harbor similar intentions towards Israel. Why the U.S. shouldn’t support Palestinian aspirations for a state against Israel’s ongoing policy of wiping any potential Palestine from the map because its existence would be right and consistent with our moral obligations is left unexplained.
By the time he’s done, Cohen manages to explain away hatred towards the U.S. as being the result of the U.S. “adhering to certain principles” (this is certainly true, but Cohen clearly means moral principles), rather than the result of the U.S. having strayed from moral principles. Our support of Israel, our bombing of Iraq, our deliberate policy of starving Iraqi children, our overthrow of democratic leaders, our support for oppressive regimes—all of these historic U.S. policies and deeds are the result of policy-makers “adhering to certain principles”, and thus good and true and right.
The U.S. not only has done nothing to deserve the hatred of others, but they only hate us because we are so good, and so we should therefore take pride in the fact that we are so unloved by so many people in so much of the world.
It is hardly uncommon for such utterly nonsensical arguments in favor of existing U.S. policies to be propagated among the educated elite, among politicians and the intelligentsia. That this state of affairs even exists offers extraordinary insight into the political culture of the U.S. and is a sad commentary upon the health of true moral principles amongst educated Americans.
- Richard Cohen, “They Honor Us With Their Hate”, Washington Post, July 10, 2007. [↩]
- David Brown, “Study Claims Iraq’s ‘Excess’ Death Toll Has Reached 655,000″, Washington Post, October 11, 2006 [↩]
- Richard Cohen, “The Lingo of Vietnam”, Washington Post, November 21, 2006; A27. [↩]
- Interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Le Nouvel Observateur, January 1998 (translated from the French by William Blum). [↩]
- Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: The Story of the Afghan Warlords, (Pan Macmillan, London 2001), p.5. [↩]
- “Afghanistan War”, The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2007. [↩]
- “Iraq surveys show ‘humanitarian emergency’”, UNICEF, August 12, 1999. [↩]
- Andrew Buncombe, “Infant mortality in Iraq soars as young pay the price for war”, The Independent, May 8, 2007. [↩]
- John Pilger, “Squeezed to Death”, Guardian, March 4, 2000. [↩]
- “The Unfinished War: The Legacy of Desert Storm”, CNN, January 5, 2001. [↩]
- Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle, (South End Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1999), p. 360. [↩]
- Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the events at the refugee camps in Beirut, February 8, 1983. [↩]
- Chomsky, p. 368. [↩]
- Chomsky, p. 392. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181, 1947 [↩]
- Joel Beinin and Lisa Hajjar, “Palestine, Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Primer”, Middle East Research & Information Project. [↩]
- Nazila Fathi, “Iran’s President Says Israel Must Be ‘Wiped Off the Map’”, New York Times, October 26, 2007. [↩]
- Oxford English Dictionary. [↩]
- See Juan Cole’s Blog “Informed Comment”, May 3, 2006. Jonathan Steele, “Lost in Translation”, Comment is Free (Guardian), June 14, 2006. [↩]
- This is the translation provided by The Middle East Media Research Institute. [↩]
- Ehtan Bronner, “Just How Far Did They Go, Those Words Against Israel?”, New York Times, June 11, 2006. [↩]