My friend Andrew Arato charges me with “pure evasion,” but he misses the point, indeed, several points. He grants Israel’s right to exist, which is good of him, but asks: “which territorial entity” should be recognized? That, however, is not the issue for Tariq Ramadan, Tariq Ali and (most) of the black-listers. Their issue is the existence of the Jewish state regardless of borders. My criticisms are of the “left that doesn’t learn” in explicit contrast to “the fair and opened minded left.” (See “Anti-Semitism and the Left that Doesn’t Learn” ). Perhaps I should exempt Ramadan since he is hardly to be counted as “left,” let alone fair and open minded. After all, he is quick and unequivocal when it comes to a call to boycott Israel at book fairs, but needs a moratorium to initiate a process of deliberation about religious justification of stoning women.
The real philosophical dispute between Arato, whose work I respect highly, and myself concerns his definition of a state as “a people, a territory and coercive organization.” I disagree. States exist in history and not just by definition or in law books. Arato asks, should the state of Israel be “the one granted by international decision (1948), by armistice agreements reinforced by United Nations Security Council agreements 1949-1967, or the de facto territorium controlled by that coercive organization today?” My answer is simple: none of the above. Look at the history of these decisions and their aftermaths and you will see why–and also how international law and institutions were undermined:
The first decision was November 29, 1947 (not 1948) when the UN voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. It was violated on May 15 1948, one day after Israeli independence was declared, in accordance with it, when half a dozen armies of the Arab League invaded that Jewish state. They were defeated. Israel’s borders were redrawn by war and established, at least for the next two decades. Not a single Arab state recognized that Israel. Still, we often hear nowadays that the clock should be turned back to the 1947 Resolution. It is a curious way to enhance international law. Reject an international resolution, make war, and when you lose you insist on going back to an antebellum starting point.
Then there is the role of the UN and the Security Council from 1949-1967. In the early and mid-1950s, Egypt closed the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping, then blockaded the Straits of Tiran–that means blockading Eilat, Israel’s second largest port–and blocked Israel’s southern air routes to Africa. These acts violated international law, armistice agreements, and UN Security Council Resolutions. International bodies and legal institutions were ineffectual, entirely so, in their responses. Nonetheless, when the Security Council demanded complete withdrawal from the Sinai after Israel occupied it in the 1956 War, Jerusalem complied fully.
Not without conditions: the Straits had to be reopened, a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) placed both at the southern tip of Sinai to ensure free passage of ships and along the Egyptian-Israeli border to prevent war. Was this bad? It worked for a decade, and the UN may be given part of the credit. That is, until May 1967. Nasser then mobilized his army (as did Jordan and Syria, with whom he quickly signed a military pact) and demanded the removal of the UNEF. This took away the buffer between the two armies, and Nasser reinstituted the blockade. It is arguable that Egypt’s president had the “legal right” to demand the UNEF’s withdrawal. But war would have been prevented had U Thant, the UN Secretary General, deployed political intelligence rather than very bad judgment and legalisms. What did the Security Council do in the lead up to war? It dithered. Israel acted and occupied the Sinai, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.
Once in a while, just once in a while, we need to recall the circumstances in which Israel occupied the occupied territories. When an accord was reached after Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977, Israel again withdrew from Sinai. Completely. This was not due to international legalism but to a political agreement. In the meantime, the UN has passed one-sided resolution after one-sided resolution condemning Israel for everything except the Lisbon Earthquake (and I am sure someone will find a way to blame “Zionists” for that too). Why is there something wrong with criticizing Israel when deserving, applauding it when deserving, and treating the Palestinian side likewise? But peruse the long history of UN “human rights” resolutions on Israel and Palestine and you will find them condemning, in their overwhelming majority, only one side. You will find that these condemnations were voted by and came with hearty applause from states with appalling human rights records. The UN’s World Conference on Racism in Durban in 2001 was supposed to target prejudice, but it turned into the political equivalent of an anti-Israeli lynch mob. The next one, planned for 2009, is likely to be the same.
What is evaded, Andy? My answers to Elisabetta Ambrosi’s questions make clear that I think that Israel should withdraw, more or less, to the 1967 borders within the context of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Of course, it must be an agreement that can be implemented and secured by both sides. International law can play a role in this, but if history tells anything, it is that the legal dimension should be secondary. Why do I say withdraw “more or less”? Because it seems to me perfectly alright if the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government agree to swap parts of the West Bank for parts of pre-1967 Israel to attain peace, regardless of any past international resolutions. If it were proven that Gush Emunim settlements were internationally lawful, I would still oppose them.
Finally, Arato objects to Israel’s “law of return.” This law grants citizenship to any Jew who moves to Israel. He must also object, I suppose, to affirmative action programs for Blacks or women in the US (or for poor Muslim immigrants in Europe) because they use the same logic. There was a “Jewish problem,” not an “individual problem.” The Law of Return, like Israel’s creation, is a form of affirmative action after a long history of violent persecution and especially the refusal by so many countries to take in a brutalized, hunted, homeless people fleeing Nazi slaughter. Its rationale assumes that particular problems require particular solutions. Discrimination against minorities or women cannot be solved simply by proclaiming equality before the law; it cannot be redressed by treating those who suffer discrimination as abstract human beings to be relieved by a magic legal wand; it cannot be turned into past history by imagining persecution to be solely a matter of individuals victimized by other individuals. When racism or sexism are no longer problems, Americans will no longer need affirmative action. After anti-Semitism lies buried deep in the world’s past, Israel’s law of return can wither away–like the state in the Marxist vision of utopia.
Mitchell Cohen is co-editor of Dissent and professor of political science at Baruch College–CUNY. He recently wrote on French politics and the ‘new’ Atheism. The interview and exchange originally appeared on Reset: Dialogues on Civilization. ©ResetDOC.