Interviewing Netanyahu and analysing the Gaza phenomenon

Two and a half years ago I posted on this blog a provocative extract from a BBC interview with Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu about Israel’s attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon and the issue of proportionality. It prompted, predictably, a lively debate in comments on it.  Now ‘mazal tov’ has posted a new comment on that 2006 post which links to a blog post which in turn has a link to an audio clip of a different BBC interview with Netanyahu, this time by the Today Programme’s John Humphrys, both in typically ebullient form.  The clip, an mp3 file that may take a few moments to load, is here.  It’s fascinating to listen to, whatever view you might take of the middle east conflict, for at least two reasons:  first, because of the powerful parallels between Israel’s assault on Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 and its more recent assault on Hamas in Gaza, which make Netanyahu’s remarks uncannily topical nearly three years later;  and secondly because of the strong possibility that Netanyahu will either become prime minister of Israel following the recent Israeli elections, or else will play a weighty part in, or in relation to, whatever new government does eventually emerge.  I am grateful to ‘mazal tov’ (whose pen-name, to his credit, leaves no doubt about where he’s coming from) for sharing this revealing clip with us.

I refrain from commenting on the substance of the Netanyahu interview except to point out that although the Israeli attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon in July 2006 was widely regarded, even in Israel, as a humiliating defeat for Israel, it did prompt the UN Security Council to pass a resolution which in effect endorsed Israel’s principal war aims in launching its attack, and that since then rocket attacks on Israel by Hezbollah in Lebanon have almost entirely ceased.

As a postscript, to those who (like me) have been dismayed by the ferocity and one-sidedness of the denunciations of Israel over its attack on Hamas in Gaza on the part of much of the UK media and large parts of British public opinion, I strongly commend a passionate polemic by Howard Jacobson in the Independent newspaper’s online ‘Independent Minds Live Journal’ posted on 18 February 2009.  It’s hard to disagree with Jacobson’s thesis that whatever aspects of Israel’s actions deserve strong condemnation, they manifestly weren’t so utterly atrocious as to justify the outpourings of bile against Israel that disfigured the reaction in Britain to the events in Gaza, terrible as they were. Jacobson’s piece begins:

A discriminatory, over-and-above hatred, inexplicable in its hysteria and virulence whatever justification is adduced for it; an unreasoning, deranged and as far as I can see irreversible revulsion that is poisoning everything we are supposed to believe in here – the free exchange of opinions, the clear-headedness of thinkers and teachers, the fine tracery of social interdependence we call community relations, modernity of outlook, tolerance, truth. You can taste the toxins on your tongue.

But I am not allowed to ascribe any of this to anti-Semitism.

You may well not agree with Jacobson’s analysis, but whether you do or not, read it with an open mind and then ask yourself whether perhaps he might have a point.  (Hat-tip to the much reviled Melanie Phillips for — predictably — commending Howard Jacobson’s essay on her blog.) You might, incidentally, take the view that many of the comments appended by readers to Jacobson’s essay tend to confirm his worst fears.

PS:  Reflections in comments below on the Netanyahu interview or the Jacobson essay are very welcome, but this is not, please, the place for renewed verbal warfare either in condemnation or in justification of the actions in Gaza or Lebanon of Hamas, Hezbollah or Israel, however strong the emotions they provoke.

Update, 21 Feb. 09: My old friend and (verbal only) sparring partner Peter Harvey points out, justly, that his blog was there first with the article by Howard Jacobson, which he both quotes and praises.  I arrived at it via Melanie Phillips’s blog, as I acknowledge above (don’t all hiss at once) which in turn was mentioned in some Twitterer’s Tweet, I forget whose.  Hat-tips all round, drinks on me.


10 Responses

  1. Jeremy says:

    Just because I remain adamant that the Israeli assault on Gaza was wholly disproportionate and a disgrace on a nation that claims to be civilised does not mean that I am anti-semitic. Whilst I do consider that over the years the treatment of the Palestinians by successive Israeli governments has been deplorably oppressive, I also recognise that the Israelis face implacable hostility and that they have a legitimate right of self-defence. So it it a cause for sadness that their behaviour often obscures the rightness of their cause and, of course, seems calculated to beget yet more violence.

    Brian writes: Jeremy, I read Howard Jacobson’s article as applying to those whose denunciations of Israel are expressed with such implacable virulence, in terms so out of proportion to the matters complained of, as to require some sort of psychological explanation. I don’t think anyone would put you in that category. But those who are so emotionally affronted by Israeli military action that entails the killing of innocent civilians are often suspiciously silent when exactly the same thing is done — often on a far larger scale — by (for example) Hamas, Hezbollah, NATO in its 3-month assault on Yugoslavia in 1999, and Britain and the US (and others) in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor do these outraged protesters against Israel use the same argument from lack of proportionality between military objective sought and casualties inflicted in the comparable cases of NATO and Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course there have been strong protests against the Iraq war, but even these have lacked the extraordinary venom of much of the denunciation of Israel. Can you really rule out the explanation suggested by Jacobson? If so, what alternative explanation can you suggest?

  2. Phil says:

    If I were Jewish, and particularly if I were a Zionist, I think I would probably be smelling antisemitism in the air just as Jacobson is. It’s an understandable reaction to some of the things that have been said. The underlying problem is that Israel is – and prides itself on being – a Jewish state and a state for all Jews; its advocates tend to slip back and forth between talking about Israel and talking about the Jewish people, and it’s not surprising if some of its less sophisticated critics occasionally do so too.

    But I don’t think the charge of antisemitism – or, more precisely, of antisemitism entering the mainstream – is remotely valid. If the anti-war movement were anti-semitic, it would refuse to admit Jews or demand that they abandon their faith. It does neither. Many Jews, and not a few Zionists, have spoken out against the slaughter inflicted on the people of Gaza. As for the intemperate tone of the protest, I’d put it down to frustration. Hamas, as unsavoury as they may be, are the duly-elected government of the Palestinian Authority. To see the Fatah putsch followed by the slow strangulation of Gaza through the blockade, followed by Israel’s violation of its ceasefire, followed by the implementation of a long-planned operation involving 1000 deaths and the unapologetic targeting of civilians – to see all this happening without a word of protest from Western governments makes a lot of people want to raise their voices.

    Brian writes: Howard Jacobson clearly wasn’t asserting that all critics of Israel were anti-Semitic — indeed, he goes out of his way to acknowledge, without irony, that much criticism of Israel is legitimate and that he agrees with a good deal of it. His point, as I understand (and agree with) it, is that the extraordinary venom of much of the anti-Israeli sentiment, and of almost hysterical denunciations of Israeli policies and actions, is so distinctively different and so much more vehement than criticism of comparable actions and policies of other countries, that a deeper explanation of its bewildering virulence seems to be called for. The obvious explanation, for at least some of the virulence, would seem to be underlying anti-Semitism, a prejudice that is far more prevalent and deeply rooted in our society than a casual Gentile observer might suspect (having one Jewish parent, I’m aware of it a good deal of the time). If that’s not the true explanation, it would be good to know what it is. I don’t think it can be explained away by mere frustration: we all get frustrated by political failures and delays all the time, but few of us constantly raise our voices to screaming pitch on account of it. (And I absolutely agree that the Israeli identification of Israelis with Jews does nothing to discourage anti-Semitism: nor does the automatic assumption here and in the US, for example by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, that all Jews in the US, UK and everywhere else outside Israel are uncritical supporters and defenders of everything that Israeli governments do. It’s not even true of all Israeli Jews, for God’s sake!)

    Incidentally, though, not everyone would accept everything in your potted history of the recent conflict. There’s room for argument, for example, over which side was responsible for breaching the cease-fire; and your source for the damning accusation that the IDF deliberately targeted civilians — something strongly denied even by independent observers as well as by Israel — is inevitably deeply suspect (“Electronic Intifada”). However, since this was the version of events relentlessly pushed by most of the UK media throughout most of the conflict, it’s little wonder that a lot of anger was aroused. Those Hamas banners on the protest marches! Some people go overboard and I agree that it doesn’t make them all paid-up Hitler Youth Anti-Semites.

  3. Phil says:

    The title ”Electronic Intifada” doesn’t exactly shout neutrality, I’ll grant you. I included a link to that piece because it’s a detailed and (as far as I could tell) credible eye-witness report from inside Gaza.

  4. Dave says:

    There’s not a lot to say about the Netanyahu interview except that he must be one of the ablest verbal battlers on the planet, more formidable in a way than even Margaret Thatcher was because she sometimes submerged the interviewer under a torrent of words, which didn’t always go down well with the public. I have heard her  described as uninterviewable.
    Having read the very long Jacobson article earlier in the week, I don’t want to re-read it but I can remember agreeing with most of it and would reiterate something I said on your Gaza blog, “… is no longer PC to make directly anti-Jewish statements in public but hostility to Israel is a wonderful flag of convenience for those who wish to exercise their anti-semitism without any expenditure of moral courage.  (Perhaps I should say perverse moral courage.)”
    For the last 20-30 years some of the most virulent anti-Israel sentiments have come from the Left.  This is less surprising than it might seem: the Left dislike capitalism, Jews are seen as proficient at capitalism and not just plain vanilla capitalism per se but  capitalism of the mercurial, deal-making sort. To insult Israel is a neat way of hurting Jews. 
    For some years a stock of goodwill  was built up between the Israeli and British Labour Parties, safeguarded in part by Ian Mikardo, but it dwindled after Israel started to elect right wing governments such as Begin’s.
    If you compare reactions to the indiscriminate slaughter and devastation committed by Russia in Chechnya and Israel’s actions in Gaza and Lebanon, you get, at least on the liberal Left, in the one case relative nonchalance and in the other insensate rage. 
    Then take the Syrian government’s suppression of Muslim fundamentalists at Hama in 1982.  Wikipedia states:-
    “Political insurgency by Islamic groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood beginning in the early 1980s culminated in an uprising in February, 1982. Government forces led by the president’s brother, Rifaat al-Assad, quelled the revolt, but killed thousands of civilians and destroyed much of the old part of the city in the process. The town was shelled by the Syrian military, and the estimated deaths numbered more than 20,000 and may have been as high as 30,000 or 40,000, a big portion of them were women and children. The story is suppressed in Syria.”
    I don’t remember ever seeing or hearing one left wing eyelid batted over that episode.
    Examples such as these demonstrate that Jacobson is right.  Of course it would be nice to think that the anger directed at Israel, and by extension the Jewish community, stemmed from a disappointed sense of noblesse oblige but, sorry, I don’t think so.

  5. Phil says:

    I still fail to understand how this sort of “false flag anti-semitism” could so consistently fail to produce any effects immediately recognisable as anti-semitism rather than anti-Zionism. This surely is crucial: the argument that “they only hate Israel because they hate Jews” isn’t credible unless you can show that ‘they’ do hate Jews, and that they’ve expressed that hatred in other contexts as well as that of hating Israel.

    Brian writes: I’m not sure that I follow that, Phil. As I understand it, no-one is claiming that “they only hate Israel because they hate Jews”: the argument is that some of those whose denunciations of Israel seem pathologically and irrationally virulent probably hate all Jews, recognise that it’s unacceptable to say so publicly, so take it out on the one group of Jews whom it’s acceptable, indeed fashionable, to denounce, namely the Israelis. It’s also suggested that this seems to be the simplest explanation of the exceptional virulence of some of the criticisms of Israel, and that in the absence of any alternative and more plausible explanation, it’s probably a good working hypothesis, even if it’s inherently impossible to prove it. Some supporting evidence for it is however available, namely the way that hostility to Israel over Gaza has been exploited by some people to step up overtly antisemitic activities such as attacks on Jews, synagogues, Holocaust memorials, etc., in Britain and elsewhere, even though these have nothing to do with Israel or its activities in Gaza. The three links in Dave’s comment below amply illustrate this.

  6. Dave says:

    Phil, you could look at two of Melanie Phillips’s blogs with appended comments, viz:
    Also material on the Community Security Trust website, latest press notices et al

  7. John Miles says:

    I can’t help wondering what kind of an article Mr Jacobson might have written if he’d been born a Palestinian.

  8. Dave says:

    John Miles, that question isn’t easy to answer as HJ is primarily a humorous writer, so in an ideal world you would perhaps try to get inside the skin of a Palestinian humorous and preferably Muslim writer.  Faute de mieux something by the late Edward Said, except that some say he was an Egyptian and in any case he was a Christian.  At the opposite pole, maybe Khaled Toameh, whose articles can be found regularly in the Jerusalem Post.

    I put up a link to an interview with him on the BLB Blog, or maybe I didn’t and merely emailed the link to BLB.  I tried to open that link again just now and as you will see the interview has been suppressed in effect.  It wouldn’t have been welcomed by Hamas or the PA.  Shame I didn’t copy it; at least I think I didn’t but even with Google Desktop tracking things down can be difficult unless you’re a better file manager than I am.

  9. John Miles says:

    Thank you, Dave.
    Maybe there’s something wrong with my sense of humour, but I didn’t find anything particularly funny in the article I was talking about.

  10. Dave says:

    Nothing funny in that article, I agree, John.  I was trying to envisage a humorous writer moved to write about tragic events, but this was unnecessary elaboration.