February 4, 2016 § 1 Comment
There has been much sound and fury over the past couple of weeks over labeling; more specifically, over the labeling rules for goods coming into the United States that are produced in the West Bank. There is lots of misinformation going around about the rules and even why they are now in the news, so in order to make it easier to have an informed opinion, I thought I’d write a quick and handy guide to the labeling controversy answering everyone’s questions.
Why is the Obama administration coming up with new ways to punish Israelis when there are much bigger problems going on in the Middle East? Actually, the Obama administration didn’t come up with anything new here at all. The labeling controversy erupted as a result of U.S. Customs and Border Protection issuing a reminder on January 23 about the existing rules on the books for how products made in the West Bank must be labeled. The rules, which were enacted in 1995 with the support of the Israeli government as a way to boost the Palestinian economy, state that any products made in the West Bank or Gaza shall be labeled as coming from the West Bank or Gaza but cannot be labeled with the phrases “Israel,” “Made in Israel,” “Occupied Territories-Israel,” or a similar variation. It is an open question as to why Customs decided to issue this reminder now for a rule that has been honored more by its breach than its enforcement. It could have been a matter of routine, it could have been as a result of outside complaints, it could have been due to the new EU settlement goods regulation, or it could have been because the White House or State Department asked for it to be done. For those who want to assume the worst and jump on President Obama for his perfidious treatment of Israel, however, let’s remember that the same people now calling for the president’s head over a low level bureaucratic organization issuing a policy reminder twisted themselves into knots in insisting that Prime Minister Netanyahu was entirely in the dark when a low level bureaucratic organization issued plans for new construction in Ramat Shlomo during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel in March 2010. Funny how all perceived affronts to the U.S. committed by Israel are nothing but unfortunate mistakes of timing or bureaucratic slip ups beyond the prime minister’s control, but any perceived false move toward Israel from one of the executive branch’s four and a half million employees must have been cooked up in the Oval Office by the president himself.
Who cares whether the president did this himself or not? How dare anyone allow the boycott of goods made by Israelis! Why is the president supporting BDS? I agree; economic and cultural boycotts of Israel and Israelis are odious in my view, and the BDS movement is about destroying Israel as a Jewish state rather than ending the occupation of the West Bank. Of course, we may as well be discussing the merits of the revamped Boston Red Sox starting pitching staff as discussing BDS, since they both are equally irrelevant to the topic at hand. As we all know from the Israeli government’s position over Israel’s proposed NGO bill, labeling things is about transparency and information rather than about a value judgment. In any event, whether you think that labeling things is justified or not, it is certainly a completely different animal than a boycott since it places no barriers on anyone’s ability to buy goods made in the West Bank.
Ok, fine. But the Obama administration is singling out stuff made by Jews! Isn’t that only a short skip and a jump away from the Nazis and the Nuremberg Laws? This is a popular position being expressed in my Facebook feed, but it has the unfortunate element of being not true. The key difference between U.S. labeling requirements and European labeling requirements is that the U.S. does not distinguish between goods made by Jews or Palestinians, or between goods produced in Jewish settlements versus goods produced in Palestinian towns and villages. To suggest that this is a measure targeting Jews is completely wrong, since a widget produced in Efrat is given the same label as a widget produced in Jenin. In fact, the American labeling regulation should actually appeal in many ways to the pro-Israel community, since it does not allow for a category of “Made in Palestine,” which the EU explicitly mandates as an option, and it also rules out using the phrase “Occupied Territories.” Unlike the EU regulation, the U.S. version explicitly recognizes that the West Bank is disputed territory still subject to negotiation.
Your absence of outrage over this is outrageous. Why aren’t you angry? Quite simply, this is a policy that not only makes sense to me, but comports with Israel’s official position on the West Bank. Israel has not annexed the West Bank, and the core of the defense of Israeli democracy despite the occupation is precisely that the West Bank has a different status. Mirroring Israel’s treatment of the West Bank as a distinctly separate entity without prejudicing the outcome of any future permanent status agreement is something with which I find it hard to quibble.
Furthermore, maintaining a conceptual barrier between Israel and the West Bank makes it harder to delegitimize Israel down the road. Conflation of Israel and the West Bank is precisely what the BDS movement tries to accomplish through the back door. It denounces Israel’s occupation of the West Bank but also denounces Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state by calling for a full right of return, and by relying on people not sophisticated enough to grasp the distinction between Israel and territories under Israel’s control, it marshals those who oppose the occupation into actually opposing Israel itself. The very core of the BDS argument – that Israel is an illegitimate apartheid state – rests on erasing any line between Israel and the territories under Israeli military control and then arguing that robust Israeli democracy inside of the Green Line makes no difference because of what takes place beyond it. Why should the U.S. assist in this maneuver by itself erasing the difference? People will make up their own minds as to whether the U.S. rule on labeling is innocuous or an affront, but to throw a fit over a reminder about a twenty year old law that was enacted at Israel’s behest; that in no way boycotts Israeli goods but in fact treats all goods made in the West Bank identically irrespective of who made them; that does not use the terms Palestine or occupation; and that reflects Israel’s own view of the West Bank’s status; is to my mind a waste of energy that should be directed elsewhere.
December 3, 2015 § 3 Comments
Political horizon is a term that gets bandied about a lot, including by me, when talking about the Palestinians and how to lower levels of tension and violence in Israel. The basic idea is that a lack of a political horizon leads to desperation on the Palestinian side, fueling terrorism and violence against Israelis, and it is accordingly important to provide some sense of political optimism for Palestinians. The hope is that even if a Palestinian state is not imminently around the corner, progress toward that goal will make actual conditions on the ground better.
Nevertheless, this is not a truism that lies unchallenged. Just as there is research and theory demonstrating that violence in general is caused by a lack of political movement and the frustration of nationalist aspirations, there is research and theory demonstrating that it is caused by poverty, or lack of jobs, or humiliation, or youth, or sexual frustration, or religious motivation. Complex phenomena are complex for a reason and the reality is that political violence is rarely monocausal, but people like to boil things down to one issue that if altered would change the current reality. Prime Minister Netanyahu, for instance, despite his rhetoric about jihadi terrorism and radical Islamism, appears to believe that the way out of political violence emanating from the West Bank is economics. He and his circle have long pushed the idea of an economic peace on the theory that improving the Palestinian economy will create a set of alternative incentives that do not include violence against Israelis; essentially, the thinking is that prosperous people are happy people with too much to lose.
Let’s say that you are amenable to this argument – and I think there is something to it, although I firmly believe that political progress matters more in this sphere than economic progress. Why then should the idea of a political horizon matter for practical purposes (setting aside for the moment the moral considerations involved in preventing a group’s right to self-determination)? To take it even further, let’s say you are someone who has never read your Benedict Anderson and puts the word Palestinian in quotes, or – as someone emailed in response to one of my recent columns – refers to “Fakestinians.” You don’t believe that Palestinians should have a state and that they aren’t capable of statehood. Why should it still be important to you that Palestinians perceive some sort of political horizon?
I was reading an atlas with my six year old daughter earlier this week, and when she saw that it had geographical maps and political maps, she asked me what politics means. I told her that in the context of a political map, it means the way that people organize themselves into different groups, but there is of course more behind that answer. Politics is how people acquire power and use that power to govern in an ideal world. When politics is absent, violence inevitably fills the void. Politics can be messy and nasty and ultimately deeply unsatisfying – just look at the current Republican primary race – but it is also the only tried and true route to a peaceful resolution of problems. It is not a sufficient component, but it is a necessary component.
The history of our own country belies the idea that economics trumps politics, and that politics can be ignored or downplayed. The British citizen revolutionaries of 1776 did not rise up against their own government because of excessive taxation; they rose up because they had no say in that taxation. The wealthy landowners who largely made up the leaders that we now refer to as the Founding Fathers saw no alternative to armed rebellion not because they had no economic horizon, but because they had no political horizon. It’s not for nothing that the Israeli security establishment has fingered the precise same problem in its assessment of what is driving the violence in Israel and the West Bank.
I am not suggesting that providing some sort of optimism on the political front – and that means at the very least Netanyahu refraining from talk about the need to occupy the West Bank for generations to come – is a silver bullet to end violence, because it isn’t. A political horizon is not a miracle cure. What it does is demonstrate that there is an alternative path to armed violence in seeking to achieve political goals. Von Clausewitz famously called war a continuation of politics by other means, but it is often a breakdown of politics, not a continuation of politics. That Palestinian leaders have rejected Israeli peace offers is not a reason to stop trying, since what ensues is sadly predictable. I am not advocating for the resumption of negotiations or forcing the two sides together for another inevitable failure. I am advocating for Israel to minimally demonstrate that it sees a path to a Palestinian state that involves attainable conditions at some point in the future. That vision does not seem to now exist, and it is the absence of a horizon that makes things on the Palestinian side look so bleak.
It is not wooly headed peaceniks saying that the restoration of a political horizon is necessary; it is the Israeli military and intelligence apparatus. So even if you are a true believer in Greater Israel, or you think that a Palestinian state will become a base for more terror against Israelis, or you are adamant that Israel has demonstrated its willingness to compromise and that the Palestinians never will, this is something you should favor. As great as things like Rawabi and Palestinian economic zones are, they are the equivalent of removing a splinter from the finger of someone who is bleeding from the head.