John Petrovato: Omitting Inconvenient Truths

By John Petrovato
Special to

On May 6, 2007, the New York Post ran a column by Ralph Peters entitled: “What do give up…. and what land to hold: Israel’s toughest choice”.  Peters, author of over 20 books on military strategy and foreign policy, seeks a “pragmatic” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But rather than clear-thinking pragmatism, the article is marred by the fact that it is based on dangerous, misleading information, numerous unsubstantiated claims and a view of Palestinians and Arabs that is clearly racist in tone and content.

His article begins with an overly romanticized view of Israel, documenting its stunning successes that he concludes are “as close to a miracle as humanity achieved over the last, horrid century”. But beyond this, he believes that it is important to remind the readers that Israelis are just like “us” Americans. We are both nations of “outsiders and rejects” and like us (as opposed to other nations in the Middle East) Israel also abides by a “rule-of-law democracy”. Further, through hard work and ingenuity, they have successfully returned the desert into a land of “milk and honey”. They have done all this in a few short years compared to the Arabs who wasted and failed in Palestine “for over thirteen centuries”. The “fact” of Israel’s good stewardship over the land is, in Peters estimation, as “humiliating to Arabs as their military defeats”. Thus Peters believes that the suffering Palestinians experience today is entirely “self-made”.

Much of Peters’ argument rests upon embracing shoddy scholarship that has been completely refuted or outright absurd claims. To start, his claim of Israel “turning the desert into a garden” is a myth that was popularized by Joan Peter’s (no relation to the Ralph Peters who authored the article) book “Of time immemorial”. The view, repeated by Ralph Peters here as well as other pundits, is one of the most important and powerful myths forming the base of the Israeli national narrative. The myth tells how the pioneers came to Palestine to create a “new society” in a hostile and unproductive land. Integral to the story of pioneers conquering an inhospitable land is the belief that Arabs, in contrast, were unable to make it productive and thus the argument is used as justification of rightful ownership.

The Joan Peters book was swiftly denounced and widely discredited because of sloppy research and claims that had no historical truth.  As such, the book and the ideas it represents is not taken with any seriousness in academic circles (including even with Israeli academics themselves). But even so, such ideas continue to have currency.

Regarding Israel’s “rule-of-law democracy” Peters so admires, he is gravely mistaken if he believes it is similar to American or European liberal democracies.  Although Israel has “rule of law” and a form of “democracy”, it is not a form of democracy that most people in the West would recognize. First of all, while Israel does have political elections, a parliamentary system, and a legal system, it is not instituted in a territorial manner like most democracies, but, rather, it is based on blood/ethnicity. Liberal democracy exists where ALL citizens within a state’s territory are afforded equal rights through constitutional guarantee. Israel does not have a national constitution, and as a state that differentiates groups of people based on ethnic/religious definitions and enacts structural barriers and discrimination against its minorities, cannot be considered a liberal democracy. For the first 20 years of Israel’s existence, Palestinians did not even have citizenship in Israel; rather, they were governed by military rule in a “state of emergency”. The Palestinian “citizens” of Israel make up over 20% of the population yet they are prevented from enjoying the same privileges of citizenship as the Jewish population.

With regard to political participation, rights, and representation, Israeli laws directly discriminate against the Israeli Palestinians by restricting the terms of citizenship. One example is the “Basic Law: the Knesset, section 7A” which empowers the central election committee to prohibit individuals and entire political parties from running for the Knesset if they either a) reject Israel’s identity as a “Jewish and democratic state”, or b) Support the armed struggle of an enemy state or terrorist organization of Israel. The Law further requires candidates to make a formal declaration consistent with those provisions. They must say, “I pledge allegiance to the state of Israel and refrain from acting contrarily to principles of section 7A of the Basic Law: the Knesset”.

Thus the law prevents and limits free speech of elected representatives and outlaws the expression of support for the Intifada. It also restricts political participation to only those whose positions are supportive of official Israeli state ideology. While such undemocratic impulses and racist laws have existed in most liberal democracies at one time or another, they are not tolerated at least partly because constitutional provisions worked in favor of, rather than against, the interests of minority populations. As Israeli scholars Rouhana and Sultany observe:

Making the required pledge in effect bars the candidates (and needless to say, the candidates who are elected) from acting contrary to what they may consider racist and detrimental to their own community’s political rights, even using democratic and legal means. In essence, the pledge outlaws working toward changing the state’s political ideology even if this ideology is fundamentally in contradiction with democracy.

Another example is the Marriage Law. Renewed and extended by the Israeli parliament recently, the law states that marriages between Israeli Palestinians and Palestinians living in the occupied territories will not be recognized by the Israeli state. No such marriage restrictions apply to Jewish Israelis.

Beyond those two brief examples, there are dozens of other legal barriers that prevent Arab citizens from full citizenship. Israel’s inability to become a liberal democracy stems from its origins and the ways that its laws define the nation. Because the Israeli state was not originally conceived of as a democratic state, but rather as a state that would serve the interests of Jewish populations throughout the world, the ability of Palestinian “citizens” of Israel to gain equal rights is difficult, if not impossible, and the ability of Israel to function as a democratic leader is diminished.

Israel is different from other liberal democracies in another sense, in that it is a “borderless democracy”. The Law of Return allows any Jew a “right to return” and further reduces the difference between real and potential citizenship. Only Jews have the right to immigrate creating a system whereby non-state individuals have more of a claim to citizenship than those (non-Jewish) individuals residing within the borders of the state.

Another mechanism that prevents Palestinian Israelis from full citizenship is the workings of two powerful non-governmental organizations: The Jewish Agency and the Jewish National fund. Holding massive influence over the government, the two groups have been in existence since before the state itself. Created with the intent of increasing settlement of Palestine and the acquisition of land, the two institutions were given special status after Israel declared independence. There are almost no institutional borders between them and the supposed democratic government (and they themselves are not democratic organizations). The two groups actually own most of the land in Israel. As stated in their by-laws, such lands will be held in perpetuity for the Jewish people only, and not for non-Jewish Israeli citizens.   (I’m not sure this paragraph is needed.  I think you have already made your point, so by now it feels like badgering with too much detail, and you seem to be getting further away from Peters article etc…..  good information, but maybe best saved for another piece).

Lastly, one must wonder whether it is possible to have something called “democracy” when millions of people living in the occupied territories don’t even have the shred of legal rights granted to those within Israel’s recognized political borders? These people and communities are strictly controlled by the state and its military, which grants Palestinians in the occupied territories no basic rights. An apartheid system exists where a radically different set of laws applies to Palestinians and Israelis.

Peters does not mention these facts — he may himself actually be ignorant of them. For Peters, the problem is not with Israel and its racist and apartheid practices, but with the “difficult” and untrustworthy Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general. He repeatedly claims that Arabs are undeserving of any land that Israel currently occupies since they give Israel nothing but “empty promises and more security problems”. But Mr. Peters is a pragmatist, at least in his own mind. He sees himself as a clear-eyed outsider who can view the situation sensibly.  He understands that the religious Israeli settlers are problematic to the security of Israel.  Israeli citizens who established communities on Palestinian land in the middle of the West Bank don’t make sense strategically to Peters. While Peters doesn’t seem to mind the fact that these “settlements” were brought into existence by illegally seizing Palestinians lands, he is merely concerned about creating a sustainable situation where Israel can be secure in the long run. He believes that Israel must control the “lines of communication – the roads – that enable Israel to shift military forces rapidly, and the control of foreign borders across which weapons can be infiltrated”. It is interesting that Peters doesn’t really spell out to the reader what the “lines of communication” really mean. Here he is referring to settler roads and highways that criss-cross the West Bank.  One wonders what possible solution to the Palestinian “problem” could be solved if they don’t have any territorial continuity? The highways completely divide up Palestinian communities from one another and in many cases, within the communities themselves.  It is like suggesting that the U.S. will return full sovereignty to Iraq except for all the main roads, which will be controlled by the U.S. for “security reasons”.  This is already the case in Israel. These West Bank roads are for Israeli citizens and a handful of Palestinian taxis.  Palestinians, in many areas, are not even allowed to cross the road (to get to their own farms and communities). As such, it has created an apartheid situation where Israeli citizens can travel anywhere in Israel and the Palestinian territories, but Palestinians cannot even travel on the main roads in their own territory. How does Mr. Peters possibly believe that this would be considered a “just” or a sustainable solution?

Indeed, Peters never uses the term “occupation” or “occupied territories”. Israel, after all does occupy the Palestinian territories that were seized in 1967, a fact which the international community (including the UN) recognizes. Is it an error that Peters forgot to mention this very basic fact?

Peters, like other right-wing pundits, is clever in making what sounds like a perfectly rational argument, by utilizing misrepresentations and omitting inconvenient truths from his argument. With the basic context of the conflict missing, readers cannot understand why the conflict continues. Peters proposes to provide us with “wisdom” to help us better understand the situation and the “sacrifices” that must be made in the name of “pragmatism”.  But what appears to undermine Peters’ so-called “pragmatism” is simple racism.  It is truly upsetting that such a long diatribe filled with hateful venom and misinformation could be published in a major American newspaper.

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