What the Israel-bashers learned from Bush

The international campaign to brand Israel a ‘pariah state’ is a shrill echo of what President George W Bush tried to do with Iraq.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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As the British Gaza-flotilla activists deported from Israel arrive back in the UK, to a fawning media welcome not seen since ‘Our Boys’ returned from killing Argentineans in 1982, the true meaning of anti-Israel activism is becoming clear. Behind the keffiyehs, behind the claims of being a peace movement, there lurks an ugly Western chauvinism aimed at what has been branded an insane, uncivilised, genocidal, rogue state ‘over there’. The great irony of today’s supposedly radical anti-Israel posturing is that it borrows so heavily from the language of contemporary Western imperialism, and pushes it even further than George W Bush ever dared.

The people who have thrown their lot in with what poses as a political movement but is in fact more like a Two Minutes Hate against Israel – liberal commentators, left-wing activists, Islamists – are the same people who criticised the Bush regime for dividing the world into Us and Them, Good and Evil, Decent and Rogue. Yet the anti-Israel lobby does the same thing, only its pet rogue is Israel rather than Iraq, and it has won the backing of academics, the serious media and the liberal bourgeoisie rather than colonels and the white-haired right. Fundamentally, the anti-Israel spasm in respectable Western circles is driven by the same urges that underpinned the Bushites’ clumsy interventions into foreign affairs: a desire to escape political stasis at home by seeking the super moral clarity of a fantasy apocalyptic stand-off on the world stage.

Anti-Israel activists’ reliance on the template vocabulary of the Western foreign-policy establishment is striking. They recycle the kind of language that actually should be ruthlessly critiqued and studiously avoided. Left-wing journalist John Pilger says the flotilla incident confirms that Israel is a ‘rogue state’, echoing various other respectable writers that also have branded Israel a ‘rogue’ (Pilger goes on to say: ‘“Rogue” is too soft. Israel is a criminal state.’)

The term ‘rogue state’ originated in that beating heart of Western imperialism – Washington – as a way of branding certain nations with a modern-day mark of Cain. The US State Department first started drawing up lists of ‘problematic’ states in 1979: Libya, Syria, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and so on. In 1994, under the Clinton administration, the term ‘rogue states’ was first introduced to describe these effectively blacklisted nations (‘black’ being the operative word), though even Washington eventually became uncomfortable with the inflammatory, criminalising connotations of the word ‘rogue’ – in 2000, secretary of state Madeleine Albright announced that ‘rogue states’ would be replaced with the more neutral ‘states of concern’ (1).

But the liberals and lefties of the anti-Israel lobby are keen to resuscitate the term ‘rogue state’, with its powerful implication that there is a Respectable World (where ‘We’ live) and an Unrespectable World (where ‘They’ live), and apply it to Israel. They are shamelessly claiming as their own a phrase that was devised by American imperialism effectively as a modern, slightly more PC way of writing off swathes of the Third World as parts of a ‘Dark Continent’ inhabited by criminals and maniacs. In his 2005 book on North Korea, Rogue Regime, Jasper Becker, a supporter of Washington’s anti-rogue policies, aptly described how being labelled a ‘rogue state’ was a ‘certificate of dangerous insanity in the diplomatic world’ (2). And in anti-Israel commentary, too, Israel is frequently denounced as mad. It is a ‘state of insanity’, says one radical writer. ‘Insanity, Israel-style’, says the headline to a newspaper editorial. An American journalist describes Israel as ‘increasingly paranoid’ and ‘dangerously erratic’. Here, anti-Israel activists, incapable of producing a serious or nuanced political critique, simply reproduce the Western foreign policy establishment’s kneejerk habit of branding certain states as psychological basket cases, driven more by weird pathology than anything resembling a political concern. Is this disdainful, degraded view of Others really any more radical when it is applied to the Jewish State rather than to parts of allegedly bestial Africa or irrational Arabia?

Much of the anti-Israel movement seems to be aimed at convincing the powerful institutions of the West to turn their attentions away from less threatening ‘rogue states’ (like North Korea and Iran) and towards the ‘real rogue state’ (Israel). In other words, far from challenging the authority of the ‘international community’ to divide the world into Right and Rogue, the anti-Israel lobby simply wants to harness this Western prejudice to its own cause. One American radical exploits all of the fears pushed into the international arena by the Bush regime – fundamentalism, WMD, roguishness – in his case against Israel, arguing that Israel is ‘increasingly paranoid and isolated, dominated by fundamentalists, and armed with over 200 nukes’. Israel is ‘becoming like North Korea’, he says, ‘except qualitatively more dangerous because it has an advanced nuclear arsenal and sits in a more strategic part of the world’. Here, the prejudices of the Bush regime are reproduced under the radical guise of opposing the Zionist state.

And just like the Bush regime in relation to Iraq, anti-Israel activists are most outraged that a nation ‘over there’ has dared to defy the United Nations and even Washington itself. Israel is accused of having a terrible ‘record of lawlessness’ and of ‘defying the will of the international community’ (the anti-Israel lobby’s unthinking acceptance of the term ‘international community’ is almost as bizarre as their embrace of ‘rogue state’). An American left-wing journalist cites as evidence of Israel’s ‘dangerous erratic behaviour’ the fact that it has been ‘dismissive towards President Barack Obama’s peace initiatives, particularly his demand that Israel stop building Jewish housing in traditionally Arab areas’. But why should Obama have the authority to tell Israel, or any other foreign state for that matter, what to do? Again and again, in its outrage over Israel’s ‘defiance of international institutions’, the anti-Israel lobby exposes its Bush-style anger at the uppitiness of a little state in some backwater of the non-Western world.

Also echoing the Bush regime, anti-Israel activists exploit the moral authority of the Holocaust. Many criticised Bush when he compared Saddam to Hitler, yet radical anti-Israel agitators frequently refer to Israel as a ‘genocidal state’ which is carrying out a ‘Holocaust’ in Gaza. Such spectacular historical idiocy is designed to achieve what the Bush administration also wanted to achieve: a warm, self-satisfying sense of a gaping, unbridgeable divide between Good and Evil, only where Bush believed the divide was between his White House and the ‘Axis of Evil’ (Iraq, Iran, North Korea), the anti-Israel lobby believes it is between them, with their superior, cosmopolitan, caring values, and today’s No.1 ‘pariah state’ (another Washington-invented term they love to use): Israel. One writer accuses Israel of crossing the ‘boundary of civilisation’; another says the Gaza flotilla represents ‘sheer human decency’ against ‘medieval’ Israel. This is the childish ‘with us or against us’ politics of the Bush era given an ostensibly radical twist.

The flotilla incident and its aftermath show that there have been enormous changes in recent years in how Israel is understood and discussed in the West. In the past, Israel was effectively the West’s, and particularly Washington’s, policeman in the Middle East, representing Western interests in a major stand-off with Soviet-backed Arab nationalism. Post-Cold War, however, Israel became less and less important to the West, and has slowly but surely gone from being considered a ‘friend’ to a ‘pariah’. Things have gone almost full circle, reaching a situation where, now, Western imperialist sentiment – as shabby and incoherent as it is today – is expressed more clearly through criticism of Israel rather than through support for Israel. It is now the attacks on Israel that most clearly articulate Western institutions’, politicians’ and activists’ snobby disdain for out-of-control foreign states and their desire to prove their own moral untouchability through contrasting themselves with barbarians in foreign fields. And as an anti-imperialist publication, spiked is no more prepared to see Western intervention and domination – which are far bigger problems than any ‘rogue’ – justified by Israel-bashing than by Iraq-scapegoating.

European politicians, UN officials, left-wing activists, radical Islamists: all are increasingly defining their identities through their antagonism towards Israel. Like Bush, they want to escape messy, confusing domestic politics by creating a black-and-white piece of end-of-days theatre in the international arena. They want Israel reprimanded, sanctioned and possibly even invaded, not because they really care for Palestinian freedom, but in order to have their identities validated and their moral convictions ratified. The narcissism is astounding. For them, the war in the Middle East is the continuation of their politics of identity by other means.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill described the Gaza flotilla as a moral armada and looked at the role of the Western peace process in turning Gaza into a bloody trap. Nathalie Rothschild thought the London demonstration against the war in Gaza was fuelled by narcissism rather than real solidarity. Mick Hume asked if the Middle East conflict was a war without ends. Daniel Ben-Ami labelled Israel a warrior-victim state. Or read more at spiked issue Middle East.

(1) Rogue Regime: Kim Jong-Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea, Jasper Becker, Oxford University Press, 2006

(2) Rogue Regime: Kim Jong-Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea, Jasper Becker, Oxford University Press, 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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