Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Benny the Nat's Big Sting

There is a marvelous scene late in the film “The Score” -- a confrontation, over the phone, between the two heist artists. The younger guy thinks he's pulled a fast one on the older one by making off with a priceless antique. At one point the older guy says, “Whadda ya got?” The younger guy starts getting a really bad feeling, looks into his sack, and finds a pile of scrap metal instead of the antique, which the older guy has, of course, had all along. “Goodbye.” (click)

I think that Obama might be feeling a bit like the younger heist artist about now – outfoxed, way outclassed, and generally made a fool of. He has had what countless other American officials over the years have had, namely The Benny the Nat Experience. But really, what did Obama expect from his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? “Progress?” When you're sitting across the table from a guy who holds all the cards, you're lucky to walk away with your shirt. It is interesting, however, that Obama has at least implied that American interests are not always, in every way, identical to Israeli interests – but he never provides much detail as to what those differences might be, probably because he is reserving the right to change his mind, which seems to be a bad habit that he has developed of late. I'd like to know, for example, what's so important about "peace in the Near East". No one else seems to want it, so why do we? I guess he thinks it's obvious, but it really isn't. What, precisely, do we have to gain from peace in that benighted part of the world? If you talk to our war industries, the Neocons, and the Evangelicals, we actually have much more to gain from perpetual war over there. This is something Obama has to think about, since he inherited twin wars from people who all thought that way.

In any case, Benny the Nat never gave an inch, and one is tempted to say that his visit to our shores was a complete farce. But this is certainly not true from the Israeli perspective. Obama now has a very large Israeli ring in his nose – the initial fitting was months ago, during the campaign, but now the deed is done, still another American president is humbled, and we won't see any more “change” in this department than we've seen in all the preceding administrations. Benny the Nat sailed the ocean blue all armed and ready for a showdown, and encountered a president with a glass jaw. So much the better. "Mission accomplished."

The funny thing about Netanyahu's “negotiating” style is that he frequently seems to give up some ground – lots of it, in fact. But then there's always the added – almost as an afterthought – phrase, “on one condition”. Just one, mind you! Nothing big, or unreasonable. This time around it's that the Palestinians have to “accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state”. This “right to exist” thing is, and has been, the shibboleth to end all shibboleths when it comes to Israel. But in fact, as a concept, it is, as far as I know, something brand new. Up until the modern era, no one ever talked about any country's “right to exist” -- it either existed or it didn't. But Israel is, as in all other things, an exception. For one thing, it's a completely artificial country; it has no more conventional legitimacy than the colonies the European powers created when they carved up Africa. And I think it's the awareness of this awkward fact that has the Israelis obsessed with the “right to exist” idea. They know, deep down, that they are usurpers, occupiers, and on very shaky ground over there -- and of course the Arabs are not remiss in reminding them of that fact on a daily basis.

On the other hand, it can be argued that Israel has precisely the same “right to exist” as any other country, and that this is based on the “right of conquest”. Now we're in much more familiar territory – more “realpolitik”, more pragmatic. Because, in fact, every country on earth, as far as I know, is the product of one or more conquests at some point in history... and it has always been accepted that whoever takes over is, in fact, the legitimate ruler of that territory... until someone else comes along and re-conquers. This is axiomatic in the diplomacy business, for example, and it's only the Puritan absolutism of the United States that causes us to “sever diplomatic ties” with countries just because we don't like their new governments. I mean, the essence of diplomacy is not the art of dealing with people who do things the way you do them, and think the way you do; it's dealing with people who do things wildly differently, and think in a wildly different way. Otherwise, there's no skill involved, and, in fact, no need for diplomacy at all. This is something that has escaped the notice of so many of our administrations over the years. You don't have to “like” someone in order to have diplomatic relations with them; in fact, “diplomatic relations” are designed for the express purpose of dealing with people we _don't_ like. So, to this extent, the Obama administration seems to have a slightly better grasp of reality than any of its predecessors (except for – guess who – Nixon, who opened up China).

So how does the “right of conquest” apply to Israel? Pretty simple, really. Israel was established on conquered territory – i.e. territory held by the European powers based on their defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. And in order to establish the State of Israel, Western Palestine had to be doubly conquered, again with the help of the European powers and the U.S., and the Palestinians thrown out. This is something that has happened time and time again over the eons, and is nothing the least bit unusual, except for the fact that the conquering was done by Party A on behalf of Party B. But I'm sure there are even historical precedents for that -- you know, the establishment of "buffer states" and so on. I guess what freaks people out is that it was done within living memory, and by people who were supposed to be – well, you know -- “civilized”. Yeah, well... Germany was supposed to be civilized too, but look at the stunts they pulled between 1933 and 1945. So I think we can safely set aside this “civilized” business. (And what's keeping the Brits in Northern Ireland, for that matter? And what's keeping us in... just about everywhere on earth?)

So really, if I were a Palestinian leader or diplomat, say, I think I'd take Benny the Nat up on his offer. I'd say something like “Sure, we recognize Israel's right to exist. It has the same right to exist that any other country does. And if it's ever taken over, or conquered, by someone else, then _they_ will have that very same right to exist – no more and no less. Your move.” That would be an interesting challenge for Israeli doublethink. “The same right to exist? But no, that's no good, we have to have an _extraordinary_ right to exist, for all time, based on the Holocaust and... just because we're us. Only when that extraordinary right to exist is accepted by all parties will we consent to start negotiations on the Palestinian question.” I'm sure that the response would be something along those lines. So again, it's always that one small step further than anyone is willing to go, that is Israel's non-negotiable position – which means that it has no interest in negotiating, and no real interest in peace. All of their "negotiating" over the decades has been nothing more than a means to get Europe and the U.S. to shut the hell up and get off their case. And the sooner Obama and his crew recognize this, the sooner they can stop wasting time trying to make things any other way.

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