June 23, 2011 9:40 am ET
The "pro-Israel" lobby's latest hobbyhorse is "delegitimization." Those who criticize Israeli policies are accused of trying to "delegitimize" Israel, which supposedly means denying Israel's right to exist. Even President Obama has gotten into the act, stating in his May 19 speech that "for the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure."
Obama seemed to be referring to the Palestinians' plan to seek recognition of their state at the United Nations this fall, although it's hard to imagine just how that would delegitimize Israel.
After all, the Palestinians are not seeking statehood in Israeli territory but in territory that the whole world (including Israel) recognizes as having been occupied by Israel only after the 1967 war. Rather than seeking Israel's elimination, the Palestinians who intend to go to the United Nations are seeking establishment of a state alongside Israel. (That state would encompass 22 percent of Mandate Palestine, with Israel possessing 78 percent.)
The whole concept of "delegitimization" seems archaic. Israel achieved its "legitimacy" when the United Nations recognized it 63 years ago. It has one of the strongest economies in the world. Its military is the most powerful in the region. It has a nuclear arsenal of some 200 bombs, with the ability to launch them from land, sea, and air.
In that context, the whole idea of "delegitimizing" Israel sounds silly. Israel can't be delegitimized.
So what is the lobby talking about?
The answer is simple: It is talking about the intensifying opposition to the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza which, by almost any standard, is illegitimate. It is talking about opposition to the settlements, which are not only illegitimate but illegal under international law. It is talking about calls for Israel to grant Palestinians equal rights.
The lobby's determination to change the subject from the existence of the occupation to the existence of Israel makes sense strategically. Israel has no case when it comes to the occupation, which the entire world (except Israel) agrees must end. But Israel certainly has the upper hand in any argument over its right to exist and to defend itself.
That is why Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu routinely invokes Israel's "right to self-defense" every time he tries to explain away some Israeli attack on Palestinians, no matter whether they are armed fighters or innocent civilians. If the whole Israeli-Palestinian discussion is about Israel's right to defend itself, Israel wins the argument. But if it is about the occupation — which is, in fact, what the conflict has been about since 1993 when the PLO recognized Israel — it loses.
It wasn't that long ago that neither the Israeli government nor the lobby worried about the "forces of delegitimization."
On the contrary, in 1993, following Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's recognition of the Palestinians' right to a state in the West Bank and Gaza, nine non-Arab Muslim states and 32 of the 43 sub-Saharan African states established relations with Israel. India and China, the two largest markets in the world, opened trade relations. Jordan signed a peace treaty and several of the Arab emirates began quiet dealings with Israel.
The Arab boycott of Israel ended. Foreign investment soared. No one discussed "delegitimization" while much of the world, including the Muslim world, was knocking on Israel's door to establish or deepen ties.
That trend continued so long as the Israeli government seemed to be genuinely engaged in the peace process.
The most graphic demonstration of Israel's high international standing back then occurred at Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's funeral in 1995, which rivaled President Kennedy's in terms of international representation.
Leaders from virtually every nation on Earth came to pay homage to Rabin: President Clinton, Prince Charles, the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, every European president or prime minister, top officials from most of Africa and Asia (including India and China), Latin America, Turkey, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, and Tunisia. Yasir Arafat himself went to Mrs. Rabin's Tel Aviv apartment to express his grief.
The world mourned Rabin because under him, Israel had embraced the cause of peace with the Palestinians. The homage to Rabin was a clear demonstration — as was the opening of trade and diplomatic relations with formerly hostile states — that Israel was not being isolated because it is a Jewish state and hence illegitimate, but because of how it treated the Palestinians.
And that is the case today. It's not the Palestinians who are delegitimizing Israel, but the Israeli government which maintains the occupation. And the leading delegitimizer is Binyamin Netanyahu, whose contemptuous rejection of peace is turning Israel into an international pariah.
Sure, Netanyahu received an embarrassing number of standing ovations when he spoke before the United States Congress. But that demonstrates nothing except the power of the lobby. It is doubtful that Netanyahu would get even one standing ovation in any other parliament in the world — and that includes Israel's. The only thing we learned (yet again) from Netanyahu's reception by Congress is that money talks. What else is new?
So let's ignore the talk about "delegitimization," even though Madison Avenue message-makers certainly deserve credit for coming up with that clever distraction. Israel's problem is the occupation, the Israeli government that defends it, and the lobby that enforces support for it in Congress and the White House.
Once again, Israel's "best friends" are among its worst enemies.
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