When The Factual Record Matters: On Israel's Elections


A few weeks ago, I wrote about the protest at the University of Sydney against Colonel Richard Kemp. I noted that video footage showed reasonably clearly what did and didn’t happen – and it clashed pretty embarrassingly with the statements already made by groups like the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS), the Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) and Colonel Kemp. I wrote that we would find out whether or not the factual record matters.

And find out we did. The campaign against Lynch mostly died down. The Australian Jewish News, which comes out weekly, eventually wrote about what happened. Whilst the editorial had a headline calling on Lynch to go, the reporting and factual claims about what happened were mostly accurate and consistent with the video footage. They abandoned the more wild claims made by critics of Lynch, and the editorial simply complained that he wasn’t conciliatory enough to his attacker, but had excessively goaded her, rather than trying to calm the situation.

The story reported:

“During the protest, Lynch became involved in an altercation with the woman who, at one point, threw water over him. The argument continued with Lynch filming her on his phone. She tried to slap and kick him, prompting him to wave banknotes at her. According to Lynch, the gesture was to emphasise his warning that he would sue her for assaulting him.

On a number of occasions, goading the woman, he tells her to ‘keep going’, ‘get your money out’ and ‘it’s going to cost you a lot of money’.”

That is, they conceded that the woman physically attacked Lynch, and that he retaliated by waving the banknotes, and threatening to sue her. Claims about him screaming in the faces of students and so on were politely ignored. I suppose the AJN didn’t want to embarrass itself by abandoning any pretence of concern about the facts.

It also had a story up claiming that the Red Rattler Theatre was going to host the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. When the story was disproven, the AJN removed the story [h/t to Jennifer Killen for posting the web cache version]. They didn’t apologise, but at least they didn’t leave up the false allegation. Unlike Tim Blair, who did.

On the Lynch story at least, major media outlets seemed to have lost interest in it once the false claims were debunked. The only place willing to rehash something like the original claims was J-Wire, which ran an op-ed by the head of ECAJ. He claimed that “The ‘physical attacks’ [of the woman against Lynch]consisted of the woman throwing water at him and kicking in his direction, but not connecting.” Put aside whether scare quotes are needed as to whether kicking at someone constitutes a physical attack. How would Mr Wertheim know if the kicks did not connect? Are we just meant to assume that Lynch is lying?

We can get a sense of Wertheim’s grasp of reality with the following paragraph:

“The charge of antisemitism is not levelled lightly. It was not directed at those who stormed the lecture theatre and denied Colonel Kemp the right to speak in support of the Jewish State. It was not even levelled at the students whose visceral chanting and abuse characterised the Jewish national home as irredeemably evil while they sought to defend an Islamist group which views Jews as subhuman.”

Nevertheless, there was one major media outlet which was willing to continue airing false allegations against Jake Lynch, without polluting their reader’s minds with any reference to what the video footage actually showed. This was the Guardian. It ran an op-ed, by Dean Sherr chairperson of AUJS.

Sherr valiantly refuses to refer to video footage, instead insisting that Lynch’s account was “disputed by witnesses”. Like Colonel Kemp, who boldly claimed that the aggressor was actually Lynch, who “initiated the contact” with the old woman, who was merely “attempting to push Lynch away”. He proceeded to make the usual claims of anti-Semitism, because why not throw mud when major media outlets – even on the left-wing end of the spectrum – have not the faintest regard for the factual record?

Sherr’s op-ed continues in the same predictable way. Basically all writing by the major Jewish organisations on Israel is recognisable by common traits. There is the same devotion to a party line, service to the higher truths, ignoring inconvenient facts, and never ever displaying any individual thoughts on the subject at hand.

This comes at a time when an increasing number of Jews are not able to hold the party line on Israel any longer. American political scholar Norman Finkelstein explores this phenomenon in his book, Knowing Too Much. Without going into too much detail, he argues that over the years, the historical record has become a lot clearer in Israel and the West. Human rights groups have made reasonably clear to anyone interested what the occupation is like.

Furthermore, a chasm is opening up between the anti-democratic and chauvinistic values of Israeli Jews, and the values of American Jews, which are mostly liberal. The facts were once denied or distorted: now, they are reasonably plain, and this is causing what might be called a crisis of “liberal” Zionism.

Traditionally, people who supported Israel could do so whilst calling themselves liberals, progressives or even socialist. Now, this is becoming quite difficult. I have discussed this trend before.

Just consider the latest election. The furthest left of the major parties in the campaign was the Zionist Union, which was led by Labour’s Isaac Herzog, and Tzipi Livni from the Centrist Hatnuah. Herzog on the left-wing flank of this union explained that he is not a leftist: “I moved my party to the centre and I will continue forcefully to stage my party to the centre. The only way to win in Israel is by being in the centre.” In one of his election campaign videos, Israeli soldiers promised “understands the Arab mentality”, having seen them in situations including “in the crosshairs”.

Herzog and Livni both support annexing the settlement blocs, which in effect means no viable Palestinian state. Livni has stated plainly that “I am against law -international law in particular.” She bragged that Israel “displayed real hooliganism” during the attack on Gaza in 2008-9: “which I demanded”. Livni is regarded as dovish in Israel.

Then there was Avigdor Lieberman, from Yisrael Beitenu. He has a long history of racist rhetoric. His latest offering was threatening to use an axe to behead supposedly disloyal Israeli Palestinians.

I’ll skip the no less charming Naftali Bennett, and turn to Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu of Likud. Whilst electoral polls were unclear, there were suggestions that Zionist Union might win the most seats. So, at the end of the campaign, Netanyahu made two fateful gambits in particular.

One was in the last hours of election day. At 1:45 pm, Ha’aretz reported that Netanyahu uploaded a video to Facebook warning that “right-wing government” was in danger: “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out. We have no V15, we have Order 8 [code for emergency call up to IDF reserve duty], we have only you.” He claimed that “funds from foreign governments and organisations” were used for the nefarious purpose of helping Israeli Palestinians vote.

In its own way, the claim about foreign funds interfering with the Israeli election was rather ironic. In January 2015, it was revealed that over 90 per cent of Netanyahu’s re-election funds – $237 000 out of $259 000 – came from American donors. About half of that amount came from “three wealthy families”.

The second gambit was his last minute announcement of his opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state. Ha’aretz reported openly that this was “a last-minute attempt to pull right-wing voters away from Habayit Hayehudi”, led by Bennett. There wasn’t much ambiguity, and the comments were widely reported. The Guardian reported: “When asked if that meant a Palestinian state would not be established if he is elected, Netanyahu replied: “Indeed.”

That story observed that “The final opinion polls… put the centre-left Zionist Union, headed by opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog and former peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, ahead with 25 to 26 seats, and Netanyahu’s Likud taking 20 to 22 in the 120-seat Knesset.”

What happened? Netanyahu’s gambits were extremely successful. Likud won 30 seats, the Zionist Union only got 24. Israelis voted, and they rewarded the party that race-baited and said no to a Palestinian state. The race-baiting isn’t alien to Western countries. The “Southern Strategy” was invented in the US, and the Willie Horton election is infamous in its own right. The term “dog-whistling” was invented in Australia, and we all remember the Tampa election. But the thing about dog-whistling is that it attempts to code overt racial appeals: the point is to make them deniable, out of shame and political fear of being openly associated with racism. In Israel, no such calculations come into play, because open racism is an electoral winner. Netanyahu proved it conclusively with his resounding victory.

Netanyahu saying no to a Palestinian state was not new. In July last year he said “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan”. Note that is what he “always” says: no to a Palestinian state. Peter Beinart usefully reviewed Netanyahu’s record, showing that he didn’t begin saying no to a Palestinian state until the last few weeks.

The problem for Israel is that this is hard to sell. Having formally claimed to support a two-state solution, Israel’s supposed supporters internationally decided that they were in favour of a two-state solution too. The fact that Netanyahu is not is readily apparent to all but the most stupid or cynical of observers.

Two illustrations of this come from two liberal Zionists. One is Peter Beinart from the US. He wrote in Ha’aretz that the American Jewish establishment had long promised that Israel was going to embrace a two-state solution when it got a “respite from terror”. Beinart wrote that whilst Netanyahu had long been “disproving that theory”, his election tactics had finally “killed it”.

He drew reasonable conclusions:

The establishment's disconnection from reality will gradually make it irrelevant. Already, the trend is clear: AIPAC, which claims Israel will end the occupation, is being supplanted by Sheldon Adelson, who celebrates Israel for entrenching the occupation. Adelson is not taking over the institutions of American Jewish life only because of his money. He’s taking over because he looks reality in the eye.

We must too.

“Power,” said the great American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “concedes nothing without a demand.” For almost half a century, Israel has wielded brutal, undemocratic, unjust power over millions of human beings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And as this election makes clear, Israel will concede nothing on its own. This isn’t because Jewish Israelis are different than anyone else. It’s because they are the same. Which leaves just one question: how best to make the demand?

The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement offers one path. In the wake of Netanyahu’s win, it will grow, gaining more mainstream support. But the logic of the BDS movement is toward a single bi-national state that, while tempting to some liberals in theory, would in practice likely mean civil war. It would also mean the end of the one state in the world that has as its mission statement the protection of Jewish life. Those of us who still believe in such a state, alongside a Palestinian one need another way.

Our principle should be this: Support any pressure that is nonviolent and consistent with Israel’s right to exist. That means backing Palestinian bids at the United Nations. It means labelling and boycotting settlement goods. It means joining and amplifying nonviolent Palestinian protest in the West Bank. It means denying visas to, and freezing the assets of, Naftali Bennett and other pro-settler leaders. It means pushing the Obama administration to present out its own peace plan, and to punish — yes, punish — the Israeli government for rejecting it.

It means making sure that every time Benjamin Netanyahu and the members of his cabinet walk into a Jewish event outside Israel, they see Diaspora Jews protesting outside. It means loving Israel more than ever, and opposing its government more than ever. It means accepting that, for now at least, the peace process is over and the pressure process must begin.

For many Diaspora Jews, this transition will feel painful and unnatural. It certainly does for me. But there is now no other way. We know in our bones, even without Meir Dagan telling us, that Israel is headed toward moral disaster. We know that a non-democratic Israel is a dead Israel. We know that if Israel makes permanent an occupation that reeks of colonialism and segregation, an America that is becoming ever more black and brown will eventually turn against it.

And interestingly, so did British liberal Zionist, Jonathan Freedland. Regarded as the gatekeeper at the Guardian who protects Israel from harsh criticism, Freedland nevertheless wrote a column similar to Beinart’s. Also reviewing Netanyahu’s election tactics, Freedland observed of the Arabs-voting-in-droves stunt the following:

“It’s worth pausing to digest the full meaning of that move. The enemy against whom Netanyahu was seeking to rally his people was not Islamic State or massed foreign armies, or even the Palestinians of the West Bank or Gaza. He was speaking of the 20 per cent of the Israeli electorate that is Palestinian: Arabs who were born in, live in and are citizens of Israel. A prime minister was describing the democratic participation of one-fifth of the country he governs in the language of a military assault to be beaten back.

Imagine if a US president broadcast such a message, warning the white electorate that black voters were heading to the polls in “large numbers”. Or if a European prime minister said: “Quick, the Jews are voting!” This is the moral gutter into which Netanyahu plunged just to get elected.

It worked.”

Freedland noted that “Only the naive could look at Netanyahu’s nine years in office (spread over three decades) and conclude he was ever serious about either equality or the pursuit of a two-state solution. But now we have his explicit word, confirming that everything his harshest critics said of him was true.” He conceded that Netanyahu was “trying to unsay what he had said”, but “it’s too late”. Thus,

“we cannot go back to mouthing the same old platitudes about two states, not when we’ve heard Israel’s leader admit he has no intention of allowing any such thing.

If Israel is effectively ruling out a Palestinian state – and given that it rejects a one-state solution whereby Israel absorbs millions of Palestinians and gives them the vote – then it has committed itself to maintaining the status quo, permanently ruling over another people and denying them basic democratic rights. And that is a position the world cannot accept.

Such a stance might entail US withdrawal of diplomatic cover. It might mean tougher European sanctions of the kind proposed in Friday’s EU report on settlement activity in East Jerusalem. It could mean a growing shift towards divestment and sanctions, targeted at the occupation, without the polarising tactic of boycott that tends to alienate as many potential supporters as it recruits.

Whatever form they take, there will be consequences for Netanyahu’s actions. He was ready to sink to a new low to save his skin, but it will be Israelis – and their Palestinian neighbours – who pay the price.”

This isn’t coming from radicals. It is from the mainstream, from liberal Zionists. Beinart has argued along similar lines before, but it seems likely that these calls will find increasing resonance in the West.

Australia may remain a comparative backwater on the question of Palestine, but the credibility of the Israeli government is in freefall in the few countries that still have faith in its propaganda.

By itself, this will not be enough to end the occupation. But it is surely a promising sign.

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