Israel’s prickliness blocks the long quest for peace

Tel Aviv's overreaction to criticism harms political discourse and damages efforts to combat anti-Semitism, argues James Zogby

Ban Ki-moon's remark  about occupation prompted Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accuse the UN secretary general of “encouraging terror". (Andy Rain / Reuters)

Israel doesn’t accept criticism. In fact, whether from friend or foe, even mild criticism is viewed as an existential threat prompting Israeli officials to unleash a torrent of abuse in an effort to silence and punish critics. And given new initiatives being rolled out in Israel and in the US, this effort to silence critics is endangering free speech and the search for peace.

This worrisome tendency was on display in recent weeks as Israelis reacted with striking vehemence to remarks by UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and US ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro.

In a speech to the Security Council, Mr Ban decried the “unacceptable levels of violence and polarised public discourse” that has taken hold in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. He condemned the Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians and insisted that “the full force of law must be brought to bear on all of those committing crimes – with a system of justice applied equally for Israelis and Palestinians alike”.

But Mr Ban went further, observing that “security measures alone will not stop the violence. They cannot address the profound sense of alienation and despair driving some Palestinians ... Palestinian frustration is growing under the weight of a half century of occupation ... [and] as oppressed peoples have demonstrated throughout the ages, it is human nature to react to occupation, which often serves as a potent incubator of hate and extremism.”

The secretary general went on to express his concern with recent Israeli announcements to expand settlements in the occupied lands, urging them to: stop the demolitions of Palestinian homes and confiscation of Palestinian lands, address the humanitarian situation in Gaza and to take concrete steps to improve the daily lives of the Palestinian people. He also noted that all of these behaviours made more difficult the achievement of an Israel-Palestinian peace.

Mr Ban offered, as well, a series of steps the Palestinians needed to take to end their internal divisions, put their house in order and end incitement against Israel.

In an address to an Israeli think tank, Mr Shapiro echoed some of Mr Ban’s concerns, noting “we are concerned and perplexed by Israel’s strategy on settlements. This government and previous Israeli governments have repeatedly expressed their support for a negotiated two-state solution – a solution that would involve both mutual recognition and separation … Yet separation will become more and more difficult if Israel plans to continue to expand the footprint of settlements.”

Mr Shapiro also criticised the way Israel governs in the occupied lands, saying “too much Israeli vigilantism in the West Bank goes unchecked,” he said.

“There is a lack of thorough investigations … at times it seems Israel has two standards of adherence to rule of law in the West Bank – one for Israelis and one for Palestinians.”

The Israeli reactions to both Mr Ban and Mr Shapiro were predictably harsh.

Mr Ban was accused of demonstrating a “double standard” with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying that the United Nations had “lost its neutrality and moral force” and charging that Mr Ban had given “tail wind to terror”. Mr Netanyahu also called Mr Shapiro’s observations “unacceptable”. The ambassador too was accused of demonstrating a “double standard” and was crudely dismissed by a former Mr Netanyahu aide as a “little Jew boy” courting favour.

All of this heightened hyper-reaction to criticism plays out against a backdrop of dangerous moves by Israel and its supporters in the US to not only defame and politically punish critics and in some instances to go further by making criticism illegal.

In Israel, steps have been taken to punish teachers and artists and the Knesset is considering a series of measures and the passage of a new law that target domestic critics in an effort to blacklist them as “traitors”.

Meanwhile, in the US, the state department has issued guidelines on anti-Semitism which, in addition, to including examples of displays of “hatred toward Jews ... Jewish institutions and religious facilities” also goes down a dangerous path terming as anti-Semitic “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] behaviour not expected of any other democratic nation”. And several state governments have passed laws prohibiting efforts that call for boycotting, sanctioning or divesting from Israel because of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

The net effect of all these measures will be to silence critics and to deny them not only their right to speak out, but to peacefully organise and act to bring about change in Israel’s policies in the occupied Palestinian lands.

There is a certain irony in all of this because in their hysterical use of charge of “double standard” – that Israel is being “singled out for criticism”– it is Israel’s supporters who are themselves guilty of a “double standard”, since, if they were to have their way, it is Israel that would be singled out as the only country that cannot be criticised.

In the end, Mr Ban and Mr Shapiro are right. Israel’s behaviour is doing grave damage to the Palestinian people and to any hope for peace. And their critics are wrong.

It is not a double standard to criticise Israel and it is most certainly not anti-Semitic. In fact, the overreaction to criticism harms our political discourse, damages the effort to combat real anti-Semitism and, because it serves to enable destructive Israeli policies, it makes a just peace a near unattainable goal.

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa

James Zogby

James Zogby

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute and a columnist for The National