In a recent, and soon to be much-quoted article in the New York Review of Books, Robert Malley and Hussein Agha offer their typically dismal prognosis for an Israel-Palestine just peace. Their bottom line, literally, is "It won't get better anytime soon."
I agree with their analysis up to a point. But one point with which I don't agree is contained in the following paragraph:
In this setting, temptation has grown to increase international pressure on Israel and heighten its discomfort. If it is delegitimization Israelis fear, then it must be delegitimization that will make them budge. Faced with the prospect of isolation, Israel might be persuaded to end its occupation. But pressure is a double-edged sword requiring skillful handling, especially when exercised on a people convinced by the calamities of their own history of the inveterate hostility of much of the outside world. Those who wield it often only confirm in Israeli eyes how unreliable their avowed friendship was in the first place. One should not be surprised if the Israeli people, their sense of vulnerability enhanced, opt to hunker down rather than reach out.
This paragraph assumes that there is a tactic or a strategy to increase international pressure on Israel in order to move it towards what the "delegitimizers" view is a just peace. Or to put it bluntly, supporters of the Palestinians have not been able to achieve their goals through the armed struggle, or through appeal to international law, or the UN. Now is the time to move against Israel and isolate it through a campaign of "delegitimization". Malley and Agha point out is that this may actually have a reverse effect; the Israelis will hunker down and will be less amenable to concessions and to reach out.
This, I submit, is precisely the way Israel views "delegitimization," and I am surprised that Malley and Agha, hardly apologists for Israel, accept the Israeli (and pro-Israeli American) narrative at this point. For there is no such campaign.
Neither the human rights organizations inside and outside Israel, or for that matter, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel, seek to delegitimize it in order to make it more amenable to a just peace deal with the Palestinians. In fact, "peace" is generally absent from those organizations' vocabulary.
It's not about peace; it's certainly not about "delegitimization"; it's about calling attention to the bad behavior of a state and calling that state to conform its behavior to international norms. And such appeals happen all the time. Iran's human rights violations have elicited international criticism and even sanctions. The stated goals of this criticism and these sanctions have been to get Iran to behave as a state should behave. Similar international criticism has been made of Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Serbia – the list is long. Were the point of the international criticism of Israel's human rights record to put pressure on Israel to make concessions, then that pressure would be expected to recede when progress is made on the peace front. But, again, it's not about peace; it's about sanctioning those states that misbehave and cause people under its control to suffer.
What the human rights NGOs do is publicize Israeli wrongdoing. They bring to the world's attention the deeds of the principal Israeli self-delegitimizers today: the Israeli Government, the Israeli Defense Forces, the Pro-Israeli lobby, the settlers, and everybody who is involved with the ongoing injustice against the Palestinians.
When these organizations shine a light on Israel's dirty secrets, the result in Israel is not the phenomenon of Israelis hunkering down. I assure Messrs Malley and Agha, the hunkerers will always hunker, light or no light. The result instead is to split Israeli society into three uneven groups: those who always think that "the goyyim (except the Christian Zionists) are against us" no matter what; those who think that the criticism is justified; and those who are forced for the first time to look at themselves in the world's mirror, and who do not know how to react – but who feel very, very uncomfortable about the situation.
To write otherwise about Israel is to sell Israeli society short. Israelis are hyper-sensitive to world criticism; they want and need the goyyim to love them; it is a validation of the Jewish state. When an Elvis Costello cancels his appearance in Tel Aviv, it makes front page news and is talked about for weeks. That, I think, is one of the virtues of Israeli society; it still cares about the world. And when the world treats it as a pariah state, it asks questions about itself – and debates about the wisdom of its policies.
Israel, for the first sixty three years of its existence, has made remarkable achievements as a society, but those achievements have often come at the expense of the Palestinians, even those who are Israeli citizens. Without the spotlight of the world on them, consecutive Israeli governments created a Jewish state on the destruction of Palestine, through forced land sales, destruction of villages, legal and foundational discrimination against its non-Jewish citizens. For the first twenty years after 1967 it did the same on the West Bank with more destructiveness and greater impunity. Even with two intifadas, the situation has gotten worse.
What is left for those who care about justice to do except to witness and to publicize? Justice may not be a value that trumps all other values, but it is a value that is in need of no other values for its own validation. I don't believe that the consequences for calling Israel to account will be as dire as Malley and Agha make it out to be; I think Israeli society is better than that. But until Israel learns that there is a price for its bad behavior, there is no hope for it to change it.
At the moment, what Israel calls "delegitimization" and what I call "publicizing Israel's self-abuse" is the only hope for teaching an errant state a lesson that it has yet to learn.