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November 26, 2012 6:38 pm

Time to Challenge the ‘Palestine-Firsters’

avatar by Ben Cohen / JNS.org

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John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Photo: Maarten Derkse.

Between June and October of this year, Palestinian terrorists in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip launched almost 260 attacks, the vast majority involving rockets and missiles, into Israeli territory. Come this month, and the barrage multiplied considerably, with more than 100 rockets being fired on Nov. 11 alone. But it was only when Israel formally began a defensive operation three days later, during which Hamas leaders like Ahmed Jabari, the terrorists’ chief, were successfully eliminated, and airstrikes against key Hamas targets were undertaken, that the Gaza situation consumed foreign media coverage to the exclusion of almost everything else.

It’s a sobering thought, especially when you consider that more than 200 Syrians were murdered by the Assad regime during the seven days of Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense, taking the toll of eighteen months of massacres to well above 40,000. Or that a bloodcurdling 81 prisoners were executed by the Iranian regime in one 10-day period this month.

Twelve years after the second Palestinian intifada triggered a worldwide movement to oppose Zionism and Israel on a scale unseen since the Soviet-inspired campaigns of the 1970s, we’ve grown accustomed to this kind of disproportionate—and yes, I use that word deliberately—media response. And we think, too, that we understand the reasons underlying it.

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The commentator Jeffrey Goldberg explained it beautifully in one of his recent columns. Goldberg reported the contents of an email he received from a Syrian friend in Beirut. “We get very little interest from the international press compared to the Palestinians,” wrote the friend. “What should we do to get more attention?” Responded Goldberg: “My advice is to get killed by Jews. Always works.”

But there is another, historically weightier, factor that needs to be taken into consideration. I’m referring to the widespread belief that the “injustice” meted out to the Palestinians in 1948, when the State of Israel was created, is what lies at the root of the post-World War Two conflicts in the Middle East. According to this account, everything else that happens in the region—the extraordinary repression meted out by ruling regimes upon their own citizens, both before and after the much-vaunted “Arab Spring,” or the vicious civil war within the Islamic world which determines that the most numerous victims of Islamist factions are fellow Muslims—is just a side-show to this main event.

Many of the proponents of this view in America belong to a school of thought that has turned an anti-Semitic smear into an analytical category. I’m speaking, of course, about the term “Israel-Firster,” so enthusiastically deployed by a cast of characters ranging from the fringe Jewish blogger, MJ Rosenberg, through to the contributors to the “Open Zion” blog edited by the journalist Peter Beinart. These people believe that the reason the Middle East is in such a mess is because the U.S. administration is under the thumb of a nefarious “Israel Lobby,” a cluster of organizations and individuals so influential that they can force the government of the U.S. to act against its own interests by supporting Israel.

The two most well-known advocates of the “Israel-Firster” stance were both frenetically typing condemnations of Israel into their laptops as the Israeli Air Force struck back against Hamas. I refer to Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of the execrable 2008 tome The Israel Lobby, which is probably the clearest exposition of the “Israel-Firster” conspiracy theory that you are likely to read.

Writing in the London Review of Books, the same publication that printed the joint Mearsheimer/Walt essay that eventually became The Israel Lobby, Mearsheimer outdid his customarily fatuous assertions. For example, he quoted a now discredited survey that claims a majority of Israelis believe that Palestinians live under a system of “apartheid.” He approvingly cited a blog written by another marginal Jewish commentator, Mitchell Plitnick, which described the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party as “fascist.” Most of all, he reproduced the myth, lovingly stoked in Arab capitals for the last 70 years, that the end goal here is a “Greater Israel.”

Meanwhile, Walt used Mearsheimer’s column as a cue to declare his belief that “the one-state outcome”—in other words, the replacement of the State of Israel by a Palestinian state stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Jordan—”looks increasingly unavoidable.” Added Walt: “And in that context, even a prolonged, contentious campaign for civil and political rights wouldn’t be as pointless as what we are now witnessing.”

This sort of rhetoric is not only (because of its cavalier support of an outcome that could only be achieved through mass killings of Israelis) morally poisonous. It actually runs counter to the very same American national interests these authors claim to uphold.

What these “Palestine-Firsters,” as I call them, seek to deny is the reality that emerged from Israel’s latest limited campaign against Hamas. Firstly, that Israel can defend itself quite adequately without a single American soldier on the ground, in marked contrast to the rest of the region. Secondly, that the Obama administration’s support for Israel was based on that fundamental tenet of international law that holds that sovereign states have the right of self-defense. Thirdly, that a strong and secure Israel is a critical asset to American interests in the region, as well as the liberal democratic values which both countries represent.

For that reason, there is a crying need to supplant the vogueish, Palestine-centered interpretation of the Middle East with one that recognizes that this particular Middle Eastern conflict is not the most important, nor the most dangerous, in the region. As long as we fail to appraise this reality, we will permit regional leaders, like Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, and Egypt’s newest pharaoh, President Mohammed Morsi, to divert attention from their own wrongdoings onto the plight of the Palestinians.

An Israel chastised will not end Erdogan’s bloody, and largely unreported, onslaught against the Kurdish minority in his country. It will not stop Islamist terrorists from Egypt to Pakistan placing bombs in churches and mosques alike. It will not lead to the defeat of Al Qaeda operatives from Mali to Yemen.

What it will do, though, is hurt America. And that is reason enough to turn to the Palestine-Firsters and ask them point blank, where do your loyalties really lie?

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

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  • Lori Lowenthal Marcus

    Excellent! Enough with the myth that the Arab Palestinians are the greatest victims known to humankind, and the corollary that all that is necessary for peace in the Middle East is for Israel to shave off parts of itself to create “Palestine.” May your column be read – and heeded – far and wide.

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