Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Is Israel a Rogue State?

I am posting a link to this piece in today's Guardian because I have to say I have a great deal of sympathy with it. Avi Shlaim - a Professor of International Relations at Oxford - and a former member of the Israeli military, concludes:

This brief review of Israel's record over the past four decades makes it difficult to resist the conclusion that it has become a rogue state with "an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders". A rogue state habitually violates international law, possesses weapons of mass destruction and practises terrorism - the use of violence against civilians for political purposes. Israel fulfils all of these three criteria; the cap fits and it must wear it. Israel's real aim is not peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbours but military domination. It keeps compounding the mistakes of the past with new and more disastrous ones. Politicians, like everyone else, are of course free to repeat the lies and mistakes of the past. But it is not mandatory to do so.

By the way, I certainly don't condone Hamas' use of violence, as I explain here. Nor, it scarcely merits saying, can I be considered some sort of Islamic sympathizer (!)

It recently struck me how different the coverage of the conflict appears to be in the US and UK. A US philosopher I know (who's identity I shall not reveal) recently sent me a column in which he says, having watched a lot of US media coverage, especially CNN:

I have to say that my provisional assessment of what is
reported from the Middle East leaves me with the impression that Israel is
less responsible for the recent mess than Hamas. That’s as well as I can
do with the immediate information at hand. Maybe more detail, more
history will lead me to alter what I think about the matter but for now I
am pretty sure that Hamas is the bad guy here, while Israel, as so often
in history, is the victim.

As my mother, who lives in Europe and went through the mid-century
disasters there, said to me a while ago, “Why don’t they leave those
people live in peace?” Frankly, I am mystified myself. And it is also
puzzling why so many Western academics seem to get on board with the
anti-Israel stance. No, I don’t call it anti-Semitism because I don’t
know the motivation behind their position. I do know that they nearly
always favor Israel’s enemies and consider America’s official pro-Israel
stance something wrongheaded, based not on considerations of justice but
on the so called influence of the Jewish Lobby.

I don’t care about any lobby. I am only concerned that when fights break
out, those who start them be identified, and that their reasons and
motives be objectively evaluated. That is the only way I personally can
make some bit of sense of these kinds of situations of which I receive
such spotty information unless I become a specialist and for that I would
need to return to school and get a graduate degree in Middle Eastern

For Peter Preston's comments on the timidity of the US media regarding Israel, go here (again, Today's Guardian). Includes some good links. Preston says:

In general, with the New York Post, the Daily News and all the usual suspects cheerleading away, there was no balance, no fairness and precious little you could call independent thought. Tel Aviv seemed to bark orders: the US media just wagged its tail.


James F. Elliott said...

This idea of ultimate culpability is asinine. "He started it!" stopped being an acceptable excuse somewhere around kindergarten and there is absolutely no reason not to apply the same standard at all times. We get so caught up on intentionality that we assign it a primacy it does not have. In doing so, we will always let "our side" avoid its own responsibility for its actions.

Let's be clear: Launching rockets at civilians is evil. Dropping a 1-ton bomb on an apartment building filled with civilians, even when you've warned them beforehand (and where exactly were they supposed to go?!), just to get at someone who does arguably pose an existential threat is also evil.

We may dance around ultimate responsibility for the whole shebang all we like (indeed, why not, since it's ultimately a pointless question), but absolutely no one can elide responsibility for their own actions while participating in the fight.

Any discussion that does not assign moral agency and responsibility to both parties is just useless.

anticant said...

"Israel's real aim is not peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbours but military domination."

I reluctantly reached this conclusion some time ago. And what is the ultimate cause?

As always, Religion.

James F. Elliott said...

As always, Religion.

I think that's an unfair oversimplification on both sides. Hamas's milleniarism, while deeply enabled by culture and religion, is ultimately secular. Likewise, I don't think you can view Israel's near-genocidal actions in Gaza without taking into account the mindset of a cultural diaspora with its back against the wall and finally in possession of enough collectivization to take action.

James F. Elliott said...

Apologies, I should have written "Palestinian milleniarism" as opposed to "Hamas's milleniarism." Hamas explicitly seeks religious justification for its acts.

anticant said...

I don't think it's unfair, or an oversimplification. Of course there are many other contributing factors, but remove the religious zealotry and what would be left?

Kosh3 said...

What is the 'violence against civilians for political purposes'? I am not sure what is politically gained except breading new generations of Palestinians who grow up hating Israel. I see a lot of 'collateral damage' occurring

The situation Palestinians strikes me as akin to that of the person who kicks up dust and then complains they cannot see. Hamas fires rockets, gets met with a very strong (perhaps disproportionate) military response, and is then able to construe this as some great injustice they suffer. Its like someone who goes into a bar, throws ice at the bouncer, gets smashed over, and then vows revenge and injustice. That little story might be leaving out crucial details about land occupation, but then I would simply point towards Stephens article on peaceful options available for protest.

In any case though, I think Israel really does need to be a lot less care-free with civilian casualties. I don't have a problem though with bombing the homes of Hamas leaders. If you live with a leader of Hamas, you know the risks.

martino said...

Surely Avi Shlaim's criteria also qualify the USA as a rogue state?

martino said...

Indeed granted such criteria how many countries also qualify as rogue states? Without knowing that labelling one country - Israel or any other - does not really provide us with the real significance of the label. Do Russia and China qualify? How many others?

Surely as a philosopher you would agree that obtaining an objective measure or count of how many countries qualify would be a means to remove any selective bias in such labelling?

John said...


I thought your comments incisive, but describing Israel's actions as near-genocidal merely trivializes the meaning of genocide. Israel has the means to commit real genocide in Gaza - thankfully it lacks the intent.

anticant said...

Yes, the USA certainly does qualify as a rogue state. So - because of its complicity in the invasion of Iraq - does the United Kingdom.

How far such labelling helps matters I don't know. Quite simply, all these conflicts can be resolved where there is a mutual will to peace. Where there is not, as in the present instance, all discussion of peace terms is empty words.

And I reiterate that religion is a prime ideological motivator of most of the current world conflicts. Greed for money, lust for power, and sheer destructiveness of course also play their parts but religion supplies the spurious cloak of justifcation.

James F. Elliott said...

...remove the religious zealotry and what would be left?

50 years of stateless apartheid on one side and 50 years of existential threats on the other?

That would seem enough.

martino said...

Hi Anticant

Although I do not recall corresponding with you directly I often agree with you.

However here labelling matters after all this was the point of Stephen's post. However it seems that the USA, UK, Russia, China, N. Korea, India, Pakistan and various others qualify. The label "rogue state" loses much force if that is the case.

In addition I am dubious of the necessity of having WMD. Without this or, rather, with an additional disjunctive alternate I think many other countries in the Middle East and Africa would qualify too.

Of course I am not utilising the the "everyone does it" argument here to defend Israel. That is not my goal. The world would be better off with no rogue states - that is states to cease to be rogues and that includes Israel.

So, in a way, I do agree with you, Anticant, but granted this topic has been raised, I would like to see Stephen properly approach this, rather than, with all due respect Stephen, IMHO the haphazard way it was done in this post. I expect better from a philosopher of Stephen's calibre.

James F. Elliott said...


Respectfully, I disagree. It is immaterial whether Israel has the intent or not: it is the foreseeable consequence for the Gazans. By preventing Palestinians who do not hold a foreign passport (which for natives is most) from leaving the Israeli controlled borders (north, east, and the sea) and with Egypt actively killing people who attempt to cross the southern border, Israel cannot credibly elide its responsibility for civilian deaths by shoving it on to Hamas for hiding among the people. Where are the innocents to go?!

Intent, here, is only a factor in mitigation, not a means to avoid culpability.


And I reiterate that religion is a prime ideological motivator...

I disagree. A universally atheistic world would only mean it lacked one additional reason to kill each other. As you point out, religion can provide a "fine" justification. But especially in the Israel-Palestine conflict, religion is actually a relatively new motivator, and is precisely the "cloak" you point out.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Robert Fisk is one of the few commentators/journalists who has been critical of Israel consistently. I would recommend his book about Lebanon, Pity the Nation.

I would also recommend the animated movie, Dancing with Bashir, made by an Israeli who interviews people who have been involved in Israeli conflicts (including the filmmaker). It's a very good movie.

I've always believed that the Palestinians are the victims here, not the Israelis. It's a case of 'might is right' philosophy, which the West seems to follow uncritically.

In regard to Anticant's comment, religion becomes the excuse, but it's really politics based on territorial dispute. Religion becomes the cultural glue and also makes the conflict politically 'righteous' for fundamentalists on both sides. But, for most people, I expect it's about territorial claims.

Regards, Paul.

John said...


I do not argue that the state of Israel is not culpable, merely that we trivialise the word genocide by using it to refer to actions which are clearly not designed to destroy an ethnic or national group in toto. To do so is to accept that every war ever fought was an attempt at genocide.


"I've always believed that the Palestinians are the victims here, not the Israelis."

I suggest it is this sort of black and white thinking which makes discussion of the conflict so difficult, and often pointless.

anticant said...

James - if the Zionists did not believe that Palestine is their "promised land", given to their forefathers in perpetuity by Jehovah in Old Testament times, there would be no Israel: it would have been perfectly possible to create a viable National Home for the displaced Jews of Europe and Asia in many other less contentious parts of the world, but that would not have satisfied their religious agenda.

The Arabs, too, are driven by religious fundamentalism. I do not believe there is any sincere intention on either side to co-exist peacefully. Both have repeatedly rejected international proposals for a comprehensive peace settlement, which is why all the "road map" chatter by the hand-wringing Americans and Europeans is so futile.

And of course, Martino, there is no necessity for WMD, or for the huge conventional armaments which nearly all countries pile up in the spurious name of "defence". Unfortunately, the days of mass protest marches in favour of nuclear disarmament seem to be over.

We live in a basically lawless world when such a major player as the USA rejects - at least under Bush - even the few remaining feeble instruments of international law such as the Geneva Convention.

With regard to James's and Paul's further comments, I regard all religion as merely another form of political rhetoric, but a very powerful one because it invokes the 'supernatural' - God, Jehovah, Jesus, Allah etc. - on "our" side and so bamboozles successive generations of simple-minded young people to martyr themselves for "God's cause" which is nothing of the sort.

Stephen Law said...

Hello all

Martino - I was careful not to endorse the "rogue state" claim, just said I have much sympathy with the piece as a whole. I agree many countries qualify on the definition supplied.
I think waht's most important here is that not only is Hamas condemned, but so is Israel. The US refuses to condemn Israel and so does the UK Government. That, I think, is inexcusable. It's not just morally wrong that we are so shamelessly partisan - there are also practical consequences home and abroad. The practical consequences are that we not only make the situation worse in the Middle East, we also leave Muslims in this country thinking that the UK is anti-Muslim and supports pointless atrocities committed against Arabs. This will inevitably produce sympathy for Islamic extremists, and thus more violence here too.

Paul P. Mealing said...

You have a valid point Anticant, but I think religion in this context is more about cultural identity than ‘supernatural’ belief. After all they are all supposed to believe in the same God: they are all supposedly ‘children of Abraham’.

My point is that getting rid of religious belief won't get rid of the conflict - it is only part of the equation, and a too convenient part. I don't believe it's what the conflict is really about.

I defend my comment that the Palestinians are the victims because they are the ones living in poverty and treated as pariahs by the so called Western world. They are the ones who were turfed off their land originally and they are the ones whose lives are controlled economically by Israel, not the other way round.

It is the fundamentalists who indulge in 'black and white thinking', which is why it is only the moderates on both sides who can broker a peace. Fundamentalists only believe they can survive by the annihilation of the other, which equates to conflict without end. So moderates, on both sides of the conflict, are the key and the only chance of peace.

Regards, Paul.

anticant said...

Of course you are right, Paul, that peace is the desire of moderates and not of fundamentalists, whose goal is always total victory. But moderates are usually in practice weaker than fundamentalists, because they lack both the power and the will to enforce their wishes.

I remember, as you probably don't, the 1930s and the pathetically inadequate attempts to appease the bullying dictators.

who is going to persuade Israel to adopt peaceable policies when the Zionists, through such instruments as AIPAC, have an overweening political and corrupt financial stranglehold on Washington?

Unfortunately, politics is about the realities of power - not the musings of philosopers.

georgesdelatour said...

A few rambling, unconnected points:

1. Avi Shlaim has written a very important book on Israel - "The Iron Wall". The title comes from an essay by Vladimir Jabotinsky, which you can read here:

Jabotinsky is not well-known to non-Israelis. But he's the father of Likud. And the "Iron Wall" has been the more-or-less permanent basis of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, even when Labour rather than Likud has been in power.

2. There are genetic studies suggesting Jews and Palestinians are ethnically from the same tribe. Palestinians are culturally and linguistically Arabic, but they are not descended from Gulf Arabs as the Saudis are. They almost certainly descend from Jews who stayed in Palestine after the Roman destruction, and who converted first to Christianity, then to Islam.

(As always, it's not who you are, but who you think you are that really matters. Gerry Adams' ancestors were actually Scottish Planters. Yet, in the 1980s the organization he lead pursued an unofficial policy of ethnically cleansing his fellow "Scots-Irish" descendants from border areas in Northern Ireland.)

3. I agree that US coverage of Israel/Palestine is really weird. Basically, they won't discuss Israel as if it's a separate foreign country with its own concerns and interests which sometimes diverge from those of the US. It's reported on as if it's an outlying state of the Union - like Hawaii but in the Middle East.

anticant said...

We seem to be shifting to political debate here, which may not be really appropriate for a philosophical blog. But I agree with Martino that I would like to see Stephen do a thread on the decay of internationalism and the growing rejection of such international legal norms as were achieved during the twentieth century.

I can remember when, in the UN's early days, the Security Council was a significant body whose deliberations and rulings were widely taken seriously. That is most certainly not the case today.

anticant said...

Georges - reverting to my theme song, the main reason why so many Americans regard Israel as an extension of the USA - or vice versa - is religious: the 'born-again' evangelicals and rapturists imagine - totally pottily, of course - that they are the lineal descendants of the Biblical Children of Israel, and are God's Chosen People [America being "God's Own Country"].

The sense or nonsense of such beliefs is irrelevant to their potency and political influence. That is why I insist that getting rid of as much irrational and 'supernatural' thinking as possible would be a big step forward towards international peace and security.

James F. Elliott said...


...we trivialise the word...

I disagree. I think we trivialize it by not recognizing the potential for its occurrence, even if not waged in an overt campaign of extermination.


if the Zionists did not believe that Palestine is their "promised land", given to their forefathers in perpetuity by Jehovah in Old Testament times, there would be no Israel:

The Jews were also offered Ethiopia. Are we to conclude, then, that the people encompassed or displaced had they accepted that land instead would also not become violent, especially if no other country agreed to absorb them and the Jewish state chose not to offer the full rights and protections of citizenship to them? Counterfactuals and what ifs are of limited utility in discussions such as these, but I don't think one can so simply blame the choice of placement. I submit that "Zionism" is far too simplistic a lens to look at this through.

The religious inflection to the entire Israel-Palestine conflict, which has waged for nigh on 60 years, is actually relatively recent, since about the 1990s. That a number of Palestinians, denied a recognized legitimacy for their shared experience of oppression, would turn to another form of identity - Islam - is unsurprising. But it is further important to note that Hamas, though allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, does not carry the same takfiri torch as al-Qaeda, nor is it necessarily as overtly theocratic as Iran. Despite the religious justification, it is the desire for liberation that lies at the heart of Hamas's motivation. Unfortunately, they've gone bugf*ck insane and desire to destroy all Jews as the only means of that liberation. But let's not forget the core of the struggle here: its legitimacy is not elided by religion, culture, or even the furthest reaches of intent.

georgesdelatour said...


Religion is not the cause of the conflict, even though it exacerbates it. Imagine if, tomorrow, every single Palestinian loses their belief that Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah, or that Jesus Christ is the Risen Lord. Every single one of them becomes a Richard Dawkins style atheist. Now, how many do you think will abandon all claim to their grandparents' homes? How many will become happily reconciled to their displacement? Suicide murders might abate, but the conflict will continue, surely.

anticant said...

James - I agree with much that you say, but I don't think I am oversimplifying or over-stating the key role of religion in this conflict.

Have you studied the early origins of the Ziomist campaign for a Jewish natioal home? The roles of Weitzman, Lloyd George, and the Balfour Declaration - surely the most fatuous and dishonest diplomatic document ever issued?

As you say, might-have-beens are neither here nor there - but surely supposedly responsible statesmen have a duty to weigh very carefully the likely consequences of their actions.

Maybe we should not blame Weitzman for imagining that his new settlers would happily don top hats and spend their evenings at the opera. But for Lloyd George and Balfour to seriously believe that it would be possible to settle European Jews in Palestine without prejudicing the interests of the indigenous inhabitants beggars belief.

anticant said...

Georges - if the Jews and the Americans lost their religious beliefs as well, there would be a much better prospect of a negotiated settlement.

John said...


"I think we trivialize [the word genocide] by not recognizing the potential for its occurrence, even if not waged in an overt campaign of extermination."

Well perhaps we will have to disagree over the meaning of the word trivialise.

If you insist on calling anything which has the potential for genocide "near-genocide", the term loses its moral force. By failing to distinguish between different types of conflict you render the term genocide merely a synonym of violence, which it is not.

We certainly can watch for signs of genocidal behaviour or intent and I would agree that a latent potential for genocide exists in the Israel / Palestine conflict.

However, whether or not you consider Israel's actions proportionate, it is a matter of fact that the operation* being carried out by Israel is using a small fraction of the available military means, appears to be deliberately attempting to avoid mass casualties and has so far resulted in numbers of deaths which constitute a small fraction of the Palestinian population of the Gaza strip - these are not the actions of a armed forces bent on genocide.

The language is important and can result in more heat than light - "near-genocide" is not an accurate description.

(Might I suggest, if you wish to use words which carry emotional content any of the following: carnage, massacre, slaughter)

* - I use the word operation in its military sense, not as an anodyne euphemism

Kosh3 said...

I think a 'near-genocide' act would need to kill a lot more people than 500.

Cassanders said...

I basically agree that religion is a pernicious factor in this conflict (even more than in many others). But as far as I have understood, many of the leading zionists (including Theodor Herzl) were rather secular.
For a period they even considered a jewish state in Argentina(!)

In Cod we trust

bruce said...

The problem is Religion, and in this case Jewish Religion more specifically. Their ideology and religion lead them to found the state of Israel. If Israel did not exist, there would be no Israel-Palestine conflict.

Throughout history, you can see the influence of religion leading to conflict. Even in the context of a secular state, such as in Cambodia. In that case, reactionary religious and cultural conservatives attempted a counter-revolution against the Khmer Rouge - leading the the following violence where the Khmer tried to bring the country under control again. And Lutheran ministers tried stirring up rebellion in east Germany in 1954, Catholics in Poland in the 1980s. Then in the US... I wonder if we would have even had the civil war were it not for the agitation of various abolition movements who claimed to be justified by "religion." Religion has a bloody history indeed.