In the ‘clash of civilizations’, Israeli accountability means Western accountability

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The thrust of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis is that in the post-Cold War world there are inherently opposed forces based primarily upon ethnic or religious identity and that future of conflict will be along these lines. In this thesis the West’s power will be threatened by Sinic, Islamic, Latin American or some other discretely-defined civilization, or a combination thereof. This Us vs. Them, our civilization versus theirs, basis for conflict is almost totally devoid of political content. Us must fight Them precisely because we are Us and they are Them, other reasons (natural resource control, ideological differences, imperial/anti-imperial efforts, etc.) being merely coincidental, not causative. In the Israel and Palestine case this amounts to a permanent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians simply because they are Israelis and Palestinians. This is, of course, a kind of gibberish. But it’s very powerful gibberish as gibberish is the lingua franca of Western political leaders, though there are a variety of accents. Thus when former Spanish PM José María Aznar penned a recent editorial in the The Times titled "If Israel goes down, we all go down," it’s worth parsing. 

In the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ (CoC) is a political construct that defends Western hegemony, masking very real conflicts taking place and obscuring the colonial, imperial and economic logic of them. Without describing that logic Their actions to subvert Western hegemony are merely acts of aggression carried out because They are Them. In the first paragraph Aznar, writing about the attacks on the Free Gaza Flotilla, gets right to this point. "In an ideal world, the soldiers would have been peacefully welcomed on to the ship," he writes. Global justice advocates might posit that "in an ideal world" there would have been no conflict or naval blockade and thus no cause for the escalation that led to the deaths of activists on the Free Gaza Flotilla. But in the CoC there is an assumption about the inevitability of such conflicts – often portrayed colloquially as "realism" though this can often differ with the political science field of realism – and the ‘ideal world’ is limited to a peaceful reception of an attacking force. Alternately put, in Aznar’s ‘ideal world’ there would be no resistance to the West’s dominance and it would in fact be welcomed without incident.  

Aznar then goes on to reinforce Israel’s credentials as part of Us. He writes that "owing to its roots, history, and values, Israel is a fully fledged Western nation." That Israel does not fit neatly into the professed Western values of liberalism and capitalism – its rejection of civic democracy in favor of ethnocracy being the most pronounced contradiction – is immaterial in that the discussion is performative. So long as the West says Israel is Western, it will remain so. And through using military means to stifle threats – real or perceived, political or military – Israel isn’t violating any particular Western ideal so long as the operations can be defined in CoC terms and the CoC remains the dominant political discourse in the West. 

This does not mean the response from Western nations is fully positive. There has been a large degree of criticism of the attack on the flotilla, ranging from the very mild to a degree of outrage. There is, for example, a consistent demand for a commission of inquiry, accents of gibberish differing on its makeup and power. It has not led to a significant devaluation of relationships beyond that with Turkey. This is due primarily to the large number of Turkish victims – both amongst those killed and sequestered – and Turkey’s internal West vs. the Rest and Political vs. Military political struggles and Europe’s hesitation in granting Turkey Us status (This internal Turkish struggle is the topic of many recent editorials with concerns expressed about Turkey becoming Them and what it would mean for the geopolitics of the region). The fundamental in play is that Israel, in attacking the flotilla, has done nothing that challenges or subverts the Western world order. The calls for an impartial inquiry have been adopted by Israel to a degree satisfactory to itself and the United States thus fulfilling a tenet of Western liberalism, the importance of the rule of law. It must be clarified that actual adherence to the rule of law is not necessary. So long as the rule of law and its importance are duly acknowledged the legitimacy of the tenets of Western hegemony is not in question. 

This can be contrasted with the intense outrage and diplomatic sanctioning after the use of fraudulent Western passports in the assassination of Hamas’ Mahmoud al-Mabhouh which has led to investigations, prosecutions, the expulsion of some Israeli diplomats and more yet to come. State-issued identification papers (passports, driver’s licenses, etc.) are held to be inviolable rights of sovereign nation-states. There is only one issuing authority for national papers and fraudulent producers are pursued and prosecuted vigorously by all strong states. Israel’s encroachment on the sovereignty of Australia, Ireland, the UK, France and others is a direct subversion of their status as legitimate powers and of the legitimacy of Western rule of law. The killing of al-Mabhouh was not a source of Western outrage, but the fraudulent use of Western passports is seen, accurately, as a significant violation of sovereignty. 

Palestinians, Palestine solidarity and human rights activists regularly accuse Israel of flouting and subverting international law. This is not entirely accurate though the long list of violations of various international laws, standards and conventions is evident and well-documented. Israel regularly argues either that is actually in compliance with international law (such as the arguments defending  the attack on the flotilla) or that international law is not applicable (as in denying the applicability of the Geneva Conventions to East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza Strip). In cases where there is significant tension between the standards of international law and Israeli actions the government seeks to adjust international law to include its activities, thus acknowledging the importance of the system. See for example ICAHD coordinator Jeff Halper’s excellent "The Second Battle of Gaza: Israel’s Undermining of International Law" about attempts to change the standards of warfare to include its activities. In all of these arrangements Israel seeks to demonstrate inclusivity in the standards of the West. Were Israel to actually deny the legitimacy of international law it would be exiled from the West to either a pariah status or be relegated the Global South (Third World) as it was considered to be until fairly recently. The hegemony of the West is structured on the the international standards it has largely built and (selectively) enforced. In falsifying state-issued travel documents Israel has undermined these standards. It is not a structural crisis and these standards will likely bear no long-lasting adverse effects so long as Israel is held to account, thus the expelling of diplomats and other actions taken. The criticism of Israel in this regard legitimates both the standards of of Western hegemony as well as Israel’s position in it. 

The hegemony of the West is what Aznar is seeking to defend and in the CoC discourse this is a zero-sum game. Either We have hegemony or We lose/They win. Aznar holds criticism of Israel’s attack on the flotilla tantamount to a "sacrifice [of] the Jewish state on the altar." That the weekly protests of the activists in the West Bank village of Bil’in are devoid of sacrificial daggers and that Amnesty International simply refuses to mount the heads of defeated foes on its standard does nothing to alter the position of the West that Israel has an irrefutable right to defend itself. That this right is never brought into question by critics of the occupation, who by and large criticize the occupation and actions taken to defend it, is also irrelevant as the performative strength of statements like Aznar’s is sufficient to firmly cement the association between Israeli military action and Israeli self-defense in Western discourse. 

This ‘self-defense’ is not only held to be Israel’s. In Aznar’s world and that of the CoC, "Israel is our first line of defence in a turbulent region that is constantly at risk of descending into chaos," [emphasis added]. Aznar sees the West’s generally mild criticisms of Israeli military actions as symptomatic of a "confusion [that is] is caused by a kind of masochistic self-doubt over our own identity; by the rule of political correctness; by a multiculturalism that forces us to our knees before others; and by a secularism which, irony of ironies, blinds us even when we are confronted by jihadis promoting the most fanatical incarnation of their faith." If the phrasing ‘the most Clash of Civilizations’ is permissible it surely applies here. 

But the funny thing about it, Aznar is right. He’s not right in his diagnosis of Western self-doubt or about the the righteousness of Israeli actions or in his claims of too much criticism of Israeli crimes. He’s thoroughly wrong there. But if the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ is indeed the doctrine of Western hegemony then Aznar is right about "If Israel goes down, we all go down". The calls by Palestinian and solidarity activists are not for Israeli, Jewish or Western annihilation but for accountability and redress. In a zero-sum game based upon the preservation of Western hegemony, accountability is annihilation as it denies and subverts Western rule. How can one be both hegemon and accountable after all? The West holds its hegemony to be legitimate but if it is denied that legitimacy, it is also denied that hegemony. If Israel is indeed held accountable, if Western hegemony is indeed cracked, what then? 

In her excellent January 5, 2010 Electronic Intifada article University of British Columbia professor Sunera Thobani could have been phrasing Aznar’s worry when she wrote, "If Israel can now be hauled before the International Criminal Court, who might it be next?" And this gets to the potential power of Palestinian liberation. Palestinian liberation with Israeli accountability could be a huge step towards broader liberation movements. Western accountability is incredibly rare historically but the actualization of it in Palestine can help open the gates. As Thobani writes, "If Israeli politicians can be arrested by warrants issued under universal jurisdiction, why not officials from the US, Britain and Canada as well?…Where might it all end?" 

Jimmy Johnson is a writer and mechanic based in Detroit. He is former International Coordinator for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. He can be reached at [email protected]

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