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

on 24 Comments

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]

24 Responses

  1. potsherd
    July 11, 2010, 9:10 pm

    Maybe it might end in justice.

  2. MRW
    July 11, 2010, 10:00 pm

    Western accountability is incredibly rare historically but the actualization of it in Palestine can help open the gates.

    We ought to start with our own culpability. If we had any balls we would.

  3. Susie Kneedler
    July 11, 2010, 10:01 pm

    “How can one be both hegemon and accountable after all?” Brilliant, Jimmy. That’s the question; the answer probably is that BDS needs to include the U.S. and our government as the most fanatical bankrollers of the illegal Israeli Occupation in Palestine.

  4. Donald
    July 11, 2010, 10:29 pm

    “If Israel is indeed held accountable, if Western hegemony is indeed cracked, what then? ”

    I’ve been saying this for months. (Not that this matters, but thought I’d pat myself on the back.) The reason Israeli officials are safe from war crimes trials is because American and British and other Western officials can’t allow that precedent. War crimes trials are for low-ranking people in the West like Lt. Calley or enlisted men at Abu Ghraib and deposed dictators who’ve outlived their usefulness to the West (like Saddam Hussein). They aren’t for the lords of human kind.

    • Jimmy Johnson
      July 12, 2010, 1:30 am

      That’s the point, that selective prosecution of transgressions acknowledges the ‘validity’ of the system. Israel prosecutes or disciplines soldiers and Border Police with some regularity – probably proportional to the rate the U.S. does with its own occupying forces – to help support a system that works to its advantage. It’s a point I should have made in the article, about the West and the rules it set; It’s easy to play by the rules when they’re set up to your advantage. For example the modern sets of rules regarding aggression are designed so that Western-led military powers can design interventions to prevent and discourage wars. Now this doesn’t sound inherently bad, who likes war after all? War and aggression though, were the primary means of redistribution of wealth for centuries. The West is built on the wealth stolen from Africa, the Americas, Asia, etc. After gaining such power it decided to set rules against that form of rapid redistribution (aggression). The point isn’t that common exercises in armed aggression would be preferable, but that the rules set by the West play a very concrete role in hegemony. Thus, anything that subverts those rules, even if the transgressor is Western, must be reprimanded.

      • Donald
        July 12, 2010, 8:07 am

        I don’t think the West does play by its own rules, but reasonable people can disagree. It hinges on something Chomsky once said about Vietnam–that apologists can bend legal rules to justify almost anything. The phrase “collateral damage”, for instance, can go a very long way in allowing a government to bomb anyone it wants and kill civilians to terrorize them while claiming there was some military target to justify the attack. The rules are set up to favor Western governments and so one could say that they favor Western hegemony.

        OTOH, I think the human rights groups like Amnesty International and HRW do a pretty good job showing that even given these rules that Western governments don’t really abide by them and that they bend the phrase “collateral damage” far beyond its breaking point. Now our government and the Israelis will usually deny that they target civilians, but when one looks at the actual practice and even some of the unguarded statements made by officials who should know (the Dahiya doctrine, for instance) tells us what is really going on. So I think it’s useful to point out that by their own rules, Western governments are guilty of war crimes.

        The selective prosecutions are a fraudulent way to pretend the system of laws is fairly applied, so we see deposed and no longer useful dictators prosecuted and from Western societies, low ranking officers and enlisted men. But not high ranking officials.

        Anyway, I find the laws of war useful in part because the way they are applied reveals the ruthlessness and hypocrisy of Western governments.

      • Jimmy Johnson
        July 12, 2010, 9:06 am

        Your point about selective prosecution is what I was trying to say. In doing so, they acknowledge the legitimacy of the of system the West benefits from. And by and large the West does play by the rules it has set up. The United States, as hegemon of hegemons, far less so because it is accountable to no one, not even other the smaller hegemonic nations of the West. They rely to heavily on U.S. r&d and firepower (reductive, but you get the point). So the U.S. acknowledges and uses the UN Security Council during the first Gulf War but not the second, etc. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

  5. Sin Nombre
    July 11, 2010, 10:43 pm

    Two observations that seem to me to render Azner’s perspective just totally wrong:

    A.) That, in the overwhelming main, the objections and etc. motivating the “other” civilizations that are finding frictions with us are *not*, for instance, that we aren’t institutionalizing sharia law, or criminalizing homosexuality or etc. They are objections rooted in things that our civilization has *also* indeed come to recognize as bad, such as being colonizers, unjust invaders, using white phosphorus in civilian areas, stealing land, ethnic cleansing and etc. and so forth. So the friction/clash that exists isn’t due to some fundamental variance I don’t think, right now an awful lot is just over the definition of some apparently fully shared things, which makes this clash a very different matter. Witness even George Bush furiously denying he wanted to be a colonizer, or wanted to any permanent occupation of either Iraq or Afghanistan.

    B.) And, that time has gone by it seems ever harder to say that Israel is indeed part of our current Western “civilization” and shares our fundamental ideals and etc. With the same evidence as A being relevant here, such as Israel’s *unapologetic* colonization, and ethnic cleansing, and war-making techniques, and etc. And then of course you also get to the real biggie which is Israel’s fundamental nature as being an absolutely overtly religiously/ethnically/racially/tribally-based state, which is just absolutely, totally irreconcilable now with the rest of Western civilization I think. And this, I further believes, is just becoming ever clearer, and even in the case of some grand deal with the Palestinians for a separate state can’t help becoming ever more so due to Israel’s almost certain need to do more ethnic cleansing to preserve the jewish demographic advantage is so clearly insists upon.

    Azner’s got a big world-view no doubt, but his telescope I think lacks the resolution to see any of the crucial features in its overly broad field.

    • potsherd
      July 11, 2010, 11:12 pm

      All you have to do is look at Israeli racism to see that their values are totally incompatible with a civilized world.

      link to

      link to

      “The biggest problem is that if you accept 10 families in which the mother isn’t Jewish, then soon there will be 30 children, and tomorrow your son could fall in love with the good-looking girl next door. It’s a real problem,” Heiman said.

      “It’s difficult enough with the dozens of terrorists who enter each morning,” added Nokdim resident Amit Gruen, in apparent reference to Palestinians employed in home construction in the settlement.

      “We have to separate ourselves from the gentiles in commerce and everything else – particularly when it comes to living with them. It could lead to assimilation or idol worship; it opens the door to all kinds of trouble. They might lead us into committing offenses that Jews normally don’t do, like idolatry and incest and all kinds of other perversions. That’s why we have no place for them here,” he said.

      “In principle, the fact that they serve in the army is a problem. They must not serve in the army – the fact that the state brought them over doesn’t mean a thing. Just as it brought them over, it can send them back to their own countries,” Gruen said.

      Funny, when Helen Thomas said the same thing about Jews, she was ostracized. Guess what won’t happen to this Gruen guy.

    • lysias
      July 12, 2010, 6:37 am

      If any country now qualifies as the “only democracy in the Middle East,” that country is now Turkey, now that Erdoğan has defanged the Turkish “deep state.” I have lived several months in Turkey, and the country doesn’t seem that foreign at all.

      Plus, one has to wonder whether current Lebanon, no longer so dominated by its Christian minority, is not at least as democratic as Israel.

      Then there is the legitimately elected Hamas government in Gaza.

  6. James Bradley
    July 11, 2010, 10:55 pm

    This is one of the best breakdowns of the Clash of Civilization theories I’ve seen in a long time.

    Thank you Jimmy.

  7. Charltonr
    July 12, 2010, 1:37 am

    The belief that there has to be war perpetual between Us and Them because it is Us and Them is just pure George Orwell 1984 — again and always.
    War is Peace
    Freedom is Slavery


  8. VR
    July 12, 2010, 1:57 am

    Perhaps one of the best treatments of the “Clash Of Civilizations” was done initially by Dr Edward Said –


    As far as the assumptions inherent in “hegemony” one of the best treatments is done by Noam Chomsky –


  9. lysias
    July 12, 2010, 6:39 am

    By the logic of Clash of Civilizations thinking, wasn’t it already a defeat for the West when apartheid ended in South Africa? Wasn’t it, for that matter, already a defeat when the British quit India?

    • RoHa
      July 12, 2010, 7:08 am

      Indeed. And I would suggest that the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905 was an even earlier defeat for the West.

    • Jimmy Johnson
      July 12, 2010, 9:02 am

      The Clash of Civilizations didn’t form the dominant political logic at the time of these, it was either the age of empires and colonialism or the Cold War. But with regards to Western hegemony, none of these was at first a threat to Western hegemony (the real logic behind the CoC) and only the nascent Indian economy of the past 20 years or so has the potential to be. In fact Western penetration of South Africa increased after the end of Apartheid with structural adjustment. But ‘the West’ was barely a political construct at the time of Indian independence and not at all during the Russo-Japanese War (also neither is part of ‘the West’ in the CoC, though as part of the G8 they certainly benefit from Western hegemony). India could eventually pose a clear threat to Western hegemony, but at the end of classical Imperialism India had not subverted Western hegemony, merely Western colonialism (the dominant logic of hegemony for a period). Had India become a socialist nation or aligned itself with Russia/China then it might have worked towards subverting Western hegemony.

  10. Scott
    July 12, 2010, 7:50 am

    I believe Huntington’s original book did NOT draw Israel is as part of the West, actually kept pretty silent on the subject. He was, as you may know, an opponent of the second Iraq war, and during his last active decades as a scholar did not sound much like a neoconservative. And his thrust was to take the conflict as a given, but seek to mitigate it and prevent it from erupting into a violent, civilization destroying conflagration.

    • Jimmy Johnson
      July 12, 2010, 8:33 am


      I agree that Huntington’s thesis and his own politics were not identical to that of say, the now semi-defunct Project for a New American Century. What he did was lay out a idea, a framework for conflict. How that framework is used by politicians, pundits and others is what cements both Israel as part of the West and the militarization of the imagined Clash. There is a broad range of opinion within the Clash as doctrine. For example both the Bush and Obama governments wish to confront Iran, and both use military threats. But the Obama government prefers to first negotiate, talk, use sanctions, etc. whereas the Bush administration tended more towards military confrontation. There was no dispute between the two though, that Iran must be confronted.

  11. eljay
    July 12, 2010, 9:17 am

    >> There was no dispute between the two though, that Iran must be confronted.

    “Iran threatens world — and itself”
    link to

    According to the article:
    … a consortium of international law scholars, human rights advocates, former government leaders, parliamentarians and Iranian activists for democracy and freedom — The Responsibility to Prevent Coalition — has released a report on the danger of a nuclear, genocidal, and rights-violating Iran.

    This is the report:
    link to

  12. Citizen
    July 12, 2010, 10:12 am

    How Israel is engineering the COC:
    link to

  13. Koshiro
    July 12, 2010, 10:34 am

    The message Israel and its supporters are sending to the world – and believe me, it goes far beyond the Arab world, it goes far beyond the middle east – is fairly clear:
    “Democracy, human rights, international law, all this stuff we came up with, supposedly to make the world a better place? Forget it. It’s just meaningless window dressing. Primitive, tribe-based, social darwinism is the true game.”

  14. Susie Kneedler
    July 12, 2010, 10:48 am

    link to

    Former U.S. Senator James Abourezk argues that “Israel wanted Saddam out of the way because, while he was not really a military threat to Israel, he was a political threat…. who stood in the way of Israeli hegemony over the entire Middle East….
    The most recent military planning by Israel to solidify what little hegemony it has…is shaking its fist at Iran….
    What is different about this most recent threat is that Iran….has the…means to retaliate against not only Israel, but against the United States as Israel’s principal supporter…..
    [W]hile Iran is able to defend itself… it is quite incapable of invading another country, particularly one as militarily powerful as Israel….
    Iran’s leadership, while mouthy, and cruel toward its political dissidents, is not crazy enough to ask for someone to come in and wipe out their entire country….
    Certainly, military and political people both in Israel and in the United States must realize this fact.

    The most likely and rational reason behind such a nuclear program is one of self-defense against Israel, which has had a minimum of 200 nuclear warheads in its arsenal.”

    Abourezk implies that the neo-con agenda is a Middle East Empire for Israel.

  15. Jimmy Johnson
    July 12, 2010, 12:31 pm

    Worth pointing out that Palestinian liberation does not necessarily lead to Western accountability, it merely can if conceived as an effort in that direction. Additionally, there are other movements for accountability that could work to a similar effect (climate justice being one that has come to the fore recently).

  16. midnightschild
    July 12, 2010, 8:39 pm

    Thank you Jimmy for the information that you provided, as well as those who wrote the informative comments. I am afraid that the “us vs. them” is coming closer and closer. There will never be Western accountability, I am afraid, because we wouldn’t be able to handle it. Our premise has always been “might makes right”. Nor will we ever have a President admit to not being an honest broker, even though that has been the case for generations.
    I have a nephew who was once 4th in the World in wake boarding. When my father passed away, they had a tournament, and the young men came to my father’s funeral out of respect for my nephew Drew. I watched as young men from different cultures, different colors and nationalities, including Jews and Arabs, walked with Drew to my father’s casket. As they stood there with there arms across each other’s shoulders, I saw a glimpse of what humanity could have been.

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