Power Concedes Nothing Without Demand–and Neither Will Israel

I wrote a piece last week criticizing Americans for Peace Now for their stance on the Presbyterian divestment motion. But my criticism was as nothing compared to MJ Rosenberg’s, and he has now written a few piecesexploring this topic.

Protests against the Gaza War/Operation Cast Lead, in 2009

One difference between myself and MJ is that I spend little time worrying about the stance of J Street on this issue. I’m glad J Street is there; it’s a useful organization and I support it for what it does. But that’s not very much.

J Street is unalterably opposed to any sort of pressure on Israel. They are under the mistaken belief that if they prove they represent the majority of American Jews (compared to AIPAC, they do, but that majority is largely apathetic or lukewarm at best on Israel, while AIPAC’s backers, and those farther right, are zealously passionate and have a LOT more money devoted to their cause), this will convince Israel to change its policies. That’s well-intentioned, but naïve doesn’t begin to describe that view, one which is also completely insulated against political realities and, yes, pragmatism.

APN has a more nuanced approach, but as I pointed out, they still resist any real pressure on Israel, and ultimately, this is a strategy that has no hope to make the slightest dent in either US or Israeli policy regarding the Palestinians.

I must point out here that APN issued a clarification of their statement on the Presbyterian vote. I still think they have it wrong, but it does at least acknowledge that APN recognizes that the Presbyterians were trying to carefully target the occupation and not Israel as a whole.

I have no doubt that MJ is right in saying that keeping their donors from sending their dollars elsewhere is a big factor for APN. But I think there’s more here. I think there is truly a dedication to the notion that by publicizing the spread of Israeli settlements and of their impact; and by raising a Jewish, and Zionist, voice against them that they can get Israel to change its behavior.

To me, this stems from a basic misunderstanding of the words of Frederick Douglass, who said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

There are important truths in Douglass’ statement, but also some misleading wording.

By using the word “tyrant,” Douglass allows his American, and later Israeli, listeners to believe he is talking about some other people, not our own Liberal, democratic governments whom we love. He also equates “words” and “blows,” a grave error for inspiring social change, implying that words alone might be sufficient to make “power concede.” Doesn’t happen that way, I’m afraid.

The “demand” power heeds is not a demand of words, it is a demand of real pressure. No fundamental changes have ever come about simply because people argued it was the right thing to do.

No, they came about because people made them happen. They demonstrated. They boycotted. Sometimes they rioted. They lobbied, they pressured…in short, they acted. They brought some kind of pressure, be it physical, economic or political, to bear against power to make it concede.

For the purposes of this point, let’s ignore the Israel Lobby in the US and the disproportionate power of the settlers within the Israeli power structure for a moment. Let’s just look at the Israeli government like any other government.

Here’s what Israel is faced with:

A public that is unenthusiastic about ending the occupation.

Even at the height of the Oslo process, many Israelis, including many in the center-left, were dubious about a Palestinian state. Though the majority were prepared to take the risks for peace, there was certainly fear that such a state would become a “launching pad for terror” against Israelis. Thus, when the second intifada started after Camp David II imploded, it was easy for mainstream Israelis to believe the right-wing lie that this was the Palestinian plot all along.

While polls have consistently shown that Israelis want an end to the occupation and want two states as a solution, you’d have to be blind to Israeli politics not to see that there hasn’t been any enthusiasm for such a thing in over a decade. Violence made Israelis fearful, calm has made them apathetic. The social justice protesters don’t want to mention the occupation, as a rule. The days of even a moderate peace group like Peace Now (the Israeli one) being able to organize a big enough demonstration for those in power to notice are long, long gone.

Israel would, in fact, be sacrificing a lot by ending the occupation.

As I mentioned in my piece last week: “The settlements are an integral part of Israel now–hence the US-Israeli position that “demographic considerations” mean Israel will keep its major settlement blocs no matter what. They also lie in such a position as to ensure Israeli control over a good portion of the West Bank’s water resources, aquifers which supply a considerable portion of the water needs of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv corridor. Plus the settlers, a relatively small percentage of Israeli citizens, have a wildly disproportionate influence over Israeli politics, and that influence is growing quickly.”

So, an Israeli government that ends the occupation will have to deal with internal strife that will be caused by the settlers and their supporters, will have to figure out how to replace the considerable water resources it currently diverts from the West Bank, and will need to deal with the economic backlash of the huge cost of dismantling the occupation and resettling the settlers.

There is not a single instance in history of a national government anywhere going to those lengths simply to do the right thing, no matter how compelling the moral motivation might be. Governments just don’t act that way. There has to be a clear, compelling and immediate reason for Israel to do this, not some vague notions of morally undermining the country or a theoretical demographic threat.

Conceding the West Bank undermines major parts of the Zionist narrative and ideology

Hardcore political Zionists have consistently relied on the historical argument that Jewish history entitled the Jews to return to their historical homeland. Well, Tel Aviv has a one-century history. Haifa, though much older, was not a prominent place in Jewish history. But East Jerusalem and Hebron are at the very center of the biblical holy land. It is here, not Israel proper, that the bulk of Jewish history played out.

No compelling reason for Israel to change its course

Against all of that, Israel has occupied the West Bank for 45 years, and has faced few consequences for it. To be sure, there has been violence, but there was violence before the occupation as well. It might be that the violence would have abated by now if not for the occupation; I believe that to be true. But that is speculation, not fact.

Israel has remained in good standing in the UN, and was recently admitted to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It enjoys vibrant trade with Europe and the United States. It has, by far, the strongest middle class in the region despite recent economic troubles, and has even largely been spared much of the worst fallout from the global economic downturn.

Occasional Palestinian violence, such as the murders at the settlement of Itamar last year, and the rockets from Gaza pose no threat to Israel’s existence or stability. Even the specter of a third intifada cannot compel change–after both the Bush and Obama administrations gave unqualified support to Israel for its actions in Gaza in 2008-2009, Israel can rest assured that it can far surpass the violence it used in the second intifada should the Palestinians decide to go that route again.

Now let’s look at the bigger picture.

It isn’t hard to see how seriously presidential candidates take the issue of Israel. They want money from Jewish donors, they want votes from Christians across the country and Jews in key states. Exceedingly few in Congress will defy the Israel Lobby–there’s nothing to gain for most of them by doing so and everything to lose.

So we can rely on the continuation of a state of affairs where politics, rather than statesmanship, diplomacy and a sober calculation of US interests will dictate US Middle East policy and will dictate it toward overwhelming support of the worst Israeli policies.

Europe, for economic reasons as well as Holocaust guilt, is not about to go against the US on this issue.

The Arab states, as well as Iran, have a long tradition of cynically manipulating the Palestinian issue for their own purposes, and the Palestinians have seen precious little help there.

Israel has no reason to change.

How, then, can change come about?

There is no clear path to change, and any course has seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

But there is one principle that must guide any strategy, first and foremost: power concedes nothing without a demand. In this, Israel is a country like any other, and it’s not going to give up what it has and cause domestic problems, unless it really has to.

The question is simply how to apply pressure. Anyone who is asking whether to apply pressure is not serious about peace and is wasting time and resources.

Now, I believe that as a tactic, economic action (a term I prefer to BDS, which I apply these days to the movement, rather than the tactic) must indeed be applied judiciously. This isn’t a moral clause; it is because I believe simply applying economic pressure in the most extreme way will backfire.

But the crimes of the occupation are very terrible, and if action to end it harms Israel, that is harm Israel has brought upon itself.

Israel is not Syria. Even in its worst actions, it has never approached the brutality of the Assad regime. But that’s not much of a standard. Israel has done enormous violence to Palestinians, including the deaths of civilians, destruction of homes, beatings, imprisonment without charge for periods of years in some cases, and the list goes on.

And on, and on for 45 years now, with no end in sight.

I don’t want Israeli society and Israeli citizens harmed by economic actions, and I very strongly believe any actions should endeavor to have its impact on the government and the settlements, not the citizens. But to some extent, that is unavoidable, and in the last analysis, Israeli society as a whole is far from innocent in all of this. In any case, that argument is valid in terms of how to apply the economic tactics, not whether to do so.

The one hope at this stage for progress lies precisely in large bodies such as churches, unions, international federations, trust funds, money managers and corporations not doing business with any part of the occupation, the siege of Gaza or Israel’s tightening of its hold on East Jerusalem.

Those actions must be taken precisely because Israel and its so-called “supporters” have closed off pretty much every other political avenue. This is the one route that can possibly blaze a trail, create economic pressure and potentially start opening political space, in the US, Europe and Israel, for serious, mainstream political movements to end the occupation, however many states that end leads to.

Indeed, while I believe Israel has already succeeded in killing the two-state solution, if one believes, as APN and J Street do, that two states is still the goal, what other possible way is there to get there than precisely what the Presbyterians did by targeting only the occupation, framing it strictly within the undeniable violations of human rights that Israel commits every day?

There is no alternative to economic pressure that Israel actually feels. It can’t just be confined to boycotting Ahava and other settlement products, settlement theaters and the like. That just isn’t going to be enough for Israel, nor would it be for any government, to take such difficult steps.

APN and J Street need not agree with Jewish Voice for Peace on analyses of Zionism, on the question of Palestinians refugees, or on openness to the option of a one-state solution. But those disagreements should not blind the Zionist peace groups to options that must be taken.

Both J Street and APN made the fallacious argument that they don’t agree with the BDS call on the question of refugees in particular, any divestment motion directly or indirectly supports that call, and therefore must all b opposed.

Nonsense. I disagree with that part of the BDS call, too but I still support strong, targeted economic action.

That’s because there simply isn’t another option. And if J Street and APN can’t see that, they’re just not looking or are seeing the issue through rose-colored glasses.

Peace will only come if Israel can make a cost-benefit analysis that says they need to get out of the West Bank. Right now, that’s not what the ledger says, not even close.

It’s up to us to change that black ink to red.

3 thoughts on “Power Concedes Nothing Without Demand–and Neither Will Israel

  1. I disagree, Mitch. Furthermore, you’re inventing a few straw arguments in your portrayal of J Street, APN and JVP. You’re a responsible and thoughtful thinker, don’t discredit yourself in such a way.

    Firstly, you misstate J Street and APN’s models of change. Neither are out to convince Israel of anything; they’re out to convince American Jews and American politicians.

    Secondly, this entire post discusses only “sticks” in the “carrots and sticks” of Israel’s game theory. A strategy that tackles only one element of one player in this conflict is doomed to failure, since both players experience both negative and positive incentives. Personally, I don’t see how working on 1/4 of the possible angles is going to fix the whole conflict.

    I notice a culture with BDS circles that breeds an overly victimized defensiveness about the tactic’s validity that has little bearing on its ultimate ability to impact the daily lives of Palestinians or final status negotiations.

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