Israel needs enemies if its current state form is to survive, according to Norman Finkelstein, explaining the motivation for its atrocities. Kit Klarenberg reviews Method and Madness
Norman G Finkelstein, Method and Madness: The hidden story of Israel’s assault on Gaza (O/R Books, 2014), xv, 215pp.
‘In such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people not to the side with the executioners.’ Albert Camus
Like every imperial power, Israel craves nemeses; it urgently requires opposing forces within and without, for it is through their existence that blatantly offensive and brutally expansionist militarism transmogrifies into self-preservation, and hegemony mutates into threatened survival.
Since its creation in 1948, the state of Israel has depended on a constant flow of opponents to which ultimate responsibility for its own reprehensible activities can be apportioned. Externally, neighbours Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq have all at some point in time served as public enemy numero uno for the Israeli state, in some cases more than once. Now, however, these adversaries have been neutralised, placated or reduced to smouldering rubble through infighting, civil war and Western intervention. With no obvious regional threats left, the Israeli government has been reduced to manufacturing non-existent ones.
For instance, in 1992 Benjamin Netanyahu informed the Knesset that Iran was “3-5 years away” from acquiring nuclear weapons, an event that would “presage catastrophic consequences for all mankind.” In the two decades since, Netanyahu has made roughly the same prognostication at nigh-on annual intervals (occasionally relying on ludicrous diagramsto get the point across) – and the deadline for Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons has elapsed many times over, to no result.
The Ideal Enemy
Internally, successive ‘terrorist’ organisations such as the PLO, Fatah and Hamas have battled against Israeli enlargement to increasingly diminishing returns. Hamas in particular is so ideal a foe that if it did not exist, it would be necessary for Israel to invent it (and there is evidence to suggest that the organisation was at least in-part created by the Israeli state).
Conversely, if Norman Finkelstein didn’t exist, it would certainly be necessary for supporters of the Palestinian cause to invent him, too – although, even the most ingenious proponent would be hard pressed to conceive a more perfect critic of Israel than he. Born to Jewish parents who survived both the Warsaw Ghetto and Nazi concentration camps, Finkelstein has since 1980 documented Israel’s gluttonous digestion of Palestine in grisly detail, and dedicated himself to eviscerating the barrage of propaganda inexorably peddled in defence of Israel’s actions, both by the government of Israel and its fawning apologists. Articulate, dauntless, untiring and, somehow, resolutely reasonable, he has proved himself a most troublesome antagonist.
For those who oppose Israeli policy, following developments in the ongoing war against Palestine is much akin to Chinese Water Torture; it is easy to feel as if one is being driven mad by the certainty and constancy of it all. Almost every day, catastrophic new developments explode out of the West Bank, imbuing woe, and promising more to come; it makes one wonder whether deadening the senses via continual grief overload is a determined objective of the IDF. Yet, despite this disheartening cavalcade, Finkelstein has the resilience, and the optimism, not to desert the Palestinian cause.
One particularly savage development came last summer, when Israel carried out a sustained assault on Gaza dubbed ‘Operation Protection Edge’; more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed (a quarter of them children). Commenting on results of the carnage, Dr. Sara Roy described Gazan society as ‘reduced to almost complete aid dependence’, and the wider Palestinian economy ‘all but destroyed’.
While it may have offered little relief to the Palestinians left dead, displaced and more damaged than ever before, the response to the attack in Western countries was unprecedented; thousands took to the streets with very little warning to voice their denunciation of Israel’s atrocities, and even the UK media – demonstrably dominated by a pro-Israel bias– was moved to deplore them.
Evidently, Israel’s conduct during the episode sailed so close to utter madness that many were moved to action for the first time. However, insane as Israel’s actions seemed to rational and just people, Finkelstein understands that beneath the absurdity of it all skulks a depraved logic of a kind. Hence his latest work, Method and Madness, surveys the wreckage of ‘Operation Protective Edge’, and extensively probes the context of the tragedy.
The story starts in 2008 with Operation Cast Lead (a skirmish between the IDF and Hamas that claimed the lives of 1,417 Palestinians, and seriously wounded a further 5,303), before moving onto the ‘Goldstone Report’ (a United Nations inquiry into the Operation that concluded that the Israeli military purposely targets civilians), then segueing into the infamous attack on the humanitarian flotilla by the IDF in 2010.
Along the way, Finkelstein establishes a recurrent pattern of behaviour on the part of the IDF. The conflicts invariably start following a series of conscious Israeli provocations, which lead to utterly ineffectual rocket ‘attacks’ from Palestine; these impotent swipes are then used as a pretext for Israeli hostility. Israeli provocations usually follow ill-fated attempts by the Palestinians at initiating peace negotiations; negotiations that, if they were to take place, would perhaps result in a two-state solution, Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, and an end to illegal settlement expansion.
This is a triumvirate of prospects that Israel will never willingly accept. As a result, a conflict must be cultivated, in which the Palestinians are made to look like terrorists who intend to destroy Israel.
For avid followers of Finkelstein, some of the writing here will be familiar – indeed, much of the pre-Protective Edge material is culled from his 2011 book, This Time We Went Too Far. However, a quick comparison of the two texts demonstrates that much revision and expansion has been undertaken, meaning his analysis is even more insightful and necessary than previously. Furthermore, since the publication of This Time We Went Too Far, Richard Goldstone has publicly recanted the conclusions of his report – a cowardly repudiation that Finkelstein of course does not let slide.
In fact, the chapter dealing with Goldstone’s climb-down is perhaps the highlight of the book. In an extensive analysis, Finkelstein examines the new information released after the report’s publication (offered by Goldstone as his motivation for disavowing the report’s conclusions), and concludes it to be impossible for Goldstone to have assessed the evidence and disavow the report’s original conclusions. He notes that the other authors of the report have all rejected Goldstone’s reappraisal. He also documents the immense pressure applied to Goldstone by the Israeli government (and various associated pressure groups) in the wake of the report’s release, and in an exposure that is morbidly comic, reveals that the forces unleashed against Goldstone almost led to him being prohibited from attending his grandson’s bar mitzvah. Goldstone, a courageous crusader against apartheid in South Africa, was apparently no match for the brute force of Israel’s assorted international lobbies.
Finkelstein’s work is a rousing and highly recommended antidote to mainstream depictions of the conflict, that portray Israel as the perpetually embattled victim in a war against fundamentalist Palestinian aggression (as Noam Chomsky once said, ‘when Israel claim that they have to defend themselves, they are defending themselves in the sense that any military occupier has to defend itself against the population that they’re crushing.’. While the full extent of the horror often makes for a grim, difficult read, Finkelstein’s seemingly inexhaustible assurance that a two-state solution and an end to hostilities are achievable is both remarkable and genuinely uplifting; his attitude will undoubtedly offer hope to many readers.
However, this laudably calm optimism is also simultaneously the book’s weakness. Finkelstein is to be commended for maintaining a level and academic head in his investigations, but one feels that he should be angrier, and offer more forceful suggestions for rectifying the chaos. While international opposition to Israel is growing, progress remains slow, and pro-Palestinian views remain in the minority; in the UK, according to a recent YouGov poll, 22% of the population sympathise with Palestine, 16% with Israel, and 41% with neither.
One shudders to think what Israel must do for sympathy to burgeon for Palestinians. Even on the rare occasions that a development in this torturous chronicle gives me pause for cautious encouragement, I remember that Israel is avowedly wed to the Samson Option, and recall the words of eminent Israeli military theorist Martin van Creveld;
‘We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that will happen before Israel goes under.’
With that grave warning hammering over and again in my ears, any and all hope for a resolution to the Israel/Palestine conflict other than unqualified genocide tends to wither. On the other hand, many do now think that the very extremity of Israel’s stance is actually making a one state solution the only viable one. The protests last summer filled many with excitement and buoyancy, and the increasing international recognition of Palestine points to a progressively unsympathetic international stance toward Israel. Yet, I’m unable to share Finkelstein’s unfaltering confidence that a peaceful settlement is possible.
Still, it is better to have tried and failed, than to wonder what would have happened if one had actually tried. What is needed in the UK, and other countries that support Israel, are unified and determined mass movements that oppose Israeli actions, and challenge governmental sustenance for them. There is only one way of finding out whether mass movements can help end the suffering of the Palestinian people – and without them, Finkelstein will metamorphose from sharpshooter to obituarist very soon.
Method and Madness is exclusively available from the OR Books website.