The Case for Israel

by Alan Dershowitz
ISBN: 047146502X

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A Review of: The Case for Israel
by Nicholas Maes

It is a peculiar feature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that its history allows for no consensus whatsoever. Perhaps Ben Gurion believed in the transfer' or forced deportation of Palestinians, but there is evidence to suggest he embraced the notion of a bi-cultural state. Perhaps Jews of the Yishuv acquired land from the natives in a legitimate fashion, although it is possible they occasionally hustled' them out of their ancestral possessions. Perhaps the massacre of Palestinians at Deir Yassin in 1948 was due to a breakdown in communications, except that it may have been an unspeakable act of state terrorism. Perhaps the Six Day War was a just pre-emptive strike against the combined armies of Israel's enemies, unless it was an exercise in militarism and conquest. Clearly the historical record is still up for grabs.
Because these huge themes in Israeli history are subject to such doubt and controversy, the definition of state policy is equally elastic. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, except that it possibly runs roughshod over the civil liberties of its non-Jewish inhabitants. Its military is strictly governed by the precept purity of arms' and deploys lethal force only in the most pressing circumstances, although it appears to shoot Palestinian children on sight and assassinate terrorist suspects (without due process) heedless of the collateral damage involved. The Barak-Clinton peace initiative would have granted the Palestinian Authority control over 95% of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the only problem being (according to detractors) the allotted area was so discontinuous that it could never have been the framework for a viable state. Suicide bombers, the security fence, settlement policy, house demolitions, all of these are subject to an interpretive process that more often than not ends in outright contradiction.
With such intractability lurking in the background, the many books that appear on the Israeli question' often assume one side of the quarrel or the other, and attempt to reconfigure the evidence in such a way that the opposition will be drummed into submission. Certainly this is the purpose of The Case for Israel by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.
Dershowitz's The Case for Israel is composed as a semi-legal defence of the Jewish state. Dershowitz envisages Israel in the dock of international justice. In his book he sets out to establish that Israel is innocent of the more egregious charges brought against it-racism, war crimes, genocide, etc. According to him, Israel has succeeded in a number of ways: in safeguarding human rights to a greater degree than any other country faced with similar threats to its security and well-being; in minimizing the damage inflicted on its enemies; in abiding by the rulings of its Supreme Court, even in times of national crisis. Overall, it is much more sinned against than sinning. To prove these contentions, Dershowitz poses thirty-two pointed questions, each of which he answers with some attention paid to both pro- and anti-Israel sources. Since many of the questions are historical in tone, A Case for Israel is not only a defence of Israel's right to exist and to implement measures necessary to its security, but a history of the state as well, albeit a choppy one.
Proceeding in chronological order, Dershowitz debates whether Israel is a colonial, imperialist state; whether the Jews were unwilling to share Palestine; whether they have exploited the Holocaust; whether the UN Partition Plan was unfair to Palestinians; whether the Israeli occupation transpired without justification, and other controversial issues. In each case, Dershowitz decides in Israel's favour, while occasionally conceding mistakes have been made and condemning certain occurrences in the harshest terms (Deir Yassin, Sabra and Shatila, and Baruch Goldstein's homicidal fury). He views the establishment of a Palestinian state as desirable and inevitable, and believes his arguments are consistent with a liberal, civil libertarian set of values.
As far as the book's historical component is concerned, Dershowitz faces the same problem as any historian of the region: the basic facts are so heatedly contested that Dershowitz will succeed in winning over only readers who are already predisposed to the pro-Israel interpretation of events. This is not to say that both camps offer equally viable historical narratives on all occasions. Dershowitz's argument, for example, that the early waves of Jewish immigrants to Palestine were by no means part of a colonialist program is much better grounded than the Muslim contention that they were. On the other hand, his description of the expanding Yishuv as an enterprise that was essentially friendly to the Palestinian fellahin alters the more complicated impression that the historian Benny Morris creates in his Righteous Victims (a work Dershowitz draws heavily on). He avoids, too, almost all mention of Jewish terrorism in the 1930s and (again according to Morris) Israeli provocations before the Sinai campaign. His treatment of the War of Independence, the Six Day War, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while measured and well-documented, will never convince the hardened Chomskyite that Israel's conduct was for the most part necessary and restrained.
Dershowitz comes into his element when he discusses more recent events. He argues forcefully and methodically that Israel has initiated serious peace talks on numerous occasions (and that Arafat's rejection of the Clinton-Barak offer was the height of folly); that Israel is in no way guilty of genocide; that it is by no means the chief violator of human rights on the globe; that there is no moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorists and Israeli reprisals; and that US universities have no solid reason to divest from Israel. His is not the last word on these disputations-he underplays the effects of the occupation and the West Bank settlements on the Palestinians-but his critics can't afford to ignore his pointed observations and general line of reasoning. At the same time, instead of reducing complex issues to a simple calculus of right and wrong, commentators who take the opposite view must grapple with the difficult questions Dershowitz raises (and which they pointedly overlook): why do Palestinians send their children into battle and allow them to be exploited by terrorist organizations like Hamas; is targeted assassination utterly unacceptable when it is conducted against guilty individuals who deliberately seek refuge among a civilian population; isn't the administration of (the former) Chairman Arafat greatly responsible for Palestinian misery, when one considers its corruption and involvement in numerous terrorist attacks; is the wall merely an apartheid structure (assuming it will not encroach excessively on Palestinian territory) or does it serve the truly useful purpose of protecting Israelis against terrorist attacks and therefore dampening the cycle of attack-and-reprisal; is the UN not unfairly tilted against Israel, given the undue leverage of its Muslim bloc; and by focussing unduly on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, are critics not casting a blind eye to crises that are far more devastating in effect (the true genocide in Sudan is one such example)?
Towards the end of his book, Dershowitz attempts to ascertain (a central preoccupation of The Politics of Anti-Semitism) whether or not critics of Israel are anti-Semitic. He concludes that criticism of Israel is both necessary and welcome, but that there is a line to be drawn between legitimate and illegitimate criticism (he distinguishes between the two at some length) and proponents of the latter are indeed anti-Semites, whether they think of themselves as such or not.
While there is good reason to suspect the intentions of critics-who hold Israel to a higher standard than other nations, who launch accusations that cannot be supported with facts, or who view the Jewish reaction to the Holocaust as an exercise in rapacity and self-exoneration-whether their motivation is anti-Semitic or not is possibly irrelevant. In the end it is the soundness of their arguments that matters. Despite the odd manifestation of bias here and there, Dershowitz has taken pains to reason with his readership; he does not try to shout his opponents down (he never engages in ad hominem attacks) but constructs a rational argument and invites his critics to prove him wrong.

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