Those of you following the Israel-Palestine situation closely will have noticed the development of a new conflict in recent months – that between Israel’s Reut Institute think tank and the prominent author and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activist, Naomi Klein. The debate centres on the fundamental issue of legitimacy; under what circumstances is criticism of Israel legitimate? And what can the Israeli state legitimately do to counter this criticism?
On 14 February this year, the Reut Institute in Tel Aviv published a paper entitled The Delegitimization Challenge: Creating a Political Firewall which was immediately presented to the Israeli cabinet. This landmark paper centres on the fundamental conclusion that Israel’s existence and security is facing a emerging threat – the threat presented by ‘the forces of delegitimacy’ comprised of two parallel developments.
The first of these is the change in strategy of Middle Eastern based resistance networks such as Hamas and Hezbollah who, the report outlines, seek to undermine attempts to end Israel’s control over the Palestinian population in order to pursue a one state solution. The second, and arguably more intriguing development highlighted in the paper, is the rise of solidarity and resistance movements based in the West such as the BDS movement. These movements bring together organisations and individuals who object to Israel’s policies and activities on grounds of achieving justice and human rights for the Palestinian population, launching campaigns such as boycotting Israeli goods from illegal settlement areas in order to make their point. This growing movement is tarnishing Israel’s reputation among the general public and elites and, more dangerously the paper argues, risks the advancement of the one state solution and the eradication of Israel altogether.
This paper flies directly in the face of the standard discourse of Israel’s political elites, who have traditionally perceived the most urgent threat to Israel as being potential physical attack from their enemies in the region. As a consequence, the preferred strategy and policy to counter this threat has always been a military one. To this extent, the fact that this paper was published at all reflects a shift in the discourse. Israel’s policymakers, finally, are starting to realise that the fact their policies are the focus of increasingly vocal outcry across the major cities of the West is probably something they need to take seriously. This in itself is a small victory for the BDS movement – they are gaining strength and forcing their way onto the Israeli government’s agenda.
However, as Naomi Klein argued on her blog a few weeks later, the response recommended by the Reut Institute to this emerging threat is seen by some as “most worrying”.
…the report explicitly urged Israeli intelligence agencies like Mossad to take unspecified action against peace activists using entirely legal methods: “Neither changing policy nor improving public relations will suffice…Faced with a potentially existential threat, Israel must treat it as such by focusing its intelligence agencies on this challenge; allocating appropriate resources; developing new knowledge; designing a strategy, executing it.” The think tank also called on the Israeli government to “sabotage network catalysts” – defined as key players in the “delegitimization network.”
Klein it seems was in part goaded into this response (“I’ve gotten a taste of Reut-style “sabotage” myself”). Eran Shayshon, a senior analyst at Reut, explicitly names her as being one of the key players in Toronto’s ‘deligitimization hub’ and makes the claim (denied by Klein) that she is working to undermine the existence of the Jewish state.
What follows is a bit of a ‘he said, she said’ altercation, played out on Mondoweiss and on their respective blogs. Klein states she has never advocated any particular outcome in Israel-Palestine. Shayshon points to examples where Klein suggests a one state solution (essentially ending the Jewish state) might be a way forward. Klein laughs at Shayson’s attempts to drag up statements she made in a student newspaper over 20 years ago, and puts the rest of her quotes in context, while landing some Reut body blows by pointing out that she does not single out Israel for BDS style tactics; she uses the same style in any fight against injustice including against her own government in its violation of the Kyoto Protocol. Shayson takes a week or so to regroup, and responds with a discussion on the rise of what he terms ‘Kleinism’; “a simplistic, artificial view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has led many who consider themselves human-rights activists to focus their criticism nearly exclusively on Israel”.
No response from Klein, as yet. But what this altercation demonstrates quite clearly is that lines on what the Israeli government considers legitimate in terms of comment on its policies from Western critics are being restated and reinforced. While Shayson states this is only his opinion, he lists the following as ‘no go areas’ from the Israeli side of the debate; challenging the two state solution, singling Israel out, demonising Israel, or suggesting that Israel is “a state born in sin”.
Moreover, if the Reut report is taken seriously by the political elites, no longer will such criticisms and viewpoints go (relatively) unnoticed or unaddressed by the Israeli intelligence services. In future we’re likely to see even more coordinated and strategic attempts to counter and discredit the major international critics of Israeli policy. Battlelines are being redrawn.