New Left Project has interviewed Shir Hever this week, exploring the state of Israeli politics in the wake of the recent election and Obama’s presidential visit. It’s a fascinating, though perhaps dispiriting snapshot of Israel’s current political composition, and we’ve reproduced some of it below.
For the full piece, check out the NLP website, here. Shir Hever is author of The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation: Repression Beyond Exploitation (Pluto, 2010)
* * *
New Left Project: The big news in Israel last week was President Obama’s visit. The extent of the media coverage in Israel illustrated how important the U.S. connection is, on a popular as well as political level. Israeli liberals were in ecstasy over Obama’s speech—relieved, I suppose, to receive external support for their embattled position within Israeli politics. What was your take on his visit?
Shir Hever: Obama is very good at giving speeches. He managed to win a Nobel Prize for giving one. His speech was well-written, but as with most of Obama’s policies, the gap between rhetoric and action was vast. Descending from on high as representative of the international power of the United States to help resolve a local dispute between two squabbling neighbours, Obama didn’t address the fact that his country is somewhat involved in this conflict. For the past forty years Palestinians have been killed by American-made weapons that were given to Israel for free by the United States. I think that confers some responsibility.
Obama did help broker a truce between Israel and Turkey, which was a great benefit for Israel. Turkey is a major market for Israeli weapons, a member of NATO and is very important for the Israeli Air Force (a refuelling stop on the way to Iran).
SH: Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan made that very clear from the beginning: he demanded an Israeli apology, which would then open the way to reconciliation. But the Israeli government and media were presenting the dead activists as terrorists, so Netanyahu couldn’t apologise for deaths without appearing out of touch with reality to the Israeli public. I wouldn’t be surprised if Netanyahu asked Obama to make it look as though he was forced to call Erdogan, or if he just decided to call Erdogan while Obama was there to give the impression that he was forced, because that gives him an alibi.
NLP: Jon Stewart, on The Daily Show, mocked the rapturous reception of Obama’s speech, showing clips of previous U.S. presidents making similar remarks, before exclaiming in exasperation, “We are f*cking powerless!” Similarly, Fareed Zakaria praised Obama’s speech for “appeal[ing] to Israel’s conscience“, on the grounds that every other approach (pressuring Israel, warning it of the dangers of occupation) has failed. Do you agree that U.S. influence over Israel is too limited to pressure it to end the occupation?
SH: U.S. influence over Israel is immense. But it is convenient for a lot of people—for instance, right-wing extremists in the U.S. who speak of their Zionist Occupied Government— to cultivate an image of Israel manipulating the U.S. from behind the scenes.
In the recent Congressional political battle over the nomination of Chuck Hagel as U.S. Secretary of Defense, the Republican senators played the part very well, as if the most important thing if you want to be vetted for high office in the U.S. is to demonstrate your support Israel. But ‘Israel’ in this sense actually serves as a symbol, a proxy. The U.S. transfers to Israel billions of dollars a year, but it doesn’t give Israel any money. It gives Israel vouchers, which Israel can only redeem by purchasing weapons from American companies. What’s called ‘U.S. aid to Israel’ is in fact an annual state subsidy for the American arms industry. Israel lobby groups like AIPAC have a lot of money at their disposal. But the lobby of Lockheed Martin, which produces the fighter planes that Israel is buying with its U.S. vouchers, is many times larger. Every election campaign you see presidential candidates ritually pledging support for Israel before AIPAC. You don’t see them going to Lockheed Martin to promise, ‘we will keep having wars in the Middle East so your sales will not go down’. They can’t do that. But when they go to AIPAC and pledge to support Israel, the most belligerent state in the Middle East whose occupation is a significant cause of continued conflict in the region, they’re doing the same thing.
Jon Stewart played soundbites from previous U.S. presidents criticising, in various degrees, Israel’s occupation. But none of them backed those statements with any real pressure. They all maintained full support for Israel, none of which was conditioned on Israel’s compliance with international law. So it’s not that the U.S. is powerless: the U.S. is very powerful, and it cynically uses that power to stoke conflict in the Middle East. A couple of years ago, the U.S. signed the biggest arms deal in history with Saudi Arabia, worth about $60bn, because Saudi Arabia wanted to buy the latest airplanes that Israel already has. For American military corporations, it’s not a bad deal.
For the complete interview, go to New Left Project, here.
Repression Beyond Exploitation
A careful and illuminating analysis of the economic dimensions of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Invaluable for students, journalists and activists.
“Shir Hever has emerged as one of the most incisive analysts of the critical Israeli Left. A truly engaged intellectual, Hever straddles the academic/activist divide. Unlike armchair analysts, he has “been there” in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This is the kind of book upon which effective political organizing depends.” – Jeff Halper, Director, The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD)