If rhetoric is the first step toward action, then one of the rhetorical trends of our time indicating a giant step backward toward inaction is the American and European tendency to describe Israel’s aggressive and illegal actions in the occupied Palestinian territories in increasingly soft and imprecise terms.
For years, US administrations called Israeli settlements “illegal” and an “obstacle to peace,” but in recent years those terms have been replaced by a mere “unhelpful.” On her first official trip to the region earlier this month, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton referred to the Israeli demolition of Palestinian Arab homes in East Jerusalem as “unhelpful.” Earlier this week, the European Union presidency said that Israel’s demolition of homes in the Silwan neighborhood of Jerusalem “threatens the viability of a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement, in conformity with international law.”
If I were the Israeli government, I would be laughing all the way to my next colonial adventure in destroying Palestinian homes and infrastructure, uprooting Palestinian Arabs and replacing them with imported settlers from Israel, or Brooklyn, or Russia, or from wherever the world’s longest running modern colonization venture gets its human ammunition and reinforcements.
It is bad enough when two of the world’s powerhouses pull back from their previous positions of branding Israel’s contraventions of international law and United Nations resolutions as illegal and impermissible and instead call them “unhelpful” or just a threat to a lasting settlement. It is infinitely worse when the United States and the European Union, who spend half their waking hours trying to spread democracy and the rule of law to the rest of the world, end up watering down Israeli contraventions of international law so that Israel spends half its waking hours laughing at every American and European official in sight.
The rhetorical downgrading of Israel’s criminality is a problem (assuming it is still okay to use the word criminality to describe undermining the law). That, at least, is what my British and American teachers in primary and high school taught me when I learned English: Use the precise, accurate word when you have it at hand, and do not beat around the bush. Clarity is good for communication.
The first problem with Western obsequiousness to Israel is that it perpetuates the Zionist colonial enterprise in a manner that is harmful to all concerned, including Israelis, Palestinians and Westerners who end up being sucked into our maelstrom of violence. The second problem is that it helps to disqualify the US and EU and others who share their position - such as the UN, increasingly - from playing the role of an active, credible mediator. Arabs and Israelis cannot solve their conflict on their own, and mediation by the Turks or Egyptians can only move things forward so much. A permanent, comprehensive negotiated peace agreement requires intensive American and European involvement in negotiations, consummating an agreement, peace-keeping, and promoting post-peace economic growth. This is impossible if the US and EU have no credibility.
A third problem with the cowardice of sheltering in the safe world of “unhelpful” rather than “illegal and impermissible,” is that those Western powers that choose this route send a terrible message: They deny and ignore the rule of law when it comes to more than four decades of Israeli actions, but enthusiastically promote it when it comes to their aspirations to transform the Arab and Islamic world. A little bit of hypocrisy is standard fare for politicians; but when this becomes elevated to the level of official policy that transcends administrations, decades and generations, it enters the realm of the pathological.
Great powers and noble organizations that disrespect their own rules are not so great in the eyes of a bewildered world that thought that decolonization concluded about half a century ago, but wakes up every morning to find itself the continuing victim of new forms of criminal colonization - in the form of Zionist-Israeli settlers, or Western diplomats whose tongues are so forked they often resemble rattlesnakes walking on two feet.
Colonialism is either legal or illegal, acceptable or criminal. Laws matter or they don’t matter. There is no such thing as “unhelpful” colonialism, any more than there is merely naughty rape, awkward murder, or unfortunate incest. Why is it that those in the West who celebrate and seek to export their commitment to the rule of law find it so hard to adopt both the rhetoric and policies that acknowledge the criminal illegality and political catastrophe that is the modern and continuing Israeli colonial rampage? What is it that makes giants in the West become eunuchs in the face of Israeli deeds?
Rami G. Khouri is published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.