The post title is, of course, meant ironically. What does Israel have to teach the U.S., except how to be a better national security state? How to sacrifice rights for security, liberty for surveillance, privacy for intrusion? How to replace the striving for peace for a state of perpetual war.
We’ve learned so much from Israel on this score. In the midst of the Al Qaeda airplane bomb threats involving the Shoe Bomber and a others, Israeli security consultants and their media enablers plastered the airwaves with encomiums to Israel’s purported airtight airline security program. There were billions at stake of course since every major world airport contracts with firms to devise and implement security protocols. For a few months, Israel was smelling pretty good on that score. Until people started realizing that Israel’s so-called security gold standard came at the expense of anyone with dark skin or an Arab name. Stories began to circulate of Shin Bet agents working on behalf of El Al who were turning away flyers simply because of their skin color (South Africa). This little incident almost lost the Israeli airline landing rights in the country. In other words, one of the bedrock principles of the Israelis is racial-profiling. The equivalent of: if you’re Black, get back; white outa sight!
Further, while Israeli airport security may protect flyers who succeed in getting aboard an Israeli airline, many of the principles used derive from Israel’s Occupation regime and its draconian treatment of the Palestinians. Israel’s claim of excellence in this area derives from its permanent war footing against the Palestinians. If you look for enemies everywhere, you will eventually find one (along with many you will offend with false positives). Israel is quite good at identifying and nabbing enemies. If it can’t do that, it makes new enemies to fill the quota (cf., Turkey).
Similarly, Israel was the first nation to develop drones, which it uses both to spy on its Arab neighbors and assassinate undesirable Palestinians. U.S. counter-terror strategy embraced drones with a vengeance, and its now pretty much the sole component of our relationship with the Arab-Muslim world. Ask the average Middle Easterner what’s the first word he or she thinks of when you say “USA” and undoubtedly it will be “drone.”
A related concept which the U.S. already used before Israel’s model was offered to us was targeted killing. We have a long history of assassinating our foreign enemies. But in the past we reserved such treatment for those who were our most formidable foes. We didn’t bother assassinating mere thorns in our side. But Israel taught us a lesson here as well. Israel, of course, targeted the creme de la creme of enemy militants like Ghassan Khanfani, Sheikh Yassine and Salah Shehadeh. But it didn’t stop there. Since the first Intifada (perhaps even earlier) it assassinated rank and file militants on their way to launch a rocket. No target became too small or insignificant. And of course as the circle of targets widened and the sheer numbers of attempts increased, the numbers of Palestinian civilians killed rose as well.
The U.S. has adopted a similar approach to Al Qaeda and other Islamist insurgencies we’ve taken on: of course we want the bin Ladens and Zarkawis, but we’ll take the mid-level and even low-level guys as well. The number of potential targets grew. Ways in which you were added to the list were haphazard, not vetted with care or caution. And of course, the numbers of civilians who’ve died is astronomical: at least 2,500 according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Of the 3,000 killed, only 4% were confirmed Al Qaeda members and a few hundred were militants affiliated with other Islamist cells. The rest: civilians.
I was reminded of this when I read, Big Brother’s Liberal Friends, an excellent skewering of the “liberal” NSA warriors Michael Kinsley, Sean Wilentz and George Packer. Each has published their own smear of Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden.
But this summary of the value of the Snowden expose was the money quote for me:
…Not only are America’s overseas interventions problematic by themselves, but they are also increasingly undermining domestic liberties. Intelligence efforts that are supposed to be focused abroad turn out to have sweeping domestic consequences. It’s impossible to distinguish intelligence data on domestic and foreign actors. Security officials in various countries can work together across borders to circumvent and undermine domestic protections, actively helping each other to remake laws that restrict their freedom of operation. And at home, officials can use these new arrangements to work around and undermine civil rights. This commingling of domestic and international politics is complex and poorly understood.
This struck home in considering the debilitating effects of the Israel Occupation on Israeli society itself. It’s commonly believed that Israelis put up an Iron Wall between themselves and their Palestinian neighbors. And to a great extent this true. Israelis will not learn much about what happens day to day inside Palestinian society, unless it concerns terrorism, a security threat, or war. They will hardly meet Palestinians, nor socialize with them. And if such things do happen, Israeli extremists make sure that Palestinians know, on pain of assault or worse, that they’re not welcome among Jews.
But regardless of the Israeli effort to insulate itself from Palestinians, the Occupation seeps into Israeli life. Of course the crushing burden of tens of billions of dollars spent on security related to Occupation weighs down the economy. The everyday oppression meted out by young Israeli soldiers at checkpoints and the like is transferred when they return home. The brutality and violence forced upon them by virtue of the role they play does not stay at their military posts. It enters into their relationships with friends, family, colleagues, etc. That’s why thousands have followed the completion of their military service with pilgrimages to drug dens of India and elsewhere. They’re trying to medicate their pain and work themselves into an insensate stupor.
While Israel calls itself a democracy, it enforces an apartheid system in the West Bank. This a system in which rights don’t exist, in which security is god, and all other issues take second-place. Justice, such as it is, is meted out by military judges who care little about the niceties of civilian rule of law. The hatred at the root of Occupation is also transferred by Jews to their fellow Palestinian citizens. If residents of the West Bank are the enemy, why shouldn’t Palestinian citizens of Israel as well? How are they any different? They look the same, talk the same, act the same. They all hate us. So we see fellow Israeli citizens demonized as if they were alien. The discrimination and intolerance which even Pres. Reuven Rivlin has acknowledged this week, becomes a just sacrifice for the sake of security.
Occupation establishes a hierarchy of power in which the soldier stands at the apex and the Palestinian sits at the bottom. The soldier is god, the civilian is an animal (the words of the Israeli boys themselves who man checkpoints). These are attitudes one can see in Israel itself. The average citizen accepts abridgement of his or her rights for the greater good. Power is willingly handed over to the elite and figures of authority, those who know better. The bargain is made assuming that the bosses have the common man’s best interests at heart. But we know how that bargain goes, and how easy it is to break that bond of trust.
Oligarchs are offered the keys to the kingdom and all the coin of the realm. The system is jury-rigged for them and by them. Sure, the common man or woman may protest as they did during the Tel Aviv social justice protests. Hundreds of thousands then marched for their rights. The elites shivered a bit, but weren’t worried. They patiently waited out the storm knowing things would revert back to the norm.
In this, they had the model of Israel’s economic treatment of the Palestinians. The latter have no independent economy. They are under Israeli control. Israel turns the tap on and can turn it off as well. In this system, Israel is the oligarch and the Palestinians are the hapless consumer subject to the whims of the financial elite.
In this sense, those at the J14 protests who complained that Occupation must be separated from the economic demands of the largely Israeli Jewish audience, made a fatal mistake. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens in Bilin, Qalqilya or Ramallah doesn’t stay there. It mutates and migrates to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beersheba.
Another sickness afflicting Israel is corruption. It exists on a massive scale from the top to the bottom. It’s more subtle than in third-world countries where its endemic and overt. But it prevails everywhere. Every politician of any significance, every police commander is on the take in one way or another.
Part of this phenomenon derives from the overwhelming impact of the military on society. It, and its budget is sacrosanct. There is hardly any oversight. Generals and politicians may quibble about a program or a billion here or there. But everyone knows in the end, the boys can’t be let down. We must sacrifice everything for them. We must give them everything they need.
In such a system, abuse is rampant. Budgets are inflated. Weapons systems are touted because they line the pocket of some defense contractor to whom someone owes a favor. Generals are promoted not for their acumen, but due to who their allies are.
That is what is leading Israel down a path to authoritarianism. Whatever democracy there once was is gone, or almost disappeared. Strong men (and they are largely men) rule. The security services, whether police or Shin Bet, have the run of the place. There are no constraints on their actions. Even Israeli Jews are subject to their whims.
This is yet another model Israel may be offering the U.S. The question is whether this is what we will become, as seems likely based on the national security agenda of Bush and Obama. Or whether, we have the strength and fortitude to roundly reject what Israel has to offer.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.