Sunday, March 14, 2010

Cracking the Washington Groupthink on Israel

A very convincing argument holds that the Washington elite and the right wing ruling Israeli elite are so inextricably linked by their short-term perceived mutual interests that any rhetorical disputes are at the most temporary if not a complete charade.  Even while admitting that this argument holds much water, I still beg to differ.

In a highly networked democracy that claims to base its political system on the “open marketplace of ideas,” when the elite dramatically shifts the direction of its rhetoric, the butterfly effect applies. The butterfly effect holds that a tiny step can lead to an enormous change, e.g., the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Beijing altering a air current which interacts with something else and perhaps contributes to a hurricane much later in the U.S. Accordingly, each time members of the Washington group-think club violate the taboo on criticizing Israel without the sky falling, it further frees the political constraints on open-minded thinking—both among the elite and among the population.

Where the tipping point from subservience to the interests of the Israeli right lies cannot be said, but each criticism brings us closer. For members of a politically-correct community to resist group think is, not to put too fine a point on it, impossible. Therefore, when they appear to be violating the taboo, they are instead redefining what is politically correct. Maybe Biden’s criticism of Israel three days ago was an anomaly; maybe Clinton’s publicized criticism of Netanyahu over the phone two days ago was just for show. Now Axelrod has reinforced the message, saying that the Israeli move "seemed calculated to undermine [the proximity talks], and that was - that was distressing to everyone who is promoting the idea of peace and security in the region." Axelrod did not specify whether or not he thought Netanyahu is one of those “promoting the idea of peace and security in the region.” Axelrod added a new phrase to the growing space of elite American critique, saying “this was not the right way to behave.” Alexrod also articulated a point I have previously stressed, noting that resolution of the issue “is important for our own security.”

Underscoring the shift in Washington elite perceptions is the just revealed (by Mark Perry on the Mideast Channel on March 13) and very important January briefing by Petraeus, in which he argued for responsibility over Israel and Palestine on the basis that the dispute was too great a threat to U.S. national security for the military to stay out!

Yes, Netanyahu would argue (in private) that a Palestinian Bantustan would offer precisely that resolution. Yes, Lieberman would argue (even in public) that moving the Palestinians to South America would also offer precisely that resolution. The Washington elite still has a long way to go. It is not yet explicitly rejecting such solutions in sufficiently clear terms. Nevertheless, evidence is building drip by drip that this time the Israeli extremists have stepped in mud. Netanyahu’s ridiculous remark that “there was a regrettable incident here, that occurred innocently” already appears grossly out of touch with Washington perceptions.

Some in Washington will surely play the game of speaking to the crowd while winking at the Israeli right wing, but the longer this continues, the more likely a new American open-mindedness becomes.

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