My long road with Ariel Sharon

I heard Ariel Sharon speak on several occasions, but I only met him once.

In 1996, as director of the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, I set about scheduling a speaker for the annual address in Dayan’s memory. In practice, the Center’s Israeli board of governors, composed largely of Dayan’s old friends, selects the speaker. That year, we held the board meeting at the museum-home of David Ben-Gurion in Tel Aviv. The subject of the address came up, and someone floated the name of Ariel Sharon.

At the time, Sharon was minister of national infrastructure in the Likud-led government of Benjamin Netanyahu, and he was still very much a bête noire. At the mention of his name, my eyes immediately turned to Yael Dayan, Moshe Dayan’s daughter and a Labor party politician active in Peace Now. To my surprise, she pronounced Sharon to be the perfect choice as her father’s memorial speaker. I realized then, as I’ve realized many times since, that the old Israeli elite is bound by ties that go much deeper than the party politics of the moment.

So Sharon got the invitation, and he accepted it. For my academic colleagues, it was as if I had summoned Satan from the depths. While I awaited Sharon’s arrival on the appointed evening, I scanned the audience and saw few if any of them in attendance. (Yael Dayan wasn’t there either.) I recall feeling relieved that the honor of introducing Sharon had been claimed in advance by Zalman Shoval, a board member. I would have been hard-pressed to come up with enough admiring words.

Sharon came, spoke, and went. The speech got some coverage on an inside page of a newspaper, but it wasn’t a headline event. Yet it stayed with me, as did another Sharon speech I attended in Washington during those same years. Listening to Sharon, I didn’t hear a radical ideologue bent on “politicide” of the Palestinians—his usual portrayal in Israeli academe. I heard a hard-nosed former soldier concerned first and foremost with Israel’s security and preservation as a Jewish state.

The second Palestinian intifada resurrected Sharon, thanks to people like me. I had supported the Labor-led peace process, knowing it would involve far-reaching compromises. I voted for Ehud Barak in 1999. But when Yasir Arafat tried to leverage Israel by promoting mass terrorism, he changed my mind. I thought it important to erase from the record those concessions that had been offered by Israel at Camp David and, more importantly, at Taba. I saw Sharon as personifying strength, determination, and a willingness to act boldly, not in pursuit of a utopian  “New Middle East,” but of Israel’s national survival. So I cast my ballot for him in 2001, as did a decisive majority of Israeli voters.

The situation was very different in my university setting, where I was a lone soul, both then and in 2003, when I voted for Likud. Since the disengagement and Sharon’s creation of Kadima, I’ve run into people on campus who’ve announced their intention to cast a ballot for the man they once reviled. Now they never will. No elected leader ever meets all expectations, and to believe that they might is to subscribe to a dangerous sort of secular messianism. But of all the votes I’ve cast, I least regret the two I cast for Ariel Sharon, and I would have cast another one.

As to the future, I claim no special insight.

Tanya Reinhart: The Moonbat Has Landed

I collect predictions made by academics about the Middle East. Many of my critics rebuke me for it. Joel Beinin huffs: “It is not the task of scholars engaged in university based teaching and research to engage in such predictions.” Fred Halliday puffs: “Failure to predict, as anyone educated in the basics of the philosophy of social science would know, has long been discarded as a criterion of social science.” Zachary Lockman blows the house down: “Kramer’s fixation on accurate prediction as the chief (or even sole) gauge of good scholarship is itself highly questionable.”

Fine. But I don’t believe that a truly bum prediction can be dismissed as the equivalent of a bad hair day. It’s evidence of some fundamental misunderstanding or latent bias. And while academics aren’t paid to make predictions, they make them anyway, often in support of some political agenda. So as long as academic oracles continue to issue predictions, I’ll continue to collect them, test them against reality, and grade them. Today I offer a fine specimen of a failed prediction. Grade: “F.”

The pseudo-oracle is Tanya Reinhart, a former student of Noam Chomsky’s and an emeritus professor of linguistics at Tel Aviv University, who now teaches at the University of Utrecht. She writes an occasional political column for Israel’s largest daily newspaper, and she’s the author of a book entitled Israel/Palestine: How To End the War of 1948. To call Reinhart a post-Zionist, or even an anti-Zionist, doesn’t do her justice. She has made the reviling of Israel an art form, on behalf of an appreciative audience who thrill to her every denunciation and condemnation. The late Edward Said called her book “the most devastating critique now available of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinian people,” and that says a lot.

After Ariel Sharon announced his Gaza disengagment plan, she plied her loyal readers with this prediction: Sharon didn’t mean it, so it would never happen. True, Sharon’s disengagment plan, launched in February 2004, didn’t leave a lot of room for equivocation: “Israel will evacuate the Gaza Strip, including all the Israeli settlements currently existing there, and will redeploy outside the territory of the Strip… The evacuation process is planned for completion by the end of 2005.” But here was the clairvoyant Reinhart, in a talk she delivered in Paris last November, and that zipped around the internet under the title “Sharon’s Gaza Pullout: Not Gonna Happen!”

There is one presupposition shared in all discussions of this plan—that in the process, Sharon intends to dismantle the settlements of the Gaza strip, and return the land they are built on to the Palestinians. I should say that had I believed this might happen, I would have supported the plan. The Gaza settlements, together with their land reserves, security zones, Israeli-only roads, and the military array protecting them, occupy almost a third of the strip’s land, which is one of the most densely populated areas of the world….But what basis is there to believe that Sharon indeed plans to dismantle settlements at some point?

Reinhart then brought her brilliant logic to bear on the disengagement legislation, leading her to one conclusion: the whole plan was a lie.

All that is repeated over and over again in the Western media is the propaganda produced by the Israeli political system—headlines from which one could infer that the dismantling of settlements is around the corner. Thus, the political debate around Sharon’s plan concentrates only around whether it is good enough. The possibility that this is just another Israeli deceit does not even arise. And if you try to bring it up, you are perceived as having landed from the moon, as has happened to me in several European media interviews.

Reinhart didn’t waver even as the evidence began to go against her. To the contrary: she dug in her heels, in a column published just last March:

Sharon is known as a man who has not always told the truth… He can always propose a new commitment that would postpone the realization of the previous one. Why should the Gaza “disengagement” be any different? The answer that the right and the left agree on is that, this time, Sharon has changed. That is an interesting answer in the realm of psychology. But what confirmation does it have in the realm of facts? It is much easier at present to imagine many scenarios in which there will not be any evacuation of settlements in July, than the one in which there will be an evacuation.

Easier indeed! And the evidence on which she based this speculation? First, the settlers hadn’t yet been compensated:

A government that really wanted to evacuate them would have already given them the compensation, so they could leave before the evacuation. In the evacuation of Yamit, in 1982, the overwhelming majority of the residents were compensated and left before the evacuation…. So why doesn’t Sharon facilitate their immediate departure? Could it be that he wants the photographs of the first attempt to evacuate them to show us entire families with their children whose world has been destroyed, so that we will understand through empathy that it is simply impossible to evacuate?

Impeccable logic! Second, Sharon opposed a referendum on the Gaza disengagement. “Why then does Sharon oppose it? Perhaps he does not really want the settlers to compromise and accept the will of the majority? Maybe he is afraid that if the evacuation decision passes in the referendum it will have to be actually carried out sooner or later?” More impeccable logic!

Uh… well, something in this chain of logical inferences must have gone wrong, since Sharon did evacuate the settlements from Gaza, exactly as he planned and exactly on schedule. But fear not for the intrepid Reinhart: she’s found an escape hatch!

It’s obvious, she still maintains, that Sharon never wanted to implement his own plan. It was Bush, she reveals, who “suddenly changed direction” because of troubles in Iraq, and the president then “steamrolled” Sharon. “When the U.S. really does exert pressure,” she concludes, “no Israeli leader would dare defy its injunctions. And so we have pulled out of Gaza.” We have indeed. How logical! How ingenious! And how convenient: Reinhart’s infallible expertise on Israel and Sharon is intact. She didn’t anticipate Bush’s “sudden change,” but he’s a new boy on the block compared to Sharon, and he’s not her forte anyway. Does she bring any new evidence to support her revolutionary thesis—that Bush hijacked Sharon’s plan, and imposed it on Israel against Sharon’s will? None. But it’ll turn up, perhaps on the moon.

Cut through Reinhart’s fact-free analyses and self-justificatory monologues, and you’ve got a plain case of bias run amuck. Blinding bias drove her to make a 180-degree error in estimating the course of Israeli policy; the only “Israeli deceit” was Reinhart’s deceit of herself, and of anyone naive or foolish enough to believe her.

But it’s more than bias. Like every bum prediction, this one reflects an underlying flaw in understanding. In Reinhart’s case, it’s a very deep flaw, and it’s this: she’s completely missed the most salient development in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The flaw is perfectly evidenced in this accusation she’s made against Israel:

What is happening in the [Israeli-occupied] Territories is a process of slow and steady genocide. People die from being shot and killed, many die from their wounds—the number of wounded is enormous, it is in the tens of thousands. Often, people can not get medical treatment, so someone with a heart attack will die at a road block because they can not get to the hospital. There is a serious shortage of food, so there is malnutrition of children. The Palestinian society is dying—daily—and there is hardly any awareness of this in Israeli society.

What’s wrong with this picture? For a “dying society,” subjected to “slow and steady genocide,” Palestinians have enjoyed an astonishingly robust population growth. In the West Bank, the net population growth rate is 3.13%, and in Gaza it’s 3.77%, compared to Israel’s 1.2%. That’s also much higher than the net growth rates of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt (CIA estimates for 2005). Life expectancy at birth is 72.3—at least five years above the Arab average, and higher than the same figure for Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia (Arab Human Development Report III, 2002 figures).

Palestinian population is exploding. Israelis are acutely aware of this reality, which is why there’s broad support for disengagement (and Sharon). And Palestinians are keenly aware of it, which is why some of them now believe that Israel can be swamped by numbers. Take, for example, Edward Said, in an interview before his death:

I figure that by 2010 there will be an equal number of Palestinians and Israelis on historical Palestine. There will be demographic parity between Jews and Arabs. At which point, how much can the Israelis control? By 2030 there will be twice as many Arabs as there are Jews. So the Jews in Israel will be in a minority.

“Slow and steady genocide”? “Palestinian society is dying”? Will someone, Israeli or Palestinian, please clue Reinhart into the most salient fact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Either she doesn’t know it, which is shameful; or she knows it and she lies, which is atrocious.

We can’t know which it is, but does it matter? Reinhart is a hero in some quarters precisely because she makes such claims. When you accuse Israel of something beyond belief—when you make claims so outlandish that it’s embarrassing—you’re immediately labeled “courageous.” And the more far-fetched the accusation, the more its inventor is lionized for his or her courage. Israel is committing genocide (Reinhart)? Zionism is antisemitism (Joseph Massad)? Sure, pile it on. There’s a vast market for falsehoods about Israel, especially in academe’s heart of darkness, where no one believes in the existence of truth anyway. If you’re Jewish, you get an extra fifty percent bonus for the “courage” of your falsehood. If you’re Israeli, make it a hundred percent.

Which makes this professor’s bum prediction and moonbat analysis all the more valuable. Tanya Reinhart, Chomsky in drag: no collection of predictions gone wrong would be complete without her.

Update: Watch Tanya Reinhart accuse Israel of genocide (and minimize the evils of South African apartheid), in a clip from early 2007.