Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 16 February 2010
An extraordinary series of articles, reports and presentations by Israel’s influential Reut Institute has identified the global movement for justice, equality and peace as an “existential threat” to Israel and called on the Israeli government to direct substantial resources to “attack” and possibly engage in criminal “sabotage” of this movement in what Reut believes are its various international “hubs” in London, Madrid, Toronto, the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond.
The Reut Institute’s analyses hold that Israel’s traditional strategic doctrine — which views threats to the state’s existence in primarily military terms, to be met with a military response — is badly out of date. Rather, what Israel faces today is a combined threat from a “Resistance Network” and a “Delegitimization Network.”
The Resistance Network is comprised of political and armed groups such as Hamas and Hizballah who “rel[y] on military means to sabotage every move directed at affecting separation between Israel and the Palestinians or securing a two-state solution” (“The Delegitimization Challenge: Creating a Political Firewall, Reut Institute, 14 February 2010).
Furthermore, the “Resistance Network” allegedly aims to cause Israel’s political “implosion” — a la South Africa, East Germany or the Soviet Union — rather than bring about military defeat through direct confrontation on the battlefield.
The “Delegitimization Network” — which Reut Institute president and former Israeli government advisor Gidi Grinstein provocatively claims is in an “unholy alliance” with the Resistance Network — is made up of the broad, decentralized and informal movement of peace and justice, human rights, and BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) activists all over the world. Its manifestations include protests against Israeli officials visiting universities, Israeli Apartheid Week, faith-based and trade union-based activism, and “lawfare” — the use of universal jurisdiction to bring legal accountability for alleged Israeli war criminals. The Reut Institute even cited my speech to the student conference on BDS held at Hampshire College last November as a guide to how the “delegitimization” strategy supposedly works (“Eroding Israel’s Legitimacy in the International Arena,” Reut Institute, 28 January 2010).
The combined “attack” from “resisters” and “delegitimizers,” Reut says, “possesses strategic significance, and may develop into a comprehensive existential threat within a few years.” It further warns that a “harbinger of such a threat would be the collapse of the two-state solution as an agreed framework for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the coalescence behind a ‘one-state solution’ as a new alternative framework.”
At a basic level, Reut’s analysis represents an advance over the most primitive and hitherto dominant layers of Israeli strategic thinking; it reflects an understanding, as I put it in my speech at Hampshire, that “Zionism simply cannot bomb, kidnap, assassinate, expel, demolish, settle and lie its way to legitimacy and acceptance.”
But underlying the Reut Institute’s analysis is a complete inability to disentangle cause and effect. It seems to assume that the dramatic erosion in Israel’s international standing since its wars on Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009 is a result of the prowess of the “delegitimization network” to which it imputes wholly nefarious, devious and unwholesome goals — effectively the “destruction of Israel.”
It blames “delegitimizers” and “resisters” for frustrating the two-state solution but ignores Israel’s relentless and ongoing settlement-building drive — supported by virtually every state organ — calculated and intended to make Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank impossible.
It never considers for a moment that the mounting criticism of Israel’s actions might be justified, or that the growing ranks of people ready to commit their time and efforts to opposing Israel’s actions are motivated by genuine outrage and a desire to see justice, equality and an end to bloodshed. In other words, Israel is delegitimizing itself.
Reut does not recommend to the Israeli cabinet — which recently held a special session to hear a presentation of the think tank’s findings — that Israel should actually change its behavior toward Palestinians and Lebanese. It misses the point that apartheid South Africa also once faced a global “delegitimization network” but that this has now completely disappeared. South Africa, however, still exists. Once the cause motivating the movement disappeared — the rank injustice of formal apartheid — people packed up their signs and their BDS campaigns and went home.
Instead, Reut recommends to the Israeli government an aggressive and possibly criminal counter-offensive. A powerpoint presentation Grinstein made to the recent Herzliya Conference on Israeli national security actually calls on Israel’s “intelligence agencies to focus” on the named and unnamed “hubs” of the “delegitimization network” and to engage in “attacking catalysts” of this network. In its “The Delegitimization Challenge: Creating a Political Firewall” document, Reut recommends that “Israel should sabotage network catalysts.”
The use of the word “sabotage” is particularly striking and should draw the attention of governments, law enforcement agencies and university officials concerned about the safety and welfare of their students and citizens. The only definition of “sabotage” in United States law deems it to be an act of war on a par with treason, when carried out against the United States. In addition, in common usage, the American Heritage Dictionary defines sabotage as “Treacherous action to defeat or hinder a cause or an endeavor; deliberate subversion.” It is difficult to think of a legitimate use of this term in a political or advocacy context.
At the very least, Reut seems to be calling for Israel’s spy agencies to engage in covert activity to interfere with the exercise of legal free speech, association and advocacy rights in the United States, Canada and European Union countries, and possibly to cause harm to individuals and organizations. These warnings of Israel’s possible intent — especially in light of its long history of criminal activity on foreign soil — should not be taken lightly.
The Reut Institute, based in Tel Aviv, raises a significant amount of tax-exempt funds in the United States through a nonprofit arm called American Friends of the Reut Institute (AFRI). According to its public filings, AFRI sent almost $2 million to the Reut Institute in 2006 and 2007.
In addition to a state-sponsored international “sabotage” campaign, Reut also recommends a “soft” policy. This specifically involves better hasbara or state propaganda to greenwash Israel as a high-tech haven for environmental technologies and high culture — what it terms “Brand Israel.”
Other elements include “maintain[ing] thousands of personal relationships with political, cultural, media and security-related elites and influentials” around the world, and “harnessing Jewish and Israeli diaspora communities” even more tightly to its cause. It even emphasizes that Israel should use “international aid” to boost its image (its perfunctory foray into earthquake-devastated Haiti was an example of this tactic).
What ties together all these strategies is that they are aimed at frustrating, delaying and distracting attention from the fundamental issue: that Israel — despite its claims to be a liberal and democratic state — is an ultranationalist ethnocracy that relies on the violent suppression of the most fundamental rights of millions of Palestinians, soon to be a demographic majority, to maintain the status quo. There is no “game changer” in Reut’s new strategy.
Reut is apparently unaware even of the irony of trying to reform “Brand Israel” as something cuddly, while at the same time publicly recommending that Israel’s notorious spies “sabotage” peace groups on foreign soil.
But there are two lessons we must heed: Reut’s analysis vindicates the effectiveness of the BDS strategy, and as Israeli elites increasingly fear for the long-term prospects of the Zionist project they are likely to be more ruthless, unscrupulous and desperate than ever.
Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.