Notes From Babel

Goldberg’s Weak Argument for the Blockade

with 11 comments

I told a friend that I didn’t think a whole lot of the blockade, and that I kind of liked this piece by Megan McArdle.  I got a chuckle out of this:

I know that terrorists can be fiendishly clever, but there is no real evidence, only unconfirmed rumors among the intel community, that Hamas actually has the Coriander Bomb. Most experts put them at least 5-8 years away from developing that sort of destructive technology.

My friend referred me to this pro-blockade piece by Jonah Goldberg, where he says this:

The blockade, which is surely causing real suffering, is entirely the fault of Hamas and the Palestinians who support it. When the brutal terrorist outfit consolidated power in a bloody coup, it proceeded to rain down missiles indiscriminately on Israel for years (talk about collective punishment). Israel finally launched a strike to stop the attacks and was, predictably, denounced as an aggressor by the usual suspects. Even now, Hamas won’t accept the supposedly vital humanitarian cargo seized by the Israelis last week. Why? Because it’s lost its propaganda value, and because it’s been sullied by Jewish hands.

. . . .

But this is a terrible moment to consider abandoning the blockade.

Why? Because it would rightly be seen as giving the organizers and supporters of this seaborne propaganda stunt a victory. It would signal that America can be conned. It would reward Turkey’s outrageous insult to us (a NATO ally) and to Israel, a longtime friend of Turkey. It would undermine Egypt and other Arab governments (including Fatah) that don’t want Iran’s clients in Hamas strengthened (their propaganda notwithstanding). And it would signal that Iran is the most important power in the Middle East.

I don’t think Goldberg makes a good argument here.  It suggests that once any strategy is taken in response to a violent regime, that strategy ought never be abandoned lest the violent regime gain a victory.  I also generally reject any attempt to reduce the conflicts in the middle east to a thumbnail in order to make a point about why such and such action is necessary.  People make flip assessments about domestic policy because, well, it’s domestic policy, and we’re going to have opinions about where we live.  Besides, we’re forced to be somewhat engaged and to develop our ideas because, at least to some extent, we all reap the consequences of those policies.

Not so with what goes one half a globe away, as most of us have no first-hand knowledge about what’s going on.  And the problems are toxic, complex, and decades old.  It’s as if you tried explaining over the phone to your 80 year old blind grandfather how to assemble a neutron bomb.  At best, it’s futile.  At worst, it’s dangerous.  This is generally what I think of eight minute radio segments and 500 word op-eds on the middle east.


Written by Tim Kowal

June 10, 2010 at 10:46 pm

11 Responses

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  1. […] Kowal is making a great deal of sense here: People make flip assessments about domestic policy because, well, it’s domestic policy, and […]

  2. At risk of being one those making flippant statements… I don’t have a problem with the blockade. I think Krauthammer’s views are cogent (

    I also seem to have a soft spot for a country of 7 million surrounded by 100’s of millions of people who want them dead, or at least gone.

    But I also fully subscribe to your general idea that I have no way of distilling down all the history and current politics and culture that surround the middle east.


    June 11, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    • The urge is strong, isn’t it? I started responding to your comment and Krauthammer’s article, and then wound up formulating a short essay on my basic positions on issues in the middle east. I didn’t post it because while reading over it, I realized yet again that it would just lead to a go-nowhere debate. Given the decades long history of the conflicts there, one would have no trouble finding facts to support any view one might like.

      A more interesting line of inquiry would be to examine why some of us are predisposed to a certain point of view on the middle east. I’m pretty down-the-line conservative on most things, but when it comes to the middle east, I’m kind of contrarian. This might be because my former business partner, a Muslim, and I used to have lots of discussions in my early and mid-twenties, making me sympathetic to the alternative view.

      Tim Kowal

      June 16, 2010 at 7:09 pm

      • On the issue of losing our predispositions and prejudices, I can’t agree more, Tim. You hit it right on the head there. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to be seen as exactly that: a CONFLICT. There are wrongs and rights on both sides; violence and atrocities committed on both sides; stubbornness not to compromise on both sides.

        It is a fight over land and nothing more– not religion, not ideology, and certainly not democracy (see: Is Israel a Democracy? ). There are two sides: Arab Christians and Muslims vs. Israeli Jews. Each side has its own sob stories of the past. And each has its current actions (and justifications for actions) of the present. If one were to address the issue effectively, it is vital to look past the “good vs. evil”, as “freedom vs. terrorism”, and other ridiculous notions to get any sort of real understanding of what is going on.

        But why do you consider yourself a contrarian to conservatism by asking for a fair and unbiased view? That is quite saddening. Call yourself a contrarian (on this issue) to the modern day Republican party, but not to conservatism itself. Indeed, conservatism at its heart is about limited intervention abroad, especially when it doesn’t serve our own nation’s interests to fervently back an ethnocracy/semi-theocracy like Israel (NOT a democracy) even more than they back themselves. This is a great article I recommend that discusses the various trends in Conservative Foreign Policy and how it has shifted throughout history:


        June 16, 2010 at 10:14 pm

  3. I just posted this under Megan’s article, which I found through your post:

    ***Correction, Meghan.

    There is no ban on coriander. Gisha got the info second hand, and in case, admits their “prohibited” list includes items that they think are “restricted,” not prohibited. Gisha didn’t ask the non-Hamas connected NGOs and others who see upcoming shortages and ask for goods, including coriander — which the MFA records have noted as shipped.


    “73.9% of Gazans (as opposed to less than half of Palestinians in the West Bank) think that if they elect Fateh, the Israelis will end the blockade.” And Hamas is preventing an election… so the blockade seems far from having the opposite effect as its political goals.***


    June 16, 2010 at 3:16 pm

  4. So, In this situation we have the Palestinians on one side who have elected a terrorist organization to power, fired rockets at civilian targets in Israel while using their own civilians as shields, but we are concerned that the Israelis in protecting against these attacks with a blockade are going to far because they are depriving the Palestinians of coriander and chocolate……..Brilliant. That my friend is a weak argument.

    This comment posted under the Krauthammer article
    says it all

    “If Hamas laid down their weapons, there would be no more deaths. If Israel laid down their weapons, there would be no more Jews. Very simple.”

    And I know we are all so scared to make flip assessments of such a historic conflict, but we gotta start somewhere……so if Im wrong give me something more to consider than coriander depravation as proof that the Israelis actions are somehow morally equivalent to those of the Palestinians, or that their claim to land is less legitimate, or that their attempts at peace and co existence have been fewer or less sincere than those of the Palestinians. I welcome the information.


    June 21, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    • Your frustration is well taken–indeed, we have to be able to start somewhere. But my point is that when the discussion will be necessarily limited (as I am typing this comment on a Blackberry, my thumbs are already hinting that the limits will be severe), we resort to loaded, unpacked terms, and unqualified assumptions. In your comment, for example, I could point out that before one could even directly respond, one would have to take issue with your term “terrorist,” and might insist that Israel has used terrorist tactics themselves, often successfully carried out under the radar or under the pretense of some lawful authority. Also, one would point out that Palestinians who take issue with the legimacy of Israel don’t mean that all Jews ought to be killed. Indeed, some nutters will say this, but then again, some Israeli officials such as Sharon have said similar of Palestinians. As a final example, one would take issue that neither side can responsibly be said to be on the “defensive.” It is politically advantageous to claim to be on the defensive, but every action is a reaction to a long history of conflict and violent and unjust actions on both sides. It is too convenient to give the advantage to one side just because it now claims to be playing defense.

      So I suppose the place to start would be to acknowledge that there is going to be no way to “pick a winner.” Americans will likely always favor Israel for several reasons: it is our sentinel of democracy in the mid east; it has Biblical implications; we played the major role in its formation. Is there any debate that we identify more with Israel? That we more or less have swept the Palestinian evacuation under the rug of history? These are underpinnings of great resentment that will not go away in the foreseeable future, no matter how many op-eds Krauthemmer writes or how many zingers his commenters come up with.

      Tim Kowal

      June 21, 2010 at 3:03 pm


      This article says it all, it is written by a former AIPAC member Richard Forer. Even if you discount it as biased or if you accuse Forer of being a “self hating Jew”, you can’t dispute the thoroughness of his research, the richness of information and quotes and references that he makes, and how well backed all of his conclusions are.

      Here are just 3 quotes referenced in this article:

      Moshe Dayan, the fourth Chief of Staff of Israeli Defense Forces:
      [The state of Israel] must see the sword as the main, if not the only, instrument with which to keep its morale high and to retain its moral tension. Toward this end it may, no – it must – invent dangers, and to do this it must adopt the method of provocation-and-revenge… And above all – let us hope for a new war with the Arab countries, so that we may finally get rid of our troubles and acquire our space.

      Yossi Alpher, former Mossad official and former adviser to then Prime Minister Ehud Barak:
      [The blockade is] collective punishment, humanitarian suffering. It has not caused Palestinians in Gaza to behave the way we want them to, so why do it… I think people really believed that, if you starved Gazans, they will get Hamas to stop the attacks. It’s repeating a failed policy, mindlessly.

      Former Israeli Chief of Military Intelligence General Yehoshafat Harkabi:
      We must define our position and lay down basic principles for a settlement. Our demands should be moderate and balanced, and appear to be reasonable. But in fact they must involve such conditions as to ensure that the enemy rejects them. Then we should manoeuvre and allow him to define his own position, and reject a settlement on the basis of a compromise position. We should then publish his demands as embodying unreasonable extremism.


      June 21, 2010 at 11:53 pm

  5. I am troubled by the attempts at moral equivalence expressed in several posts here; in fact, I believe this fashionable view — which is tantamount to the banality of “let’s agree to disagree” — contributes to the never-ending nature of the conflict.

    If both sides are equally right and wrong, no reasonable solution is even possible.

    Yes, both sides have legitimate grievances, and both sides are guilty of improper behavior, but not equally so.

    As a specific example, the first and third quotes in Hassan’s last post are pretty ugly, but I believe such quotes are A) few and far between, and B) expressed in the context of strategy for navigating the present conflict.

    On the other hand, the view that all Jews must die is by no means limited to “nutters,” as Tim puts it.

    For another example — the collective punishment of a blockade on chocolate pales in comparison to the collective punishment of suicide bombs and indiscriminate rocket attacks.

    If the conflict was merely about land, as has been suggested, it would have been resolved a long time ago. This conflict is existential.


    June 26, 2010 at 11:21 am

    • Mason,

      I have the impression there may be more than one discussion happening here. The discussion I was attempting to engage has to do with understanding the nature of the seemingly endless “mid-game” with the implicit objective of gleaning whether human history will ever see an end-game. But there seems to be a sort of disappointment that there is not enough moral condemnation of Arabs/Palestinians occurring along the way, or alternatively that there is too much emphasis on alleged bad acts of Israelis. I assure you that if my comments are the source of any such disappointment, they have been misconstrued. The purpose of my comments is to establish causality, not to apportion blame or judgment. The conflict exists as it does because of centuries of portentous, sensational, and morally- and religiously-infused actions. If we are ever to have any useful observations about the conflict, we must set aside the moral issues in order to get to the empirical; doff the robes and don the lab coats.

      Tim Kowal

      June 26, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    • Mason,

      The point I was trying to make was not that both sides are EQUALLY right and wrong, but that both sides have their case and their narrative that is so strong and deep rooted in their respective histories and over several generations now, that you will probably never be able to resolve those differences, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have peace.

      For example, there is now a new generation of young Arabs and Israelis realizing that they can either dwell on their past grievances (by living and reliving the stories of their grandparents) or face the reality that they have to live together or side by side. These kinds of movements are actually happening in Israel and in the Occupied Territories, not overwhelmingly (yet) but slowly gaining traction, something that might be difficult to fathom for hardline Israel or hardline Palestine supporters sitting in their comfortable western homes and communities. This is because we aren’t the ones there who need to live and raise our families in those lands, so its easier for us to stick to our ideological stances. In fact, there are many positive forces like this starting to take shape, and a lot of level-headed discourse taking place within Israel. Surprisingly, it is in America that you don’t find this, and you actually find a tendency to hold Israel infallible and completely right and Palestinians as morally inferior across the board. This could be a result of biblical undertones or other political motives, but certainly it doesn’t bring us any closer to a solution, nor is it in touch with reality.

      Trying to convince the world that moral equivalency between Israelis and Palestinians is off-limits to even fathom, and that Palestinians will always be the ones at fault no matter what happens, and also the notion that Israel is always right, this will not be able to survive long amongst intelligent and questioning minds. In fact, it actually does a disservice to the Israeli cause and plight, and many Israelis in Israel do recognize this and have established groups like B’Tselem to raise awareness in Israel.

      Let me put it in another way here:

      – If you agree that both sides have their own narratives and perspectives, that we may not be able to make their grandparents (or the memories of their grandparents) ever reconcile, at least we can encourage today’s Israelis and Palestinians to work towards peace, and try to bolster those who do want peace with the tools they need and the alignments with other likeminded people. If an Israeli or an Israeli supporter can drop the emotions and just leave it at that and try to work towards sincere peace, we may get somewhere. Because then the Palestinian or Palestinian supporter feels less of an emotional need as well to argue or fight back.

      – But if the Israeli or Israeli supporter continues along this path to paint Palestinians as demons, belittles them with sarcasm and distortions, then the cycle of emotions and rhetoric will only continue and get worse. For example, you stated that the collective punishment of a blockade on chocolate pales in comparison to the collective punishment of suicide bombs and indiscriminate rocket attacks. Does this mean that you are stating that the only thing Israel has done to the Palestininans is kept chocolate from them? What about the “Occupied Territories”? What about the settlements? And what about this statistic from B’Tselem (an Israeli agency), it seems to me that something else “pales in comparison” here:

      DEATHS 2008-2010
      Palestinians: 1476
      Israel: 16
      (read more on wikipedia

      As you can see, although you may not acknowledge it, there is quite a case the Palestinians can make about moral equivalency the other way around as well. On the one hand you have terror and on the other you have tyranny, as some may see it. Call it what you want, it’s a dangerous nomenclature thats designed more to serve political interests than accurately portray what is transpiring in that part of the world.

      All of the violence and killing is bad, regardless of who does it and for what reason, but the high road is to call it bad regardless of who does it, whenever they do it and no matter what the conditions or reasons, and instead try to work on establishing peace even-handedly. Not by trying to make one group the nobler of the two regardless of what they do, and demonizing the other group regardless of what they do.


      June 27, 2010 at 12:05 am

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