Israel: ‘Delegitimization’ is just a distraction


Suddenly, all the major pro-Israel organizations are anguishing about “delegitimization.” Those who criticize Israeli policies are accused of trying to delegitimize Israel, which supposedly means denying Israel’s right to exist.

The concept of delegitimization has been used as a weapon against Israel’s critics at least as far back as 1975, when then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Daniel Patrick Moynihan accused the international body of delegitimizing Israel by passing a “Zionism is racism “ resolution. That may have been the last time the term was used accurately.

In a May speech, President Obama used it in reference to the Palestinian effort to seek recognition of their national aspirations at the U.N. General Assembly, as Israel successfully did in 1947. He said that “for the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure.” But he failed to explain just how a Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations would delegitimize Israel.


The Palestinians are not, after all, seeking statehood in Israeli territory but in territory that the whole world, including Israel, recognizes as having been occupied by Israel only after the 1967 war. Rather than seeking Israel’s elimination, the Palestinians who intend to go to the United Nations are seeking establishment of a state alongside Israel. (That state would encompass 22% of the British mandate for Palestine, approved by the League of Nations in 1922, with Israel possessing 78%.)

The whole concept of delegitimization seems archaic. Israel achieved its “legitimacy” when the United Nations recognized it 63 years ago. It has one of the strongest economies in the world. Its military is the most powerful in the region. It has a nuclear arsenal of about 200 bombs, with the ability to launch them from land, sea and air.

In that context, the whole idea of delegitimizing Israel sounds silly. Israel can’t be delegitimized.

So why are the pro-Israel organizations talking about it? The answer is simple: They are trying to divert attention from the intensifying world opposition to the occupation of the West Bank and to the blockade of the Gaza Strip, both of which, by almost any standard, are illegitimate. They are trying to divert attention from the ever-expanding settlements, which are not only illegitimate but illegal under international law. They are trying to divert attention from the ever-louder calls for Israel to grant Palestinians equal rights.

The effort to change the subject from the existence of the occupation to the existence of Israel makes sense strategically. Israel has no case when it comes to the occupation, which the entire world, except Israel, agrees must end. But Israel certainly has the upper hand in any argument over its right to exist and to defend itself.

That is why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu routinely invokes Israel’s “right to self-defense” every time he tries to explain away some Israeli attack on Palestinians, no matter whether they are armed fighters or innocent civilians. If the Israeli-Palestinian discussion is about Israel’s right to defend itself, Israel wins the argument. But if it is about the occupation — which is, in fact, what the conflict has been about since 1993, when the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized Israel — it loses.


It wasn’t that long ago that neither the Israeli government nor the Israeli lobby worried about the “forces of delegitimization.”

On the contrary, in 1993, after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s recognition of the Palestinians’ right to a state in the West Bank and Gaza, nine non-Arab Muslim states and 32 of the 43 sub-Saharan African states established relations with Israel. India and China, the two largest markets in the world, opened trade relations. Jordan signed a peace treaty and several of the Arab emirates began quiet dealings with Israel.

The Arab boycott of Israel ended. Foreign investment soared. No one discussed delegitimization while much of the world, including the Muslim world, was knocking on Israel’s door to establish or deepen ties.

That trend continued so long as the Israeli government seemed to be genuinely engaged in the peace process.

The most graphic demonstration of Israel’s high international standing back then occurred at Rabin’s funeral in 1995, which rivaled President Kennedy’s in terms of international representation.

Leaders from virtually every nation came to pay homage to Rabin: President Clinton, Prince Charles, the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, every European president or prime minister, top officials from most of Africa and Asia (including India and China), Latin America, Turkey, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar and Tunisia. Yasser Arafat went to the Tel Aviv apartment of Rabin’s widow, Leah, to express his grief.


The world mourned Rabin because under him, Israel had embraced the cause of peace with the Palestinians. The homage was a clear demonstration — as was the opening of trade and diplomatic relations with formerly hostile states — that Israel was not being isolated because it is a Jewish state and hence illegitimate, but because of how it treated the Palestinians.

And that is the case today. It’s not the Palestinians who are delegitimizing Israel, but the Israeli government, which maintains the occupation. And the leading delegitimizer is Netanyahu, whose contemptuous rejection of peace is turning Israel into an international pariah.

Sure, Netanyahu received an embarrassing number of standing ovations when he spoke before the U.S. Congress. But that demonstrates nothing except the power of the Israel lobby. It is doubtful that Netanyahu would get a single standing ovation in any other parliament in the world — and that includes Israel’s. The only thing we learned (yet again) from Netanyahu’s reception by Congress is that money talks.

So let’s ignore the talk about delegitimization, even though Madison Avenue message-makers certainly deserve credit for coming up with that clever distraction. Israel’s problem is the occupation, the Israeli government that defends it and the lobby that enforces support for it in Congress and the White House.

Once again, Israel’s “best friends” are among its worst enemies.

M.J. Rosenberg is senior foreign policy fellow at Media Matters Action Network. He previously worked on Capitol Hill for Democratic members of the House and Senate and as a President Clinton political appointee at the U.S. Agency for International Development.