When Jay Leno was in Israel a year ago, the AP asked him to pick sides. Leno went with Israel. “It is a democracy in the Middle East and I don’t like to see the little guy getting picked on by the big guy,” he said.
It was an answer to warm the hearts of the pro-Israel lobby: Tiny Israel surrounded by a sea of hostile neighbors. It has the added benefit of being true. Israel is isolated in a neighborhood where it isn’t welcome, and if not for the qualitative military edge that it has managed to maintain, with a big boost from the United States, the surrounding armies would have prevailed decades ago.
But had Leno tightened his focus he might have seen an inversion of the “big guy-little guy” scenario. Millions of Palestinians see Israel as the dominant force, and the Arabs living in the West Bank as the ones being picked on. This too is true in its way: Israel does control the Palestinian population in most essential ways, running the military courts, controlling the roads, deciding on access to water and utilities, doling out and withholding tax revenues. Israel defends this system in the name of security, and, in the absence of Palestinian compromise (and with the persistence of Palestinian incitement), it’s hard to imagine an alternative. And don’t try to tell Israelis, who remember the bad old days of exploding buses, that the Palestinians are powerless.
Israel advocates prefer to focus on the bigger picture, the one that Leno went on to describe in the same interview. “I look around the Middle East and I see people being stoned to death because they’re gay and women being not allowed to drive or not allowed to vote,” he said. “And here’s this one little paradise in the Middle East where freedom reigns and there’s a democracy, you vote people in, you vote people out.”
If polls are to be believed, that’s the version that the majority of Americans accept. Most elected officials, too. But cracks are appearing, and not just on the ideological fringes. Last week, on Saturday Night Live, the comedian Louis C.K. offered a very different picture of the conflict.
In his opening monologue, he used a Middle East analogy to describe his squabbling daughters. “My kids are like Israel and Palestine and I’m like America. The little one’s like Palestine because she always gets screwed, she gets the worst deal,” he said. “The older one is like Israel, she comes up to me like, ‘She burnt all my dolls!’ I’m like, ‘Look, I can’t do anything about it right now. Your sister is crazy; please don’t make me talk to her. I’ll work it out, you and me. I’ll buy you a really cool missile and whatever you do with it is totally up to you.’”
The analogy is not as one-sided as it may seem. Sure, the “Palestine” daughter is “always getting screwed,” but she is also crazy and prone to violence. I’m not sure Palestinians are applauding the monologue any more than hawkish Jews are. But notice how casually the monologue assumes Israel’s upper hand (and, incidentally, its reliance on America).
Ron Kampeas, JTA’s Washington correspondent, noted a similarly casual reference to Israel’s dominance in a play, The Blood Quilt, currently running at Washington’s Arena Stage. In this play about an African-American family, playwright Katori Hall also compares feuding sisters to the Israelis and Palestinians. “If she’s Israel, you’re Palestine,” an older sister says to one of her two bickering siblings. “Why can’t I be Israel?” says the first combatant. “You can be Israel if you want,” says the second. “No,” says the first, “you be Israel, you always taking my stuff.”
At that line, transcribed to the best of his memory, Kampeas said the audience responded with “uproarious laughter” and “applause.” He suggests that, at least in the African-American community, “Israel’s defenders would appear to have their work cut out for them.”
Louis C.K. is white (and distantly Jewish). Hall is African-American. The perception of Israeli power, and Palestinian powerlessness, is color-blind.
Next week, FIFA, the body that governs world soccer, will vote on a motion by the Palestinians to suspend Israel from international play on the grounds that it has prevented Palestinian players from traveling to international matches, or between the West Bank and Gaza.
The rules and negotiations are complicated, but FIFA president Sepp Blatter makes it pretty clear who he thinks has the upper hand in the dispute. “A solution is only a realistic proposition when those who are privileged are prepared to concede something and contribute to equality,” he wrote in FIFA’s weekly magazine. “The onus in this respect is on Israel, with its outstanding infrastructure, fully functioning professional football league, and economic context.”
The case for Israel has long been made on the basis of Israeli vulnerability, or at least by portraying the conflict as a clash of equals in which the Palestinians hold as many cards as the Israelis. And that case can be made, when you throw in the hostile governments and global activists who despise Israel more than they care about Palestinian rights.
But it is a tough case, and sounds less and less credible to disinterested outsiders when they compare Israel’s robust economy and formidable military to the depleted conditions of the Palestinians. Don Draper could be in charge of your hasbara and you still wouldn’t win the argument.
Remember, Louis C.K,’s monologue was considered “controversial” mostly because he talked about pedophilia. The Israel stuff seemed tame and even obvious in comparison. And maybe that is the most worrisome thing of all: In the absence of any real movement toward a two-state solution, the way we frame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is becoming a joke.