Israel’s attack on Gaza is its consolation prize for not being allowed bomb Iran: like a school bully denied the chance to attack another Form, it has picked on some small kids in the playground so as to satiate its anger. Is there any way that, out of the suffering of the inhabitants of Gaza, something positive can be forged? The key is President Obama, the new head teacher at whom the bully’s message is also aimed: will he cower like the vast majority of his predecessors, more concerned with lobby popularity than with moral purpose, or is there more to him than this? Let us assume Obama knows full well both how shameful is America’s association with Israel and how senseless is his nation’s collusion in such vast criminality. There are ways of marking this without making it explicit and thereby unleashing the pro-Israeli forces against him at too early a stage.
It is already clear that the new Administration desires to re-engage with the global community and to revive its commitment to international law: the ‘war on terror’ will be reconfigured and Guantanamo closed. A rededication of the US to law should also involve a more consensual approach to the UN in general and to Security Council business in particular, and this should include (for example) support for UN investigative missions to regions where egregious violations of human rights and breaches of the UN charter need to be investigated. It should entail signing up to the International Criminal Court – and urging its closest allies to do likewise. Done in this way, US engagement in the international human rights agenda would quickly lead to a re-empowerment of the various forces for good, the rapporteurs, special representatives, committees of experts and so on, that have languished on the margins for so long.
All of this reformist energy would then need to be backed by mechanisms linking US financial and military aid to the newly emerging international legal order, a fresh set of McBride principles of the sort that eventually forced South Africa racism to its knees. And economic and intellectual boycotts would also need to be framed so as to lie in wait for the worst offenders against the new dispensation. Since its application would be general, Obama could do all this without ever mentioning Israel, leaving the consequences to be worked through by various bureaucracies while the ‘phone calls and special pleas of Netanyahu or Livni or Barak or whoever it is go either unreturned or politely fended off with an easy ‘it is out of my hands’. When the screams of the special interests reach dangerous levels, the president may then judge it to be necessary to take the issue to the American people, to discuss openly whether Israel should have a special exemption from the civilised values to which every other true ally and the US itself will by then have signed up. That is not likely to be a debate which the Israeli leadership will especially want.
Dreadful though they are, it is just possible the killings in Gaza may prove to be the beginning of the death rattle of Israel’s disastrous plunge into militant Zionism.