Into the Fray: A challenge to a French philosopher

"Bernard- Henri Lévy is precisely the kind of target that Israeli public diplomacy efforts should be focused on – far more so than any incumbent politician, especially outside the USA."

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December 17, 2015 21:48
Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy. (photo credit: ITZIKE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

You fight against jihad, yes. But do you have to add to the fight against jihad the fight with the whole Palestinians people? I don’t think so… There are a lot of moderates among the Palestinian people – there are still… some people who really want a state and to build a life in this state… It has been a big mistake not to give that a chance… and will be an increasing mistake not to give it in the future… When you have a just war to wage which is a war against Islamism, jihadism, it is not a reason to wage an unjust war at the same time. It is absurd.

– Bernard-Henri Lévy, December 2015

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Last week, Israeli Educational Television aired an interview with the internationally renowned French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy by the well-known Kobi Meidan, on the much-acclaimed program Hotzei Yisrael (Across Israel – available on YouTube).

It turned out to be an unremarkable media event, with little to elevate it above the staple stereotype slogans we have become accustomed to in the mainstream discourse on Islam and Israel in recent decades.


An anomalous choice of topic?


I am reasonably sure that a fair number of readers – especially those on the western shores of the Atlantic – will raise a dubious eyebrow at my choice of topic and my decision to devote an entire column to a European intellectual of no official capacity or executive position with direct policy-making impact.

Indeed, the choice might seem particularly anomalous as the past week provided several more newsworthy topics such as: Secretary of State John Kerry’s petulantly puerile interview in The New Yorker, blaming Israel for the impasse in the “peace process”; the outrageous allegations of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his speech in Jakarta, rationalizing Palestinian terrorism against Jews; and Mahmoud Abbas’s contemptible rant in Ramallah, attempting to justify the recent spate of Judeocidal frenzy by Palestinian “lone wolves.”



But such skepticism would be misplaced. For Bernard- Henri Lévy is precisely the kind of target that Israeli public diplomacy efforts should be focused on – far more so than any incumbent politician, especially outside the USA.

After all, it is unelected “intellectual elites” who have definitive impact in determining the substance and style of the international discourse on the Arab-Israel conflict.

Since it is this discourse that molds political decision- makers’ perceptions of their policy constraints and alternatives, this confers on these elites decisive – albeit indirect – influence on the policy choices adopted.


Why Bernard-Henri Lévy?

In many ways Bernard-Henri Lévy is the archetypal illustration of such “intellectual influence.”

Described by The Huffington Post as “one of the most esteemed and bestselling writers in Europe,” and as “perhaps the most prominent intellectual in France today” by the Boston Globe, he has been included in The Jerusalem Post’s list of “World’s 50 Most Influential Jews.”

According to an exposé earlier this year in The New York Observer, Lévy, known in France by his initials “BHL,” has had the ear of presidents – regardless political affiliations – since François Mitterrand, who even once sent an air force jet to war-torn Bosnia to fly him back to France so that he could be on time for his wedding ceremony.

Numerous sources credit BHL with heavily influencing president Nicolas Sarkozy to back the anti-Gaddafi rebels and push for international military intervention in Libya. According to Harper’s Magazine, which ran an article with a lead-line “French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy has the world under his spell,” BHL has personal friendships with major US media figures such as TV host Charlie Rose, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria and editors Arianna Huffington and Tina Brown (The Daily Beast).

His views arouse considerable interest across much of the globe, and he frequently features in leading media channels such as The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Financial Times and Economist – to name but a few His influence – and media presence – has, of course, been enhanced – the less charitable might say, enabled – by his vast personal fortune, which he inherited from his father.

But whatever its origins, his influence and the high profile/ coverage his pronouncements and writings generate cannot be disputed.

Accordingly, when these relate to Israel, they should be taken note of, and responded to appropriately.


Specious solidarity?

To be sure, unlike many left-leaning European intellectuals, BHL is not a visceral critic of Israel. On the contrary, he had authored several articles decidedly favorable toward Israel, in general, and the IDF, in particular.

But it is perhaps precisely because of his stoutly supportive sentiment that his well-intentioned but ill-founded criticisms of Israeli policy, particularly regarding the “Palestinian” issue, are, potentially more detrimental.

Indeed, his interview last week on Israeli TV was an illustrative case in point. True, BHL declared that he was in Israel as a show of solidarity at this trying time of a mounting wave of allegedly “spontaneous” individual terrorist attacks. Yet considerable portions of his subsequent remarks were wholly ill-conceived, and are more than likely to be seized upon by Israel’s detractors to further vilify the country and its efforts to defend its citizens against Palestinian terrorism.

The interview began with a brief personal account of the ISIS-accredited attacks in Paris, followed by a hardly original designation of the ongoing global onslaught of radical Islam. In answer to the question of whether we are now in the throes of a Third World War, BHL responded by stating the more or less self-evident. He informed viewers that this was indeed a conflict of world-wide dimensions – between new-age “barbarians” with traits of old fascism, on the one hand, and democracy and civilization, on the other – but not one in the old mold of set battle formations with clearly defined front lines and discernible enemies.

Few in Israel will find this a startlingly revolutionary revelation. But the more troubling portions of the interview were yet to come.


Right distinction; wrong prescription

When asked “Is it the same terror... that attacked Paris and takes place in [Israel’s] streets today,” BHL demurred somewhat, suggesting a distinction be made between “two things,” remarking: “Of course there is a context here. And the context is the Palestinian-Israeli question...

This has nothing to do with France, [but it] has to do with Israel...”

I agree! The Judeocidal terrorism being waged now against the Jews and the Jewish state by the Arabs, in general, and the Palestinian-Arabs, in particular, is different to the wave of global jihadist violence sweeping through much of the world today. It exists independently of it. That does not mean it is unrelated, more benign or more amenable to peaceable dissipation. Quite the opposite – it predates the current Islamist assault and is more persistent and pernicious. Solving the former will do nothing to mitigate the latter.

So while BHL is quite right in making the distinction, he is quite wrong in identifying the reasons for its existence, alleging: “the context is the dead-end in which the peace-camp is in this country.”

The roots of Palestinian brutality against the Jews can be traced back prior to the existence of the so-called “peace camp” and Israel’s “occupation” in Judea-Samaria – the Palestinian-Arabs’ alleged casus belli with the Jewish state (see my “Reassessing ‘root causes’ and ‘red herrings’” – October 7, 2011). Indeed, it was Ahmad Shukeiri, Yasser Arafat’s predecessor as the chairman of the PLO, who just prior to the 1967 Six Day War threatened: “There is no middle road. The Jews of Palestine will have to leave...none of them will survive.... We shall destroy Israel and its inhabitants...”


Feeding the lie

By implying that the entirely predictable (and predicted) impasse into which the “peace process” has run is somehow the cause for the terrorism perpetrated by the Palestinian-Arabs, is to foster the same preposterous fabrications advanced by Kerry, Ban and Abbas mentioned at the beginning of this column.

BHL bemoans the absence of a Palestinian state: “There is an emergency. I [have said] that [for] 40 years, so it must become more and more urgent to settle this question to build a two-state solution... and to give a state to the Palestinians. I believe that since I [was] a young teenager.”

Of course this ignores the fact that for almost two decades the territory, now claimed for a Palestinian state, the allegedly wondrous panacea for terrorism, was under Arab rule. Yet, not even the feeblest initiative was undertaken to establish one. Quite the opposite. All Arab efforts were directed at destroying the Jewish state, then within the 1949 Green Line, and replacing it with an Arab one.

Indeed up until July 1988, well after BHL was “a young teenager,” Jordan’s King Hussein was still demanding that the “West Bank” including east Jerusalem be returned to Hashemite rule. Moreover, it was only in 1987 that Hamas – the first overtly Islamist component of Palestinian terrorism, whose dominant characteristics until then had been Arab nationalism and Socialist/Marxists affinities, was established.


Wildly misleading

Yet prior to this time some of the most brutal terrorist atrocities were perpetrated, often by Palestinian terrorists who – as mentioned in previous columns – were not even Muslim, such as George Habash, Naif Hawatmeh and Wadie Haddad.

The following is a very incomplete catalogue of carnage that cannot be attributed to jihadist Islamist extremists – while Jordan was still demanding control of the “West Bank” and prior to any significant Islamic component in Palestinian terrorism: The Avivim school bus massacre (1970); the Lod (today Ben-Gurion) Airport Massacre (1972); the Ma’alot School Massacre (1972); the Coastal Road Massacre (1978); the Nahariya Massacre (1979); and the Vienna and Rome airport massacres (1985), to name but a few that left scores dead and hundreds maimed.

It would thus be overly charitable to the Palestinians – and wildly misleading – to suggest that if we would only focus on a “just war” against Islamist/jihadist elements in Palestinian society, Israel could somehow avoid an allegedly “unjust” war with the other elements – as BHL implies in the opening excerpt.

Indeed, this would be a dangerous illusion, for experience has shown the latter have been no less an obdurate and murderous adversary – and that the implacable, Judeophobic enmity Palestinian-Arabs harbor is in fact independent of Islamism – although in recent years it may well be energized by it.


Properly placed pessimism

Despite masses of accumulating evidence to the contrary BHL, declares he clings to his teenage belief “more than ever” and admonishes the Israeli leadership for excess pessimism that imperils the cherished values of Zionism, singling out Benjamin Netanyahu in particular for such “pernicious” pessimism.

But pessimism seems well-justified – Islamism aside – when one surveys the rhetoric and behavior of the current Palestinian leadership, commencing with Mahmoud Abbas who has publicly declared that he will not recognize Israel as a Jewish state and more recently that the mere presence of Jews with their “filthy feet” is a desecration of Muslim holy places.

Then, there was Jibril Rajoub, who shortly after being invited to participate in a high profile conference in Tel Aviv (2013), under the auspices of a leading think tank, told a Lebanese TV station that if the Palestinians had nuclear weapons, they would use them against Israel.

Palestinian Ambassador to Lebanon Abbas Zaki openly confessed on another Lebanese TV station that a two-state solution was nothing but a two-stage trap that will lead to “the collapse of Israel.” And this Sunday the PLO’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, found the presence of his potential peace partner’s national flag so offensive, he refused to participate in a conference until it was removed.

Imagine the outrage if the Israeli leadership conducted itself in a remotely similar fashion.


Misplaced optimism

Indeed, BHL’s optimism that there are still sufficient moderate Palestinians to make a two-state reality possible, are severely undermined by recent polls that show solid majorities not only rejecting the two-state idea, but endorsing the current wave of violence.

Optimism is a commendable quality, but when it is unsupported by facts, any policy based on it would be wildly irresponsible. In the Middle East that could be a terminal error.


Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.(www.strategic-israel.org)


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