Israel’s Politics of Deflection: Theory and Practice

General Observations

During my period as the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Palestine on behalf of the Human Rights Council, I have been struck by the persistent efforts of Israel and its strong civil society adjuncts to divert attention from the substance of Palestinian grievances or the consideration of the respective rights of Israel and Palestine under international law. I have also observed that many, but by no means all, of those who represent the Palestinians seem strangely reluctant to focus on substance or to take full advantage of opportunities to use UN mechanisms to challenge Israel on the terrain of international law and morality.

Richard Falk
Richard Falk, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967

This Palestinian reluctance is more baffling than are the Israeli diversionary tactics. It seems clear that international law supports Palestinian claims on the major issues in contention: borders, refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, resources (water, land), statehood, and human rights. Then why not insist on resolving the conflict by reference to international law with such modifications as seem mutually beneficial? Of course, those representing the Palestinians in international venues are aware of these opportunities, and are acting on the basis of considerations that in their view deserve priority.  It is disturbing that this passivity on the Palestinian side persists year after year, decade after decade. There are partial exceptions: support for recourse to the International Court of Justice to contest the construction of the separation wall, encouragement of the establishment of the Goldstone Fact-finding Inquiry investigating Israeli crimes after the 2008-09 attacks on Gaza, and complaints about settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem. But even here, Palestinian officialdom will not push hard to have these symbolic victories implemented in ways that alter the behavioral realities on the ground, and maybe even if they did do their best, nothing would change.

On the Israeli side, diversion and the muting of legal and legitimacy claims, is fully understandable as a way to blunt challenges from adversary sources: seeking to have the normative weakness of the Israeli side offset by an insistence that if there is to be a solution it must be based on the facts on the ground, whether these are lawful or not, and upon comparative diplomatic leverage and negotiating skill in a framework that is structurally biased in favor of Israel. The recently exhumed direct negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel exemplify this approach: proceeding despite the absence of preconditions as to compliance with international law even during the negotiations, reliance on the United States as the convening intermediary, and the appointment by President Obama of an AIPAC anointed Special Envoy (Martin Indyk), the latter underscoring the absurd one-sidedness of the diplomatic framework. It would seem that the Palestinians are too weak and infirm to cry ‘foul,’ but merely play along as if good natured, obedient, and frightened schoolchildren while the bullies rule the schoolyard.

Such a pattern is discouraging for many reasons: it weights the diplomatic process hopelessly in favor of the materially stronger side that has taken full advantage of the failure to resolve the conflict by grabbing more and more land and resources; it makes it virtually impossible to imagine a just and sustainable peace emerging out of such a process at this stage; it plays a cruel game in which the weaker side is almost certain to be made to seem unreasonable because it will not accept what the stronger side is prepared to offer, which is insultingly little; and it allows the stronger side to use the process and time interval of the negotiations as an opportunity to consolidate its unlawful claims,  benefitting from the diversion of attention.

There are two interwoven concerns present: the pernicious impacts of the politics of deflection as an aspect of conflicting behavior in many settings, especially where there are gross disparities in hard power and material position; the specific politics of deflection as a set of strategies devised and deployed with great effectiveness by Israel in its effort to attain goals with respect to historic Palestine that far exceed what the UN and the international community had conferred. The section that follows deals with the politics of deflection only in the Israel/Palestine context

The Specific Dynamics of the Politics of Deflection

Anti-Semitism: undoubtedly the most disturbing behavior by Israel and its supporters is to deflect attention from substance in the conflict and the abuses of the occupation is to dismiss criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism or to defame the critic as an anti-Semite. This is pernicious for two reasons: first, because it exerts a huge influence because anti-Semitism has been so totally discredited, even criminalized, in the aftermath of World War II that featured the exposure and repudiation of the Holocaust; secondly, because by extending the reach of anti-Semitism to address hostile commentary on Israel a shift of attention occurs—away from the core evil of ethnic and racial hatred to encompass the quite reasonable highly critical appraisal of Israeli behavior toward the Palestinian people by reference to overarching norms of law and morality.

This misuse of language is also used to attack Jewish critics of Israel by irresponsible characterizations of critics as ‘self-hating Jews.’ Such persons might exist, but to infer their existence because of their criticisms of Israel or opposition to the Zionist Project functions as a means to move inhibit open discussion and debate, and to avoid substantive issues. It tends to be effective as a tactic as few people are prepared to take the time and trouble to investigate the fairness and accuracy of such allegations, and so once the shadow is cast, many stay clear of the conflict or come to believe that criticism of Israel is of less interest than are the pros and cons of the personal accusations.  Strong Zionist credentials will not insulate a Jew from such allegations as Richard Goldstone discovered when he was vilified by the top tier of Israeli leadership after chairing a fact-finding inquiry that confirmed allegations of Israeli war crimes in the course of Operation Cast Lead. Even the much publicized subsequent Goldstone ‘retraction’ did little to rehabilitate the reputation of the man in Israeli eyes, although his change of heart as to the main allegation of his own report (a change rejected by the other three members of the inquiry group), was successfully used by Israeli apologists to discredit and bury the report, again illustrating a preference for deflection as opposed to substance.

Even such global moral authority figures as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter have been called anti-Semites because they dared to raise their voices about the wrongs that Israel has inflicted on the Palestinian people, specifically identifying the discriminatory legal structures of the occupation as an incipient form of apartheid.

In the unpleasant course of being myself a frequent target of such vilifying techniques, I have discovered that it is difficult to make reasoned responses that do not have the effect of accentuating my plight. To fail to respond leaves an impression among some bystanders that there must be something to the accusations or else there would be forthcoming a reasoned and well-evidenced response. To answer such charges is to encourage continuing attention to the allegations, provides the accusing side with another occasion to repeat the charges by again cherry picking the evidence. NGOs such as UN Watch and UN Monitor specialize in managing such hatchet jobs.

What is more disturbing than the attacks themselves than their resonance among those holding responsible positions in government and international institutions, as well as widely respected liberal organizations. In my case, the UN Secretary General, the U.S. ambassadors at the UN in New York and Geneva, the British Prime Minister, and the Canadian Foreign Minister. Not one of these individuals bothered to check with me as to my response to the defamatory allegations or apparently took the trouble to check on whether there was a credible basis for such damaging personal attacks. Even the liberal mainstream human rights powerhouse, Human Rights Watch, buckled under when pressured by UN Watch, invoking a long neglected technical rule to obtain my immediate removal from a committee, and then lacked the decency to explain that my removal was not ‘a dismissal’ when UN Watch claimed ‘victory,’ and proceeded to tell the UN and other bodies that if Human Rights Watch had expelled me, surely I should be expelled elsewhere. I learned, somewhat bitterly, that HRW has feet of clay when it came to standing on principle in relation to someone like myself who has been the victim of repeated calumnies because of an effort to report honestly and accurately on Israeli violations of Palestinian rights.

Auspices/Messenger: A favorite tactic of those practicing the politics of deflection is to contend that the auspices are biased, and thus whatever substantive criticisms might issue from such an organization should be disregarded. Israel and the United States frequently use this tactic to deflect criticism of Israel that is made in the UN System, especially if it emanates from the Human Rights Council in Geneva or the General Assembly. The argument is reinforced by the similarly diversionary claim that Israeli violations are given a disproportionately large share of attention compared to worse abuses in other countries, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa. Also, there is the complementary complaint that some of the members of the Human Rights Council themselves have appalling human rights records that disqualify them from passing judgment, thereby exhibiting the hypocrisy of criticisms directed at Israel.

It is tiresome to respond to such lines of attack, but important to do so.

First of all, in my experience, the UN has always made fact-based criticisms of Israeli policies and practices, appointed individuals with strong professional credentials and personal integrity, and painstakingly reviewed written material prior to publication to avoid inflammatory or inaccurate criticisms. Beyond this, Israel is almost always given an opportunity to review material critical of its behavior before it is released, and almost never avails itself of this chance to object substantively. In my experience, the UN, including the Human Rights Council, leans over backwards to be fair to Israel, and to take account of Israeli arguments even when Israel declines to make a case on its own behalf.

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Richard Falk

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. From 2008 until May 2014, he was the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. 

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  • Fred Skolnik

    Since you are reproducing Falk’s new attack on Israel, you might want to reproduce my reply to him so that you’ll really have something to get your teeth into:

    I’ve only looked in on you in the last few days to see what you are up to and see that you are still acting as a magnet
    for Israel haters and that you have succeeded in driving away anyone who takes issue with your distorted view of the Arab-Israel conflict. I am not going to argue with you but I will point out a few of your persisting factual errors.

    Hamas is not the “elected governing authority in Gaza.”
    It won a majority in the Palestinian Authority’s parliamentary elections and proceeded to seize Gaza and expel all PA representatives, even murdering a few. This is comparable in
    every way to the Republicans seizing Massachusetts and expelling all Democrats after winning their majority in the House of Representatives.

    You persistently misuse and misunderstand the term “naqba,” which means disaster or catastrophe and signifies nothing more than the humiliating result of the ill-advised Arab attack on Israel in 1948.

    There is no “historic Palestine” other than Mandate Palestine and the Roman Palaestina, which was a new name for Judea
    meant to obscure its connection to the Jews. The Palestinians whose rights you are promoting are descendents of Arab migrant workers who began arriving in the area in the 19th century and never had anything remotely resembling a Palestinian identity until Nasser started using the term in the 1950s.

    The nonviolent hunger strikers you are bemoaning were almost all convicted terrorists, including not a few murderers.

    Critics of Israel are not called antisemites unless they use the kind of language that is typical of antisemites.

    Your representation of the UN Human Rights Council as a benign and fair-minded body is worse than a bad joke but even worse is your association with it and the manner in which you go about your “investigations.” The first thing to be noted is that you don’t speak a word of Arabic (or Hebrew for that matter) and are totally dependent on your Hamas hosts for all the information you receive in Gaza. You have no way of evaluating or verifying this information. If Hamas leads you to an Arab resident who states through an interpreter or in pidgin English that rockets are not stored in or fired from residential areas you dutifully record this and incorporate the statement into your report. Any historian gathering evidence in this way would simply be laughed off the stage. That someone with your lack of investigative qualifications and publicly stated biases should have been employed by a UN Human Rights Council whose members are among the worst violators of human rights in the world is a sure indication of what this Council is looking for and what you are prepared to give it.

    I will close by saying that dreaming up new phrases like “deflection” with which to attack Israel will not get the Palestinians a state, whose contours are clear to everyone and whose realization depends entirely on the readiness of the Palestinians to give up their apocalyptic vision of a great massacre on the shores of the Mediterranean.

    • Fred, it is interesting how you first deny that Hamas is the elected governing authority in Gaza only then to immediately confirm that Hamas was indeed elected into authority. As for the rest, you neglect to mention how Israel and the U.S. conspired with the Abbas government to overthrow the elected Hamas government, and it was a result of this that the conflict broke out in Gaza in which Hamas ultimately expelled Fatah.

      Mr. Falk, I can assure you, is perfectly well aware that the “catastrophe” the Nakba refers to is the ethnic cleansing of Gaza and needs no instruction on that from you, thank you.

      As for the rest of you comment, there’s nothing in there worth taking the time to reply to.

      • Fred Skolnik

        Hamas was not elected into authority. It won a parliamentary majority. If you like I can walk you through the way a parliamentary system works. The end result was a coalition government in the name of national unity which fell apart for its own reasons. I don’t think you know enough about the Middle East to determine who is conspiring with whom.
        No, the naqba doesn’t refer to the ethnic cleansing of Gaza, it refers to the 1948 war.

        • In January 2005, Hamas won municipal elections, gaining far more seats in local councils than Fatah. More municipal elections were held in September, with Hamas again taking nearly a third of the votes.

          In January 2006 parliamentary elections, Hamas won a majority of 76 of 132 seats. Ismael Haniyeh was appointed Prime Minister. That is how Hamas came into governing authority, through elections.

          The U.S. and Israel, however, could not tolerate a legitimately elected Hamas government. Hence, they conspired with Abbas to overthrow it. Abbas declared his intention to dissolve the unity government, replace Haniyeh, and hold new elections, none of which he had any authority to do. The US also armed Fatah to foment factional violence. The coup that led to Hamas taking over Gaza was not a Hamas coup, but an attempted Fatah coup.

          Hamas remains the legitimate governing authority in Gaza. Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the Abbas government has no legitimacy. Abbas’s term as president expired in January 2009, which he unlawfully extended, which extension also since expired. According to Article 65 of the Basic Law, the legally acting President should have been PLC speaker Abdel Aziz Dweik, a Hamas representative. Salam Fayyad was similarly appointed by Abbas without legal authority, Ismael Haniyeh being the only legitimately appointed Prime Minister.

          The Nakba refers to the ethnic cleansing of Gaza that began months before the 1948 war and continued through that war’s ending in 1949. The “catastrophe” it refers to is the explusion or flight of three-quarters of a million Arabs from their homes in Palestine.

          • Fred Skolnik

            There was no fighting in Gaza before 1948 and the Arabs use the term with reference to the war as a whole, They also never used the term ethnic cleansing until it became fashionable., You are just throwing around dirty words that you picked up on the Internet from other Israel haters. When I say that you don’t know enough about the Middle East to make these categorical determinations of yours I mean that you don’t know any of its languages, have never lived there, most likely have never even been there, necessarily get all your information at second and third hand, and are unequipped to evaluate and verify what you pick up from these sources. This may work in Blogland and self-publishing but it doesn’t work anywhere else.
            Your reading of the refugee problem is meaningless. It is the result of a war initiated by the Arabs and similar to the displacement of populations in other wars, as was the case with India and Pakistan, and is paralelled by a similar displacement of Jews from Arab countries in the same period.
            Your reading of Fatah-Hamas relations and imaginary conspiracies is also meaningless. Hamas was not a legitimate governing authority but part of a coalition government serving at the discretion of the head of state, He dismissed the government a day after Hamas took over Gaza. How the PA works out its problems is entirely its own business, and if you want to champion a terrorist organization, that is entirely your business, but it certainly isn’t going to get the Palestinians a state.

          • I defer to my previous comment. The facts are as I stated them.

    • This article by mr. Falk is not an attack on Israel, Fred, but an attack
      on political zionism, their affiliates and how they operate. One can
      only hope that there will be any distinction between the two in the
      near future. In fact you are unwillingly helping mr.Falk by
      mentioning two other deflections. There are many jews in Israel and
      elsewhere and not only historians that agree for 90% that the zionist
      historiography about the Nakba and other events is a load of crap and
      fallacies serving to transform occupation, annexation and the wars of
      choice by Israel into ‘defence.’ Turning Israel into a pathocracy.
      Hamas is another example. Begin and Shamir understood exactly what
      they had created. Knesset Member Avraham Poraz (Shinui) was among a litany of Israeli leaders who blamed Likud for Hamas. “The Likud
      has got Hamas on its hands because it refused to talk to the PLO,”
      he said.
      The last three lines I copied from “Sharon and Hamas – How
      the Likud Bloc Mid-wifed the Birth of Hamas.” by Ray Hanania.

      • Fred Skolnik

        I think the only way you can determine what is a load of crap with regard to the 1948 war is by reading the historical material. I don’t know how you personally determine what is true or not other than by picking and choosing among historians or on the Internet to get what you want. 90% seems to be something you’re just throwing into the air to get an effect and has nothing to do with real historiography. Who blames whom for what in Istaeli politics is politics, not history. But if you realize that Hamas a is barbaric terrorist organization, that’s fine. And now Israel is negotiating and everyone understands what a peace agreement is going to look like. It will just take a bit of courage on the part of the Palestinian leaders to relinquish their apocalyptic visions.

        • Apart from patronizing, insulting and neglecting answers and facts you come up with surprisingly little knowledge. Well, shall we read you a little story than? Let me see. Ah, this one:

          ==“The Yishuv entered the first stage of the war in November- December 1947 with an understanding with Transjordan’s King Abdullah—’a falcon trapped in a canary’s cage’—that, come the British evacuation, his army, the Arab Legion, would take over the eastern part of Palestine (now called the West Bank), earmarked by the UN to be the core of the Palestinian Arab state, and that it would leave the Yishuv alone to set up the Jewish state in the other areas of the country. The Yishuv and the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan, Shlaim and Bar-Joseph persuasively argue, had conspired from 1946 to early 1948 to nip the impending UN partition resolution in the bud and to thwart the emergence of a Palestinian Arab state. It was to be partition, but between Israel and Transjordan. This ‘collusion’ and ‘unholy alliance’—in Avi Shlaim’s loaded phrases —was sealed at the now-famous clandestine meeting between Golda Myerson (Meir) and Abdullah at Naharayim on the Jordan River on 17 November 1947.

          Moreover, this Zionist-Hashemite understanding was fully sanctioned by the British Government, Shlaim, Milstein, Bar-Joseph, and Pappe demonstrate. Contrary to the old Zionist historiography, which was based largely on the mistaken feelings of Israel’s leaders at the time, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, by February 1948 had clearly ‘become resigned to the inevitable emergence of a Jewish state’, while opposing the emergence of a Palestinian Arab state. And he explicitly warned Transjordan ‘to refrain from invading the areas allotted to the Jews’.

          Both Shlaim and Flapan make the point that the Palestinian Arabs, though led by Haj Amin al Husayni, the conniving, extremist, former mufti of Jerusalem, were far from unanimous in supporting the Husayni-led crusade against the Jews. Indeed, in the first months of the hostilities, according to the Yishuv’s intelligence sources, the bulk of Palestine’s Arabs merely wanted peace and quiet, if only out of a healthy respect for the Jews’ martial prowess. But gradually, in part because of Haganah over-reactions, the conflict spread, eventually engulfing the two communities throughout the land.”, ==

          B. Morris. 1948 and after: Israel and the Palestinians. Oxford University Press, 1994. p.9-10

          Now, there are a lot of books, official documents and newspaper articles at the time to substantiate all this, but that will only keep you awake. So, sleep well … oh, sorry… I forgot about the time difference. Goodbye.

          • Fred Skolnik

            The Yishiv entered the war after it was attacked by the surrounding Arab states, including Jordan. “Lots of books …” etc., is not an argument. With the opening of the Israeli archives for the period, Benny Morris has had the opportunity to review his own conclusions and wrote a new book on the 1948 war in 2008 which I suggest you read.

          • Correction: you have NO knowledge about the events in 1947/48. 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris just adds more details to the ‘story’ I gave you. Avi Shlaim even praises the book for that:


            Books like ‘Scares of War, Wounds of Peace’ by Shlomo Ben-Ami (2006) or ‘Taking Sides’ by Stephen Green (1984 !) acknowledge the fact that Ben-Gurion was only stalling time for a military buildup for an annexation war. I suggest you to study and to stop waisting people’s time.

          • Fred Skolnik

            Of course you didn’t actually read the book, just a review. But any way you cut it, the Arabs attacked Israel and paid the price for it. You won’t understand anything by cutting and pasting whatever suits you.

  • Schuh

    In the second paragraph Dr. Falk described the Palestinian reluctance to challenge Israel through the UN as ‘baffling.’ What explains this reluctance?

    • It has to do with the PA’s role as “Israel’s Enforcer” in the West Bank, its dependence on taxes collected by Israel in occupied territory on its behalf and on U.S. aid, etc. This is a question I hope to shed light on in a forthcoming book. Keep up with my work on this issue at my website, and subscribe to my newsletter there for updates about the book and sneak peeks.