Method and Madness by Norman G. Finkelstein

Norman G. Finkelstein
Method and Madness: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Assaults on Gaza
January 2015
New York
OR Books
236 pages
ISBN 9781939293718
Buy here

Norman G. Finkelstein’s latest volume chronicling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Method and Madness, immediately outlines the scope of the book in the preface. Unlike his earlier books, such as 1995’s seminal Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, here Finkelstein focuses on a narrow temporal and substantive series of events: the evolution and escalation of Israeli military operations in Gaza between 2006 and late 2014. Rather than developing a broad explanation of the socioeconomic and geopolitical forces which have long prevented a resolution of the decades-long conflict, Method and Madness seeks to explain three major Israeli operations in Gaza: Operation Cast Lead (2008-9), Operation Pillar of Defense (2012), and Operation Protective Edge (2014). Finkelstein provides a contrarian account of “the accepted interpretation” and the “key triggers, features, and consequences” of each new operation by  chronologically tracing Israel’s strategic and domestic political developments across successive assaults (xi). Throughout this concise book, ancillary issues are brought into focus, including Israel’s relations with key Western allies—such as the United States, notably—as well as the domestic Israeli political actors’ motives for rhetorical and military escalation of strategies against the Gazan population. Overall Method and Madness remains a primarily descriptive account, albeit one which will resonate with longtime critics of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories, and one which explores primary source accounts of the three operations in extraordinary detail.

Method and Madness remains a primarily descriptive account, albeit one which will resonate with longtime critics of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories, and one which explores primary source accounts of the three operations in extraordinary detail.

Throughout the book, Finkelstein methodically trades recent Israeli maneuvers and policy decisions with an approachable, simple structure. Despite the obvious complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian and the broader Israeli-Arab conflicts, the sequential and heavily expository nature of the book offers those readers who might be less knowledgeable an easy access point, although it may prove somewhat basic and repetitious for other readers, particularly those who are familiar with his earlier works. Nevertheless, there are many opportunities for readers of any background or level of familiarity to learn more. In particular, the cumulative logic of successive Israeli military actions is clear and instructive, such as Israel’s recent conflict setbacks by top policymakers in subsequent endeavors (12–13). Finkelstein begins with the “unwinnable situation” Israel found itself in the 2006 Lebanon War against Hezbollah, and the embarrassment of failing to achieve meaningful strategic or political gains despite “[unleashing] the full fury of [Israel’s] air force and … a ground invasion" (11). As in later campaigns in Gaza, Israel’s actions are consistently framed by its leaders as efforts to restore the country’s “deterrence capacity.” In other words, it is critical to remain cognizant of the broader goals of these recent conflicts not merely as efforts to punish or incapacitate Israel’s enemies, but rather as signals of the country’s capabilities and unchecked political resolve to exercise them with abandon. As much as Israel’s military policies signal to domestic audiences—i.e., the Israeli electorate—they also serve as instruments of articulating their foreign policy in action.

The “Dahiya strategy,” named for a Beirut, Lebanon, suburb “pulverized” during the 2006 Lebanon War, is the launching point for Finkelstein’s inquiry. The strategy, in the words of former Israeli National Security Council Chief Giora Eiland, aimed to bring “serious damage to [Lebanon], the destruction of homes and infrastructure,” and overtly, to bring about “the suffering of hundreds of thousands” of noncombatant civilians, ostensibly to “influence Hezbollah’s behavior” (13–15). This “shock and awe” approach to warfare became Israel’s primary method of achieving the “deterrence capacity.” With it, a framework for Israeli policy in Gaza was born.

The escalation of this “Dahiya strategy” is inescapably laid bare in Method and Madness, as the scale and lethality of each new operation in Gaza vacillated, peaking in 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. Per Finkelstein, “Whereas Israel killed a mere 55 Lebanese during the first two days of the 2006 [Lebanon] War, it killed as many as 300 Gazans in four minutes on the first day of Cast Lead” in December 2008 (15). During 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense, however, “The actual Israeli assault … was qualitatively less murderous and destructive [than Cast Lead]. Israel, it was said, used more precise weapons during Pillar of Defense and had ‘learned the lessons’ of Cast Lead on how to avoid civilian casualties” (124). Nevertheless, and hewing to the extant Dahiya strategy’s primacy, the goals of Pillar of Defense remained constant and far from avoiding the typical collateral destruction of operations in the Occupied Territories, generally: “in the words of the Goldstone Report [and] scores of other human rights reports, [the explicit aim of Pillar of Defense was] to ‘punish, humiliate and terrorize’ the Gazan civilian population” (124–125).

By summer 2014, in the twilight hours of the crumbling ceasefire established after Pillar of Defense, “the abduction and killing by Palestinians of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank” afforded an exceptional opportunity for Israel to reinvigorate the Dahiya strategy, not to mention a pretext “to destroy the Palestinian[s’ Hamas-Fatah] unity government” formed in April 2014 (135). That unity government, which had found a moderated “consensus” compromise on supporting “the three negotiating preconditions” set by Western powers for the stalled, fledgling peace process, damningly undercut longstanding Israeli claims that Hamas lacked the credibility required for bargaining and negotiating a way forward for both embattled parties.

With Western powers’ attention stretched by the collapse of Ukraine and the July 17, 2014, downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukrainian airspace (138), a window of opportunity was transformed into a carte blanche mandate for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hardliner political allies; Operation Protective Edge, defined by its “manifest … targeting or firing indiscriminately at [Gazan] civilians and civilian infrastructure,” launched in response (140–141). The extremity of the violence perpetrated against Gazan civilians triggered an unprecedented backlash from global human rights organizations, including many which had previously hedged against meaningful condemnation of Israeli war crimes violations, such as Human Rights Watch (140-141). Ultimately, Operation Protective Edge “Killed [an estimated] 2,200 Palestinians, of whom 70–75% were civilians. Among the dead were 500 Palestinian children … 11,000 Palestinians suffered injuries … 11,000 homes, 360 factories and workshops, 160 mosques, 100 schools, and 10 hospitals were either destroyed or severely damaged; 100,000 Palestinians were left homeless” (156).

Despite Operation Protective Edge’s massive destruction, Finkelstein contends that it still marked a categorical failure to achieve Israel’s stated goals, such as “Netanyahu’s goal [of fracturing] the Palestinian government,” while creating a humanitarian crisis of vast proportions, the ramifications of which have only deepened over the 10 months since the initial August 2014 ceasefire (157). As in the previous operations in Gaza, Israel’s Dahiya strategy maximized civilian suffering while undercutting broader geopolitical goals. In the 10 months since the initial August 2014 ceasefire, however, recent developments have both undermined Finkelstein’s post-mortem of the ill-conceived Operation Protective Edge and demonstrated numerous negative consequences for Israeli foreign policy unexplored in Method and Madness. Notably, Hamas has faced increasing and violent challenges from radicalized fringe groups, including those affiliated with the Islamic State, in the wake of Protective Edge; mounting and widespread condemnation of Israel’s actions in the Occupied Territories has begun creeping into the political language and media discourses of some of Israel’s staunchest allies, including the United States (however delicately). Most disastrously for Israel’s ostensible security interests in executing the three successive operations, rather than undermining Hamas’s legitimacy among Palestinians by casting Protective Edge as another consequence of their leadership in Gaza—and hence promoting support for the corrupt, coopted Fatah party—Israel reinvigorated radicalization of Palestine’s militant political fringes. Far from evidencing a deterrence capability, Israel achieved the creation of wholly new security threats while denigrating Hamas — a group which had dramatically reigned in extremism, adopted the basic tenets of the withering peace process, and meekly defended itself during the onslaught of Protective Edge.

Although Finkelstein was writing before and hence could not address many of these developments—and while perfect foresight is an impossible standard to which any author may be held—he undoubtedly engages the growing weight of previously unthinkable critiques of Israeli policy. Whereas Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky, the late Edward Said, and other leading critics have long voiced unequivocal calls for accountability and constraining Israeli militarism, the common uncritical support of Israel and the false equivocation of Israeli-Palestinian culpability for the intractable nature of the conflict have dimmed. To see Gershom Gorenberg (American Prospect, September 20, 2014), Avraham Burg (New York Times, September 24, 2014), David Redneck (New Yorker, October 9, 2014), and Arat Biletzki (New York Times, May 11, 2015) actively calling into question Israel’s very status as a democracy—anathema, utterly unthinkable in most of the mainstream US media even just a few years ago—points to a sea change in how the conflict is being framed in Western discourse. Here, Finkelstein both underplays this change while providing a powerful addition to the accumulated evidence grounding these perspectives

In Method and Madness, Finkelstein’s writing style proved somewhat frustrating. Though undeniably articulate, with a singular ability to maximize moral outrage in the face of politicians’ hypocrisies in reciting their own words, Finkelstein’s penchant for repetition and redundancy are disorienting. Over the course of 165 pages—a concise volume for subjects of such complexity—the author frequently recalls quotations and cited passages verbatim, rather than devoting valuable space to a variety of accounts and perspectives. Given the relatively narrow scope of Method and Madness, covering just the period between 2006 and 2014, predominantly from 2008 onward, this can detract from the elegance and simplicity of Finkelstein’s primary arguments at times.

... Finkelstein’s greatest strength is his powerful ability to jolt the comfort and moral sensibilities of even his most jaded, veteran readers, drawing his vast ammunition from the consistent use of primary sources on the ground.

Compared to Finkelstein’s earlier book, Image and Reality, longtime readers might similarly be frustrated by Method and Madness’s lack of methodological structure and deep analytical rigor. It is unclear if the unstructured, loosely (inconsistently) chronological organization is intentional, seeking to draw the reader toward the details and personalized accounts of Israel’s wars in Gaza, knowingly at the expense of theoretical or thematic guidance. If so, the book’s consequent approach effectively advances the moral resonance of these wars on a more fundamentally human level: the unfiltered, expectedly polemical sendup of Israeli abuses turned my stomach repeatedly, even though the firsthand accounts were consistent with countless others I have read over the years. In this sense, Finkelstein’s greatest strength is his powerful ability to jolt the comfort and moral sensibilities of even his most jaded, veteran readers, drawing his vast ammunition from the consistent use of primary sources on the ground. Method and Madness thus provides an account which is both comprehensible and accessible, as well as a rejoinder to the frequent “sanitizing” and false equivocating of the mainstream media. The suffering of Gazans—prolonged, extreme in scale and depth—transcends headlines and statistics in a profoundly personal manner.

Method and Madness is a powerful part of the changing geopolitical constraints facing Israel in Gaza, the West Bank, and elsewhere.

As a thorough stocktaking of Israeli escalation of indiscriminate violence since 2006, Finkelstein’s book is a great resource for understanding the limited responsiveness of the global community. Their unwillingness to support and to encourage protection of civilians’ basic rights is central, as is the chilling portrait of Israel’s political leadership, lurching ever further toward the extreme right and toward overt, unapologetic recklessness. In the contexts of Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defense, and Operation Protective Edge, alone, this remains a defensible point, extending a long history of both Western capitulation and increasingly extreme Israeli domestic political realities. The United States and the major European Union powers remain unequivocal allies of Israel—providing material economic, military, and strategic assistance orders of magnitude beyond most other countries—but Israel’s isolation from the mainstream of global politics is entirely absent or otherwise minimized in Method and Madness. Whether this recent development is temporary, reflecting a standalone and limited effort to reign in Israel’s bellicose rhetoric and widely condemned militarism, or if it marks a serious turning point in Israel’s hitherto unchallenged capacity to conduct violence against civilians and others in the Occupied Territories, remains to be seen. The existence of this question and its increasing prevalence in the mainstream of political debate globally is profound. After decades of consistent attention to the imbalances of capabilities and the asymmetry of suffering facing Israel and the Palestinians at the margins of Western, and especially American discourse, Israel’s protection and absolution from centrists and moderates is waning. With each new provocation—a speech to Congress designed to undercut and ostracize a sitting U.S. President, use of explicitly race-baiting rhetoric to stoke anti-Arab sentiments among Israeli voters, threatening preventive war against Iran during watershed negotiations to reach a nuclear accord and economic reintegration of the Islamic Republic into the global community—Israel pushes itself to the margins. While Finkelstein’s Method and Madness does not seem to embrace this conclusion, understandably privileging the weight of a long history of Western hewing to Israeli interests and narratives, this book is a powerful part of the changing geopolitical constraints facing Israel in Gaza, the West Bank, and elsewhere. In harrowing detail, we have more evidence at hand to dismantle the unconscionable status quo.

Andy Jon Carr
Nomadic Press
Carr is a resident of San Francisco, California, where he works for an international nonprofit organization. He is also an editor and writer, mainly covering global politics, development, and urban sustainability.