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FDD’s Cliff May Misses the Irony

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Clifford May conveniently criticizes China for creating “facts on the ground” in the South China Sea while ignoring similar Israeli moves in the Occupied West Bank.

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“’Creating facts on the ground’ means changing reality through actions rather than diplomacy.”

That opening line in a Washington Times op-ed, by the long-time president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), Clifford May, gave me a classic double take when I read it last week.

According to Wikipedia, the origin of the phrase “facts on the ground” lies with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “where it was used to refer to Israeli settlements built in the occupied West Bank, which were intended to establish permanent Israeli footholds in Palestinian territory.” That’s ordinarily the context in which the phrase is used. In fact, Wikipedia says the phrase is “a calque of the Hebrew term ‘Uvdot Ba’Shetach’” A calque is a word-for-word translation.

But that’s not what May was referring to in his op-ed, which made it clear that he strongly disapproved of “changing reality through actions rather than diplomacy,” aka “creating facts on the ground.”

That’s because he wasn’t referring to the Jewish settlement movement in West Bank (and East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights). May was instead referring to …China and specifically its recent efforts to build and build up islands across the South China Sea.

What makes this real estate so valuable? Location, location, location. The South China Sea is home to some of the world’s busiest and most strategic shipping lanes, a rich fishing area, and possibly large undersea oil and natural gas reserves. China apparently intends to assert its sovereignty and control over all this [area]—and maybe over the airspace above as well.

May went on to cite with approval Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s recent characterization of the Chinese actions as “’out of step’ with international norms.” May himself suggested that Chinese actions violated “international maritime law,” which “[t]he US Navy has the muscle to enforce.”

Of course, May was citing the Chinese construction activity to push the larger Republican—remember, he was once a spokesman for the Republican National Committee—and Likudist narrative that the Obama administration is spineless in dealing with challenges to U.S. regional (read Middle East) and global hegemony.

(Indeed, May went on to argue that if China gets away with defying U.S. demands to halt the island construction, “precedents will be set” that “Iran’s rulers” could use to assert their territorial claims over the Strait of Hormuz and beyond.)

But, the question that goes begging in the op-ed is: how are China’s actions in the South China Sea different from Israel’s actions in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights?

True, China may “intend” at some future date to assert its sovereignty and control over most of the South China Sea in ways that could, potentially, challenge or even violate “international norms” and “international maritime law.” But Israel has not only actually annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights (which takes care of the sovereignty issue), it also continues to exercise de facto “control” over the West Bank and Gaza, including their “borders” and, as May called it, the “air space above.” And, of course, its settlements in the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem continue to constitute actual violations of international law, not least the Fourth Geneva Convention, according to numerous UN resolutions, the International Court of Justice, all but a tiny handful of international legal experts, and every government except Israel’s. (The U.S. has never revoked a 1979 State Department legal opinion that found the creation of Israeli settlements in occupied territories “inconsistent with international law. Wikipedia actually has quite an exhaustive discussion of the settlements’ legal status.)

So you may indeed strongly object to China’s “changing reality through actions rather than diplomacy,” but if you’re going to use a phrase as evocative of Israel’s illegal actions as “creating facts on the ground,” particularly when your organization’s entire raison d’être consists of defending Israel and its actions, shouldn’t you feel somewhat obliged to try to distinguish between the two situations? Are you so lacking in self-consciousness, so oblivious to irony? Help me out here, Cliff.

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