As Israel’s ultra-nationalist parties continue to gain traction, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to appease them by building "settlements" with US taxpayer dollars on Palestinian land, the hostility between Washington and Tel Aviv is coming out into the open. While tension has been building for a while – I would argue since George W. Bush’s second term, when Dubya balked at going along with the Cheney-neocon plan for war with Iran – it is now reaching a dramatic climax with the spectacle of the Israeli Prime Minister openly rebuking Washington for alleged "interference" in Israeli politics. This is rich coming from someone who made no secret of his preference for Mitt Romney, and it comes in response to the publication of a recent piece by Obama supporter and pro-Israel writer Jeffrey Goldberg detailing the President’s private remarks on the settlements question. Goldberg reported:
"When informed about the Israeli decision [to build more settlements], Obama, who has a famously contentious relationship with the prime minister, didn’t even bother getting angry. He told several people that this sort of behavior on Netanyahu’s part is what he has come to expect, and he suggested that he has become inured to what he sees as self-defeating policies of his Israeli counterpart.
"In the weeks after the UN vote, Obama said privately and repeatedly, ‘Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.’ With each new settlement announcement, in Obama’s view, Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation."
Netanyahu, in full campaign mode – the elections are next week – was quick to respond, as the Jerusalem Post reports:
"’I think everyone understands that only Israel’s citizens are those who will be the ones to determine who faithfully represents Israel’s vital interests,’ the prime minister said in his first direct response to Obama’s reported criticism.
"Netanyahu said over the past four years he had withstood ‘enormous pressure,’ including demands that Israel curb its pressure on Iran, withdraw to the pre-1967 lines, divide Jerusalem and stop building in the eastern part of the capital.
"’We fended off all those pressures, and I will continue to stand firm on Israel’s vital interests for the security of the citizens of Israel,’ he declared."
While the Post avers Netanyahu’s was a "direct response," in fact no names were mentioned, but everyone (especially in Israel) knows this "pressure" has been emanating from Washington. Joining Netanyahu in his denunciation of those pushy Americans was none other than "libertarian" Sen. Rand Paul (R-Gooberville). Fresh from a recent trip to Israel paid for by the American Family Association, a Christian fundamentalist activist group, the "libertarian" Senator and wannabe presidential candidate declared:
"’That’s an arrogant and presumptuous point of view and doesn’t further progress on anything,’ the senator said, and he returned to that view throughout the call as he discussed the location of Israel’s capital and Israeli settlements. Paul decried U.S. politicians who display ‘this flippant and arrogant’ attitude about internal Israeli affairs, saying that ‘no one can really know as much as people in the region’ about such matters. ‘It is not up to the U.S. to dictate’ to mayors and West Bank officials where housing goes, Paul added. Paul said he considers himself more pro-Israel than some pro-Israel audiences because ‘I’m for an independent, strong Israel that is not a dependent state, not a client state.’"
Siding with a foreign leader against an American President is always problematic for any US politician, but lest one think this is an example of political courage on Sen. Paul’s part, consider the context of his remarks. US military aid to Israel now exceeds $3.5 billion a year – not counting the value of special projects like the "Iron Dome" missile defense system the Senator is so enthralled by. Those billions pay for a program of systematic ethnic cleansing: Arabs are being forced off their lands, and "settlements" are being erected on the ruins of their former homes.
Surely the Senator – who, despite appearances, is no dope – knows this. And if he didn’t know it, surely he was educated on the subject in his meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas – although, oddly, in all the news reports of Paul’s trip to Israel, where hear nothing about this scheduled encounter.
Yes, it’s true: "no one can really know as much as the people in the region" – but aren’t the Palestinians people?
Pretending not to grasp the significance of the settlements issue, or of the larger issue of Palestine and the two-state solution, simply will not do – not for an alleged "leader" of the libertarian wing of the GOP, and certainly not for a somewhat over-eager presidential candidate who flaunts his ambitions. Since Israel could not exist – let alone bomb, invade and subjugate its Palestinian and Lebanese neighbors – without extensive US military and economic aid, it is viewed as America’s regional proxy. This is what "the people in the region" know and Sen. Paul appears not to want to know.
Paul has long since backed off his stance of wanting to end aid to Israel: he now says he would do it gradually, and would start cutting the aid budget by immediately ending it for countries "where they burn our flag," singling out Egypt and Pakistan and specifically exempting Israel.
Previously under attack by the Israel lobby for saying US aid to Israel ought to be ended – and just because he is, after all, his father‘s son – the Israel trip was meant to make amends, and Paul earned plaudits from the Lobby in this country for his efforts. The Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin took a breather from her frantic campaign to impugn the character of Chuck Hagel to give the lesser Paul a thumbs up, having earlier contrasted him favorably with his father. Phil Klein exulted in the birth of "Zionist non-interventionism," which apparently means we pay the bills and don’t bother the Israelis as they ethnically cleanse Palestine of the Palestinians. Seth Lipsky, writing in the New York Post, hailed Paul’s comments as "the most supportive of Israel since Sarah Palin." Dave Weigel reveals more of the tortured rationalization for Paul’s conversion on the road to Jerusalem:
"I asked Paul to revisit the settlement question. Had his trip taught him anything that was being incorporated into his new thinking?
"’One question is: If I’m the mayor of Jerusalem, or if I’m looking at places in the West Bank and settlements in the West Bank, obviously there’s either advisability or inadvisability with regard to ultimately finding places to build, whether it’s antagonistic or provacative,’ said Paul. ‘Where I distinguish myself, though, is while there might be right or wrong answers to these questions, it’s not American politicians’ business to be dictating the answers. The answers need to come from the participants who live on the ground in these areas. I think it’s just presumptuous and arrogant of us to think, well, we’re going to go down to a roadmap of Jerusalem and decide where the neighborhoods can be expanded? It did influence me some that I did see the map of the neighborhoods, and I did see that there are neighborhoods being expanded in the Arab areas as well as the Jewish areas of Jerusalem, but the comments I heard from officials were: What does America want? Do they want there to be a religion test on who’s going to buy land? How would we feel in America if land that was designated for development, we said you have to prove what religion you are before you can build on the land? You can see how it’s a funny sort of bias we’re asking for, how we want them to develop the land.’"
Where the Senator "distinguishes" himself is in the sheer brazenness of his sophistry, which disappears the Palestinians from the "participants who live on the ground." Is Rand Paul really so clueless that he doesn’t know there’s already a "religious test" when it comes to housing in the land of Israel? I don’t know what maps the Senator was shown, but the idea that the Israeli government is allowing Arab housing to be built anywhere in Israel is just laughable: they are, instead, tearing down Palestinian homes so that Jewish-only housing – linked by Jewish-only roads – can be built. "A funny sort of bias" indeed!
Although, to his credit, Paul tried to distance himself from Naftali Bennett‘s proposal to annex the West Bank – "There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of hope in that" – he hailed the Israeli attack on Gaza and told his audiences they needn’t "go on bended knee" to the US. His father, on the other hand, described Gaza as a "concentration camp."
Sen. Paul’s trip was sponsored and paid for by the American Family Association (AFA), a virulently anti-gay group based in Tupelo, Mississippi, and organized by one David Lane, a Christian fundamentalist political operative who helped organize anti-gay referenda in California, Iowa, and other states. Lane refused to back Mitt Romney on the grounds that the Republican nominee wouldn’t come out against gays adopting children. Other participants in the David Lane tour: Joe Farah, publisher of WorldNetDaily and the nation’s leading "birther," and Tamara Scott, of Concerned Women for America, who made her mark in the lunatic fringe when she declared that gay marriage will lead to "object marriage," warning that "people will want to marry the Eiffel Tower!" As for the AFA, the group that picked up Sen. Paul’s bills for this trip, the Los Angeles Times reports:
"The Tupelo, Miss.-based association portrays homosexuality as a moral threat to the country. One of its top officials, Bryan Fischer, who promotes a Perry presidential candidacy on the association’s website, has drawn criticism for a variety of anti-Muslim and anti-gay remarks, including claims that Hitler was gay and that the Nazi Party was a creation of ‘homosexual thugs.’"
Go here for the creepy video.
The Christian fundamentalist fixation on Israel is based on their dispensationalist theology, which lifts quotations from the Bible in order to prove that the gathering of Jews in the holy land is a sign of the "end times" – signaling the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus Christ. The Bible foretells a war that will commence on the plain called Armageddon, and America, they believe, must take Israel’s part in this coming world war during which the Anti-Christ will seek to destroy the Jewish state. Indeed, they believe they can accelerate "God’s plan" by pushing for another war in the Middle East on Israel’s behalf – and therefore speed up the Second Coming and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. This is the woof and warp of "Christian Zionism."
That’s why whenever anyone looks cross-eyed at Benjamin Netanyahu, the Religious Right – which was the creation of dispensationalists like Pat Robertson – goes ballistic.
That’s why the Rev. John Hagee and his Christians United for Israel group is gathering thousands of names on petitions calling on the Senate to not confirm the "anti-Israel" Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. Sen. Paul was asked, during his trip and in the conference call afterwards, if his newfound fervor for Israel includes opposition to Hagel’s nomination, but he has so far been non-committal. He’ll find that failure to get on board the "pro-Israel" bandwagon in this – and any other – instance will quickly erase whatever credits he’s built up in those quarters. If you’re a fanatic, it’s all or nothing – and that’s who he’s playing with here.
The idea that the United States – which has poured billions of taxpayer dollars into the Zionist project and unconditionally defended Israel – has no standing when it comes to the Jewish state’s "settlements" policy is absurd. We pay for this not only with our tax dollars but also in terms of the hatred that comes our way from the Muslim world on Israel’s account. Anyone who doubts this is a major factor in provoking terrorist attacks on US interests is fooling themselves
Israel is rightly seen as an American proxy in the region, and any conflict in which they are involved – say, a strike against Iran – is bound to drag us in. Indeed, the whole thrust of Israeli foreign policy – and the activities of Israel’s energetic lobby in the US – has been to get us to do their dirty work for them and attack Iran on their behalf.
If Rand Paul thinks he can attain the Presidency by aligning himself with fundamentalist fanatics who await the Rapture and long for World War III, he is very mistaken. The tragedy is that the libertarian "brand," and the good name – and organization – built up by his father will be sullied by the son’s untrammeled ambition.
Or maybe more than ambition is involved here. One explanation for Sen. Paul’s conversion on the road to Jerusalem other than the most cynical opportunism raises the question: has Rand Paul been converted to a dispensationalist "born again" version of Christianity?
The California-based pastor Rob McCoy, who accompanied Paul on his trip, speculated:
"There is a part of me that wonders if he is part of the evangelical community, but there’s another part that says I really enjoy his presence, and that it doesn’t matter. I don’t want somebody who is going to play me — the Republican Party has already played me."
From accounts of the trip, they were singing gospel songs as they traversed the holy land, although the Senator demanding "Knocking on Heaven’s Door" hardly added to his "born again" credentials. In any case, whether Paul can continue to play the evangelicals and his father’s staunchly anti-interventionist libertarian followers at the same time remains to be seen.
One thing’s for sure: he’s not playing the hardcore Zionists over at Commentary magazine, where Jonathan Tobin disdains Sen. Paul as looking for "cheap pro-Israel dates." Tobin is smart enough to realize that "Zionist non-interventionism" is a contradiction in terms, because Israel depends on the projection of US military power abroad for its very survival. That’s why cutting the defense budget is characterized by Tobin & Co. as "anti-Israel." Tobin rightly points out that economic aid to Israel has long since been ended, and that now it’s 100 percent military aid – which the Israel lobby will fight tooth and nail to shield from the budget-cutters’ axe. To top it off, he compares Sen. Paul to another candidate who masqueraded as an "ardent backer of Israel":
"But it is just as possible that Rand Paul’s odyssey to Israel and outreach effort to pro-Israel conservatives is analogous to Barack Obama’s path in the years before he was elected president. Obama had few ties with pro-Israel groups, and was known as the friend of pro-Palestinian activists and other radicals. But with the help of some in the Jewish community, he worked hard to change his image. He, too, said it was all a misunderstanding to see him as anything but a friend to Israel, albeit one that didn’t like the views of the Likud. Those who vouched for his pro-Israel bona fides have had a lot of explaining to do during his presidency.
"Those who are allowing themselves to play that same role for Rand Paul need to think long and hard not just about being cheap dates but about the likelihood that the candidate whose positions they are rationalizing may have a very different agenda if he ever got into the White House."
Sen. Paul will doubtless react to Tobin’s insults with more groveling assurances that he’s really Israel’s best friend. However, my guess is that Sen. Paul’s efforts to sell himself as a mouthpiece for the Greater Israel lobby will fall flat: there are other tools out there, more willing, and with better presidential prospects. Short of changing his name to Paul Rand, and announcing his conversion to Christian Zionism, I’m afraid the freshman Senator from Kentucky is out of luck.
Update: Although I wrote above that there has been nothing in the media about Sen. Paul’s meeting with Abbas, my good friend Scott Horton has discovered one all-too-credible account:
"U.S. Senator Rand Paul informed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of his country’s opposition to the Palestinian intention to join United Nations agencies, a well- informed Palestinian sources said Monday.
"The source told Xinhua on condition of anonymity the Republican Senator told Abbas after a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah that the United States will impose sanctions on the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) if it decided to join UN agencies…. According to the source, Paul asked Abbas to resume direct peace talks wit Israel without preconditions. Paul also said that the U.S. administration is going to push for the resumption of the peace process between the Palestinians and Israel very soon."
"Abbas, for his part, demanded U.S. pressure on Israel to halt its settlement activities and hostilities against the Palestinians, said the source, adding that Abbas expressed his resentment at the U.S. fiscal embargo on the PNA."
Having been granted observer status by an overwhelming vote of the General Assembly – with even America’s European allies deserting Washington – why shouldn’t the Palestinians participate in the UN? Sen. Paul and his flock of "born again" Israel Firsters don’t want that to happen because it recognizes the legitimacy of Palestinian statehood – and delegitimizes the occupation. There are many humanitarian services the deprived and long-suffering people of Palestine might enjoy as a result, but the petty cruelty of "born again" Rand would deny them even that.
So the Senator did go see Abbas, and took the opportunity to threaten him with sanctions – and to demand that he drop the "no more settlements" precondition for resuming the peace process. Of course, not even that kind of servility to the Greater Israel lobby will satisfy the Jonathan Tobins of this world, but no one can say Sen. Paul didn’t try.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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- Variations on a Theme of ‘The Revolution Betrayed’ – May 6th, 2018
- Trump and the Iran Deal: Expect the Unexpected? – May 2nd, 2018