Back to Realism: The Conservative Case for Palestine

This article being about the Israel/Palestine crisis – a veritable "third-rail" in American political discourse – it’s necessary to start with a few disclaimers. This author is not anti-Semitic and believes the Israeli state has a right to exist. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s address the controversial caveat: Palestinians, for moral and strategic reasons, also deserve state sovereignty and equivalent civil rights. And, believe it or not, that should be the stated position of all real (small c) conservatives.

The reasons are simple – the United States’ one-sided, pro-Israel stance, along with its massive funding of the Israeli military, continue to sully America’s reputation in the Muslim and Arab world. This (accurate) perception of inequity and hypocrisy on the part of the U.S. breeds more "terrorists" than America’s military can kill and directly endangers the homeland. Furthermore, the inextricable linkage between this administration as well as a variety of US military and intelligence agencies with the far right-wing leaders of the current Israeli government risks allowing Prime Minister Netanyahu to drag Washington into more regional wars America neither needs nor can win. It is, to be frank, the ultimate "wag-the-dog" scenario – and the two culprits are Israel and their cynical friend Saudi Arabia.

To be clear, there are many ethical, legal, and moral arguments in favor of reigning in the Israelis and protecting the rights of Palestinians. After all, since the spring, 175 (almost all unarmed) Palestinians have been shot to death along the Gaza Strip fence line, 5,884 others have been wounded by live ammunition, and 94 of these have had a limb amputated. A staggering 948 of those wounded were minors. The NGO Doctors without Borders recently announced that Gaza’s health care system is now overwhelmed with the infusion of wounded. Meanwhile, in an obvious case of the typically lopsided casualty rates in this conflict, only one Israeli soldier has been killed and six wounded. That should come as no surprise when the majority of protesters are armed only with rocks. As always, Israeli military actions stretch the limits of the international legal requirement for proportionality in warfare. Still, for the sake of this article, let us leave these humanitarian concerns aside and focus on what’s strategic and smart for US foreign policy.

Here are the inconvenient facts: so long as Israel maintains two sets of political and civil rights for Jews and Muslims in the occupied Palestinian territories (those seized after the 1967 Six Day War), denies Palestinian national sovereignty, continues to build illegal Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank, and maintains a crippling blockade of the Gaza Strip, well, then, there will continue to be regular protests, an ongoing insurgency, and countless Palestinian deaths. Such asymmetrical killings – especially of civilians – will only feed the beast of conflict in a vicious cycle that is now entering its eighth decade. Furthermore, so long as the US continues to cover for Israel at the United Nations and regularly doles out $3 billion annually in no-strings-attached military aid to the IDF, the vast majority of global Muslims will continue to detest America and Americans. Some, rather smaller, proportion of these disgruntled masses will then inevitably pick up a rifle or don a suicide vest en route to kill US troops abroad or American civilians in the homeland. These are the facts, and they are indisputable.

I’ve lived this reality – patrolling the streets of Baghdad and the mud paths of Kandahar. Like a loyal, idealistic young officer should, I drank loads of tea and chatted up hundreds if not thousands of locals. Why do they [the "terrorists" or insurgents] hate us, I’d ask? The most common answer: because you’re here, occupying this country. Still, a close second was this: because you Americans side with Israel and deny Palestinian rights! See, it may seem illogical to the distant and apathetic American brain, but to the average Arab or Muslim I met, Israel and the US were inextricably linked and complicit in one another’s crimes.

Now, such an admission is unpopular and risks savage attacks from the domestic Israel Lobby, but this author is far from the only analyst to recognize its truth. Retired General, and former CIA chief, David Petraeus – in so many ways my polar political opposite – saw it too. And, when he spoke up, he too was heavily criticized. Still, Petraeus, as a commander of American soldiers, couldn’t help but recognize the threat that U.S.-Israel policy posed for his troops, testifying to Congress that:

The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the [Middle East]. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in the [region]. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support.

Though undoubtedly correct, even this modest hint that Israeli actions endangered US soldiers and regional interest earned "King David" a rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League and other Israel lobbyists.

While this all seems to have an unstoppable inertia to it – what with President Trump praising Netanyahu’s every action and controversially relocating the US embassy to Jerusalem – it’s important to remember that there was a time, not so long ago, when many conservatives saw Israeli aggression as a serious problem. We just buried one such figure: George H. W. Bush, the last president from the "Greatest Generation," and a Republican from a bygone age. Bush wasn’t perfect, despite the recent bipartisan hagiographic media portrayals. He was likely complicit in the Iran-Contra cover-up, guilty of race-baiting in the 1988 election campaign (see the Willie Horton ad), and was responsible for many unnecessary deaths in both Panama and Iraq (see the “Highway of Death”). That aside, he should be applauded on other issues. He ushered in a peaceful end to the Cold War, and – lest we forget – he was right, and tough, on Israel!

Bush the elder, despite being a lifelong Republican, truly was the last president to be firm with Israel. He was a believer in the (albeit flawed) two-state solution and felt Palestinians deserved at least a modicum of rights – a rare trait in an American president. He pushed for the Madrid Peace Conference, which ultimately led to the Oslo Process – the last serious movement towards peace in the region. And, when then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir wouldn’t halt the illegal settlement of Jews in the occupied West Bank, Bush withheld $10 billion in loan guarantees. Bush took his case to the public, portraying himself as "one lonely little guy" fighting the mighty Israel Lobby. And he was. Eventually, Shamir and a pro-Israel Congress backed down.

The Israeli right never forgave Mr. Bush or his advisors. Indeed, Bush’s trusted Secretary of State – and best friend – Jim Baker became a lightning rod for Israeli angst during and after Bush 41’s term, a result of his hardline negotiations with Shamir. As recently as 2015, a conservative talk-show host, Mark Levin concluded, after Baker criticized Netanyahu, that "Jim Baker, much like Barack Obama, has always had a hate for Israel." These days, such exaggeration often follows any critique of Israeli policy. Baker should wear this as a badge of honor, just as his former boss did.

Matters today are even more dire in the region. Lopsided support for Israel not only sullies America’s reputation in the Mideast and creates more jihadis – it also risks pulling US foreign policy in dangerous directions. Israel – working hand-in-hand through a cynical alliance with Saudi Arabia – would like nothing more than to drive the US towards war with Iran. Netanyahu rails on and on about Iran’s (now dormant) nuclear weapons program, but never mentions that his country developed nukes in contravention of international law some five decades ago. To this day, a sardonic Israeli government refuses to either confirm or deny the existence of such a program – even though everyone knows they have these weapons – something Washington would accept from no other party. Israel also wants a substantial, long-term US military presence in Syria to check Iranian aspirations, counting on American troops to fight and die for Israeli interests. Few in Washington stop to ask whether Israeli concerns should be America’s or if the partnership between Trump and Netanyahu actually benefits the United States. It often doesn’t.

None of this means the US should coddle terrorists or abandon the right of Israeli to exist in a secure environment; nor does it mean accepting an Iranian nuclear weapons program. It is about returning to Jim Baker-style realism, a balance-of-power approach, and hewing more closely to vital national interests in the region. It is about recognizing the limits of US military power and securing the homeland at a sustainable cost whilst not unnecessarily inflaming Islamist anger.

American politicians and policymakers need to return not just to George H.W. Bush’s celebrated civility, but also to his core, consistent, conservative and (more) balanced approach to Israel/Palestine. That the neocon/neolib consensus running the two major parties, or the administration of Donald Trump, will do so remains highly unlikely. But, should they work up the courage and reframe U.S.-Israeli relations – now that would be a proper tribute to the deceased president.

Major Danny Sjursen, an regular, is a US Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He lives with his wife and four sons in Lawrence, Kansas. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his new podcast “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris ‘Henri’ Henrikson.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen