The Israel Liability: Moral and Strategic Hazards of an Ill-Advised Alliance

Blindly backing Israel has become an article of faith, a civic religion even, for mainstream American politicians. Rarely do any dare publicly question the costs and benefits of this decades-old relationship. Such hesitancy is understandable. After all, to criticize Israeli policy, however mildly, is to risk near certain rebuke and reflexive charges of anti-semitism. Denouncing Israel’s current right-wing government or its ongoing, half-century-long occupation of Palestinian Territories is all risk and no reward – it’s a potential career-ender or, at least, a ticket to the margins of polite political discourse. Israel/Palestine is, as I’ve long said, the veritable "third-rail" of U.S. foreign policy debate.

Nonetheless, regarding the U.S.-Israel nexus, the time is now for reassessment and realignment. For far too long, Washington’s bipartisan, reflexive backing of Israel has damaged America’s good name on the Arab (or Muslim) "street," and inflicted substantial strategic costs in the Greater Middle East. As President Trump, ostensibly, gears up to withdraw the US military from a series of regional quagmires, he should simultaneously address one root of America’s long-term "beef" with average Muslims – Washington’s no-strings-attached support for Israel.

He won’t, naturally. Though Trump sometimes displays admirable instincts to ditch military liabilities in the Mideast, he has only ratcheted up America’s iron-alliance with Israel. In a staggering, and internationally isolated, move, he even moved the US embassy to Israel into the heart of Jerusalem – recognizing the contested city as the singular capital of the Jewish state. Look, Israel – like our other nefarious frenemy, Saudi Arabia – buys tons of American weapons, and Trump-the-businessman absolutely loves that. Besides, Trump and (recently indicted) Prime Minister Netanyahu are political peas in a pod – both face potential corruption charges and rely on fear-mongering to whip up support from their right wing bases.

The (not so) dirty little secret is that the American president could care less about the plight of brown-skinned foreigners, whether along the US southern border or in Gaza and West Bank refugee camps. Trump doesn’t want to recalibrate America’s relationship with the Muslim world, he simply wants to (rightfully) cut the sunk costs of aimless US military interventions in the region. Cynicism, even when the man is right – remains the name of the proverbial game.

Unfortunately, here in the real world, nuance often prevails. As such, virulent hatred for the US, and Islamist terrorist plots, will not meaningfully decrease until Washington at least begins to address the roots of the problem and rebalances its one-sided relationship with Israel. First off, it’s the right thing to do, and recognizing Palestinian plight would improve America’s ethical image worldwide, which – like it or not – still matters. Second, a pivot away from Israel’s more unhinged policies in the occupied territories is strategically sound, rendering American soldiers and citizens safer.

To wit, this former army officer received countless "ear-fulls" about U.S.-Israel policy from angry moderates in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Decorating dingy Baghdad apartments and Kandahar hovels with pictures of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was quite common – these people cared about average Palestinians, even if their cynical national leaders did not. Even former CIA Director and then General David Petraeus – not exactly a liberal snowflake – recognized way back in 2010 that US favoritism towards Israel and a stalled peace process in the region endangered his troops across the Greater Middle East. He was, predictably, lambasted by the powerful US Israel lobby – but that didn’t make him wrong! Want to genuinely protect the homeland and "the troops" from Islamist-inspired violence? Then insist that Washington demonstrate some sense of equity and justice in Israel/Palestine.

And, as Israeli military atrocities and congressional lobbying clout reach a fever pitch, now is the time to raise the alarm. Recent events indicate the moral and strategic drift of Israeli policy and its unyielding defenders here in the US A recent United Nations Human Rights Committee report absolutely eviscerated the Israeli Army’s heavy-handed response last year to (generally) peaceful Palestinian protests along the Gaza border. The casualty statistics were absurdly one-sided, raising serious questions about Israel’s respect for proportionality. Some 130 unarmed Gazans were killed by military gunfire – including 35 children – and 6,000 others were wounded, as opposed to just two Israeli fatalities. Netanyahu’s government, of course, simply dismissed the report outright.

Netanyahu, and his increasingly right-leaning administration, face their own problems. Israel’s Attorney General has recommended that "King Bibi" be criminally indicted in three separate corruption cases, this coming just before the prime minister’s reelection campaign. Bibi is a liability for the US; he’s politically fragile and his intransigent militarism is increasingly unhinged. Moreover, in years past, Netanyahu has proven willing to meddle in American politics – addressing the US Congress in the midst of previous election campaigns – which would most certainly be publicly decried if the perpetrator was Russian!

Unfortunately, Netanyahu’s shenanigans and Israel’s transgressions receive little criticism here in the "land of the free." The Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) lobbying organization still exerts significant power in Congress. Need proof? Consider that rather than debating allegations of Israeli military aggression or Netanyahu’s unceasing – if illegal – settlement enterprise in Palestinian territory, the US Senate instead passed an unprecedented violation of Americans’ free speech. This bill makes it illegal for US citizens and groups to "boycott" Israeli institutions or otherwise actively support the growing worldwide BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement intended to pressure Israel to end its half-century-long occupation of Palestinian lands.

Nor is this some sort of partisan, Republican scheme hatched in a right-wing think tank. Mainstream Democratic Party leaders – think Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer – more than displayed their (literal and figurative) investment in Netanyahu’s audacious cause recently when they publicly rebuked freshman congresswoman (and Muslim) Ilhan Omar after she mildly criticized Israeli policy and its American lobbyists’ power in Washington. It appears that free speech only qualifies as a constitutional right so long as Israel is not the subject!

Ethics aside for a moment, Israel – by occupying much of the West Bank, blockading Gaza, and maintaining growing Jewish settlements in the Palestinian Territories – is in violation of international law. UN Resolutions 191 (protecting the right of return of Palestinian refugees) and 242 (requiring Israel’s withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders) remain in effect, and as such – regardless of the nature of sometimes violent Palestinian resistance – Israel maintains an extralegal rogue occupation of foreign territory.

As the US continues to wail about Iranian, North Korean, and Chinese transgressions on the world scene, Washington demonstrates its hypocrisy by ignoring Israeli violations. There appear to be two standards of international behavior: one that applies to the "protected class" of American partners, and another for everyone else. And make no mistake, global Muslims take notice and Islamist terror organizations cheer their resultant recruiting windfall.

Additionally, if Trump is serious about extracting the US military from the Mid East, Israel seems far from a supportive partner in that endeavor. Indeed, Netanyahu and his entrenched policymakers would like nothing more than for the American Armed Forces to do Israeli’s bidding in Iran, Yemen, and Syria. It’s the same old story: American blood for Israeli power, as the Netanyahu tail deftly wags the Washington dog. It has to stop, lest the US blunder its way into a new Iraq-style-quagmire in the region.

Finally, and embarrassingly, the United States is simply on the wrong side of history here. Mark my words. Though there are meaningful distinctions, Israel today maintains a South African-style apartheid regime both within its borders and in the occupied territories. Palestinians live under endless military occupation, lack basic civil and political rights, and suffer gradual land theft courtesy of Israeli settlers.

Brown Palestinians are modern day black South Africans. It is not coincidental – if unsurprising – that during the height of the 1980s international castigation of apartheid, it was the United States and Israel (almost alone) that reliably backed racist white South Africa. Though that embarrassing tidbit of America’s historical dishonor is oft-forgotten, Washington’s current shameful behavior in the Israel/Palestine conflict will prove far more pricey.

We count the cost in American bodies, dollars, and credibility.

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

[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 2019 Danny Sjursen