The Palestinians and other Arabs have long used violence to try to reclaim land taken from them by Israelis. The approach has long been a failure, but anger has long supplanted rationality, thus leading to periodic violent spasms in Palestine for almost a century. Now a potentially more effective weapon is being brandished: peaceful actions to undermine Israeli occupation.
The Palestinians are campaigning for a voluntary boycott of goods and culture coming from Israel and West Bank settlements and for disinvestment from there. For example, both international and local artists and celebrities are refusing to do shows in these locations. Simultaneously, the Palestinian Authority is seeking recognition for a Palestinian state at the United Nations. Israel is very worried about both initiatives. And it should be.
Largely peaceful protests toppled the autocratic governments in Egypt and Tunisia. If peaceful dissent can work against authoritarian thugs in those countries, it has an even better chance of working in democratic Israel. Democracies — or at least a significant portion of their populations — can more easily be shamed into change than can dictatorships. For example, in the end, apartheid in democratic (for whites) South Africa ended because of the shame induced by peaceful opposition rather than by the success of the armed rebellion. Israeli celebrities joining the Palestinian boycott and the activities of Israeli peace groups have demonstrated the premise in Palestine.
Yet the United States regularly decries violence in Palestine but then is not supportive of peaceful means of Palestinian protest either. For example, it is taken as a given that, this fall, the United States will veto in the United Nations Security Council any resolution for Palestinian statehood.
This U.S. stance — coupled with its tepid and belated backing of the Egyptian and Tunisian opposition and its support for the violent overthrow of oppressive leaders, such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gadhafi in Libya — sends the wrong message to those seeking liberty around the world. By its support for violent outcomes, U.S. policy encourages more bloody revolts around the world, and the accompanying loss of life and property, without necessarily increasing the chances for democracy.
Instead, the United States should quit interfering in the internal turmoil of other nations — especially avoiding the provision of weapons and military expertise to movements that violently oppose governments unfriendly to the U.S. — and should instead steadfastly declare rhetorical support for peaceful transitions to democracy and respect for individual rights.
The latter does not mean that the United States should actively “promote” democracy and human rights in other countries using U.S. personnel, contractors, or government funds. Such U.S. efforts are usually an ineffective sinkhole for taxpayer dollars and may very well be counterproductive if the U.S. superpower is seen as meddling for its own gain — as is often the perception.
In conclusion, current U.S. policymakers should follow John Quincy Adams’ long-forgotten advice rejecting the lure of American intervention to promote democracy abroad in favor of rhetorical support and leading by example:
She [America] has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart. …
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be.
But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.
She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.
She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice and the benignant sympathy of her example.
She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.