When the President of the United States reiterated longstanding American policy in the Middle East – that the borders of Israel and a Palestinian state must be based on the 1967 borders, give or take a few land swaps here and there – was he really “not surprised,” as he claimed in his speech to AIPAC a few days later, by the ensuing uproar? That’s what he says, but the reality is harder to discern: after all, this was the premise behind George W. Bush’s – and, before him, Bill Clinton’s – public statements on the issue, and the President had every reason to believe this time would be no different.
Yet it was indeed different, because – as I pointed out here – Israel is different, all these years later. And so is the United States. President Obama was caught flat-footed because he and his advisors failed to consider the full import of these changes.
In Israel, a right-wing government has as its relatively “moderate” element Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud-led government is backed in a coalition government by a number of extreme right-wingers who make the hawkish Likudniks look reasonable. Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is a thuggish radical whose racist anti-Arab diatribes have even Israel’s hard-line partisans in the US desperate to keep him in the background. Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, is a neo-fascist outfit which advocates the ethnic cleansing of the West Bank and the creation of a “Greater Israel.” According to them, there are no Palestinians – only Jordanians who have infiltrated Israel.
In America, the power of the Israel lobby is much greater than at any time in the past, and certainly since the 1967 war. We are faced, here in this country, with the extraordinary spectacle of a US President confronting a foreign leader with a list of reasonable requests – negotiation in good faith, the abandonment of encroaching “settlements,” an end to the arbitrary humiliations endured by a people under occupation – and the leaders of the opposition are taking the side of the foreign leader. This from a party that revels in its alleged super-“patriotism”! Romney, Huckabee, and the whole Fox network team went into overdrive, following the President’s Mideast speech, flaying him for “betraying” Israel. Fox News even ran a story warning that “Jewish donors” would not back the President’s reelection campaign on account of his supposedly “new” stance.
Yet, as I am not the first to point out, there was nothing new in what the President said about the 1967 borders. That didn’t matter to Obama’s critics, however: so quick were they to pick up the latest party line from Tel Aviv that they didn’t even bother to acknowledge this, but were only concerned with echoing every jot and tittle of the Israeli position. Not since the heyday of the old Communist Party USA, when the Daily Worker was adept at not only defending but anticipating the line handed down by the Kremlin, have we seen such a phenomenon: the kowtowing before a foreign leader by American politicians.
The idea that our leaders are intent on pursuing America’s vital national interests abroad – that the formulation of our foreign policy has to do with determining what those interests are and how best to achieve them – is a myth. As is the case with domestic policy, foreign policy is a political question: that is, it’s all about the internal pressures and interests competing for primacy in the policymaking process. Nothing underscores the dynamics of this decision-making procedure quite so starkly and dramatically as the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
The US military has been particularly insistent that the question of Palestine be resolved before we can achieve our goals in the Middle East, and secure the defense of American interests more generally. That our unconditional support for Israel has cost us dearly, in terms of our prestige and “pull” in the Arab world, is undeniable. That we are fighting terrorists who use this issue to demonize the US, and provoke attacks on our interests and our citizens throughout the world, is likewise readily apparent.
Yet rather than give up this failed policy, which has led to nothing but trouble, our leaders in both political parties – including the President – have taken every opportunity to pledge themselves to an “ironclad” – as Obama put it – commitment to the survival of Israel as a Jewish state implanted in an Arab sea. And that, furthermore, this commitment is not contingent on Israeli behavior: our support is unconditional and permanent, no matter if Avigdor Lieberman comes to power and deports every Palestinian to the far side of the Jordan river.
In his “make up” speech to AIPAC, Obama once again reiterated this commitment and boasted about all the money we’re shoveling over there so Bibi can build “settlements” and keep the Palestinians in subjection. US “aid” built the wall that separates the Israeli green belt from the great prison-house of the occupied territories, and which makes permanent a land grab on a vast scale. Without that aid, both military and economic, Israel would sink like a stone beneath the demographic waves.
In short, we have the Israelis in a complete state of military and economic dependency – and yet they are calling the tune, and not Washington. What’s up with that?
What’s up is the Israelis have a singularly powerful lobby in the US, which wields such political clout that no politician can afford to cross them. We are living in a country where the chief executive must constantly look over his shoulder and worry that Congress will support the position of a foreign leader over the President of the United States. As Pat Buchanan so memorably – and correctly – put it, Congress is “Israeli-occupied territory.” And we aren’t just talking about Republican members pandering to their “born again” Christian fundamentalist constituency, but also Democrats in thrall to a wealthy and well-organized urban constituency which puts Israel first, last, and always.
In Israel, too – where, after forty years of constant warfare, voters are not interested in compromise – domestic politics dictates foreign policy. The Israeli electorate is so far to the right, these days, that a neo-fascist party and a Jewish version of Hitler have made huge gains of the sort that were once unthinkable. In its religious fervor, and millennialist hysteria, the Israeli zeitgeist has abandoned its Western and European antecedents, and become almost indistinguishable from its Arab neighbors: fundamentalism is as much a problem in Israel as it is in, say, Egypt, or Jordan. Israel, in short, has returned to its Asian-Oriental roots, and is very far from the idealistic experiment its European founders envisioned at the beginning.
The fundamentalist leaders of today’s Israel are no more interested in peace than the leadership of al-Qaeda, or Hamas. The President may cite the demographic time bomb going off at present in the occupied territories, which he says makes the current situation “unsustainable,” but Israel’s fundies have an answer to that: deportation, ethnic cleansing, and a “Greater Israel” that extends its territory to include “Samaria” (the West Bank) and lands supposedly granted to Israel in the Bible. A debate about this is precluded by the fundamentalist mindset: we’re talking about religion, here, and not anything amenable to rational discussion or negotiation. The ruling Likud party was founded on this fundamentalist premise, and a “Greater Israel” is what the party of Netanyahu represents: it is foolish to think he will abandon this goal because of American pressure.
Sprinkled with genuflections to the Israel lobby, such as his references to Iran’s nonexistent nuclear weapons program, and numerous pledges to continue and strengthen the costly symbiosis that has poisoned our relations with much of the rest of the world, Obama’s AIPAC speech was an exemplar of such craven appeasement that the sight of it must make genuine patriots cringe.
Why does the most powerful man on earth have to take Tel Aviv’s demands into account? Why is he not free to act and speak as he wills?
The reason, in short, is the pro-Israel movement in the United States, a well-organized and inordinately wealthy political machine that operates as the Israeli government’s agent in America. Here is a lobby – in effect, a fifth column in league with a foreign government – so powerful that it has become the decisive factor in determining US policy in a region of the world vital to US national interests. It has succeeded in subordinating those interests to Israeli objectives, and it has done so by creating a political apparatus in the US that politicians defy at their peril. Apologists for the Israel lobby constantly maintain that they have done nothing wrong, that their activities are carried out in full public view and in accordance with the principles of American democracy – and in this they are absolutely correct.
This is democracy in action – a well-organized and very well-funded minority, fanatically devoted to the interests of a country other than their own, has seized control of the policymaking apparatus of the US government. There is nothing inherently un-democratic about this. To the contrary: in a democracy, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and by this standard the very well-greased gears of the Israeli state – slathered, as they are, with gobs of US taxpayer dollars – stand as a monument to that operating principle.
As for the views of the American people in their majority – well, in our democracy, these views don’t get a hearing. They don’t because most Americans couldn’t care less about Israel, and, furthermore: they don’t approve of “foreign aid” – especially at a time when we’re borrowing from the Chinese just to keep the government running. They are sick and tired of hearing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which seems as insoluble as unraveling the Gordian Knot.
Yet, this healthy indifference to the quarrels of belligerent foreigners is irrelevant, politically, because it hardly matches the passion of Israel’s partisans, who pursue Tel Aviv’s cause with single-minded ferocity.
In both speeches, the President went out of his way to denounce efforts in the United Nations to “isolate” Israel, i.e. support the declaration of an independent Palestinian state, and efforts in the occupied territories to unify the West Bank and Hamas-held Gaza. Support for Israel, he said, is encoded in our “values.” As Jennifer Laslo Mizrahi, president of The Israel Project, put it in response to the President’s performance before AIPAC: “Israel is as much a part of American values and traditions as are hot dogs, apple pie and freedom.”
This is utter nonsense, of course: support for Israel is no more a part of American tradition than is support for, say, the cause of Basque independence. Up until relatively recently, support for the Zionist project was evident among only a small minority of American Jews, never mind among the majority of Americans, and US Presidents, starting with Eisenhower and continuing on up to Bush Senior, were evenhanded in their treatment of both Israel and the Arabs, (and even, in the case of Bush I, a bit cool to Tel Aviv’s ceaseless demands).
Ronald Reagan, whose cold warrior credentials placed him firmly in Israel’s camp, disdained Tel Aviv’s advice and withdrew US forces from Lebanon, much to the anger and dismay of the neocons, who denounce him for it to this day. It was only with the advent of George W. Bush’s tenure in the White House that the “special relationship” became as “ironclad” as it is today. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Israeli propaganda machine made good use of the “Israel’s cause is our cause” argument, which gained new resonance beyond the Lobby’s traditional constituency.
Now that a war-weary nation is coming to its senses, however, and the shock of 9/11 has had time to wear off, the advantage enjoyed by the Israel Firsters has been dissipated over time. There is space, in the national discourse, for a view that puts American over Israeli interests, and seeks to undo the harm caused by years of kneejerk support for an oppressive and unjust occupation.
It is true that US intervention in the Middle East, and particularly in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, has only exacerbated the stand-off, and ill-served our national interests. Yet it is not enough to say that we simply shouldn’t intervene: we are, in reality, already intervening by subsidizing and arming the Israeli Sparta. The helicopter gunships that cut down Palestinian children whose only weapons are rocks and epithets have “made in USA” stamped all over them. Just as the tear-gas canisters hurled at Egyptian protesters by Mubarak’s goons had the same imprint of origin.
To say, simply, that the US should not intervene, that Washington should not be “dictating” to Tel Aviv, is to drop the entire context and reality of US policy. Unconditional American support for Israel in the form of a continuous stream of money and the most advanced weaponry has created the situation our President rightly calls “unsustainable,” and there is no walking away from our responsibility for the status quo.
I don’t blame those who take this “no intervention” line for trying to dispose of the Israeli-Palestinian question in this way. Telling the truth about the US-Israeli relationship, and pointing out its essentialy dysfunctional nature, has always been more trouble for a politician than it’s worth.
Those who raise these questions are smeared by the Israel lobby, and targeted for destruction: any politician or public official who questions the conventional Washington wisdom on these matters is pilloried in the press and excoriated by the Israeli Firsters. The sheer noise level of this smear campaign is very often enough to destroy a politician, a publication, or a reputation. Antiwar.com has been a major target of the Lobby ever since we started speaking out on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, i.e. from the get-go. We haven’t hesitated to criticize Israel, and my column in particular has taken the Israelis and their American supporters to task on numerous occasions. For that, I was purged from the Huffington Post as an invited blogger, and attacked by the neocons (and the ADL) as “anti-semitic.” Apparently the nearly all-Jewish leadership of the libertarian movement is not enough to placate these would-be Grand Inquisitors, who define “anti-Semitism” as opposition to the policies of whatever government is in power in Tel Aviv.
By this measure, most American Jews – who balk at the hardline policies of Netanyahu and his allies – are also “anti-Semites.” Go figure.
The great problem with any Empire, such as our own, is that it becomes the instrument of its own satellites. Our satraps hold us hostage, and exact tribute in the form of “foreign aid” – even as the folks back home go broke. While Social Security benefits are the target of congressional budget-cutters, aid to Israel is sacrosanct.
There’s something very wrong with this picture.
Antiwar.com has been fighting the Israel lobby since our inception, and it’s been an uphill fight – but we’re making important gains. The Lobby’s domination of American foreign policy has been challenged, in recent days, by an evolving national conversation which – for the first time in many years – puts American interests first and foremost. But we can’t continue to defy the Lobby without your help.
Israel’s amen corner in the US has access to vast financial resources, which we here at Antiwar.com can’t ever hope to match – but we can more than match the arguments of the Lobby, which are weak, based on emotionalism, and transparently amenable to the whims of a foreign government. So we don’t need to match their money – we just need to be able to raise enough to make our voices heard.
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