America or Israel?

By Issa Khalaf

President Obama’s descent to Israel-groveling was fast and furious, considering it’s been a short time from his June 2009 Cairo speech to his September 2011 UN speech.  MJ Rosenberg dubbed Obama as the most Israel-subservient president ever: “Obama isn’t lying about his ‘pro-Israel’ record… This administration has been the most one-sided supporter of everything Israel asks for since 1948.  There is no competition.  Not even George W Bush comes close.”  Maybe, but it’s clear this president, as every president before him, will do anything to get re-elected.  What humiliation: the American president, elected by wide mandate, rendered supine by a pair of fanatics like Benjamin Netanyahu and his gloating neo-fascist cohort Avigdor Lieberman.  The road to Washington runs through Tel Aviv. 

There has never (yes, “never”) been, since at least the 1940s but unquestionably since 1967, “honest” brokerage from Washington or at least, if insistence on honesty is misinformed or naively misplaced, temporary impartiality for the sake of US interests.  There is a yawning gap between the fiction of US pressure on Israel and the reality of capitulation to Israeli demands.  American presidents have not had the political will to use their national representation to challenge Israel for the sake of US interests.  The US has always presumed to be able to manage and quiet Palestinian and Arab interest or opposition, usually by initiating activity towards mediation and peace process, but without ever exerting the required pressure on its ally Israel.  The notion of American “pressure” on Israel has always been a tactic to mollify Arab frustration, ever holding out the promise of just resolution of conflict.

There has never been a Zionism desiring peace, only the erasure of the Palestinian national presence from historic Palestine and resolve to realize the Holy Land’s unblemished “Judaization.”  (The Israeli state or elite is not interested in genuine peace, and those, like MJ Rosenberg, who point out that the Israeli public supports a Palestinian state by a significant majority fail to mention that this in effect means a Bantustan state requiring little to no Israeli compromise.  With the exception of a small Israeli minority, the majority just want the pesky Palestinians to disappear from their lives.) 

There has never been “national unity” among perennially, hopelessly factionalized Palestinian elites and leaderships, resolved to monopolize Palestinian politics, and who’ve historically been as much of a detriment to their people as of help.

The only honest part of this dismal reality, for over a century, is the unbendable dignity and resistance of the Palestinian people and their current historical willingness to coexist in peace and mutual respect with those who displaced them and continue to dispossess and torment them.

Washington’s frantic, fulminating response to the Palestinians’ UN bid, its determination to preserve its monopoly and management of the “dispute,” is neither startling nor new.  The American diplomatic, political, economic, and military machine is set on autopilot in behalf of Israel—the Palestinians, the distressed American people, the decline of US power, economic bankruptcy, genuine US interests, and the Middle East be damned.  This of course won’t last much longer as the US strategic role, more accurately domination, in the Middle East is losing ground, its respect vanishing worldwide.

In any case, it may be that the Palestinian leadership’s full UN membership bid far from represents a clean break from bilateral negotiations whose central function is enabling Israel to proceed with its colonization and annexations unabated.  The Palestinians accepted, however reluctantly, a deferment on a Security Council vote, allowing the “Quartet” time to convince both sides to restart “peace talks” by devising a framework for renewed negotiations toward a deal at the end of 2012 (in time for US presidential elections).  The Israelis of course will not accept “preconditions” while the Palestinians insist on a halt to colonial settlement construction and 1967 lines as the basis of negotiations.  

The Palestinian calculation, in addition to fears of US retribution in the form of vital aid cut-off (which can be catastrophic for Palestinian livelihood), is that this will break the deadlock, perhaps lead to an exertion of pressure on Israel.  But this, a way out for them via meaningful negotiations, is a forlorn hope from a leadership whose only self-justification for existence is the two-state, peace process industry.  That twenty-year industry’s brief is interminable engagement with frameworks and mechanisms rather than the substance of peace. 

All this craziness in the service of not cornering Washington into exercising its veto, which it realizes will weaken and isolate it, along with its reckless, destabilizing partner Israel, further. 

Being open to negotiations is smart if, indeed, the Palestinians adhere to a synergistic strategy, based on an uncompromising set of principles, willing to eject without hesitation that component which does not work (bilateralism) and forge ahead with that which does, or has a better chance of modest success (multilateralism). 

But vital components of this strategy are missing, including political and national unity and democratic inclusion of civil society.  The decades-long resistance of the PLO/PA to embracing grassroots democracy is a predictable outcome of believing the US can deliver.  The leadership, concerned with its privileges and power and its prerogative to undertake and dabble in any political or diplomatic initiative it deems justified, cannot easily extricate itself from its Washington dependency and grip, accept that the Palestinian strategy has been a monumental failure and resort to the undiluted democratic will of its people.

The options of going to the General Assembly for collective recognition of a Palestinian state to add to the current 114 or to “upgrade” Palestinian observer status will have to wait, except that the Palestinian strategy includes piecemeal upgrade, as the recently successful application for full membership in UNESCO (and presumably other UN agencies), which has Washington going ballistic, attests.  The Palestinians are apparently not about to let multilateralism based on international law and UN resolutions quietly die to accommodate American-Israeli designs whose implicit or unspoken assumption is that the Palestinians do not and should not enjoy the right to legally and diplomatically advance their cause or defend themselves against military occupation.

The argument that a hopelessly Israel Lobby-captive US will move aside for others to make Palestine-Israel peace is not very realistic, at least at this period; emerging nations, unless sporting a unified, coordinated position and overcoming divergent interests, do not have the power and influence to implement a UN based peace settlement.  Nor is the EU, a key, though not very unified player, willing to subordinate or imperil its inter-Atlantic strategic partnership with the US, the EU’s conundrum a barometer of how strongly and to what lengths the US will defend and shield Israel.  The obstacle to advancing a fair settlement requiring Israeli adherence to international law by emerging nations and the EU—i.e., influential states in the international community—is and has always been this: the awesome asymmetry of military power between Israel and the Palestinians, and less so between it and its neighbors, underwritten by the open-ended guarantee of US military power.

What explains this Israel right or wrong lunacy, this congenitally dysfunctional advocacy in behalf of a foreign state?  To make the rationally contingent argument that the US would not continue along this path if it did not think that its decades-long Israel-first policy is a success for itself and its partner, is a partial explanation that neglects a larger, more complex context.  That context is not only the presumed alignment of US and Israeli hegemonic goals, but also lies in the domestic front.   

US behavior flows from American historical, ideological, cultural, and economic foundations.  However, this is confused by the fact that the US and Israel have become politically and strategically indistinguishable.  American support for Israel is multi-causal including imperial folly and great power hubris, but unconditional support is a product of domestic influences.  It’s clear that the “special relationship”—the depth, effectiveness, and pervasiveness of Israel’s influence in American politics, the reflexivity of US support from president to Congress, governor to state legislature—is obvious and puzzling, even bizarre.

This reality is due not only to the vaunted Israel Lobby, but also to the American media that serves as Israel’s uninhibited supporter and promoter.  There is no deviation of opinion, across the entire spectrum of American media, local to national, including films and television, from the sustain-Israel-first-at-all-costs consensus. 

If the American elite and policymaking establishment indeed “thinks” or presumes that its policies have been a success, it is certainly not because of objective reality.  In addition to the imperial thrust, it is because of an enormously dominant pro-Israel ideology and narrative, and a false perception perpetuated by a powerful, organized Lobby and its pervasive support by the mass media and cultural image-makers.  Israel’s influential intellectual supporters, conservative and liberal, developed the ideological rationales for the “special relationship” propagated through their dominance on research institutes, think tanks and in the media, and through their common presence as officeholders, appointees, and advisers.  Most of the American intellectual class has been intimidated into blather on the topic of Israel and Zionism.

Israel and its interests became effectively institutionalized in the American socio-political system after decades of this Israel-influence build up in American politics, society, media, and culture. 

In a rational world, US interests require, as they did since 1967, a viable, not a sham, Palestinian state that satisfies the Palestinians, dramatically reduces tensions through the normalization of Arab-Israeli relations, rolls back religious-political extremism, and generally works as a stabilizing factor in the Middle East.  To settle Palestine-Israel justly and fairly is absolutely vital to maintaining any semblance of US influence in the Middle East.  In a rational world, the Palestinians’ eminently reasonable UN bid is the best that could happen to and for the US.

Such a balanced approach is something the American people, despite the mighty efforts to control the official discourse, intrinsically understand.  Support for Israel is neither a fixed determinism nor a deep cultural phenomenon regardless of evangelical and neo-conservative fervor, or the support of mainly white Republicans who internalize Israel’s mythos as their own.  Support for Israel is the fruit of unrelenting organization and pressure.  Majorities of Americans, in poll after poll, reject taking sides in the Palestine-Israel conflict, oppose Israel’s settlement building, and support the idea of fairly resolving the conflict.  A majority even rejects going to war for Israel’s sake should it and Iran engage in open conflict, while half would not use US troops to help Israel even if attacked by a neighbor.

This is encouraging.  Even while confounded by the Israel narrative beaming through their radios and television screens and printed in their newspapers, Americans simply desire neutrality.  Even in the context of a pro-Israel media and politicians, these typical survey results belie the claim of monolithic cultural or religious foundations in support of Israel, or of an exceptional or special relationship or great public commitment, love, or bond.  This suggests that, were an American president to “draw a line in the sand” in dealing with Israel, the American public would back him or her by a solid majority, albeit opposition hypocrisy and pandering to the Lobby remains a problem for any fair-minded government or politician.

The false fusion and institutionalization of American and Israeli interests may well lead to a disaster for the Israelis and Palestinians as well as the region.  At the same time, the assumed categorical permanency of support for Israel may erode faster than anyone believes as the US inevitably confronts its own great crises in the cause of American, not foreign, interests.

– Issa Khalaf has a Ph.D. in political science and Middle East Studies from Oxford University. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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