End the Exceptionalism: Will the United States Ever Sanction Israel?

A pro-Palestine protest in the United States. (Photo: Stop the War Coalition, Supplied)

By Dr. M. Reza Behnam

If you have ever wondered, as I have, just how many countries are currently sanctioned by the United States, a quick computer search yields a thought-provoking answer.  Twenty-five countries are now on the US Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions list.  Of that number, 10 are Muslim countries: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Washington holds the sanctions cudgel because much of global commerce is conducted in US dollars and is ultimately subject to US laws.  American officials have used political and economic sanctions to promote their foreign policy objectives and agenda.  They have also been used as a weapon against what Washington views as hostile governments—those willing to challenge US hegemony. Countries like Cuba, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, and Russia perennially find themselves under US sanctions.

A further sanctions inquiry reveals, however, that one country, despite all its malfeasance, has been left out.

That country has an apartheid system firmly in place; invades and seizes the sovereign territory of other countries by military force and continues to illegally occupy it; refuses to pay compensation to people whose land, bank accounts, and businesses it has confiscated; exercises collective punishment; routinely carries out air attacks against sovereign states; repeatedly defies UN resolutions; has nuclear weapons, but refuses to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty; sends assassins into other countries to kill its political opponents; unleashes cyberattacks; sells spyware and weapons to authoritarian regimes; refuses to prosecute its soldiers who kill civilians and US citizens; uses surveillance technology to track and restrict movement of people it dominates; recruited American Jonathan Pollard to spy and steal classified documents from the United States, gave him a hero’s welcome and made him a citizen; attacked a US ship in international waters, killing American servicemen?

That country is Israel.

Just one of these violations would have put the offending country on Washington’s OFAC sanctions list and designated it a terrorist regime. The daily harassment, humiliation and killing of Palestinians in Occupied Palestine have, however, elicited no sanctions response from the United States.

On June 19, 2023, Israeli soldiers, using US Apache helicopter gunships, stormed the Jenin refugee camp, killing 6 Palestinians and wounding 91.  Israeli military raids on Jenin are not new.  In April 2002, the Israeli military pummeled Jenin for ten straight days.  Located in the heart of the city of Jenin, the camp has been the center and symbol of Palestinian resistance since 2002.

Palestinians were horrified when Israeli squatters rampaged through and destroyed Huwara and surrounding Palestinian towns on 26 February 2023.  The attack, which received no sanctions, was so violent that even the Israeli military commander of the West Bank called it a “pogrom.”

Israel’s war on civilians in blockaded Gaza and Occupied Palestine continues because Israel has faced no punishment or sanctions.

Since 1947, Israel has violated the sovereignty of Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Syrians, and Egyptians.  They have assassinated five Iranian nuclear scientists.  In addition, Washington has yet to hold Israel accountable for the murders of American citizens:  Rachel Corrie, Omar Assad, Shireen Abu Akleh, and 34 crewmen of the USS Liberty.

In March 2003, 23-year-old peace activist, Rachel Corrie, was crushed under an Israeli bulldozer while protesting the demolition of a Palestinian family’s home in Rafah, Gaza.  Palestinian-American Omar Assad, 80, died in January 2022 after being detained and untreated by Israeli troops at a checkpoint in the West Bank.  And in May 2022, Israeli troops targeted and killed 51-year-old Palestinian-American journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, as she covered their raid on Jenin.

The long-suppressed story of Israel’s 1967 assault on an American naval vessel, the USS Liberty, is a testament to the great lengths that Washington has been willing to go to protect Israel.

On June 8, 1967, Israeli jet fighters and torpedo boats attacked the USS Liberty, killing 34 and wounding 171 American servicemen.  The Liberty, an intelligence-gathering vessel, was in international waters off the Sinai Peninsula and was clearly marked when it was deliberately attacked.  On 5 June, Israel had just begun its preemptive attack on Egypt, starting what became known as the Six-Day War.

In his 1979 book, Assault on the Liberty: The True Story of the Israeli Attack on an American Intelligence Ship, James M. Ennes, Jr., who was an officer on the bridge when the attack began and survived, recounted that the cover-up began immediately, because in the words of then-President Lyndon Johnson, “we are not going to embarrass an ally.”

Ennes also maintains that Johnson appeared more concerned about antagonizing the Israeli lobby than with the American dead and their families. He recounts that a total news blackout was quickly imposed and surviving crew members were threatened with court martial, prison, or worse if they ever repeated what happened, even to their wives.

Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, Chief of Naval Operations (1967-70) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1970-74) told a reunion of survivors in 1997: “I have to conclude that it was Israel’s intent to sink the Liberty and leave as few survivors as possible.  Israel knew perfectly well that the ship was American.”

In spite of the overwhelming evidence of what Amnesty International has described as its “cruel system of domination,” Israel has yet to be punished. Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, however, all states are legally bound—under third-state responsibility—to act against any state that commits serious violations of international law.

President Joe Biden, like his predecessors, will not penalize Israel.  For decades, Biden has described himself as a “committed Zionist.” In a 2011 speech before a Yeshiva Beth Yehuda audience in Detroit, Biden asserted “I am a Zionist,” emphasized his commitment to Israel and boasted “I’ve raised more money from AIPAC than some of you have.”

Peter Beinart, in his essay “Joe Biden’s Alarming Record on Israel,” published in  Jewish Currents (27 January 2020), describes how then-Vice President Biden did more than any other Obama cabinet official to shield the Netanyahu regime from pressure and consequences.

He documents how in 2009-2010, Biden contradicted and undercut President Barack Obama’s attempts to persuade Netanyahu to freeze settlement expansion and to keep the prospect of a Palestinian state alive.

President Obama, in March 2010, sent Biden to Israel to bolster his position, especially with regard to freezing settlement expansion.  While in Israel, Biden declared in a speech that “… there is simply no space between the United States and Israel.” Shortly after, Netanyahu announced a major settlement expansion in East Jerusalem.  An incensed Obama then instructed his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to give Netanyahu an ultimatum—either make consequential efforts at peace or face sanctions.  Upon hearing that, Biden indicated to Netanyahu that he would smooth things over for Israel when he got home.  After reading the transcript of the Biden-Netanyahu call, an official noted that Clinton, “realized she’d been thrown under the bus.”

Israel’s exceptionalism from US sanctions, international law and moral judgment has had serious repercussions for the Middle East, the United States and the international community.  Violence does not occur in a vacuum.  Decades of US sanctions have hampered political development, economic progress and cooperation among governments in the Middle East.  They have predictably given rise to frustration and anger.  The hypocrisy and injustice of US sanctions have not been lost on the people of the region.

After the horrific attacks in 2001 in New York City and Washington, D.C., President George W. Bush set in motion America’s endless catastrophic “war on terror” by falsely claiming that 9/11 occurred simply because “they hate our freedom.”

In his book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright asks Americans to evaluate Washington’s 9/11 narrative by considering the information that has been purposefully omitted.  Using primary sources, Wright states that the principal grievance of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the architects of 9/11, was not “America’s freedom,” but the interminability of the suffering and humiliation of the Palestinian people, enabled by the United States.

The deferential treatment that Israel has received has not served the United States well.  It has belittled the United States on the international stage and humiliated it domestically.  The absence of justice inevitably leads to conflict and war.  If Washington insists on being the arbiter of sanctions and using them as a foreign policy weapon, then Israel should no longer be shielded from them.

– Dr. M. Reza Behnam is a political scientist specializing in the history, politics and governments of the Middle East. He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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