Professor Lawrence Davidson Discusses Egypt, the U.S., and Israel
Lawrence Davidson says, “Keep your eye on the language: When South Africa assigned rights according to race they called it apartheid. When Israel assigns rights according to religion they call it the only democracy in the Middle East.”Lawrence Davidson is a professor at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania. His academic work is centered on the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East.Throughout his career, Davidson has informed public discourse with his critique of American foreign policy in the Middle East and has embarked on this endeavor in a way that promotes citizen awareness. Davidson analysis has centered on the reality of American conduct in the Middle East and has performed this analysis in conjunction with an awareness of the propaganda that has permeated this debate for the past 65 years. Given this analysis and focus, Davidson has become an outspoken and unflinching critic of the U.S. alliance with Israel and the Zionists’ treatment of the Palestinian people. Davidson is the author of several books. His latest, published in 2009, is Foreign Policy, Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest . This work locates the source of U.S. foreign policy formulation in the activity of powerful lobbies rather than in the White House or State Department.Kathleen Wells: Talk to me about the significance of the events taking place now in Egypt i.e., the protest against Mubarak/the government. What will these events – the actual protests – mean for the region in general and Israel specifically?
LawrenceDavidson: The protests in Egypt, and Tunisia as well, are very significant because they show the people of the Middle East (and perhaps beyond) what is possible. That there is power in numbers – numbers that are organized and determined. It is not easy to bring these numbers into the streets. Indeed, people can go a very long time accepting oppression. But at some point action is possible. That is what the present situation demonstrates and it is significant.
For the region it means that no dictatorship is truly secure unless its army or police are willing to shoot down their own people, and even then they risk civil war. Governments are expected to provide economic security for their people. This is a real challenge for the regimes in the Middle East because, tied as most of them are to the world markets and Western banking institutions, they cannot actually solve their economic problems. The dictatorships try to get around this predicament by creating economic security for elite (usually a ruling class plus the military) and keep the rest of the population under control through force. But Tunisia and Egypt now show that that strategy is not foolproof. These dictators are increasingly in a bind.
For Israel, the present events are deeply disturbing. Israel's leadership, from the very beginning of the state, has believed that security is a function of alliances with the West and military force in the region. They have never sought any meaningful compromises with their neighbors. Their only “friends” in the region are dictators who cooperate with Israel because they fear it and because the Americans pay them to do so. This is not a good basis for long term security. Israel's strategy of security through the application of force is now being revealed as inadequate. The country is confronted with implacable enemies in the north – an increasingly well armed Hezbollah backed by Syria and Iran. If Mubarak falls and Egypt becomes a democracy, Israel's ability to control matters to its west will be seriously weakened. The situation in Gaza will slip from its control because a popular regime in Cairo will normalize its border with Gaza. The Israeli blockade will collapse. The entire scenario also points up the fragility of the monarchy in Jordon. Israel will begin to feel as if it is surrounded by enemies once more. Yet they are so ideologically blinded that they will fail to realize that their own policies helped make it so.
Kathleen Wells: Respond to statements made from Israeli spokespersons that the protest in Egypt demonstrates that Israelis the only stable government in the Middle East and that Israel is the only real example of democracy in the region.LawrenceDavidson: Israel is a democracy in the same sense that, say, Alabama was a democracy prior to Civil Rights. Real democracy includes a realistic level of equity under the law for all citizens. That is completely lacking in Israel where 20 percent of the population (the Israeli Arabs) are systematically discriminated against. So when Israeli leaders claim that their country is a democracy, they are simply saying that the Israeli Arabs can cast a vote. But that vote will never be able to change the inherently discriminatory system. So the vote is meaningless. The game is rigged.
There are, of course, other democracies in the region which the Israelis and their supporters conveniently forget about. Turkey is a viable democracy, especially now that the Turkish military is no longer interfering in politics. Lebanon is, in fact, more democratic than it ever was before the outmoded sectarian system imposed by the French was destroyed by civil war (That is what it took to democratize Lebanon!). And even Palestine was a democratic place before the Israelis and Americans decided that having Hamas win a free and fair election was unacceptable. So the claim that Israel is the only real democracy in the region is incorrect.
As to stability, well perhaps Israel is too stable. There are definite signs that the country is flirting with fascism. The present Knesset is passing laws that could destroy much of the Israeli left. That is not the kind of stability that is healthy for a supposed democratic country.
Kathleen Wells: What do you foresee for Israel and Egypt, if Mubarak leaves office?
LawrenceDavidson: If a democratic government is created in Egypt, there will be great uncertainty in Egyptian-Israeli relations. In Egypt there will be tension between the civilian/parliamentary aspects of the new Egyptian government and the Egyptian military as to who decides the nature of relations with Israel. The former will want to normalize the Gaza border and cease following the dictates of the U.S./Israeli alliance. The military leadership, on the other hand, will want to keep the status quo because, after all, the U.S. is paying their salaries and supplying their weapons. How this tension will be worked out remains to be seen. In the meantime the Israelis will have fits of anxiety.
Kathleen Wells: Assess Obama’s response to the Egyptian protest to date.
Lawrence Davidson: When we consider the response of President Obama to the Egyptian situation we have to keep in mind that all we have to go on is Obama's public face. What he is doing in private is not easy to get at. It is sort of like an iceberg, you can only see its exposed part and not all that is under wraps. As far as I can tell Obama really does want to solve this situation by a liberalization of the Egyptian political system. He wants it done in a controlled and peaceful fashion, of course. To do so will improve America's reputation in the region. But there are also countervailing pressures.
It seems that Obama told the Egyptian military leaders that he did not want American weapons used to kill the protesters and that meant that sooner or later there had to be the negotiations we hear about today. Now that these are going on, the countervailing pressures exert themselves. These are from the Zionist lobbies that are so powerful in Congress as well as from U.S. arms manufacturers who supply the Egyptian military. The Zionists are aware that a resolution of the negotiations leading to a strong democratic/parliamentary government in Egypt is not in Israel's interest, and so there is pressure on Obama and his administration to back Omar Suleiman's efforts to make sure any deal leaves foreign policy and the Gaza situation in the hands of the army. Obama does not seem to be a very strong leader, and so he may well bow to this pressure. More importantly, however, is that the Egyptian opposition will probably not make such a deal.
Kathleen Wells: General Petraeus submitted written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee last March which stated, “… enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the area of responsibility.”
Is Israel an asset or a liability to the United States? And specifically address how the characterization of asset or liability relates to policy formation.
Lawrence Davidson: General Petraeus's recent observation that the ongoing Arab-Palestinian conflict works against U.S. interests in the Middle East was simply a statement of fact. The unspoken, but clearly understood, second part of this was it works against us because of our close identification with Israel. What is so remarkable is that a high-ranking U.S. general publicly made the connection.
In my estimation the U.S. really does not behave as if it has interests in the Middle East separate from those of Israel. This can be so because our access to the oil in the Persian Gulf has been successfully separated from the issue of Israel. And that is so because the Gulf Arabs chose not to use oil as a weapon to influence our policy. That leaves the field of Middle East interests (apart from oil) wide open to Zionist lobby pressure and manipulation. So the tail (Israel) is definitely wagging the dog (U.S.) in this regard.
There are obvious consequences to this. One big one is that there is widespread popular dislike of the U.S. throughout the region. I was visiting a class at the University of Jordan a few years ago and asked the students what they thought of Americans. The answer I got was, “They are all killers.” The Iraq invasion was part of what motivated that answer, but our unstinting support of Israel was an even bigger part. That is the kind of public perception that is going to lead to anti-American violence be it in the form of terrorism or just a lot of individual Arabs and Muslims getting involved in conflicts wherein they can fight Americans. Petraeus has seen this in Afghanistan and simply told the U.S. Senate what was going on. You might have noticed that he got no meaningful response from the Senate Armed Services Committee. Why not? Because the power of the Zionist lobbies are worth more to the senators than the lives of the soldiers under Petraeus's command. That is a harsh conclusion, but it is an accurate one.
So is Israel an asset or a liability? Well, it is an asset to most of the representatives and senators in the Congress who get so much money and electoral support from Zionist-oriented lobbies and their members. And it is a horrible liability to the U.S. as a country in that Israeli behavior supported by America generates sheer revulsion in millions of Arabs and Muslims. But, you know, as Tip O'Neil once observed, “All politics are local.” And what the members of Congress and those running the political parties are into is winning elections here in America. Lobby money greases that process. That is more important to them than hatred in the Middle East – even if that hatred can be predicted to lead to on-going terrorist actions. That is the way our politics works.
Kathleen Wells: Is the human rights issue with Israel and Palestine analogous to the human rights issue of apartheid in South Africa? Discuss the differences and similarities.
LawrenceDavidson: In my opinion both Israel and pre-Mandela South Africa are examples of apartheid states. They are not identical, of course, but both reflect systems of state-sanctioned, institutionalized discrimination. The laws in place in South Africa were much more obvious than those in Israel, but that just means that the Israelis recognize Western sensitivities on the issues of racism and have designed their legal system to appear compatibly Western. In practice, however, discrimination based on religious affiliation is rampant and officially encouraged. Even within the Israeli Jewish population there is open (though certainly not officially encouraged) discrimination by Jews of European origin and ancestry against Sephardi and Ethiopian Jews. In fact, Israel is probably one of the most racist countries on the planet. So in Israel you have massive segregation, institutionalized discrimination in terms of education, jobs and the distribution of resources, etc., etc. Israel is not South Africa, but it certainly has its own customized brand of apartheid.
Kathleen Wells: Is it hypocritical to call for a boycott of Israel but not of the United States or of other major human rights violators?
LawrenceDavidson: Israel's apartheid practices, along with its illegal colonization of the West Bank of Palestine, are what motivates much of the present movement to apply boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against it. Here the precedent of South Africa is very much in play. Opponents of BDS often say that it is hypocritical to single out Israel when the world seems full of gross violators of human rights. But, in fact, there is a very good reason why Israel must be prioritized in this effort. The reason is that unlike other human rights offenders (the Chinese in Tibet, the Russians in Chechnya, etc.) the Israelis, through their lobby allies, actively interfere with and manipulate American politics and its policy formation process. In other words Zionist lobbies such as AIPAC function as agents of a foreign power and successfully shape our foreign policy in the Middle East in a way that, arguably, endangers America and its citizens. That makes Israel very much a priority for BDS.
Kathleen Wells: What have the pro-Palestinian activists been doing over the last few decades? And have those efforts been effective and if not, why not?
Lawrence Davidson: For the last ten years those who support the Palestinian cause both here in the U.S. and also in Europe have been building organizations designed to increase public awareness of the plight of the Palestinians and the behavior of Israel. Actually, a lot of progress has been made. It used to be that the Zionists had a monopoly on the story of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. At the grassroots level they no longer have that monopoly, particularly in Europe. The BDS movement has grown to the point where Israel entertainers, sports teams, and other public representatives cannot move in Europe and the U.S. without encountering pickets and protesters. Just so, Western entertainers and public figures planning to go to Israel are publicly identified and asked to desist. Israelis who have been involved in warfare against Palestinians either as ex-members of the Israeli government or military officers cannot travel in Western countries without risking arrest warrants for war crimes. There are now literally dozens of organizations in the Western world specifically dedicated to pushing BDS forward, and they are doing so.
That said, it will probably take decades more to reach a point where this cause can impact the voting patterns of both the ordinary citizen and politicians in Washington. Things might go quicker in Europe, though. It should be kept in mind that it took over half a century for the anti-apartheid campaign against South Africa to become effective. So this is an on-going work in progress.
Kathleen Wells: It has been stated that a BDS targeting Israel harms Palestinians. Do you agree or disagree with this assessment? And what is the rationale for your position?
LawrenceDavidson: Several objections are often made to BDS. One is that it hurts the Palestinians living in Israel. I am not sure that this has been proven to be so, but given the fact that Israeli policy consistently renders Israel Arabs second-class citizens, it is hard to see where BDS makes their life noticeably worse. In any case, to the extent that Arab Israelis are able to safely express their opinion on this matter, there is every indication that they support BDS. Certainly those in the Occupied Territories do so. Another objection is that by the time BDS actually becomes politically effective there will be no Palestine to save. Actually, at the rate the Israelis are stealing Palestinian land, this is probably accurate. However, the BDS movement does not necessarily think of the end game as a two-state solution. This is, of course, an issue where individuals within the movement have different positions. However, the BDS movement, having the South Africa experience as its model, is readily adaptable to a one-state solution goal for Palestine/Israel.
Kathleen Wells: Robert Fisk, in his piece of November 2010 titled “An American Bribe that Stinks of Appeasement,” stated, “…the current American bribe to Israel, and the latter's reluctance to accept it in return for even a temporary end to the theft of somebody else's property, would be regarded as preposterous. Three billion dollars' worth of fighter bombers in return for a temporary freeze in West Bank colonization for a mere 90 days?”
Fisk characterized Obama’s offer as appeasement. How do you evaluate the current status of the so-called “peace process,” and do you believe Obama is serious about obtaining a “two-state solution.” And, if Obama is not serious, why would he expend so much energy and political capital on this issue?
LawrenceDavidson: I would not call Obama's offers to Israel appeasement, at least in the Munich sense of the word. The offer of three billion in weapons for a six-month suspension of settlement building in 2010 was based on the President's confidence in his ability to force Mahmud Abbas to accept a two-state solution (with the Palestinians ending up in a disarmed Bantustan), if he could only get the Palestinian leader back to the table. It might have been a naive confidence on his part, and in the end it certainly did look like a bribe to the Netanyahu government. That the Israelis turned up their noses at this offer is indicative of the facts that 1) they do not need or even want a settlement with the Palestinians. They have enough military superiority to take whatever they want. So why make a peace that might limit your capacity to satisfy the goal of “greater Israel”?
By the way, this has often been the case with the Israelis, and that calls the integrity of the “peace process” into doubt. My feeling is that the Israelis have never been serious about this process but just use it as a convenient delaying tactic to allow them time to colonize as much of the West Bank as possible. 2) They do not care what the Obama administration thinks of them because they know that they control the Congress when it comes to policy toward both Israel and the Palestinians. Politically, Obama is powerless against the Israelis unless he is willing to take on Congress (both Republicans and Democrats) over this issue. Unfortunately, he is not that sort of risk taker.
Kathleen Wells: Documents leaked by WikiLeaks indicate that Germany asked the U.S. to force a settlement freeze. (See link: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/germany-asked-u-s-to-force-settlement-freeze-on-israel-wikileaks-cables-show-1.328127). The U.S. has refused to do so. Why not, and what benefit does the U.S. gain from supporting Israeli settlements?
LawrenceDavidson: The reason that the Obama administration did not force a settlement freeze is because the President did not feel it was politically possible for him to do so. Of course, the U.S. gains nothing from the Israeli settlements or colonization process. It is even a net deficit if you consider the bad name it helps give us in the region. But for American political leadership, none of this is to the point. These politicians are not going to risk the wrath of the Zionist lobbies over the settlements issue. It is just not as important to them as the financial help they get from those lobbies or the negative publicity they would incur if they crossed them.
Kathleen Wells: Robert Fuller is a recognized authority on the topics of dignity and rankism. Fuller describes r ankism as the exploitation or humiliation of those with less power or lower status. It occurs when the somebodies of the world use the power of their rank to take advantage over those they see as nobodies. Further, Fuller states that rankism is no more defensible than the now familiar indignities of racism and sexism.
What are the Palestinians needing, desiring, and would you characterize Israel’s conduct toward the Palestinians as rankism? And if not, why not?
LawrenceDavidson: You can certainly call this “rankism” in the sense that Robert Fuller uses it. As far as the Israeli leadership is concerned, the Palestinians are worse than “nobodies.” They are an impediment to what that leadership believes is their manifest destiny and so worthy of no more than ethnic cleansing. If there is ever to be peace in the Middle East, Palestinian human rights and all the U.N. resolutions that uphold them have to be realized. That is not going to happen as long as Zionism is the official ideology of Israel. The cost of maintaining that ideology has to be made higher and higher for the Israeli leadership. That, in turn, entails a worldwide effort modeled on the campaign against South African apartheid.