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How Israeli Militarism Is Driving a Wedge Between American Progressives and the Jewish State

Liberals around the world are losing their sympathy for Israel.
 
 
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It all seemed so familiar. With Israeli elections looming, Israel takes a step ostensibly in response to rocket fire from Gaza that it knows very well will escalate the fighting. Tit for tat grows until Israel launches a much larger attack on the besieged Strip. Throughout all of this, the US repeats the mantra that “Israel has the right to defend itself,” casting Israel as the innocent, if not helpless, victim.

Sounds like business as usual in Washington and Jerusalem, right? To some extent it was, but there were some differences in the United States that are worth noting.

One difference, even if it seems woefully inadequate, was that President Barack Obama come out early on in opposition to an Israeli ground attack on Gaza. His public wording was mild, but the signal certainly reached Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While Netanyahu made a number of moves – including a massive callup of reserve soldiers – to threaten a ground attack, he backed away from launching one, and opened himself up to widespread criticism from his right flank for not “finishing the job.” Maybe Netanyahu really didn’t want to launch a ground assault, but it seems Obama’s stance was important, perhaps even decisive in avoiding one, whether due to his making Netanyahu back down or giving the Israeli premier some degree of political cover for the decision.

In any case, Obama’s opposition to a ground assault stood in stark contrast to the carte blanche his predecessor, George W. Bush, gave to Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, in his attack on Gaza four years ago. But that’s as far as it went; Obama’s support of the basic attack on Gaza was absolute, devoid of the context of Israel’s ongoing siege on the Strip which prevents almost all exports and some imports to Gaza. Nor did he acknowledge that the rocket launches against Israel, which are indeed a grave violation of international law and killed five people between the end of “Operation Cast Lead” (2008-'09) and the beginning of “Operation Pillar of Defense,” four of them civilians, occurred in the context of ongoing Israeli military operations. These Israeli attacks killed 271 Gazans in that same period of time, of whom at least 77 were not taking part in hostilities.

While Obama’s performance was certainly not encouraging or sufficient, we can at least say it was an improvement, however slight, over Bush. Congress, on the other hand, took a step backward. Both the House and Senate produced identical bills, supporting Israeli actions without reservation and using text largely lifted from bills passed four years ago.

The differences in the bills passed this year and those from four years ago, however, were disturbing. Omitted was any mention of a desire to see a quick end to hostilities or any mention, even of the insincere, lip-service variety, of concern for protecting civilian lives. As Lara Friedman, spokesperson for Americans for Peace Now, put it: “[The Senate bill] … sends the message that the Senate isn’t concerned about harm (already done or potential) to civilians, and that the Senate is in no hurry to see a ceasefire.”

The Obama administration did its usual dirty work at the United Nations, scuttling a Security Council call for an immediate cease-fire. But it did move quickly to engage and support Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in efforts to broker the cease-fire that did come into effect, and which, to date, has held despite Israeli soldiers killing a Palestinian demonstrator in Gaza. Again, not entirely a break from business as usual, but indicative of a widening divide between the president and Congress on this issue.

 
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