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

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.

Congress, suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood movement from which Morsi hails, has been determined to press hard on the Egyptian president. The attitude echoes congressional hostility to the Palestinian choice of Hamas in their last elections in 2006. But Obama encouraged Morsi to cut the deal, and the cease-fire, which reflected terms that were surprisingly favorable for Hamas, apparently had Obama’s blessing. Obama must also have been aware that this was going to elevate Morsi’s status in diplomatic circles to a significant degree. Whether Obama also knew that Morsi was going to cash in on some of his newfound prestige the very next day by grabbing sweeping and supreme powers in Egypt is an open question.

But the relatively muted response that has come from Washington in response to that action suggests Obama had at least some idea, and essentially, has moved to duplicate US policy during the Mubarak era: ignore Egyptian domestic issues as long as the leader works to maintain quiet with Israel. The support US citizens have generally shown toward Egyptian aspirations for democracy doesn’t mesh well with this attitude, although the general consternation many Americans feel at the election of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s first free election has blunted a lot of that enthusiasm.

An even greater divide on Israel policy can be seen between the president and the rank and file of his own party. A CNN/ORC International poll showed that 57% of US citizens supported Israel’s action in Gaza. Again, seems like business as usual, right? Well, this calls for a deeper look.

In 2009, a similar poll was executed, but with this one going on well into Israel’s ground operation. By the time that poll had been conducted, there were many accusations against Israel of using white phosphorous and other illegal weapons, of targeting mosques and other civilian structures and firing on unarmed civilians, even in some cases where white flags were being waved. In 2012, there was nothing like that in mainstream media, and far less even among less well-read sources. Not to mention the fact that by the time of the ’09 poll, there was widespread devastation and many hundreds of dead (the final toll would be 1,397 Gazans dead, more than half of them non-combatants). In 2012, some 156 Gazans were killed. That is still tragic, but obviously a far smaller number than in ’09. Yet the approval number ticked down anyway.

There’s more in these two polls. Republican support in the two polls was virtually identical, at 75%. But in 2009, 52% of Democrats supported Israel’s actions, while this year that number went down to a mere 40%. That is a significant dip, and it doesn’t happen in isolation. It is one of many indicators that liberals around the world are losing their sympathy for Israel, and even the United States is not immune to this trend.

During the presidential election campaign, the Republicans worked hard, with the unqualified support of their partner, Benjamin Netanyahu, to abandon the long-standing bipartisanship around Israel and identify themselves as the only truly “pro-Israel” party. Obama and the Democrats responded by falling over themselves to show their support for Israel.

Democratic elected officials are thus demonstrating that, when it comes to Israel, they are distinctly different from their constituents. This dynamic was on full display this past summer, at the Democratic National Convention.

At the convention, the Democrats’ leadership went into a panic at the media reaction to the Israel plank in their platform, which did not include a statement affirming Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternal, undivided capital.” The omission was not accidental, but was an attempt to square the party’s platform with the Obama administration’s own policy, the same policy which has been held by every US administration of both parties since Lyndon Johnson. That policy regards East Jerusalem, the part which had been captured by Israel in the 1967 war, as a matter of dispute to be dealt with as part of a final peace agreement. Presidential candidates, again from both parties, frequently say that they support Jerusalem being Israel’s undivided capital, and party platforms often have included this. But no administration has ever actually made it part of their policy.

The Democratic leadership scrambled to put the statement on Jerusalem back in. In order to do that, they needed a voice vote on the floor of the convention. This is usually a rubber stamp, but this time, the kindest interpretation of the voice vote would be that it was split, though in truth, it seemed pretty clear that the no votes were stronger. In any case, it was absurd for anyone to claim that there was the required two-thirds approval. Yet, that is what the convention chairman, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, declared. This was supported by the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, a favorite of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee

What this event showed was just how far the Democratic position, and the policies of President Barack Obama, have drifted away from the rank and file of the Democratic Party. Indeed, polls have consistently shown that Americans support Israel, but want their government to be even-handed in dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict.

After the convention debacle, John Mearsheimer, one of the premier figures in international relations and co-author of the controversial book, The Israel Lobby, told me: “If you look at public opinion polls on how the American people think about our special relationship with Israel, the evidence is clear that the public is generally pro-Israel, but not so much as to justify the present relationship, where we give Israel more aid than any other country and give it unconditionally. What makes the special relationship work is the fact that the lobby is deadly effective at putting pressure on American politicians and policymakers to support Israel no matter what. If the public had a real say in our policy toward Israel, we would have a very different policy than we now have.”

Put another way, Americans generally support Israel and support its security, but do not support the occupation and do not want to see their government abetting it. This was evident at the convention, but it’s not exclusive to Democrats. The fading wing of the Republican Party that held to a “realist” position on Middle East policy (best exemplified by the George H.W. Bush administration) voices a similar sentiment. At the DNC, the audience clearly opposed a plank that would change the issue of Jerusalem from a “final status issue” that needed to be negotiated to one which they advocated as pre-determined, at least as far as US policy would be concerned.

That gap is growing. Only a few years ago, it was unthinkable that Christian leaders from a broad spectrum of Protestant denominations would explicitly call for military aid to Israel to be scrutinized for compliance with relevant US law. But that is precisely what happened this fall, and while Jewish groups as well as Christian Zionist extremists got up in arms, the debate within these mainstream denominations has been much calmer. In earlier years, such leaders would not have been leaders anymore.

And now, with Israel announcing a major expansion of settlements we may see even greater opposition to Israeli policies among Democrats. The expansion includes plans to build in the E-1 corridor, which connects Jerusalem with the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, a line which, if filled in, would effectively bisect the West Bank and make a Palestinian state unviable even in the view of those who cling to the belief that such a state could be brought into being as things stand now.

J Street, the US Jewish lobbying group that pushes hard for a two-state solution, wrote on its blog: “That land is so vital to the creation of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state that experts have called its possible development ‘the death knell for the two-state solution.’”

Other observers recognize that it is actions like this that are driving liberal Americans away from what had once been rock-solid support of Israel. "Of course, during a war many -- though by no means all -- parts of American society will rally round Israel," Ariel Ratner, a former Obama administration political appointee and now fellow at the Truman National Security Project, told Reuters. "But potential problems loom large in the future if Israel doesn’t address them."

On November 29, the Palestinians won a huge victory at the United Nations, upgrading their status from “Observer” to “Non-Member Observer State.” Israel announced the E-1 settlement expansion in response, along with the confiscation of some $120 million in tax revenues Israel had collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. The vote was 138-9 with 41 abstentions, and the only European country that voted with Israel, the US and Canada was the Czech Republic.

Many have wondered how Israel “lost Europe” but the reason is obvious. European governments have grown tired of Israel’s intransigence and arrogance. The majority of their populations want to see the occupation end and do not believe Israel shares that desire, so supporting Israel has been, for some time, a matter of contradicting the will of the people. Israeli behavior has rendered such actions more costly than beneficial for European governments. In Australia, which has long been a reliable backer of Israeli actions, the prime minister was forced to reverse her stance of standing with Israel at the UN by her own party, which feared the popular domestic backlash.

Of course, those countries don’t have a powerful pro-Israel lobby which presses the party that most liberals belong to very hard, and never mind that their actions are working against the best interests not only of the Palestinians, but of Israel and the United States as well. Nor do those countries’ fundamentalist Christian communities which fanatically support Israeli expansionism have anything like the influence they have in the US. But the same pattern that has brought Europe to the position it holds today is beginning to manifest in the US among liberals in and outside of the Democratic Party. It is the only hope for a change in US policy and it better happen fast before this conflict turns into a bigger conflagration even than we have seen to date.  


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