The illusory zero-sum of U.S.-Israel relations

BY SAM PEARLMAN

The events of the last two months have shaken many Americans into an awareness of our international position that, to some extent, has been left unappreciated. Prof. Yehuda Lukacs has referred to part of this new awareness as “the cost of the relationship with Israel.” Whether inspired by the crazed ranting of Osama bin Laden about U.S. support for Israel or about the cool relations between Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush, the statement is a dangerous one. It implies that there is some zero-sum choice between the American relationship with Israel and commitment from one democracy to another to demand that its practices live up to the democratic ideals that they both claim to venerate.

The issue is a dizzyingly complex one. And we are not anti-Israeli, pro-PA polemicists. Arafat’s regime is guilty of penetrating corruption, suppression of basic freedoms and mismanagement of the peace process. Israel is a democracy with strong civil institutions and a state valuable as a democratic ally of America. But until it ends the military occupation of the Occupied Territories and acknowledges its responsibility for the creation of the largest refugee community in the world, there will always be a shadow cast upon it. More importantly, there will be reasons for Americans, all Americans, to demand that Israel renounce its current policy of colonization, geographic and economic strangulation of the Palestinians. We write this as a plea for all Americans to demand that Israel stop what amounts to an apartheid policy of creating Palestinian “bantustans,” suppressing the Palestinian right to self-determination. We agree with Prof. Ogletree’s October 16th speech on the U.N. Conference on Racism regarding one issue: We do not believe determining whether “Zionism is racism” to be of any use whatsoever. But, we hope Prof. Ogletree can see the similarity in policy between apartheid South Africa and that of Israel in the Occupied Territories. We are not motivated only by an issue of justice, but what we believe will benefit Israel, Palestine and the United States.

Historical perspectives play a crucial role in viewing the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Uri Avinery, an Israeli peace activist, describes how this history is deeply connected to the parties’ current dealing. The Israeli historical narrative emphasizes the persecution of Jews in Europe who needed to establish their own state and moved to the “empty” country of Palestine for its “historical and religious memories.” Out of nowhere, the Palestinians attacked them and they must defend themselves. The Palestinian perspective is one of a people living for thousands of years in peace until European Jews started mass immigration and talked peace until they were militarily strong at which time they took 78 percent of Palestine and occupied the rest in 1967. The Palestinians must fight until the Israelis “leave them in peace.”

On the one hand, it is easy to see how the Israeli perspective encourages a hostile view of Palestinians. This perspective has led to what Edward Said calls the bizarre phenomenon of “blaming the victims” — assuming that Palestinian resistance is explained as not motivated by a situation of military occupation and forceful dispossession, but by an “irrational” hatred of Israel, who just happens to be the occupier.

On the other hand is the Palestinian perspective. Many see the Palestinian/Israeli conflict as one of religion, or of anti-Jewishness. It is not. When Jewish immigrants arrived on the shores of Palestine in the first part of last century, it was far more disconcerting that the new arrivals were yet another wave of Europeans colonizers settling on indigenous land. It was an old story. It happened in South Africa. It happened in Northern Ireland. It happened all over what many now call “the developing world.” Nor was it an unreasonable perspective: The Israeli legacy replicating questionable European ideas about indigenous peoples is undeniable (for example, delousing “Oriental Jews” with DDT). The Palestinian perspective has always been one of resisting a colonial power, first Britain, then the Zionists, then Israel.

After 1967, a far more radical movement established dozens of illegal settlements on the West Bank. These eventually received the official green light from Israeli governments, especially right-wing governments. Even today, houses of Palestinians are demolished while against the view of poverty that characterizes the Arab-populated West Bank and Gaza are gleaming white, swimming-pool dotted settlements built on hilltops and often inhabited by extreme elements of Israeli society. All of this is done against the clear mandates of international law (ignored even in the most open-minded conversations) and against the specific expressions of American presidents and foreign-policy makers including, most recently, George Mitchell. It is a policy of colonization that is intentionally orchestrated to separate the West Bank into non-contiguous clusters of population separated by roads used only by Israelis connecting the Israeli settlements together in the West Bank and to Jerusalem. The current plan for the building of roads, considered “extra-territorial” and under total Israeli sovereignty, amounts to 250 miles of road at a cost of $3 billion, roughly equal to official U.S. aid to Israel annually. Israel remains the only country in the world to refuse to declare its international borders.

The Israeli Supreme Court has determined that settlements may only be used as a security apparatus. Unless the definition of Israeli security means the indefinite imprisonment of more than two million people, then any authority would have a difficult time explaining the vast and increasing network of settlements. The findings of the Israeli Supreme Court seem to reject the claims of followers of the Gush Emunim movement, that Jews have a right to all of historical “Judaea and Samaria” (the West Bank). Those people really believe in the idea of “transferring” Palestinians out of the West Bank, or just disposing of them in more brutal ways (as in Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of 30 Palestinians praying in the mosque in Hebron). We admit we are unable to conceive how anyone thinks this is a justifiable idea. Even the Israeli high court has recognized the secular, democratic restraints on the assertions of the national movement.

Incidentally, we have always found the argument of Israeli security as a justification for the occupation and settlement of Palestinian land flagrantly absurd. In the first place, unless we have missed something, the occupation has not resulted in increased Israeli security whatsoever. It rather has had the self-defeating tendency to make fanatical groups and their tactics look more credible because they refused to deal with Israel in the first place. Israelis have every right to live in peace and security — we just cannot see how placing a country in military occupation of the Palestinians and refusing them the ability to build a state and economy prevents the horrifying prospect of suicide bombers. We would argue it increases the numbers of disenchanted youths who seek such drastic and sad measures. The way we combat fanaticism is to build a sound economy and strengthen civil institutions — the agenda Israel has successfully and admirably pursued. Second, not inconsequentially, Israel is the most powerful military between France and India with unparalleled access to American military technology. The fact that Israel has used American military equipment against civilians, illegal under all terms of sale by the United States, should not be forgotten.

It is easy to turn this issue into a mindless game of finger-pointing. Even now, we wonder if this case will strike readers as just another irrational, groundless accusation against “the Middle East’s only democracy.” That judgment, we suppose, will come through in responses. But if the reader’s judgment finds this case convincing, we pray he or she will speak out. The issue of Israel’s occupation and settlement of Palestinian lands is not related to
the bloodthirsty distortions of Al Qaeda; their rhetoric is no different than that of other Middle East dictators who hug Arafat when they need to boost legitimacy at home. No, the issue of Israeli occupation and settlement beats close to American values that reject colonialism and embrace self-determination. The United States, for all of its sometime questionable judgment, is a place where “emancipation” is a powerful and meaningful part of political consciousness. If this is true, and we will believe it for the rest of our lives, then it is the responsibility of the United States, of all Americans, to demand the same of even our closest friends.

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