The United States, Israel, and the Middle East

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

This is a slightly revised version of the remarks I prepared for
an October 26 public forum sponsored by AWARE Presents on
“What Should be the U.S. Policy in the Middle East? The Confrontation
of Israel with its Neighbors.”
I’d like to begin with some observations about the way
that we in the U.S. discuss Israel and the Middle East. All
too often our discussions are unproductive due to the
rhetorical moves we make, and so I’m going to mention
some examples before discussing our policy.
For a long time I’ve been bothered by the way we use the
terms “pro-Israel” as opposed to “pro-Arab” or “anti-Israel.”
We need to stop thinking and speaking in these simplistic
terms, which imply that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a
zero-sum game. To label someone or some idea as pro-Israel
or anti-Israel implies that the existence of the State of Israel is
at stake. It isn’t. Israel is by far the strongest power in the Middle
East, and the majority of the Arab states are now eager to
normalize relations, as soon as a satisfactory Israeli-Palestinian
settlement is reached. The issue is Israel’s boundaries, not
Israel’s existence. The real existential question is the Palestinian
question—the question of whether they will achieve selfdetermination
in a territorially viable state, which is their
right. The “pro-Israel” v. “pro-Arab” or “anti-Israel” dichotomy
only serves the interests of those who see some advantage
in promoting the conflict. A good example of that is the ongoing
campaign to smear academic Middle East Studies programs
and even academia as a whole as “anti-Israel.”
Another sterile exercise is the “blame game.” We who
are interested in a just political settlement need to stop
playing that game, debating who is at fault, who is the
aggressor, who “started it,” and so forth. There is plenty of
blame on both sides for the continuing conflict. Both sides
are guilty, to paraphrase the late Abba Eban’s words, of
almost “never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity”
for peace and normalization. However, it is an asymmetrical
situation, in which the Palestinians have had
much less control over events, and less influence over the
public debate. Here are a couple examples of the blame
game. Some of Israel’s “new historians” have implied that
in the early 1950s Ben-Gurion missed an opportunity by
not responding to secret peace “feelers” from Egypt and
Syria. Well, maybe, but we have no way of knowing what
might have happened if he had. Arafat was also blamed for
“rejecting peace” at Camp David in 2000. But in actuality
the Israeli-American offer was unacceptable. An inability
to agree is not the same thing as “rejecting peace.”
“Peace” is another problematic term. Maybe we should
stop kidding ourselves that the parties in this conflict are
seeking peace. Between Israelis and Palestinians the conflict
has always been about land. Nowadays Israelis are divided
between those who would accept a state within boundaries
based on the June 4, 1967 frontiers and those want to annex
part or all of the Occupied Territories, either out of security
concerns or nationalist irredentism. The Palestinians are
also divided between those who support a two-state solution
based on the June 4, 1967 boundaries and nationalist
irredentists who want to liberate “all” of historic Palestine.
The nationalist irredentists on both sides are delusional and
dangerous, but they are in the minority. They can be undercut
if there is a clear understanding on the June 4, 1967
boundaries as the basis for a final settlement agreement.
“Peace,” in the sense of an end to violence, will only be
achieved as the result of a just settlement.
Finally, there are a number of terms in usage that I would
lump together under the heading of “political fundamentalism.”
Fundamentalist discourse uses catch words in place of
reflection. Too often we slide into a kind of fundamentalism,
applying labels such as “terrorism,” “Islamofascism,” “anti-
Semitism,” “racism,” “terrorist state,” “apartheid state,” and so
on to those we oppose. These terms generate more heat than
light, and are only useful if you’re preaching to the choir.
Terrorism is the targeting of civilians or non-combatants
for political ends. It is a strategy, albeit an ugly, reprehensible
one. Terrorism is practiced by virtually everyone,
because it is effective, at least some of the time. We should
denounce terrorism, but we should remember that terrorism
is not an ideology, and no organization or state is
essentially a “terrorist” organization or state. Nor is any
religion. There are Muslim terrorists (and other kinds), but
there is no such thing as “Islamic terrorism.”
Arab and Muslim objections to Israel are not due to an
inherent anti-Semitism. Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism is
a product of the Arab-Israeli conflict, not a root cause of it.
Holocaust denial in the Arab and Muslim world is motivated
by the misperception that Israel was created and is
supported by the West in compensation for the Holocaust.
On the Israeli side there is nakba denial.—Palestinians
refer to their uprooting and dispersal in 1948, as the
nakba or “disaster.” Nakba denial is not denial of the event
itself but denial of any Israeli responsibility for it. In that
view, the Palestinians “ran away,” they were “ordered” to
run away, they weren’t there to begin with, and besides
they started it. Israeli nakba denial springs from the same
source as Arab Holocaust denial, namely an unwillingness
to accept any legitimacy to the other side’s case.
Similar to the accusation that Arabs or Muslims are inherently
anti-Semitic is the charge that Zionism is a form of
racism or that Israel is a racist “apartheid state.” Again, this is
political fundamentalism. The equation of Zionism and
racism was cooked up by the Arab states in the early 1970s
in the hope of isolating Israel as a “pariah state” like the white
regime in Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe). The connection is
very clear if one reads the UN General Assembly resolution
of 1974. The absence of any racial doctrine in the foundational
Zionist texts is equally clear. On the other hand, there
is a mixture of de jure and de facto discrimination against
non-Jewish (mainly Palestinian) citizens in Israel that is analogous
to racial discrimination in the U.S. half a century ago.
The term “apartheid” is more appropriate to the situation in
the West Bank, which is why Israelis on the left will use this
term—not to condemn Israel as a whole but to warn against
the direction they see their country going in.
As for U.S. policy toward Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict,
our policy has not been consistently the same, but has evolved
in zigs and zags. Approximately 40 years ago Israel became a
strategic ally of the US. Before then and since, though, the U.S.
made periodic attempts to reconcile the two sides—and to reconcile
our Israeli alliance with our Arab alliances—by mediating
the conflict and working toward a settlement. Starting in
the 1960s that policy of mediation was occasionally abandoned
in favor of relying on Israel as a strategic asset in our efforts to
dominate the Middle East and to exclude the influence of
rivals. This was the strategy during the Nixon administration’s
first term and during much of the Reagan administration. It
was a Cold War, anti-Soviet policy. Throughout those decades,
whether mediating the conflict or not, the U.S. had an overall
“status quo” strategy, seeking “stability.”
I maintain that the policy of the current Bush administration
is exceptional in its revisionist goals and its militancy.
It is “revisionist” in its stated goal of changing the political
order in the Middle East. Regime change has been the
avowed policy toward Iraq, Iran, Syria, and the Palestinian
Authority, and traditional allies (though not Israel) have
also been pressured to change their political systems. It is militant insofar as military means are
believed to be capable of producing the
desired political and social results. Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice’s description of
last summer’s Lebanon war as the “birth
pangs” of a new Middle East was consistent
with previous statements about the folly of
previous administrations pursuing “stability
at the expense of democracy” in the region.
This neo-conservative view is congruent
with the Israeli Likudist perspective—
namely, that conflict in the Middle East is
caused by dysfunctional Arab and Iranian
politics. It is as if Israel were not there, and
not contributing to regional conflict.
The failure of this militant, revisionist
policy should be evident. It has produced
more instability, more polarization, more
terrorism, and more sympathy for terrorism.
Notwithstanding President Bush’s
endorsement of the goal of a Palestinian
state and his “Road Map” plan, his administration
has de-prioritized the Israeli-
Palestinian question, allowing that situation
to deteriorate. Israeli colonization of
the occupied West Bank continues, with
hardly a protest from Washington, making
a “two-state solution” to the conflict seem
less and less likely. This is bad for everyone—
Israel, the Palestinians, and the U.S.
It is a myth that anti-American sentiment
in the Arab and Muslim world is driven
by “what we are.” It is driven by what
we do. Currently there are three things that
stoke anti-American feeling that we could
do something to change. First is our support
of authoritarian regimes in the Middle
East—and that means all of our Arab allies.
We need to temper our concern for stability
with concern for human rights. The two
are not incompatible, as Secretary Rice has
suggested. Second is our occupation of
Iraq, which has been a disaster, but which
needs no elaboration here. Third is our
normally uncritical support for Israel,
including during last summer’s war in
Lebanon and the continuing siege of Gaza.
The US should adopt a pro-active policy
to promote an Israeli-Palestinian settlement
consisting of the following elements:
• a territorial settlement leading to a
Palestinian state based on the June 4,
1967 borders
• normalization of relations between
Israel and the Arab states
• a just resolution of the Palestinian
refugee’s plight (one that respects
Israel’s sovereignty as well as the rights
of the refugees)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.