The polls have closed in Israel and, as we speak, the election is too close to call. Two of the three major polls have the Likud party in a dead heat with a coalition calling itself the Zionist Union dominated by the old Labor Party of Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin. Each coalition is projected to win 27 seats in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) with the party best able to put together a 60 seat majority coalition to form the new government. Accordingly, Benjamin Netanyahu has declared himself the early victor though, at this writing, the opposition has yet to concede.
By all accounts Netanyahu was losing this election. In a desperate gamble to hold power he arranged with the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives to come to Washington and address a joint session of Congress setting off a firestorm of partisan bickering as many here in this country saw the move as a bold-face affront to the current administration, and a cheap political ploy by the Rescumlican opposition in the bargain. Then yesterday ‘Bibi" boldly announced that under his leadership there will be no Palestinian State, effectively putting an end to the peace process begun so long ago at Camp David, now begging the question: ‘where do we go from here’?
New York Times and Foreign Affairs columnist and Middle East correspondent Thomas Friedman has thought long and hard on the subject. Like many of us, he celebrated the victory by the Israeli’s in the 1967 war characterizing his high school years as "one big celebration of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War." (1) I was a senior in High School at the time, just graduating that June, but I remember the near unanimity of my classmates and the surrounding community in our support for Israel. For us the Israeli’s represented the best of the ‘western’ legacy: technologically advanced and democratic as opposed to the more ‘backward’ and autocratic regimes in the area. This was the prevailing paradigm as it pertained to the region with a little spicing, of course, of cold-war East vs. West ideology as an icing on the cake. It is a view that still pertains in much of America.
What has changed in the nearly half century since the I graduated from High School during the heat of the Six-Day War, is that the consensus concerning Israel has become torn at the edges and now is threatening to unravel altogether. Where once there was near complete bi-partisan support one now finds unquestioning support for Israel limited to the far right of the Republican Party. Across the rest of the political spectrum one encounters varying degrees of support from resignation, distrust, opposition to outright disgust with the behavior of Israel as it pertains to not only the peace process and its abuse of it, but to the ongoing building of settlements in the occupied territory.
The problem, when discussing Israel, is that it is almost impossible to raise a criticism without being accused of either overt or latent anti-Semitism. To voice any concern over the displacement of indigenous populations in what is, in effect, an ‘ethnic cleansing’, is to risk being so labeled. The charge carries with it all the emotional implications of ‘racism’ and is meant to silence the critic. I will risk it anyway.
Let’s be clear on one point here. I am not going to say that Israel has no right to exist, although justification for a ‘theological’ state smacks of iron-age political justification and is foreign to the modern ear. But the argument that without a nation-state the Jewish communities throughout the world had no means of protection, no entity to represent them and therefore made them more vulnerable to pogroms and persecutions is, in my view, salient. For this reason alone the State of Israel should and must exist. If one grants this premise it follows that Israel does have legitimate security interests and that these must be defended. The United States has always stood foursquare behind this proposition and has, accordingly, not only supplied Israel with massive amounts of military hardware and economic assistance, but has rapidly come to its aid when it was under attack, as when it was under attack by Saddam Hussein’s scud missiles and we rapidly supplied them with the means to shoot them down.
It is one thing to provide unqualified support for the legitimate security needs of the State of Israel and quite another to argue, in effect, that such support means unqualified support for whatever the Israeli’s do. The confusion of one with the other has always characterized the far right in this country, but the disentanglement of fundamental security from other facets of Israeli foreign policy began with the Suez Crisis of 1956, (2) during which the Eisenhower administration had to reign in on a military adventure in which the Israeli’s joined Britain and France in an aggression against Nasser’s Egypt. For this, Eisenhower was roundly criticized and the American consensus regarding Israel held firm.
The euphoria, and there can be no other word to describe the American reaction, surrounding the Israeli exploits of the Six-Day War in 1967 proved to be the high water mark however, for unqualified domestic consensus concerning Israel. For as America was celebrating the victory of a modern democratic state over the forces of autocracy, the attack by the Israeli’s on the U.S.S. Liberty (3) sent some nasty vibrations down the corridors of the Pentagon and State Department. America was learning that it couldn’t put blind trust in our erstwhile ally.
The distrust deepened with each passing year and each cycle of the violence that began to characterize the occupied territories taken by the Israeli’s in the conflict. The indigenous populations began to be pushed out of certain areas of the occupied lands to make way for Jewish settlements, dividing the land. Military check points were established and a military regime was soon in place with all that this implies. Resistance to the new order emerged leading to further crackdowns...the story is a familiar one, but for our purposes I want to dwell on a few instances that materially changed our diplomatic posture regarding Israel and fractured the consensus that once governed our policy toward that nation.
First after years of prodding, pleading, and negotiating President Jimmy Carter was able to get the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin to meet at Camp David and negotiate a peace. The process proved difficult and by all accounts Sadat was about to throw in the towel and returned home. Carter begged him to stick it out and, returning to Begin threatened to withhold spare parts for the Israeli military and other aid if Israel did not comply. Under pressure, Begin signed the treaty. In the aftermath Israel did vacate some land, withdrew some settlements and there has been peace between the two countries ever since; but he treated the agreement as just another day at the office, honoring his agreement with Egypt but not honoring the promise not to build more settlements on the West Bank, and to begin serious negotiations to end the Palestinian conflict. The disingenuous behavior of the Likud leader laid the groundwork for much that followed.
The invasion by Israel of South Lebanon in 1982, and again in 1985-2000 (4) also proved to further fracture support for Israel in the United States. In 1982 the Israeli’s purposely misled the Reagan administration as to its military aims plunging much further into Lebanon that the United States government was led to believe and, when things got out of hand, the United States sent a military force to Beirut to help restore the peace. The Reagan Administration, confronted with a suicide bombing of the marine barracks, quickly withdrew American forces sending a message throughout the Arab world that would later come to haunt U.S. policymakers. The 1985 invasion proved equally disastrous for the Israelis as the world witnessed the wholesale massacre of two Palestinian refugee camps by Christian militias as the Israeli armed forces looked on. Now, after nearly 50 years the Israeli political system presents us with the spectacle of Benjamin Netanyahu who, within the span of 3 weeks, comes to Washington and, diplomatically speaking, defecates on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and then stands before the world and announces an end to the Camp David peace process.
One still encounters unqualified support for Israel in the United States but, increasingly, it comes from the voices of Sheldon Adelson, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Fixed Noise, and various fundamentalist sects who support the state not because they care about the Jewish people or Judaism; but because they see signs of the end times and they wait impatiently for the end of this world. Some in west Texas, it has been reported, are even breeding the ‘red-haired’ heifer so soon to they expect to erect a new temple on the mount.
I encounter many such supporters trolling the internets (as ‘ol Two-Cows would say), who protest loudly about Obama betraying a friend, with Israel still holding that pristine position of good fighting the good fight against those evil ‘camel-jockeys’. I even ran across one wag who asked in all innocence "what have the Arabs contributed to civilization anyway"?
I respond, when I’m up to it by trying to set the record straight. First a real friend and ally does not fire upon one of our ships and kill our seamen. A real friend and ally does not purposely mislead us concerning its military objectives. A real friend and ally bargains in good faith when we are attempting to be an honest broker in the region. Israel has been neither a good friend or an a reliable ally. As stated in another context, nations do not have friends; they have only interests, and the interests of the United States and those of Israel, or any other country for that matter, never completely coincide. Honest differences exist and will always exist and to be accused of anti-Semitism by raising legitimate issues is a gross slander and injustice.
Secondly, it is anti-Semitic to roundly characterize the Palestinians and other peoples of the region since, as an Egyptian professor of mine once pointed out, they are Semites too. In any case I had to instruct the troll on the nets that the Arabs gave us agriculture, algebra, astronomy, philosophy, three, and if you count Zoroastrianism, four of the world’s most influential religions, not to mention mosaic art, poetry and the preservation of ancient Greek and Roman culture that sparked the Renaissance. To view them as card-board characters, ‘camel-jockeys’ in the popular parlance is to categorically misunderstand. But such is the state of American education.
I digress. The near universal consensus concerning Israel has now been shattered, and Netanyahu may have perhaps done irreparable harm with his antics of the last fortnight. The question now emerges, "where do we go from here"?
Like Tom Friedman, I too had loudly celebrated the Israeli triumph in the 1967 war. Compared to the quagmire in which we found ourselves in Viet Nam the quick triumph of the Israeli’s against the combined forces of Jordan, Syria and Egypt was exhilarating. But, like Friedman I have come to a much more ‘mature’ if more complicated understanding. It began with a reading of a book called "The Other Side of the Coin" published in the early 70's as the story of Israeli occupation began to be told, followed by years of watching the events unfold in the region and the struggle our government, be it Democratic or Republican, has had trying to broker a peace. Like Friedman I have come to appreciate the complex undercurrents and the difficulty both sides have in reaching across the great divide.
Friedman, who has won the Pulitzer Prize three times, has suggested that the failure of the two-state solution will invite, in time, pressure for a one-state solution. If this happens, Friedman has warned, the Palestinian population, now entirely incorporated into the state of Israel, will demand a ‘one-man, one-vote’ constitutional participation and, since the indigenous Palestinian population will shortly outnumber the Jewish population, Israel would no longer be a "Jewish" state by definition. This constitutes a greater threat, in Friedman’s view, than a two-state solution because if it comes to pass the very essence of Israel, so dear to the hard-line fundamentalists both at home and abroad, would disappear. For this reason, Friedman argues, Israel cannot abandon the two-state solution.
From this perspective Israel, it appears, must be saved from itself. Since Netanyahu has openly declared that no Palestinian state will emerge on his watch the United States should immediately, upon his being named Prime Minister, announce with our allies our support for a one-state solution. This could be done publicly, at the U.N. General Assembly for instance, or we could through diplomatic channels inform the Israeli government that we will change policy if Netanyahu does not immediately return to the table in good faith accompanied by an announcement that the Israelis will abandon the settlements in the occupied territories.
Absent this there is a third alternative nobody is talking about but is, I have long suspected, the real objective of the Israeli government. That is to stall, delay, obfuscate, mislead, until the world is presented with a fait accompli, and the territories are in effect annexed. The Palestinians suspect as much, so does much of the Arab world. Netanyahu, by blowing his cover in an erstwhile effort hold unto power for a little while longer, has just telegraphed the same message to us. This is a prescription for disaster.