By Ben Jubas ’14
America has historically been an important benefactor and ally of Israel, but the relationship has not been devoid of tension or criticism. Partially for that reason and partially because I have no interest in endorsing a criterion-less relationship with Israel, I will not attempt to defend the thesis that America’s policy is, or should be, “in lockstep” with Israel’s. Despite the fact that it is only this moderate attitude toward Israel that Kunze explicitly criticizes, his arguments are suggestive of a shift in policy and outlook that I think are wrongheaded.
I see a number of problems in his article. First, it unfairly characterizes Israel’s democracy based on a simplistic understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Second, it buys hook, line and sinker into anti-Israel propaganda that claims that Israel is the source of all unrest in the Middle East, essentially holding that if Israel were not so intransigent then America would be the recipient of Arabic love letters rather than the target of terrorist activity. Third, it wrongly asserts that increased American pressure on Israel is the missing step in the resolution of the ongoing conflict. I will briefly defend these objections, as well as offer some positive reasons as to why America should remain a strong ally and defender of Israel.
To begin, Kunze attacks Israel as undemocratic, alleging that it has refused to grant Palestinians sovereignty or voting rights and attacking its human rights record. (To make one clarification, Gaza is not occupied by Israel. In 2005, Israel unilaterally pulled out its army and removed settlers from Gaza. Unfortunately, this conciliatory move was followed by the immediate destruction of the agricultural infrastructure left behind, simultaneously accompanied by the rise of Hamas.) I will not deny that bodies like Amnesty International repeatedly vilify Israel on various accounts. However, I put little stock in self-proclaimed “human rights” organizations that fixate obsessively on Israel while ignoring far worse atrocities in other countries whose leaders refer to Israel as a “scum state.” They drool over the anti-Israel Goldstone Report, which was rescinded by Goldstone himself after he realized that the conclusions drawn regarding Israeli war crimes in Gaza were false.
No, the Israeli public hardly has a “siege mentality” as Kunze claims. Arabs living in Israel have the right to vote. They are represented in the parliament, as well as in the Supreme Court. Walking around Jerusalem, one sees Arab and Jewish children playing in the same parks; religious Muslims and Hassidic Jews stroll peacefully through the same shopping centers. The circumstances surrounding Palestinians living in the West Bank are obviously very complicated. Mistakes have been made on both sides, but Israel has repeatedly extended the olive branch in an attempt to create a Palestinian state, only to be summarily rejected by Palestinian leaders. In 2010, a ten-month settlement freeze by Prime Minister Netanyahu was met with silence from the Palestinians. Yet, the repeated demand is that Israel compromise and make the next unreciprocated move. After years of terrorism and vitriol, Israel cannot be expected to sacrifice the security of its people to gamble on what is likely to be a failed state. It is not a simple matter of willfully subjugating another people.
On top of the criticisms about Israel’s democracy were assertions – stated and unstated – that America’s support for Israel leads to a host of problems for the region and for the United States. My initial reply is that Israel is simply not at the root of the problems of the Middle East. This is a common liberal assumption, which is somewhat ironic: what is more Orientalist, more condescending, than to deny Arabs true agency? Perhaps the support for this analysis lies in the rhetoric of Arab dictators. For decades, they have used Israel as a scapegoat for their countries’ problems. Examples of this abound, but one need look no further than the accusation by Egyptian officials fifteen months ago that the Mossad was behind a series of shark attacks in Sharm-el-Sheikh to see the extent to which blaming Israel has become a Pavlovian response. Such accusations might be funny if they weren’t so ubiquitous. A better explanation of recent shockwaves through the region, in addition to those over the past half-century, is that Arab autocrats have done a poor job of providing for their citizens’ needs.
A similar argument holds, in some form or another, with respect to the Palestinians. Without getting into too much detail, it is clear that the pattern of terrorist activity against Israel predates Israel’s control of the West Bank and Gaza, and even the founding of the State. The Hebron Massacre of 1929 left sixty-seven Jews brutally murdered by their Arab neighbors. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), recognized as a terrorist organization by the US and Israel until 1991, was founded in 1964 in an effort to rid Palestine, the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, of Zionism (and Zionists). Israelis dug thousands of graves in preparation for the massacre that they assumed laid in store in 1967 at the hands of Arab leaders who had proclaimed their intentions to wipe Israel off the map and meet one another in Tel Aviv and Haifa.
Groups like Hamas possess and perpetuate deep hatred of Israel and Jews, not frustration at aggression. Moreover, the popularity of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah comes less from their radical political positions and more because they provide health and welfare services that incompetent governing bodies do not. Is Israel blameless? No. But the blame does not lie at one set of feet.
If we accept that the turmoil in the Middle East is not a function of Israel’s behavior, then the idea that American support for Israel helps create the problem dissipates. While support for Israel definitely does not help America’s image in the Middle East, there are more direct reasons for the animosity toward the United States. One possibility is that broader socio-political forces pulling young people toward radical Islam instills them with an ideology directly at odds with the ethos represented by democratic, westernized countries – qualities shared by both America and Israel. Perhaps it is the fact that America has supported despotic regimes not supported by the people. America’s support for Mubarak is naturally a much more direct source of anguish for Egyptians than the indirect connection through Israel. Iranians burned the American flag in the 1979 Revolution because of American support for the Shah, not its treatment of another country. To further claim that the entirety of American foreign policy in the region is dictated by Israeli concerns rather than its own self-interest sounds like a card out of that well-known Russian forgery – quite popular in the Arab world today – The Elders of Zion. A nuclear Iran threatens the stability of the region (a strategic worry) as well its liberty – a threat, as Governor Christie might say, to the American way of life.
I won’t deny that supporting Israel has a negative impact on America’s image in some Middle Eastern countries, but turning on an important ally in response to irrational behavior for some additional goodwill on the Arab Street doesn’t seem like a good tradeoff. For one thing, it is a misreading of the political landscape. In peace deals that have been made between Israel and surrounding Arab countries, it has been the American carrot rather than the stick that proved to be most productive. Repudiating Israel is a good way to lose their citizens’ faith in America’s ability to mediate the conflict. Israelis are sufficiently independent to prefer going at it alone rather than submitting to pressure against what they see as their true interests. A promising Palestinian leadership and plan for economic growth, along with education reform in Palestinian schools, are the surest ways to convey to Israelis that they are a serious partner for peace.
Kunze’s suggestions also underestimate Israel’s value as an ally. The contributions of Israel’s intelligence arms, the Mossad and Shin Bet, are immense. Since the Cold War, Israel has helped provide invaluable information to the United States. Israel is also an incredible source of innovation. The approximately $3 billion given annually to Israel effectively serves as a welfare check to the American defense industry, since Israel is required to spend approximately 75% of it here. Finally, rather than promote democracy, turning against Israel inhibits it. We must support and encourage pockets of democracy where it flourishes. I think we all hope that the seeds of democratic sentiment that might have begun to sprout in the region will grow into something meaningful. We can all move forward together, peacefully and rationally. Flippantly writing off Israel’s robust democracy with an eye toward coddling despotic rulers or those “democratically elected” leaders who look to instate their stultifying interpretation of Sharia law would be a true hypocrisy.