By Pete Kunze ’14
Conservative support for Israel in the past three decades has been both reflexive and uncritical. Without reservation, the US has given its unconditional support to Israel and has demanded little in the way of domestic reform. Conservatives, in particular, have advocated for even stauncher support of Israel. In a recent address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Chris Christie bluntly expressed the conservative attitude toward Israel:
“A threat to Israel is a threat to America. A threat to the Israeli way of life is a threat to the American way of life. Not only for here in America, but for all the nations that emulate our democracy or are trying to emulate our democracy around the world.”
Most conservatives and foreign-policy hawks will nod approvingly of this statement, accepting without much reflection, the two claims presented: that supporting democracy means supporting Israel and that Israel’s interests are one and the same as the US’s interests. On this basis, unconditional support for Israel would not only encourage the spread of democracy but also enhance US power, the two objectives of conservative foreign policy. But does support for Israel really advance these two missions?
Contrary to the conservative opinion, unconditional support for Israel actually undermines the democratization movement. While a democracy in name, Israel employs a string of undemocratic practices. It denies political rights to those living in the Occupied Territories yet refuses to grant these Palestinians a fully sovereign government. The Palestinian Authority is nothing more than a sham administration with no real political teeth. Whether in Israel or in a separate state, the Palestinians must have sovereign representation.
Worst of all, perhaps, is Israel’s notorious human rights record in the Occupied Territories. International organization after international organization has condemned the behavior of the Israeli military, noting its use of Palestinians as human shields, its arbitrary detention of prisoners, its bombing of schools and hospitals, and its use of disproportionate military means. This shows a complete disregard for international law and accepted rules of engagement. Does a liberal democracy really bomb residential areas with white phosphorus? Supporters of Israel raise the point that the US cannot judge the nation’s undemocratic actions because Israel is in existential struggle and must use any means necessary to protect its security. Even if this dubious claim was correct, Israel’s situation does not give it the right to abuse the rights of others as a faithful practitioner of democracy. One cannot simultaneously advocate support for Israeli democracy and then deem its human rights record as above criticism. Either Israel holds itself to a high democratic standard, or it is simply a nation fighting for its existence. It cannot claim both.
With this in mind, it becomes clear why the US’s pleas for democracy in the Middle East ring hollow. Arabs see the US support for democracy and its support for Israel as incoherent, and subsequently see the US as an obstacle for freedom in the region. Israel itself does not promote democracy in the region. In their eyes, political representation is only legitimate when it advances Israeli interests. While Christie may associate the “Israeli way of life” with the “American way of life,” it is hard to reconcile the siege mentality of Israel with the relative stability of the US. I do not mean to unfairly criticize Israeli domestic policy. I fully understand that its security situation may demand more restriction on civil liberties than what Americans would accept. Accepting this restriction, however, puts a serious dent in the argument that Israel holds the regional banner for democracy.
Serving U.S. Interests?
Other supporters of Israel claim that US interests and Israeli interests are intertwined, but should their policies be in lockstep? What positive impact has Israel had on US power? What gains have resulted from Israeli policy? Gone are the days when Israel served as a regional counterweight to Soviet-supported Syria. Its usefulness as a regional ally is minimal, considering the US cannot call on the Israeli military or use its bases for fear of sparking a war in the Middle East. In fact, Israel’s belligerence in the region has handcuffed US policy, leaving the American government to contain the damage that Israel causes for itself. The impending crisis with Iran puts this dynamic on display. The US finds itself forced to consider military action against Iranian nuclear facilities not only out of fear of the Islamic Republic but also out of fear that Israel will strike first and spark a regional conflict. Ultimately, the US has to bear the consequences of another nation’s belligerence, something that clearly does not serve US interests.
More importantly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unites Arabs across national boundaries against Israel, and its backer, the US. The cause célèbre of the region, this conflict increases regional animosity towards the US. This anger complicates the US’s relationship with its other regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as these monarchies cannot openly support Israel. This anger toward the US also impedes reform in the region and lends support to radical Islamist groups, as groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas can garner democratic support for its strong stance against Israel and its backer. Hamas, in particular, is an example of a group coming to power not because of its domestic aims, but because of its position toward the Palestinian cause. Its rise to power ever since is a direct reflection of its ability to undermine PLO peace initiatives and portray itself as the true standard-bearer of the Palestinian cause. If the Palestinian conflict were resolved or at least progressed in that direction, it would strip many fundamentalist groups in the region of their claim that secular organizations, like Fatah, have not delivered on Palestinian liberation. In direct opposition to US interest, jihadi groups, like Al-Qaeda, use the US’s complicity in the conflict as recruitment material for their struggle against US power.
So what are the sum effects of the US’s alliance with Israel? First, it handcuffs America militarily and diplomatically. Secondly, it props up political groups that are violent, theocratic, and anti-US. Finally, it aids the recruitment efforts of terrorist organizations. And this alliance serves US interests? It seems pretty clear to me that the US power suffers a great deal from this arrangement.
What Increased Pressure Can Do
What can increased US pressure on Israel accomplish? Given the $3 billion in aid the US gives it and the US’s status as its only international defender, Israel needs the US more than the US needs Israel. Increased pressure on Israel can drive it to negotiate along pre-1967 borders, a condition that would revive the peace process and bring about a swifter resolution to the conflict. A resolution would do wonders for Israel’s regional relations and would legitimize peaceful Arab political groups over radical Islamist organizations. Additionally, it would improve the US’s image in the region, and give it more diplomatic flexibility.
Supporters of Israel are right in pointing out that other regional actors have contributed a great deal to the current conflict, and its resolution requires their participation, but Israel must make the next step in the negotiation process. This does not mean that the US should call for Israel to resolve the conflict no matter the accommodation but that Israel ceases to claim the status quo as essential to their survival. Increased pressure from the US may not bring an immediate end to the conflict, but it can at least begin to repair its image in the region. A move in this direction will not only improve the chances for democracy in the Middle East, but also enhance US power, a prospect that conservatives should welcome.