Too many Americans hold dangerous misconceptions about the defining conflict in the Middle East.
The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza goes on, seemingly without end. Israeli troops continue to kill innocent Palestinians. The United States arms Israel to the tune of $3 billion a year or more. And most progressives talk as if there’s not a thing anyone can do about it.
This sorry state of affairs persists because so many wrong ideas about the conflict are widely held here. Here are eight of the worst distortions in our discourse.
1. The biggest and most dangerous misconception of all: “Israel is a vulnerable nation surrounded by powerful enemies — a little David, pure and innocent, bravely fighting back against Goliath-like Arabs bent on destroying it.”
This tale was, and still is, so commonly accepted that most Americans ignore the obvious facts: Israel has been the Middle East’s dominant military power since the Six Day War in 1967. It has a sizable nuclear arsenal while its neighbors have no nukes at all.
The idea of Israeli being destroyed or “pushed into the sea” is a fairy tale. Palestinian violence against Israel never came near the levels of Israeli violence against Palestinians. Now, while Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and economically strangle Gaza, Palestinian violence has virtually ceased.
Yet the old story of tough little Israel fighting for its life — which is often read, between the lines, as a story of civilization warding off the barbarians — continues to be the foundation of most everything the U.S. mass media and policymakers say about Israel. It’s a powerful story, especially when coupled with another, equally common misconception:
2. “There is no space between the United States and Israel” when it comes to our national interests. Obama administration officials like to say that a lot. They make it sound as if U.S. and Israeli interests are identical.
In fact, there are huge differences. The U.S. has plenty of reasons to want an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israelis are in no rush. The Israeli right thrives on the vote-getting power of a continuing battle against an enemy. Israeli centrists and even many liberals tend to ignore the Palestinian issue now that violence against Israel has practically disappeared.
On the other hand, Israeli leaders have long been eager to strike Iran’s nuclear installations. But U.S. leaders have never even considered giving them the green light. The George W. Bush administration knew as well as the current administration that military action against Iran would be unthinkable folly.
According to a senior Israeli official, his government has not asked for U.S. permission to attack Iran because it does not want to be embarrassed when it’s told no. As Vice-President Joe Biden said, “There is no pressure from any nation that’s going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed” on Iran.
The differences between U.S. and Israeli interests were on public display most recently during the uprising in Egypt. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear that he was eager to see Hosni Mubarak stay in power. After some uncertainty, Barack Obama came down on the other side, recognizing the strategic dangers if the U.S. supported Mubarak. U.S. officials were “on the telephone almost daily with their Israeli counterparts,” the New York Times reported, “urging them to ‘please chill out,’ in the words of one senior administration official.”
The obvious differences between U.S. and Israeli strategic interests belie a third misconception:
3. “The U.S. and Israel are tied together because they need each other as military allies.” Anthony Cordesman, one of the most prominent hawks in the national security establishment, has stated flatly what many other experts have also concluded: “America’s ties to Israel are not based primarily on U.S. strategic interests.”
Top U.S. military leaders have explained why, in private and in public: U.S. military support for Israel endangers U.S. military interests in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the predominantly Muslim world. In Israel Meir Dagan, until recently head of the Mossad (Israel’s CIA), warned that Israel is gradually becoming a strategic burden on the United States.
An article in the New York Jewish Week, quoting a former staffer for AIPAC (the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee), explained that the whole idea of “shared strategic goals” was cooked up by AIPAC in the 1970s “to persuade Republicans, who were overwhelmingly opposed to foreign aid, to vote for aid to Israel.”
In recent years the GOP has been more likely than the Democrats to approve a U.S. blank check for Israel. But that may be changing. So watch out for the next misconception:
4. “A more Republican Congress means more U.S. support for Israel’s right-wing government.”
It’s true that Republicans are usually more hawkish on Israel, even though they usually come from districts with very few Jewish voters. But more GOP influence could be bad news for the Israeli government.
Although Rep. Ileana Ross-Lehtinen, the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has always been a stalwart friend of “anything and everything for Israel,” she now warns that the new Republicans in Congress are again bent on slashing foreign aid, and even Israel’s aid could be “on the chopping block.” A Reuters analysis suggested that the Dems’ midterm loss “might convince Obama he has nothing to lose and decide to lean heavily on Israel to accept painful compromises.”
If Obama leans heavily, would the Israelis move? That brings us to the next common misconception:
5. “Israel never responds to pressure from the U.S.”
The Israeli press is constantly filled with warnings from top-drawer pundits that when push comes to shove, Israel would not dare to refuse firm orders from the Obama administration. No less a figure than Israel’s President Peres bluntly explained why: “Israel must forge good relations with other countries, primarily the United States, so as to guarantee political support in a time of need.”
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Even a longtime hardliner like Netanyahu bends rather than run the risk of losing U.S. support and leaving Israel alone in the world. There are plenty of examples since Obama took office. For his whole life Netanyahu refused even to consider the possibility of a Palestinian state. Now he has publicly committed Israel to that goal. He initiated a de facto freeze on settlement expansion well before he agreed to the official 10-month freeze. He kept up a de facto moratorium on Jewish building in East Jerusalem for many months, too. These steps and others angered his right-wing coalition partners. But as leader of the nation he saw no choice except to cede to Obama’s demands.
The Obama administration’s pressure on Israel points to another misconception:
6. “The right-wing Israel lobby has an invincible lock on U.S. Mideast policy.”
If that were true, Obama would never have made his groundbreaking speech in Cairo, demanded the settlement expansion freeze, reprimanded the Israelis for breaking it and for building in East Jerusalem, or humiliated Netanyahu at the White House (which led a popular Israeli columnist to write that lots of Israelis were repeating “that joke about the eight-ton elephant that can sit down anywhere it wishes … Obama sat down on us this week.”).
If the Israel lobby could control U.S. policy, Obama would have swung all his weight behind Mubarak in the recent Egyptian upheaval. But the Israelis’ plea to the White House to support Mubarak, seconded by their lobby in Washington, was ultimately ignored by the administration.
Inside the U.S. foreign policy establishment there are powerful voices opposing the traditional pro-Israel lobby, too. Elite newspapers are regularly taking more moderate stands on the issue, including the New York Times, whose two Jewish foreign policy columnists, Tom Friedman and Roger Cohen, regularly chastise the Israelis.
The same change has come to Congress. Last spring, when AIPAC initiated another of its typical “we love Israel” letters in Congress, they were shocked to find that more than a third of Democrats refused to sign. As I recently heard a Jewish congressman say, when Israel issues come up, legislators generally turn to their Jewish colleagues for advice. The Jews used to simply parrot the AIPAC line. Now they’re likely to say, “Well, AIPAC says this, but J Street says that. You decide.”
On every front, the hawks who once ruled the roost have to contend with a serious challenge from the doves. The division among Jewish lobby groups points to yet another misconception:
7. “The U.S. supports Israeli policies because American Jews demand it.”
Exit polls on Election Day, 2010, showed that three-quarters of Jewish voters want the U.S. to lead Israelis and Palestinians toward a two-state solution, and nearly two-thirds say they’d accept Obama administration pressure on Israel to reach that goal.
American Jews are increasingly disturbed about the overt anti-Arab racism that’s moving from the fringe to the mainstream of Israeli society. New Israeli laws mandate McCarthyite crackdowns on prestigious human rights and peace groups.
In response, top American-Jewish journalist Ron Kampeas recently wrote, “mainstream American Jewish organizations are embracing a strategy of acknowledging what’s wrong about Israel … addressing what some characterize as the deterioration of Israel’s civil society.” They “remain dedicated to defending Israel” when they think it deserves to be defended, “but they are no longer holding back on criticizing Israel.”
Prominent individual Jews are speaking out too, like Peter Beinart; New Yorker editor David Remnick, who says he “can’t take” the occupation any more; the Atlantic magazine’s prominent pro-Israel writer Jeffrey Goldberg, who has confessed that “peace will not come without the birth of a Palestinian state on the West Bank which has its capital in East Jerusalem”; and prominent Jewish historian Howard Sachar, who now says “the Israelis and the Palestinians will never find peace if they are left to negotiate on their own. …Washington must lead the way in enforcing a final-status settlement.”
Sachar’s view was recently echoed by a much more influential Jew, Tom Friedman, who is urging Obama to “put his own peace plan on the table … and demand that the two sides negotiate on it.”
8. That’s not to say the right-wing pro-Israel lobby is powerless, by any means. Those right-wingers are eager to spread a misconception of their own — that they don’t really influence government policy at all. The U.S. backs Israel so firmly, they say, because the American people have a long-standing cultural affinity with Zionism and just love the Jewish state.
But polls consistently show that about two-thirds of all Americans want our government to stay neutral between Israel and Palestine. The continuing pro-Israel tilt attests that the right-wing lobby is still a force to be reckoned with. But the large majority who favor neutrality show that the lobby has no hammerlock on public opinion any more than it has on policymaking.
However most Americans are still much more favorable toward Israel than toward the Palestinian cause, according to the polls. The main reason, I suspect, is the power of misconception number one: the widespread view of Israel as a victim of aggression whose very existence is always endangered. Americans love to root for the innocent underdog — especially when he looks like a tough, courageous fighter who just won’t quit.
The other misconceptions show there could be a very real possibility of changing U.S. policy, if progressive groups are willing to make the effort. But they won’t have any success unless they confront misconception number one head on, debunk it, and rebuild the public narrative on a foundation of truth about Israel’s strength and security.
* Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine and American Jews on his blog: http://chernus.wordpress.com .
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