August 20, 2002
Protect Me from My Friends
Pro-Palestinian Activists and the Palestinians
by Michael Neumann
If the situation of the Palestinians seems hopeless, it is not simply because of what Israel does. It is also because most pro-Palestinian activists, while complaining unceasingly about the American-Israeli alliance, spare no effort to maintain it. They do so because they are wedded to conventional left-wing assumptions.
How does this show? Confronted with the fact that one of the most powerful countries in the world--I refer, of course, to Israel--is crushing the Palestinians, the left mistakes Israel for a little puppet, and the US must then get drafted into the role of puppeteer. Since the puppeteer needs to have some motive for the puppet show, Israel becomes a tool for advancing American interests. This is a fatal step, because it pretty well implies that any sane US government *should* support Israel. Shouldn't any sane government advance its country's interests?
Like all catastrophic strategies, this one is based on a truth. America's scandalous, extravagant involvement with Israel should of course be stopped immediately. But it is still Israel committing the crimes, not the US, and not at the instigation of the US. America is a sap, a duped accomplice, not a co-conspirator. The enormous, ignored fact of the Palestinian story is that America is not, as the left so loves to think, pursuing some vital interest in its alliance with Israel. On the contrary, America is acting against its vital interests. And by America I don't just mean the wonderful, real-as-dirt Americans of Denzel Washington flicks. I also mean corporate America and the American government.
Back when there were commies, the US had a paranoid but at least vaguely plausible reason for allying itself with Israel. Israel was going to keep Arab commies from getting out of hand. The US badly wanted a strong military power in the region, because 'getting out of hand' might include supplying bases for the Red Army. But the commies are long gone. Everyone cooperated to wipe them out: true nationalists like Nasser, entrenched political forces like the Syrian Ba'ath party, reactionaries like the rulers of the Gulf states, the Americans, Israel, and the Moslem fundamentalists they cultivated.
That was then, the age of Vietnam and the Yom Kippur war, a time when nothing was too evil if it fought communism. The America of that age lives on in the frozen brains of the left. How many vile regimes did the US back in the 1970s? Israel was the best of them. There were the South Vietnamese, the Greek Junta, Pinochet and a host of scum all over Latin America, in Brazil, in Argentina, in Uruguay, in Paraguay, in Guatemala, in El Salvador, in Panama, in the Dominican Republic. There were the South Africans, in their own country and in Angola, Namibia, Mozambique. There were the mass murderers of Indonesia, and there was the Shah of Iran. No doubt I've forgotten many others.
But we don't live in 1975 any more. I'm not sure America sponsors even one regime as bad as its clients of yore. Sure, the US still does a roaring arms trade with all sorts of awful governments, and, as ever, makes lopsided economic agreements with them. But these governments, governments of states like Indonesia or Kuwait or Argentina, are not American clients, any more than they are clients of France, or Britain, or any other states that do business with them. (And most of them aren't as bad as the clients of the old days.) To someone preoccupied with condemning US sins, the change seems insignificant. But to anyone who really wants to influence the US government, it is not. When one examines the political objectives involved, there is a big difference between the sort of support America gives Israel and the sort it gave its client regimes in the 1970s.
In 1975, America backed its despicable friends because it wanted what they wanted. It wanted the communists, dissidents and revolutionaries tortured and killed. It wanted that done at arm's length, and it actively conspired with the world's worst governments to do so. It no longer conspires with such people, mostly because it got what it wanted. But American support for Israel has always been very different.
America does not at all want what Israel wants, and it never did. America never had the slightest desire to kill Palestinians, take their land and homes, drive them to despair. America tolerated these outrages as a mob boss might tolerated the sadistic, deviant sexual tastes of an underling. But, also like the mob boss, it did not share these tastes.
But if America doesn't share Israel's goals, what does it get out of supporting Israel? The left has become a contortionist in its efforts to explain that. Oil politics, they say. This explanation assumes too much about the role of oil in American foreign policy, and would make little sense even if those assumptions were accepted.
The appeal to oil politics derives largely from overly serious attention to the US government's expressions of concern for America's long-term oil supply. Naturally, US officials will express such concern from time to time. The oil companies like that, and the concern is genuine enough. But there's a big difference between having a concern and making it the driving force of your foreign policy. Witness the supposed oil politics driving American efforts in Central Asia. Much is made of the (not overly enthusiastic) involvement of Unocal in Khazakhstan, and the oil pipeline projects connected with its efforts. (see, e.g., Ted Rall, "The New Great Game: Oil Politics in Central Asia", .) But Unocal is a second or third tier oil company, a nine billion dollar enterprize dwarfed by Exxon's 270 billion dollar stature. Moreover, it is more or less a pariah, currently standing trial in Los Angeles for human rights abuses. Would *they*--the great *they* of conspiracy analyses--allow this if these Unocal folks were really the darlings of a US government hell-bent on securing the Caspian oil?
Sure, the US government wants some Central Asian oil, and conducts an oil politics to get it. But this is hardly an obsession, and why should it be? We live in a world, for now, in which oil suppliers are falling all over themselves to sell as much as they can to the highest bidder. The business press regards the oil weapon as unusable. The US lack of interest in energy conservation and alternative energy supplies indicates that the American government is not more far-sighted in its policies than the business press. This should come as no surprise. The world's strongest military and economic power knows it can easily procure itself oil without anyone's help--especially not Israel's.
If America were so concerned about its oil supplies, why would it ally itself with the one power in the world that drives its suppliers to distraction? Were it not for that alliance, the US would be able to apply much more direct and finely tuned pressure on oil-rich governments. Israel is (a) best positioned to pressure states which are *not* significant oil producers--Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt--(b) utterly superfluous for pressuring the very feeble Gulf states, and (c) politically unsuitable, as the Gulf War showed, for pressuring militarily strong producers like Iraq and Iran.
The portrayal of Israel as a America's stationary aircraft carrier is equally unconvincing in this context. Again, this made a certain paranoid sense when the enemy was communism, because the states bordering on Israel were considered the most likely to go communist. But the US does not need or want Israel to strike through Jordan and Syria to Gulf oil fields. This 'solution' would be much more of a problem than simply occupying the oil fields with American troops. The US today would have no more difficulty securing or controlling Middle East oil supplies than the Allies did during World War I, long before Israel existed. The one thing that might conceivably come in handy--lots of expendable ground troops--only friendly Arab governments, not Israel, could provide.
Occasionally one hears other accounts of America's interest in supporting Israel. It is said that Israel's persecution of the Palestinians will 'teach the Arabs a lesson'? What lesson? Are they too stupid to see they're weaker than the United States? And what are the Arabs to learn not to do? Resist Israeli occupation? The Arab states have little sympathy and less common interest with the Palestinians; they do not tremble because Israel persecutes a people they fear or despise.
Or is American support for Israel somehow connected with the war on terror? Yes, it certainly is. America's alliance with Israel stands squarely in the way of better relations with the Arab governments, the famed 'Arab street', and Pakistan. It is the main obstacle to a US attack on Iraq. It blocks either an attack on, or reconciliation with, Iran, the Sudan, or Libya. America's alliance with Israel does even more damage to its war on terror than to its oil politics.
Why then does America support Israel? There is the pro-Israel lobby, I guess, and (a distinct factor) the support of ordinary American Jews for Israeli policies. More important may be the enormous prestige of Jews and Jewish culture in American life. But most important of all is probably a force never to be underestimated--plain old inertia. America supports Israel because it once had a reason to do so, or thought it did, and because it has done so in the past. Intellectuals may feel cheated by such banal explanations, but offer no viable alternatives. Whatever the reasons for American support, US interests aren't among them.
This has large implications. The whole Palestinian strategy of the left is in urgent need of drastic change. First, the left's demonization of the US is excessive and obsessive. America's current support for Israel is a world away from its carefully contemplated, viciously evil support for its cold-war client regimes. Today America is the puppet, not Israel.
America is not using Israel to fight against communism or for economic advantage. Israel is using America to fight a race war, and America is too much of a dummy to understand. It fawns on Israel, mostly because it is befuddled, and partly because its politicians fear offending Jewish voters. But America is not the enemy here; it is aiding the enemy. The left is so fixated on American sinfulness that it treats present US support for Israel like past US sponsorship of true proxy regimes like Pinochet's Chile, and all but lets the real culprit off the hook. American weapons inflict huge harm on the Palestinians, but it is not America that is inflicting the harm: 'it's the Israelis, stupid!' Even without American arms, plucky little Israel would still manage to oppress the Palestinians and intimidate their reluctant allies.
Though America is not the central villain of Israel's drama, a change in American policy is still essential to helping the Palestinians. The left is far more interested in complaining about that policy than in changing it. Yet the basis for a real strategy can be found in the innocuous leftist belief that American policy is determined by America's strategic and economic interests. If leftists really wanted to restrain Israel rather than moralize about American complicity, they would make clear that US policymakers are more stupid than evil, because Israeli policies run entirely contrary to America's strategic and economic interests. A genuinely pro-Palestinian strategy would stress that backing Israel undermines not only to America's war on terror, but also its oil politics. And a genuinely pro-Palestinian strategy would not be anti-American for the sheer joy of it. Instead it would emphasize that American foreign policy, however reprehensible, has improved since 1975, and that America squanders the political benefits of this improvement with its robotic support for Israel. This is not flag-waving or apologetics; it is a matter of making the appeal most likely to strike a chord with the US government and public.
This strategy would do more than make even the most conservative Americans question the wisdom of supporting Israel. It would also force American Jews to reassess their involvement with Israel, which up to now has in effect been certified impeccably pro-American by the left as well as the right. At the very least, it makes no sense for pro-Palestinian activists to pick up their marbles and go home when appeals to morality prove ineffective. Anyone convinced of the immorality of the US government has all the more reason to appeal to American self-interest.
If one insists on a moral judgement here, the obvious one would be that the anti-American hysterics of the left are an inexcusable indulgence of prejudice, for which the Palestinians are paying a terrible price. According to CNN polls, as many as 43% of Americans have thought the US was too pro-Israel. It is not without ingenuity that such a powerful undercurrent of opposition to American policy has been left untapped.
Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. He can be reached at: mneumanntrentu.ca