Monday, February 15, 2010

Stop Letting the Israeli Tail Wag the U.S. Dog

More than once I have criticized the public debate in the U.S. about Israel for bias and superficiality. For once, here is evidence to the contrary, an example of superb analysis of the relationship by Roger Cohen in a formal debate hosted on February 9, 2010 by Intelligence Squared U.S. From the proceedings, here is Cohen’s opening statement in full (my highlights):

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. In life, when we fail, we call it stupidity to

burrow deeper into failure. Measured by any standard, American policy toward Israel has failed

over the past couple of decades. We are no closer to any kind of peace. Israelis and Palestinians

today stand further apart than ever. They are estranged. They are mistrustful. They are

antagonistic. They can scarcely even imagine peace. We will therefore submit to you tonight

that rather than burrowing deeper into failure, and so jeopardizing American interest, the United

States should reconsider its ties with Israel. It should step back from its special relationship in

favor of a normal relationship. Now a normal relations between allies, and the United States and

Israel must remain firm allies, are often marked by differences. With France, with Japan, with

Germany, with Turkey, important allies all, America has regular and often open disagreements.

What makes America's relationship with Israel is its uncritical nature, even when U.S. interests

are being hurt. What also makes the relationship special is the incredible largess that the United

States shows towards Israel, over the past decade, $28.9 billion in economic aid. And on top of

that, another $30 billion in military aid, that's almost $60 billion. That's 10 times the GNP of

Haiti that is being gifted to a small country. Now, I ask you, to what end is this money being

used. Ladies and gentlemen, we would submit that it ends often inimical to the America interest.

Take the ongoing Israeli settlement program in the West Bank, at a cost of about $100 billion,

this enterprise has grown the number of settlers in the West Bank from about 140,000 in 1996, to

about 300,000 today. If you add the roughly 150,000 Israeli's in East Jerusalem, you get to a

number of 450,000 Israelis beyond the 1997 border. That's not all. Money has poured into a

repressive apparatus involving settler-only highways, reserved military areas, a separation or

security barrier. The Israelis call it "separation wall", "hated separated wall" the Palestinians call

it, a barrier that burrows into the West Bank and annexes 10% of the land. What's the result of

this? Well the result is an isolated, fragmented, atomized, fractured, humiliated Palestinian

presence that simply makes a nonsense, at first, of the notion of "Two States for Two Peoples".

What I observe there on my visits to the West Bank amounts to a kind of primer in colonialism.

Imagine, Israelis in their fast cars, Blackberry-ing away, booming down these super highways,

while Palestinians on their donkey carts make their way on dirt tracks, if they can get there, to

their orchards. This is a primer in colonialism, much more than it resembles a nascent Palestinian

state. Yet, "Two States for Two Peoples" is the declared U.S. objective. In effect, the United

States is bankrolling the very Israeli policies that are dashing its own aims and the hopes for Oslo

by making two states almost unimaginable. Does this make sense? Is that clever? I don't think so.

And if you don't think so, ladies and gentlemen, you should vote for the proposition tonight.

Now, the United States has raised its voice occasionally. Jim Baker, for example, Secretary of

State in '89, said, "Foreswear annexation. Stop settlement activity."

Now fast forward two decades to Barack Obama, in Cairo, two decades in several hundred

thousand settlers, he said, "The United States does not accept legitimacy of the continued Israeli

settlements." And what did Prime Minister Netanyahu do two weeks ago, planted settlings in

various settlements, and they are part - and said, "They are part of Israel for all eternity." Now in

a normal relationship, there would be consequences to such defiance. In a special relationship,

the one that exists, there are no such consequences. Now, America's perceived complicity in

Israeli violence carries a heavy price. Jihadi terrorism aimed at the United States is not primarily

motivated perhaps by the Palestinian issue, but it is a major factor. It is a potent terrorist

recruitment tool. The United States should stand by its allies. And Israel is an ally. But if

America is to pay the blood, and the treasure, and the last piece of mind that comes with

supporting Israel, it should be ready at least to speak openly and critically of Israeli mistakes

when needed. To boost, ladies and gentlemen, are unhealthy, a climate that affixes charges of

anti-Semitism to anyone critical of Israel, and self-hating Jew to any Jew who's critical of Israel,

is unhelpful. For if there are not two states, there will be one state.

And sooner or later, the number of Palestinians in it will outnumber the number of Jews. And

what then will remain of the Zionist dream? Ladies and gentlemen, there's also a moral issue

here. I am a Jew. I know that Israel at its foundation and its declaration of independence said it

would, "Ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective

of religion, race, and sex." We, Jews, know in our bones what persecution is. Alas, and this is

hard to say, Israel, has in my view, lost touch with these fundamental values. By uncritically

supporting Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza, America is undermining its own values,

which at the very least stand for the absence of second class citizenship and equality of

opportunity. Yes, I know Israel's a vibrant democracy isolated in the Middle East. And its values

are closer to ours than those at closed Arab societies. But that does not mean that we should

endorse Israel's systematic dismemberment of the Two State option. And if President Obama is

serious about reaching out to the Muslim world, America must appear much more as an honest

broker and less as Israel's spokesman. And that requires a serious re-balloting. You will, I

suspect, hear that Israel is a lonely David facing an Arab Goliath. You will hear that it needs

blanket American support to be secure. This is simply not true. Nuclear-armed Israel is


John Donvan: Roger Cohen, your time is up.

Roger Cohen: The United States can step back while ensuring Israel's security. And so I urge

you to vote for the motion tonight. Thank you.

Unfortunately for the interests of serious debate, the speakers defending the special relationship (as opposed to a normal alliance) pretty much overlooked Cohen’s critique, satisfying themselves with biased platitudes, so it really was not much of a debate. I did not, for example, see any defense of Israel’s “systematic dismemberment of the Two States option.” But for Cohen to have made these remarks in public is a refreshing step toward the very old(-fashioned) American ideal of the marketplace of ideas. Now, not to be sarcastic, but can anyone in Congress read?

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