Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The incontrovertible link between the War on Terror and Israel-Palestine

Here we go. The title of this post is more than daunting. To say that this is a delicate issue is quite an understatement and to say that I know all the in's and out's is also completely foolish. I will not do it justice in just a few paragraphs (even though it's taken 2 nights to write) but recent events have encouraged me to write about it.

This gets to the heart of the most dangerous cognitive shortcut we currently have in our political discussions. The Good vs Evil dichotomy. It's been ingrained in our heads since we were kids. It just makes thinking that much easier when we can root for the Good guys and despise the Bad guys. We crave that kind of simplicity.

In this example, the United States and Israel are the epitome of the Good guys. After 9/11, the United States could do no wrong. We were viciously attacked by a bunch of hopelessly misdirected Muslim men and the country came together to exact revenge. We were told by our President that the forces of Good would prevail. The 9/11 terrorists came from the Middle East where we (along with our British friends) have been meddling in affairs for quite some time. We have long decreed that Israel - a state solely created due to a religious movement - was a shining beacon of Goodness in a sea of chaos and our unwavering ally and friend. Although our recent presidents have all tried to sow peace between Israel and Palestine, we have always been better friends to Israel. This friendship comes in the form of massive diplomatic and military support as well as over $2 billion per year in direct financial aid. But even though the Israeli government is definitely a healthy democracy that values the liberty of their people (just look at some of the recent criticisms in Israeli newspapers of their government's harsh policies toward Palestine) they have definitely crossed the line into a dangerously aggressive military power.

And, of course, the Palestinian government on the other side can share the same reckless and manic fury as the Israelis (it's just been more aggressive from the Israeli side recently). But unlike Israel (barring a few shake-ups after elections), the internal affairs of governing Palestine have been extremely chaotic in recent years (especially after the death of their leader in 2004, Yasser Arafat) and this has been legitimately referred to as the Palestinian Civil War. Currently, the internal struggle has been between Fatah (the party of Arafat) and the more hard-line Hamas. After the death of Arafat, the US pushed for elections and were stunned along with the rest of the world when the Palestinians gave an enormous legislative victory to Hamas (the President was and still is Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's successor within Fatah). Much was discussed at the time about how militant and unhinged Hamas was and that they wanted to rid the planet of the state of Israel. This seemed somewhat justified at the time, but from what I have gathered it seems that they have become more of a mainstream movement that is at least somewhat interested in brokering a lasting peace with the Israelis (i.e. self-preservation). But immediately following the elections, the US government tried to isolate Hamas and continued giving financial aid to Fatah (as they had been doing for many years to support the peace-making process...just an order of magnitude less than the aid to Israel). Today, the dispute over control of the Palestinian state is still largely unresolved.

But that didn't stop the hostilities with Israel. The crisis was at a rolling boil in 2008-2009 with the 3-week war in Gaza. If you don't recall the images on the news at the time, it was absolutely horrific and mostly one-sided (Israel). Both sides have been accused of war crimes by the UN. 

The recent aggressive maneuver by Israel (and the subject of this post...finally) is the expansion of Israeli settlements into disputed territories. One of the most fundamental disputes has been centered on the city of Jerusalem, especially East Jerusalem. This holy town is seen as both the spiritual and political capital of both the Israeli state and the Palestinian state. Suffice it to say, it's been battled over for many decades.

Now last week, our white-haired VP visited Israel to partake in the age-old American activity of attempting to jumpstart peace talks. And what happens? Well, he gets one big ol' Israeli middle finger when Israel's interior ministry announces that they will construct 1,600 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem. Now, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was clearly embarrassed by this announcement right in the middle of the Biden visit. You see, Netanyahu used to be seen as a fairly reasonable politician back when he was Prime Minister the first time from 1996 to 1999. But the Israeli government has shifted to the right in the last several years and in response he has had to shift many of his stances to satisfy the right-wing contingency who are hell-bent on gobbling up more and more former Palestinian land.

So the Obama administration is predictably pissed-off about this huge "Fuck you" that just happened in Biden's face. They said reasonable things like "we condemn the decision" and Biden showed up 90 minutes late to a dinner with Netanyahu as payback. Wow...that's pretty ballsy.

And then what do we hear from the uber-Pro-Israeli politicians in our Congress (and our favorite former politician from Alaska)? Essentially, they criticized Biden for being too harsh in his rhetoric and that this faux-controversy manufactured by an "opportunistic" Obama administration would dramatically strain the relationship between Israel and the US. This is all too familiar of a reaction from a bunch of politicians who have pledged an unwavering allegiance to Israel no matter what kind of aggressive actions that they launch. Any sign of even criticizing Israel for being over the line is seen as anti-semitic and dangerous to American security. George Washington in his farewell address in 1796 had some pertinent advice for this exact situation (h/t to Glenn):

Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it? . . . . .
In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.
It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. . . .
So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.
Bottom line is that no matter how good of a democracy Israel is or how enlightened their population is, it is an absolutely tragic mistake to have this much unconditional allegiance to a country that engages in terrible and unreasonable hostilities in a powder-keg of a region.

And now for the good news. It seems like some in the military are finally starting to get this message as revealed by a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine (another highly recommended read). Our ever-popular Commander of Central Command, General David Petraeus, was briefed back in mid-January by some senior military officers who made the case that Arab leaders throughout the Middle East (on whom  we are desperately relying to keep the peace and help with our "War on Terror") are becoming more and more disenfranchised with the U.S. over our inability to stand up to Israel. They also argued that Israel's unwillingness to stop settlements and other unreasonable acts was jeopardizing the U.S.'s standing with Arab leaders. It appears that Petraeus may have been listening. And despite the power of the Israel lobby in Congress, the military lobby absolutely trumps it. If the Obama administration can make a strong argument that Israeli policies are actually making our troops less safe, then we may see things change. I guess we'll have to wait and find out.

And y' far as the whole Israel-Palestine conflict goes, it really all comes down to the same fundamental question that has been thrown around for millennia in the region...Who is God? Both sides of this epic conflict have exacted terrible and despicable pain and suffering on their foes all in the name of their God. How can we possibly look at that fundamental question as a country and take sides?

Final thought...All I'm asking is that our political discussions about the Israel-Palestine conflict better reflect the Op-Ed columns in Israeli newspapers instead of this hyper-sensitivity to calling people anti-semites for any kind of critical thought against Israeli policies. Is that so hard?

For more on the attached map, see here.

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