Few weeks ago when Herman Cain, a Republican presidential candidate, was speaking in New Orleans about the strategic alliance between the United States and Israel, declaring that “if you mess with Israel you mess with the United States of America,” something unusual happened. While some supporters clapped and cheered, others booed and walked out. This was a gathering of Republican voters, mostly white conservatives with right-wing views on foreign policy. Granted that those who booed Cain were mostly supporters of libertarian opponent Ron Paul, whose views on foreign policy, including Israel, differ drastically from those on the right and left of the political mainstream.
American politicians rarely differ on where they stand on Israel, be they Republicans or Democrats. The common position is that Israel is a close ally and a true friend of the US, and that supporting it and protecting it are fundamental pillars of US foreign policy in the Middle East. No serious candidate for a political office in America would deviate from such positions. In fact all presidential candidates make sure that they assert their loyalty and support for Israel in the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) and one of the most powerful political lobbies on Capitol Hill.
Of course the main reason for publicly siding with Israel is to court Jewish American voters. Traditionally Jewish voters in America have leaned towards the Democratic Party; Barack Obama got 78 per cent of their votes in 2008, while John Kerry received 76 per cent in 2004 although George Bush won that race. This time there is a certain dynamic that could affect the 2012 presidential elections. Obama may be losing the Jewish votes despite his recent turnaround on the Palestine issue and his staunch defence of Israel at the UN.
Obama may still get the prized American Jewish vote in spite of the fact that Democrats lost a key congressional seat in a heavily Orthodox Jewish New York district to Republicans a few weeks ago. That means Obama will have to reassure Jewish voters of his administration’s unwavering stand on Israel, even if that means derailing Palestinian efforts to win recognition for their country at the UN and angering America’s Arab allies.
But when Obama delivered his pathetic speech at the UN, praising the Arab Spring but shooting down Palestinian aspirations to be free from occupation, readers’ comments on the New York Times website varied. There were few who defended Israel as a true friend of the US and as a Biblical reality in the face of non-believers, but there were also many who admonished Obama for standing up to a country that occupies other peoples’ land, engages in state terrorism, rebukes international law and can never survive without US aid and support.
The debate over Israel is far from becoming a public issue for Americans and their presidential candidates. But more dissenting voices are being heard and few daring columnists are saying things that for decades were considered taboo. Israel and its powerful lobby still control the mainstream media. They have their die-hard defenders and apologists planted in the Washington Post (Charles Krauthammer), the New York Times (Thomas Friedman) and Fox News (Glenn Beck), among many others.
The contrarian view is seldom heard or is restricted to fringe media. Ron Paul, the Republican candidate, maybe an exception by sticking to his public and controversial view that the US must stop foreign aid to all countries, including Israel, and disengage from the peace process altogether.
Throughout the past decades US presidents have continued to repeat the line that Israel enjoys a strategic alliance with the US. It is a friend, an ally, a bastion of democracy and a country with which America has a special relationship. But what does that really mean?
During the Cold War Israel was seen as a forward western base in a region that was a front for a struggle between the free world and communism. But the Cold War ended more than 20 years ago. Israel’s strategic importance to the West, and America, had depreciated since 1989. If anything, Israel today is a liability to both Washington and its European allies.
In the war against terrorism, Israel’s role was limited and insignificant. In fact it was General David Petraeus who more than a year ago stated in secret correspondence that Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian lands directly threatens American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. The question again is this: What strategic value does Israel provide to US interests in the Middle East and beyond?
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has been the single most recurrent grievance by Arab leaders to US presidents for decades since Nixon. The peace process, which the US endorsed and patronised for almost two decades, has failed to deliver on the promise of a two-state solution.
Israel, on the other hand, has spied on the US (the infamous case of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard), attacked and killed US personnel (the uninvestigated incident of the USS Liberty in 1967), frequently challenged former US presidents (Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr. and now Obama) on colonies, Gaza incursions and other things, and for the past 60 years it has managed to siphon off about $3trillion (Dh11 trillion) in US taxpayers money, or roughly $8 million a day.
It is difficult to understand this unique relationship from a US point of view. In recent years and as Israel leaned dangerously towards the extreme right, its policies and positions have become more difficult to defend and support. And yet American presidential hopefuls continue to compete between each other by taking unrealistic stands in the hope of attracting Jewish voters and appeasing Israeli leaders. They willingly defy international law by recognising the annexation of occupied Jerusalem, rejecting withdrawal to the 1967 borders and supporting Israel’s illegal colonies in the West Bank.
Israel has increased America’s isolation in the international community. It has forced it to adopt positions that are contrary to Washington’s strategic interests and moral American values. It continues to cost the US taxpayer billions of dollars and for what?
The Israel issue is slowly moving to the centre stage in the political American debate. It may not happen this year but more and more Americans are waking up to the fact that this special friendship is grossly overstated and costly; and for many it is even a liability. This “friendship” will be tested in the coming years especially if a major transformation in America’s political underpinnings takes place.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.