Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Why the U.S. is bad for Israel

The Israel Lobby by Mearsheimer and Walt should be in bookstores by September 4, but it was released on Amazon on August 27 and has already shot up to #89 on their sales ranking.  The early reviews are favorable -- as I consult the site, the six initial reviewers all gave the book four or five stars.

The New Yorker's David Remnick has a piece in the current issue which pans the book, describing it as a "symptom" of "our polarized era."  Remnick, in turn, inspired Time Magazine's Tony Karon to reflect on Mearsheimer and Walt, the Israel Lobby, and David Remnick.

On the flip, some interesting bits from Tony Karon's reflection.

Perhaps the central point of Mearsheimer and Walt's analysis (judging from the original London Review of Books article) is that the US relationship with Israel is strategically bad for the US.  In the article, they wrote that Israel had become a "strategic burden" for the US, and they cited experiences from the Iranian Revolution and the first Gulf War to back up that assertion.

A secondary point they make, however, is that the relationship as it has developed over the years is also bad for Israel.  Karon picks up on that point, and expands on it:

Like the tech-bubble and real estate-bubble, Washington’s "Israel bubble" is unhealthy and dangerous — in fact, it not only jeopardizes U.S. interests throughout the region and beyond (by serving as Exhibit A for any anti-American element anywhere in the Islamic world to win the political contest with America’s friends), but it is also exceedingly bad for Israel: Particularly over the past decade, the U.S. has essentially enabled Israeli behavior so self-destructive that it may have already precluded any chance of it being able to live at peace with its neighbors.

This a major theme Karon develops throughout the essay, even though he's mostly interested in challenging Remnick's interpretation of the Mearsheimer and Walt thesis.

Karon does disagree with how Mearsheimer and Walt portray the Israel Lobby.  He says their "analytical approach [is] often static and institutional; [sic] insufficiently dynamic and, dare I say it, insufficiently dialectical."  He's not convinced that the US's pro-Israel bias is due to the "machinations of a lobby" but rather develops from "deeply-entrenched tropes in US political and civil society -- tropes which now function quite independently of the lobby's interventions."  In his critique of Remnick he gives some specific examples of what he means by "tropes"; here, I just wanted to lay out the foundation of the analytical differences with Mearsheimer and Walt he alludes to in this next passage:

U.S. policy on Israel and its neighbors is grotesquely biased in favor not only of Israel, but of Israel’s most self-destructive impulses. As such, it is a policy dangerous to U.S. interests and ultimately to those of Israel itself. This biased [sic] is maintained and policed in substantial part by an aggressive lobbying effort by an elaborate pro-Israel political infrastructure. Despite its analytical weaknesses, [the book] is a refreshingly candid and courageous (given the all too common fate of those who tackle this taboo — just take a look at the important logging of this stuff at Muzzlewatch) embrace of what has long been the "third rail" of American foreign policy, insisting that a debate be conducted where none has been tolerated until now.

Karon notes that unconditional support of Israel's occupation of the Palestinians by the US makes it "virtually impossible for any Arab leader to openly associate with U.S. goals."  In the long run, given the strategic importance of the Arab world, this might eventually lead the US to distance itself from Israel.  Karon goes on:

It was precisely this recognition of Israel’s limited strategic value to the U.S. in a post-Cold War world that led Yitzhak Rabin, a longtime hawk, to embrace the Oslo deal presented to him by Shimon Peres. Like the leaders of apartheid South Africa in the late 80s, Rabin had come to recognize (particularly in the era of the first Bush administration) that Israel could no longer count on unconditional U.S. backing given Washington’s interests elsewhere in the region. As a result, it was compelled to seek an accomodation with the Palestinian national leadership. Of course, this was an exceedingly good thing. Unfortunately, Rabin needn’t have worried, because the changing domestic political atmosphere in the U.S. — the success of the Israel lobby beyond its wildest dreams, particularly as a result of the backing of perhaps its latterly most important constituent, the Evangelical Christian Zionists, had meant that Israel could count on U.S. backing regardless of its behavior in relation to the Palestinians. M&W are simply pointing out that this does not accord with an accurate reading of U.S. national interests.

In the end, Karon states, "U.S. support for Israel is unconditional, settlements and all.  The sad fact ... is that the occupation is not some aberration on Israel’s part; there really is no longer any real distinction, in practice on the ground, between Israel and its occupation of the lands it captured in 1967."

Karon concludes, following Henry Siegman in the London Review of Books, that "Israel quite simply has no inclination to withdraw from the occupied territories."  Not everyone agrees with that assessment -- Daniel Levy over at Prospects for Peace, for example, has a long post up analyzing the potential for Bush's planned November peace summit between Abbas, Olmert, and some Arab states.  Levy isn't exactly optimistic but he does see some basis for hope.

Even as it prepares for the November conference, however, the US proceeds apace with its destructive and destabilizing "Dayton Plan."  Badger over at missing links cites Lebanon's al Akhbar:

The question of Palestinian control of the West Bank has become a responsibility of Washington, which is making plans for the establishment of five Palestinian battalions for deployment throughout the West Bank, and this comes at a time when Hamas is accusing the caretaker government headed by Salam Fayyad of coordinating with Israel in the closure of over 100 charitable organizations, targeting thereby the social arm of the movement (Hamas).

Badger also provides his own analysis of what he thinks is going on:

The move to shut Hamas-affiliated social-assistance groups is a corollary of [the Dayton Plan's aim to deliver "a strong political blow to Hamas"], and what the Al-Akhbar reporter is doing with is calling attention to what you could call the coherence of the Dayton Plan: Shifting the balance militarily to the faction friendly to America and the Israeli occupation, while at the same time shifting the balance in terms of "supplying the Palestinian people with their immediate economic needs..." and it is clear that the corollary of that is shutting down social-aid groups that are affiliated with Hamas... What is important for Americans to understand is that the closure of Hamas-affiliated voluntary organizations is tantamount to an attack on Palestinian civil society, and that this is part and parcel of the plan that also includes military aid for the Abbas-Fayyad "government".

In other words, the US continues to favor the most intransigent Israeli position -- divide the Palestinians in order to avoid any serious concessions in the peace process.

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