The US and Israel: What does it mean to be a friend ?
On Sunday evening I had the privilege of attending a lecture given by Richard Perle at the Finchley Synagogue, on the topic of whether peace is possible in the Middle East. Perle has been one of a number of US officials who have promoted a progressive vision of US foreign policy. In an earlier era, a US overthrow of a hostile dictator would probably have been followed simply by his replacement with a pro-American dictator, yet it was thanks to the vision of Perle and other neoconservatives that the overthrow of Saddam was followed by the establishment of a democracy in Iraq. An Iraqi democrat who attended last night’s meeting gave his thanks to Perle and his colleagues, describing them as architects who had drawn up a beautiful plan, only to see it spoiled by mistakes during the construction. Perle gave his blessing also to the plea from an Iranian dissident, who was also present, that the US should support the democratic movement in Iran. He has been a principled champion of the defence of Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo from Milosevic’s aggression and tyranny and critic of Putin’s brutal repression in Chechnya.
In his speech last night, Perle highlighted not only the obstacle to Middle Eastern peace represented by traditional US foes like the Iranian and Syrian regimes, but also the threat posed by the regime in Saudi Arabia which, as he pointed out, spreads the poison of Islamic extremism across the globe. He criticised the British government for providing the red carpet treatment to Saudi King Abdullah during his recent visit. It is deeply ironic that neoconservatives like Perle have been so vilified by fashionable left-liberal opinion, when it is precisely they who have broken with the prevailing orthodoxy among Western policy-makers, that realpolitik requires the support of brutal dictators who happen to be friendly to the West. Neoconservaties like Perle are doing precisely what traditional leftists should be doing but in most cases are not: agitating against the dictators.
It was in his discussion of the Israel-Palestine question that I found myself disagreeing with Richard; not because I disagreed with his principles, but because I disagree with how he interprets them. Responding to a question from an American graduate student, who asked him whether the US really derived any benefit from the alliance with Israel, he responded that the day the US abandoned a friend to ingratiate itself with the enemies of that friend will be the day that the US loses all moral authority as a superpower, and that it will be perceived globally as having done so. Israel is the US’s friend, it is a democracy and a loyal ally, and the US should support its friend. If I understood correctly, Perle interprets this to mean supporting Israel in all its outstanding areas of dispute with the Palestinians.
I entirely agree that the US should support Israel. The question is: what does ‘supporting Israel’ mean ? What does it mean to be a friend ?
A true friend does not just support everything one does, even when one is not in the right. A true friend should be prepared to tell one when one is in the wrong and to dissuade one from a course of action that will lead one to harm. A true friend of Turkey would advise it to withdraw from Cyprus; a true friend of Serbia would advise it to give up Kosovo; a true friend of Iran would advise it to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. If the US is to be a true friend of Israel, it is not enough just to support Israel against its enemies; it must also guide it away from a self-destructive policy.
Israel’s waging of a territorial conflict with the Palestinians in the West Bank is a self-destructive policy. Because while Israel is in the right in its determination to defend itself from neighbouring regimes or movements that seek its destruction, such as Ahmadinejad’s regime in Tehran or Hezbollah in Lebanon; while it is in the right to face down enemies that deny its right to exist; while it is right to defend its population from suicide bombers; in its policy in the West Bank, Israel is in the wrong. No amount of pointing to the crimes of the other side – great though they are – can hide this fact.
It is often, and rightly, pointed out by Israel’s defenders that critics of Israel, from the ranks of the Islamic world, the left-liberal intelligentsia in the West, and elsewhere, will single out Israeli crimes and misdemeanours for condemnation while ignoring the equal or greater crimes and misdemeanours of neighbouring Muslim states: Syria’s Hama massacre and promotion of the Lebanese civil war; Iran’s persecution of the Ahwazi Arabs; the genocide in Darfur; the brutal oppression of women and absence of democracy in Egypt and Saudia Arabia; and so forth. But it does no good to point out this hypocrisy and condemn all these crimes, and then to turn a blind eye to the utterly unjustifiable Israeli policy of colonisation and settlement building in the West Bank; the denial of human rights to the West Bank Palestinians; the attempt to squeeze them into an ever-smaller slice of their homeland.
The reason it does no good – leaving aside the question of morality – is that it is extremely damaging to us in our life-and-death struggle against Islamist terrorism and the dictatorships that promote it. In this struggle, the propaganda war is all important. A large part of our difficulties in Iraq stem from the fact that – unlike in Kuwait in 1991, Kosovo in 1999 and Afghanistan in 2001 – we did not win the propaganda war prior to our military intervention. It might once have been thought that the US was powerful enough simply to forge ahead with its preferred policy regardless of what the world thought, but that does not appear so feasible today. We are waging a struggle with the Islamists for the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims across the world, and we cannot afford to be the bad guys anywhere at all. Because our enemies will always highlight our errors – Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and so forth.
It is, arguably, hypocritical when Muslims complain about the mistreatment of other Muslims in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya and elsewhere while ignoring the persecution of Muslim populations by Muslim regimes, in Darfur, Khuzestan, eastern Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. But the problem is not that they are highlighting the plight of Palestians, Kashmiris and Chechens, but that they are failing to highlight the persecution of Muslims by other Muslims. Both Muslims and non-Muslims should be highlighting alike the plight of Palestinians and Ahwazi Arabs, Kashmiris and Sudanese, Chechens and Saudi Shias.
For better or for worse, the Palestinian question has come to assume tremendous symbolic importance in the eyes of many Muslims – and indeed of many non-Muslims. Objectively speaking, the oppression of Palestinians by Israel in the West Bank forms only a small part of the total oppression that is occurring in the Middle East. But symbolically, the Palestinian question has come to assume an importance out of all proportion to its objective importance in Middle Eastern geopolitics.
Our credibility in the eyes of world opinion, and particularly world Muslim opinion, rests disproportionately on our ability to deliver a just settlement to the Israel-Palestine dispute. Not a pro-Palestinian settlement, but a settlement that is just for both sides.
The Israelis and Palestinians are two great nations; equally worthy of freedom, independence and security. This has nothing to do with the awfulness of the leaderships of one or both of them. The fascistic, anti-Semitic nature of the Hamas movement, the suicide bombings, or the corrupt brutality of Yasser Arafat do not detract from the Palestinian right to national independence, any more than the massive war-crimes of Ariel Sharon, the anti-Arab racism of parts of the Israeli right or the pro-Nazi and terrorist past of Yitzhak Shamir detract from the right of Israel to security and self-defence.
I have yet to hear, let alone be convinced by, any Israeli justification for the existence of the West Bank settlements, or for exclusive Israeli possession of Jerusalem. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank may have made military sense when Israel was threatened with the conventional armies of neighbouring Arab states, but today the threat is different: suicide bombers, rocket attacks and potentially a nuclear strike. The occupation of the West Bank does not help Israel to defend itself from these threats, but it does massively alienate world opinion. Furthermore, Israel’s security rests on the sanctity of legally established borders; by questioning the sanctity of these borders in the goal of annexing West Bank territory, Israel is undermining the very institution that underpins its own territorial integrity. The occupation of the West Bank and the abuse of Palestinian human rights that this involves drives ordinary Palestinians into the arms of the extremists. The longer this goes on, the more danger there is of Israel eventually coming to grief at the hands of its enemies. And all for a few small slices of territory that, objectively, it needs less than the Palestinians do.
As an outsider with no personal emotional ties with either Israel or Palestine, any settlement that would award the Palestinians less than 22% of the territory of historic Palestine, or that would award all Jerusalem to just one of the two nations, would strike me as deeply unjust. No matter how awful the Palestinian leadership is, the Palestinian people deserve better than that. It is only through a just settlement – an Israel secure in its pre-’67 borders, an independent Palestine comprising the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and a Palestinian abandonment of the right to return to pre-’67 Israel in exchange for fair compensation – that a stable peace can be born. A peace that would undercut the appeal of Hamas and other extremists and remove this symbolic injustice in the eyes of world opinion while safeguarding Israel’s security.
If Hamas were to continue to attack Israel from the West Bank following an Israeli withdrawal, Israel would be in an incomparably stronger position strategically than it is today. Because Israel would be unquestionably and totally the good guy; it would lose its negative image in the eyes of all but the extremists; it would enjoy the sympathy of the whole world.
That’s something anyone would want for a friend.
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