Refugee camp invasions. Suicide bombers. House demolitions. Suicide bombers. Arrests of children, curfews, roadblocks, collective punishments, dropping one-ton bombs on densely populated streets. Suicide bombers.

Only two years ago, a Syrian-American friend laid out for me a vision for the Middle East. Both Israelis and Palestinians, she said, were modern, entrepreneurial people who valued education and technology. She foresaw a kind of Middle Eastern co-prosperity sphere that would gradually draw the two closer as their economies meshed and bygones became bygones. That would have been a happy ending, but what are its chances now?

The Sharon government seems bent on beating, bombing, demolishing, humiliating and starving the West Bank and Gaza into submission, while appropriating more and more land for settlers (forty-five new settlements have gone up in the year and a half since Sharon’s election). Unemployment in the occupied territories stands at 75 percent. According to a report about to be released by USAID, malnutrition among Palestinian children under 6 has risen from 7 percent to 30 percent over the past two years. In the current issue of Tikkun, Jessica Montell, executive director of B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, details the damage wrought by the Israel Defense Forces in their siege of Jenin and other West Bank areas this past spring: the flattening of whole streets and the trashing and looting of homes, civic centers, Palestinian Authority offices and those of numerous human rights organizations; gross violations of human rights, including the use of civilians as human shields; and denial of access to food, water and medical care, resulting in the deaths of three children and an elderly woman.

Is this what “defending Israel” necessarily involves? So you might think from the hefty numbers who turn out for pro-Sharon rallies in this country, like the 100,000 who gathered on the Washington Mall in April. Not everyone agrees: Opposition to Sharon’s policies was a major theme of the 75,000-strong antiwar demonstration on April 20; petitions and open letters opposing Sharon are flying around the Internet, and new groups are forming by the minute–Not in My Name, Jewish Voices Against the Occupation, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. But the big, well-organized and well-connected Jewish American numbers are still on the side of using military force to crush the Palestinians. I signed the open letter organized by Alan Sokal and Bruce Robbins calling for the evacuation of settlements and Palestinian self-determination and felt I knew half the people on it. Nonetheless, there is enough criticism, from enough quarters, to puncture the old accusations (in which there was sometimes a grain of truth) that US critics of Israeli policies are anti-Semites, “self-hating Jews” or Third World-infatuated America-hating leftists. None of those terms could conceivably describe the neoliberal (and Jewish) historian Tony Judt, whose trenchant and bitter critique of recent developments in The New York Review of Books (“The Road to Nowhere,” April 11) did not stop short of describing Israel as a thoroughly militarized colonial power. Nor is it easy to see recent New York Times coverage in this light–although the paper is currently being bombarded with mail and protests for its imaginary pro-Palestinian tilt, and the Zionist women’s group Hadassah has even called for a boycott of the paper (just for three months, though, because you can’t ask too much of people).

What we need in the United States is the broadest, most open discussion of what’s going on, in search of some kind of realistic solution to a crisis that’s becoming less soluble by the day. Every American is implicated in Israeli politics, because without the $3 billion in aid we send each year, Israel could not exist in anything like its present form. Perhaps Americans really do want to subsidize Caterpillar bulldozers, Apache attack helicopters, F-16 jets–but perhaps they would prefer that some of that money go to relocate Jewish settlers, to integrate Israeli social institutions, to rebuild the infrastructure of Palestinian civil society and government, to strengthen the groups on both sides who are most interested in bringing about the happy end my friend saw just around the corner.

Unfortunately, people will have to do this work themselves. Politicians are too frightened, and no wonder: In June, five-term Democratic Congressman Earl Hilliard of Alabama lost his primary race at least in part because the fiercely pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) supported his opponent. On August 20 five-term Georgia Democratic Representative Cynthia McKinney faces a tough primary, mostly due to organized opposition to her criticism of Israel (she also suggested that George W. Bush knew in advance about September 11, and after Mayor Giuliani rejected a $10 million gift for New York City from Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal because he called for a re-examination of US Middle East policy, she tactlessly suggested that he give the money to black charities instead).

The problem is not so much that American Jews exercise the proverbial “too much influence”; every ethnic group in America organizes to affect US policy in the old country (think of Cuban-, Irish- or, for that matter, African-Americans). Nor is it wrong to inject national issues into a contest that locals would prefer to be about other things. The problem is that the other side–anti-Sharon, pro-peace, call it what you will–is weak and unorganized. It doesn’t have to be that way. One can be overwhelmed with horror at suicide bombers, think Arafat is a corrupt and preening tinpot dictator, believe that the real agenda of the Islamists is to be the Taliban of the Middle East–all just and appropriate sentiments–and still realize that the current path of the Israeli government is a disaster in the making, if not already made.

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McKinney may have foot-in-mouth disease, but she has the support of NOW, NARAL and her state AFL-CIO. She deserves yours too. Cynthia McKinney for Congress, Box 371125, Decatur, GA 30037; (404) 243-5574;