In order to provide international perspective in the debate over US foreign policy, The Nation asked foreign intellectuals to share their reflections. This is the fifth in that series.
Growing up in Nazareth, an Arab in a Jewish state, a secular Christian in a Muslim society, a leftist in a Baptist school, I learned firsthand how managing ideological, religious and national differences helps us evolve peacefully. Succumbing to them generates fundamentalism and antagonism. Applying brute force to overcome them–as Israel, my country, has done to my people, the Palestinian Arabs–fails utterly.
So it puzzles me as to why America now views the Middle East through Israel’s eyes, and why, since 9/11, it has adopted an apocalyptic Israeli vision of an irredeemable world that “hates us.” Such fatalism on the part of Bush and Sharon is rendering diplomacy a prelude to imminent war in Iraq and Palestine. Their justification–“If it doesn’t get worse, it won’t get better, and when force doesn’t work, more force will”–threatens to globalize the violent impasse of Israel/Palestine. Judging from the January Israeli (and last fall’s American) elections, more people are buying into this dangerous paranoia.
In order to confront this logic, I feel it is indispensable to debunk the myths behind America’s misplaced identification/fascination with Israel, best captured in a post-9/11 headline: “We Are All Israelis Now.” As seen in this light, Israel is a “peace-seeking” victim of Arab hostility, a “true democracy” that shares “our” values, an “ally” that serves “our” interests, whose “success” in a “hostile neighborhood” is inspirational in a Hobbesian world. In reality, Israel has consistently expanded its frontiers, embarked on a number of offensive wars and even contemplated the reconfiguration of Lebanon and Jordan, while rejecting UN resolutions and America’s own initiatives. That hardly qualifies as peace-seeking.
The myth that Israel serves America’s interests, while hardly a compliment or honor to any nation, goes against the logic of history. Traditionally, Arabs identified with an America that stood as a symbol of the right of self-determination against the British and French colonial powers. Their relations with America turned sour only when Washington supported Israel’s aggression.
America’s interests could be secured without imperial support for Israel’s hegemony. A Middle East that is safe for its Arab inhabitants could also be safe for America (and Israel). America’s main interest, oil, is best secured through the market’s supply and demand, not another war in Iraq. Needless to say, Arabs–moderates and radicals alike–seek to sell their oil, not drink it. As for the “democratic oasis” fallacy, Israel, by definition, cannot be both a Jewish state and a democracy with one-fifth of its population Palestinian. Israel has stripped us, its Palestinian citizens, of two-thirds of our own land, and it has enacted laws that discriminate against us simply because we aren’t Jewish. Calls to “transfer” us–that is, to push us out of Israel altogether–have been gaining momentum among my fellow citizens. Acting with impunity, thanks to Washington, my country has transformed its conflict into perpetual war by justifying its occupation on security and theological grounds and condemning the entirety of my people’s struggle for freedom as terrorism.
Hardly a role model. So why, then, does Washington mimic worldwide the worst of Israel’s chutzpah and, for lack of a better word, plagiarize Israeli doctrine and policy? Since its 1967 victory, made possible by Washington’s hardware, which transformed its army posture from defensive to offensive, Israel has functioned as an American laboratory in conventional urban and asymmetric warfare. Instead of being a “safe refuge” for the Jews, Israel became an American outpost after Washington’s defeat in Vietnam. It was appointed “regional policeman” in the 1960s, a “regional influential” in the 1970s, a “strategic asset” in the 1980s, and today it is viewed as being at the forefront of the war on terrorism. Paradoxically, almost every time Israel rejected a State Department draft of a peace initiative, it was somehow rewarded by a new Pentagon deal!
Washington’s militarization of Israel’s industries and liberalization of its economy made Israel ever more dependent on the United States. Today, although Israel boasts a high per capita income, the gap between rich and poor is one of the highest among industrial societies, and the military remains the key engine of its economy. And the result of Washington’s deformation of Israel’s sociopolitical priorities made it natural for Robocop Israel, an ethnic republic at home and a colonial tyranny next door, to slide toward fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalists (one-fourth of the Knesset) and neofascist parties have ruled Israel for more than a quarter-century, with the exception of the two short and ill-fated governments of Generals Rabin and Barak.
Naïvely, some of us hoped America would save Israel from itself once Israel’s strategic-asset credentials ran out at the end of the cold war. Instead, thanks to Osama bin Laden, a “wag the dog” saga has played out, as fundamentalists dictate policies for all of us. While America internalized Israel’s culture of fear, adopted its claustrophobic vision of a world full of evil and charted a pre-emptive doctrine to deal with it, Israel took on America’s imperial posturing.
For decades now, Washington, and Israel, have demanded that we choose between Good and Evil, “with us or against us.” In 1958 the devil was Egypt’s pan-Arab leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser; in 1968 it became Palestinian guerrilla leader Yasir Arafat; in 1978 Iran’s Ayatollah; and when all three were no longer threats, Saddam Hussein emerged as the devil. Predictably, after Saddam was “contained,” bin Laden became the devil of all devils, and now, with Saddam again the chief devil, we have been cynically asked once more to choose, as if we had a choice!
For those of us who have lived in Israel, it’s déjà vu all over again. Spreading a fearmongering political culture and demonizing adversaries while supporting war renders national symbols sacred objects and tolerance unpatriotic–or worse, immoral. Recent polls underline this mounting Israelization of American society: One in three Americans now accepts government-sanctioned torture of suspects, and 60 percent support political assassinations (up from 18 percent in 1981).
Israel has tried all such methods but failed to improve security. In fact, annual civilian casualties in Israel today are twenty-five times what they were two or three decades ago. Worse, Sharon’s current policy amounts to politicide and econocide, and it is denounced as a series of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the likes of Amnesty International.
Watching Al Qaeda’s “men” and American/Israeli “gentlemen” cheering for war, I am reminded of what progressive feminism concluded long ago: The problem is not the men per se, but the system of power that grooms them. The Islamists’ pseudo-strategy of “die and let die” has failed, as has the American/Israeli strategy of “live and let die.” A third way, to “live and let live,” must now be given a try, through diplomacy, the art of resolving our differences peacefully.
I’m afraid Washington’s current hostility to diplomacy stems not only from bad politics but also from the conservatives’ commitment to transform America’s global power into global domination–Pax Americana, paradoxically, in a time of US decline. As America trails behind an economically growing EU–soon to be twenty-five countries strong–excessive use of force is considered a means of maintaining superpower status. To preserve its super economic advantage (30 percent of the world economy) America is augmenting its military expenditures (40 percent of the world’s) to stay on top. But the twentieth century has taught us that power is not restricted to military means. If America continues to increase its military budget to finance offensive wars, it will eventually become, at best, Europe’s mercenary. It will also become like those it fights: weak, desperate and isolated.
What better examples exist to illustrate the limits of military force and the growing importance of economic power than Iraq and Turkey? Motivated by membership in the European Union, Turkey’s secular military accepted the recent election results, and the Islamists have come to respect the democratic rules of the game as well as Ankara’s commitments to the international community. America can hardly point to a similar achievement in Iraq. If you ask Eastern European countries to choose between NATO and EU membership, they would all choose the latter.
Have the United States and Israel changed roles? Though for decades the Middle East has had difficulty struggling with America the superpower and Israel the rogue state, their patron-client relations implied a certain rationale and a limit. Today, however, the empire acts like a rogue state, and the latter acts like an empire.
If America must be a superpower, then it should be super- democratic in its policy. It could also identify with a tradition other than Israel’s. A tolerant heritage of Judaism, combined with traditional American constitutionalism and mature European culture no less ambitious, forged over centuries of war and colonialism, could provide important guidance in an era of uncertainty.
My dear America, allow me to end on a personal note. We need you as much as we all need each other–Palestinians, Israelis, Americans, Europeans, Arabs and others. Our right to security is a universal right. Preserving it in an era of globalization is a multi-lateral venture. That’s why our interdependence is a sign of our maturity, not our weakness. All of us democrats must confront irrational geo-theology and deadly geo-strategy by emphasizing geo-ethics. Putting our values above our interests, our humanity above our nationalism, could help us create coalitions across continents and religions to block the fatalistic and destructive drive to war. In the absence of democracy, Middle East Arabs have not made the choice of their fundamentalists or their leaders. You Americans, on the other hand, are a democracy and have a choice. The fundamentalists and the militarists succeed only when we democrats of the world fail to be what we must.