Saturday, July 26, 2014

Why is America Pro-Israel?

Based on public opinion polls, America is one of only a very few countries in which at least half of respondents report favorable attitudes toward Israel. And in terms of international policy, the U.S. frequently finds itself alone among members of the United Nations in defending Israel’s actions.

Most recently, U.N. Secretary-General Ban has said, “My message to Israelis and Palestinians is the same: Stop fighting. Start talking. And take on the root causes of the conflict, so we are not back to the same situation in another six months or a year,” adding “We must address these underlying issues – including mutual recognition, occupation, despair and the denial of dignity – so people do not feel they have to resort to violence as a means of expressing their grievances.” 
Public Opinion Toward Israel

Secretary-General Ban’s appraisal of the situation is, in the opinion of this writer, eminently reasonable. According to this view, both sides share blame for the current situation and both sides share responsibility for improving the situation. But when the Secretary-General mentions occupation and the denial of dignity, he is revealing an acute sensitivity to the plight of the Palestinian people who have been effectively imprisoned within a blockaded Gaza. 

Ever since that blockade, Gazans have been unable to import food or building materials, unable to travel, and forced to rely on a tattered infrastructure. And it bears emphasizing that Israeli defense forces have repeatedly targeted infrastructure. They tore up the airport that the international community had helped to build. They’ve blown up the power stations that provide electricity to the Gazan people and the treatment plants that provide them with water to drink. 

The U.S. position, in contrast, states unequivocally that Israel has the right to defend itself, and ignores the question of whether the Palestinian people also have the right to defend themselves. National Security Advisor Susan Rice declared, when speaking to AIPAC, her contempt for the many international agencies which deplore the abuses of the Palestinian people. “When pre-cooked anti-Israel resolutions come up by the dozen at the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly, UNESCO, and elsewhere, we consistently oppose them, and we press others to do the same (source).” 

Returning to the earlier question regarding public opinion, I’ve included a graph from the Jerusalem Post. It shows that, in many nations, 25% or less of the population is favorable toward Israel, and typically, large numbers report distinctively unfavorable views toward Israel. In trying to discern a pattern, one can look at nations which are unusually supportive of Israel such as Nigeria. In that country, the Igbo people are the third largest ethnic group, and they identify as Jewish (even though they are not recognized as such by Israel's Rabbinate). Kenya has a large Christian population and correspondingly very few Muslims; and indeed, it has struggled with an insurgent Muslim population just as Israel has had to do. Generally, countries with large Muslim populations are harsh in their assessment of Israel. Pakistan, Indonesia, Ghana, and Egypt are examples. 

Now, the rough correlation between Muslim influence and negative attitudes toward Israel should come as no surprise. Muslims will naturally exhibit sympathy toward their co-religionists in Gaza and the West Bank. The Arabs and the Jews have historically had a contentious relationship, to put it mildly. But it also bears pointing out that when Jews were subject to persecution, Arabs in Spain gave them sanctuary. 

The reverse does not appear to be the case. Some countries are pro-Israel despite having small Jewish populations. The United States, for example, has a very small Jewish population in comparison to its total population. However, AIPAC has an indisputably powerful influence over legislation and public policy. Recently, the United States Senate unanimously voted in favor of a resolution supporting Israel in the latest Gazan conflict (source). The resolution reaffirms U.S. “support for Israel’s right to defend its citizens and ensure the survival of the State of Israel” and places the onus for ending the conflict on Hamas. The unanimous resolution demonstrates that regardless of whether one is a Republican or a Democrat – and even, in the case of Bernie Sanders, a Socialist – a U.S. Senator will unequivocally throw his or her support behind Israel. There may be some lip-service given to the necessity of addressing the suffering faced by Palestinian civilians, but that is where it ends. 

Now, even if we were to suppose that one-sided support for Israel is the correct choice, it is hard to recall instances in which the U.S. Senate is unanimous in support of anything. The resolution marking Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday was not unanimous, and neither was a resolution in support of an Equal Rights Amendment. One could not expect unanimous support if there were a resolution favoring Darwin’s theory of evolution over Biblical creationism in public schools. 

It may be the case that the sheer uniformity of bipartisan support for Israel has encouraged the American people to be more strongly pro-Israel than one would otherwise expect. The American people are not troubled by the fact that Israel is second only to Afghanistan in terms of the amount of U.S. foreign aid it receives (over $3 billion per year). The American people do not question how Israel uses that money, but they will question how Palestinians use foreign aid money. 

This brings us back to the matter of AIPAC. It turns out that the remarkable effectiveness of AIPAC in influencing U.S. policy is related to the massive amounts of money AIPAC has at its disposal. To understand where that money comes from, consider this quote from AIPAC employee Keith Weissman: “Prince Bandar used to send us messages. I used to meet with Adel al-Jubeir a couple times a year. Adel used to joke that if we could force an American embargo on Iranian oil, he'd buy us all Mercedes! Because Saudi [Arabia] would have had the excess capacity to make up for Iran at that time (source).” 

John Kerry, who sometimes gives the impression of being well-intentioned, hired Mel Levine to be a top advisor on Middle East issues. Mr. Levine is a former AIPAC board member (source). Thus, an example of the infamous revolving door.
And indeed, when AIPAC sought to starve Iran of oil revenues, it allied itself with the oil lobby in an effort to win U.S. support for a key oil pipeline running from Azerbaijan, bypassing Iran, and terminating at Turkish ports on the Mediterranean. 

AIPAC is directly responsible for the circulation in the U.S. news media of certain memes which bias Americans against the Palestinians. One need only visit the AIPAC website to be confronted by a giant headline reading, “Hamas uses children as human shields.” This meme helpfully minimizes American concern that Israel’s attacks on Gaza are less “pinpoint” than the Israeli government claims. It also reminds many Americans of that villain of yore, Saddam Hussein, who was also charged with using human shields. And an American consumer of mainstream news may be easily persuaded that these heinous acts are typical Arab behavior.

I am not alone in supposing that AIPAC explains American policy (and perhaps public opinion) regarding Israel. An expert on international affairs recently stated that AIPAC is the only explanation that makes sense (source).

Finally, turning back to that international comparison of public opinion on Israel, one may see that Southeast Asian countries such as South Korea and Japan hold Israel in low esteem. Japan’s official stance on the Middle East crisis can be traced back to 1973. During the oil crisis, Japan recognized its severe dependency on Middle Eastern oil and chose to join the Arab boycott of Israel. And so, one may conjecture, just as the oil industry indirectly shapes American popular opinion, the same may be true of Japan (but with a different result). One may be reminded of Spinoza's quote, "we do not desire a thing because it is good. A thing is good because we desire it."

Further reading: An excellent analysis of the illegality of Israel's occupation of Gaza may be found here.

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