“There is nothing too dangerous to talk about.” Spoken by the actor who plays Stephen Hopkins, Rhode Island’s member of the Continental Congress, in the musical 1776, I have long thought the phrase should be added to the Great Seal of the United States. Historically, Americans have taken these words as a guide. When they have not, trouble has ensued. Recall, for example, the animosities stirred in the 1840s when a gag rule prevented debating slavery in Congress. The ensuing bitter, daggers-drawn silence deepened sectional animosities and contributed to getting America to the catastrophe of civil war in 1861. So, with the advice of Hopkins in mind, let us talk briefly about America’s interests in the Israel-Palestine issue, and let us use American history as our guide.
“Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence … the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy, to be useful, must be impartial, else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it.” — George Washington, 1796
In the last 25 years, America has begun to shy away from debating several foreign policy and national security issues, in essence determining that they are indeed too dangerous to talk about. Two that come to mind are energy policy and Saudi Arabia, but the most serious debate Americans are not having is over Israel.
The word “Israel” seems to spark fear in America. Experts on U.S. Middle East policy on the Left and the Right speak in catch phrases about Israel: “America’s only ally in the Middle East,” “a tiny, embattled democracy in the Islamic world,” etc. While the phrases are true, they are trite boilerplate, not debate, and are no help in determining how our relationship with Israel is and should be structured.
In part, the lack of debate is due to America’s ingrained empathy for the underdog. This is an enduring part of our national character and often a strength, although the fact that Israel is a nuclear power makes belief in Israel’s underdog persona quite a stretch. Another part of the non-debate is based on a tremendously successful Israeli political action program in the United States. As I wrote in my book Imperial Hubris, history holds few instances where an important area of foreign policy debate in a Great Power has been stifled by a small, faraway, and friendly country. Through magnificent lobbying efforts, suborning American citizens to serve as its spies, the negative impact of dual citizenship, and playing on unjustified U.S. feelings of guilt about the Holocaust — America and its allies, after all, utterly annihilated the Holocaust’s perpetrators — Israel and its American supporters have made discussing the issue of Israel difficult and politically dangerous in the United States. A term that is never defined as “hate speech” is the epithet “anti-Semite,” which is so often hurled at Americans by Americans to preempt debate on the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
“Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence of the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people to surrender their interests.” — Washington
Fortunately or unfortunately — depending on how you value frank debate in a democracy — the issue of Israel cannot much longer be avoided in debating future U.S. foreign policy in the Islamic world. America cannot abandon Israel — Washington’s record of abandoning allies in the last 30 years is troubling — but it must soon review bilateral ties with an eye toward better protecting U.S. interests. Why? Because unquestioning, unqualified support for Israel among America’s elites has heretofore existed in an environment in which only Israelis and Palestinians were being killed in their war. U.S. relations with Israel were a substantive issue for “diplomatic experts,” but not an issue of much interest in the rest of America, save for admiration for Israel’s masterfully cultivated image as an underdog. Now the Israel-Palestine confrontation has melded into a larger war in which Americans are being killed — at home, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan — by Muslim militants led and inspired by Osama bin Laden. The issue of U.S. ties to Israel has, or soon will, strike into homes across America as U.S. military casualties grow.
What to do? Talk about the issue in America and with Israel soon, frankly, publicly. Face down the slingers of the anti-Semite epithet and recognize that because our Islamist enemies believe the United States and Israel are one and the same, and that America in effect takes orders from Israel, both countries are at increasing risk. Recognize also that the American character remains latently and deeply isolationist and that there is nothing more likely to activate that characteristic across the land than a steady flow of flag-draped coffins and hobbling amputees.
Our only option is to fight bin Ladenism savagely with our military and intelligence forces, and to begin to amend — not necessarily abandon — policies and relationships in a way that limits the now-accelerating growth of support for bin Laden across the Islamic world. The nature of our relationship with Israel is undeniably a key motivating factor for our Islamist enemies, and is thus one of the policies that merits review.
The United States should, as a critical follow-on to the positive Sharon-Abbas meeting and this week’s truce between Abbas’ regime and the Palestinian Islamists, conduct a frank and long-overdue reality tutorial with Israel about the correct nature of a great power’s relations with a minor power. Prime Minister Sharon should be bluntly told that if he wants U.S. support and protection to remain at current levels, now is the moment — and perhaps the final moment — to terminate the endless, feckless peace process and form two states. Identical pressure should be put on President Abbas; he, with our support, will have to face down the Saudi despots and the other Arab tyrants who support him only as long as he blocks peace. These men hold the oil card. They will defy the United States, seek to limit Abbas’ flexibility, and, if necessary, may try to kill him. The U.S. also will have to tell Abbas not to seek refuge and support for delay — as Arafat did — by clothing himself in the praise of those in the American and West European elite who believe that the Palestinians are entirely innocent victims and that Israel has no legitimate national security interests in this situation. Most importantly, both men should be starkly reminded that America has no national security interest — in the old-fashioned but accurate sense of an interest essential to America’s survival — at stake in their endless war, and therefore has little reason to pay any additional price for their half-century of reckless intransigence.
There is no certainty — perhaps not even a 50/50 chance — of success in this endeavor. We cannot make Israel act as we wish; every sovereign state has the right and responsibility to decide what measures best protect its security. Likewise, we may not be able to spur Palestinian compromises because of the ongoing Islamization of the Palestinian movement, and because we have foolishly allowed oil-producing Arab tyrants to hold the energy security of America and the West in their anti-Western hands.
Again, it is the absolute right of both sides ignore our advice. But if they do, all bets should be off. Americans must begin to debate how many more lives and how much more treasure they should expend on this half-century morass. It may soon be time to cut loose from the Palestinians — end the Dickensian strategy of waiting for something to come along — and revamp our current one-way relationship with Israel, a minor, stubbornly defiant, and non-strategic partner. In terms of America’s strategic security, after all, the Palestinians count for little, and the importance of Israel pales before such longtime, geographically vital, and economically powerful allies as Japan and South Korea. Indeed, the current one-way structure of our relationship with Israel, in the context of the war America is waging and losing against Muslim extremism, is a strategic handicap. Differentiating America from an intractable Israel would delete one item from the list of U.S. policies motivating our Muslim enemies. It could be the start of a broader policy-review meant to stem the growth of pro-bin Laden sentiment among Muslims while our military and intelligence services act to kill greater numbers of the irreconcilables.
At day’s end, it may be that U.S. interests and those of Israel and Palestine have ceased to be congruent, assuming, of course, they ever were. If so, the right course would be to return to the early Bush administration’s position of disengagement on the Israel-Palestine issue, and add to it a significant reduction in aid to both sides. In sorrow more than anger, we should stand aside and let the two combatants do what they like to do best, slug it out. We can make it clear to each side that we are ready to help once they have exhausted themselves and are genuinely ready for peace, but until then we are not interested in being a target for the animosity and violence that flows from their willful, 50-year failure to find a way to live with each other in a state other than war.
If possible, America’s relationship with Israel must be restructured to not only maintain America’s ties to an associate of long-standing, but also to emphasize that the United States is the great power, that Israel is a minor power, and that America has neither scrapped its dedication to evenhandedness nor placed its national security in the hands of a minor power. For America’s security and its own, Israel should help foment this debate. It is in neither nation’s interest to delay debate until Americans have begun to evaluate their relationship with Israel through a lens ever more heavily smeared with the blood of their sons and daughters.
Time, therefore, is of the essence; to solve this issue to America’s satisfaction and in her interests, action is needed now. Again, American history is instructive. In April 1865, Union Major General Philip Sheridan cut off Robert E. Lee’s retreat near Appomattox and wired Grant: “If the thing is pressed, I think Lee will surrender.” Reading the cable in Washington, Abraham Lincoln, desperate to end the bloodshed and bring peace, did not wait for Grant’s reply; he wired both men: “Let the thing be pressed.” Once and for all, it is time for America to say to Sharon and Abbas: “Let the thing be pressed.”