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Home > News & Analysis > Analysis
Where's healthy debate on U.S. policy toward Israel?
George Bisharat, The Houston Chronicle, Jun 13, 2008

This article was originally published by The Houston Chronicle and is republished with the author's permission.

palestinian-prisoner-protes.jpg
A Palestinian child holds a photograph of a relative imprisoned in Israel, at a protest in Gaza calling for the release of the estimated 10,000 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails. (Wissam Nassar, Maan Images)
Now that the presidential primaries are over, it is fair to ask: Why do the presumptive candidates of our two major parties vigorously debate the economy, health care, Iraq, and every other issue, but mouth down-the-line support for hawkish Israeli positions?

That tendency was on national display last week when Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama each spoke to the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC.

Each candidate recited a nearly identical litany of pro-Israeli positions on everything from Israel's demand to keep Jerusalem as Israel's capital to refusing to negotiate with the Palestinian group Hamas.

Yet long before the birth of Hamas in 1987, Israel had expelled Palestinians, confiscated their property and demolished their homes. It had tortured, assassinated, banished or imprisoned Palestinians without trial. Israel's violations of Palestinians' human rights have been extensively documented by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, B'Tselem (an Israeli human rights organization) and other respected institutions.

Today, Israel is swallowing up the land base for a Palestinian state in violation of President Bush's Roadmap for Peace. More than 480,000 Israeli settlers live in segregated communities built on confiscated Palestinian lands in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, driving well-lit and paved roads from which Palestinians are barred. Prominent observers have likened this to apartheid.

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Do none of these policies merit criticism?

Our government has been Israel's main arms supplier since 1973. Our repeated vetoes in the U.N. Security Council have wrapped Israel in a cocoon of impunity. We acted, per American negotiator Aaron David Miller, as "Israel's lawyer" in the Camp David negotiations in 2000. The Bush administration stalled a ceasefire to extend Israel's pummeling of Lebanon in 2006. Congressional Democrats and Republicans alike regularly join in resolutions lauding Israeli policies, no matter how self-destructive those policies may be.

None of this is lost on peoples of the Middle East. Polls repeatedly reveal that majorities in the Arab and Muslim worlds admire our freedoms and prosperity - but decry our policies, especially toward the Palestinians. Even our Iraq debacle is seen there as an extension of our pro-Israel bent - an effort to crush any vestige of Arab resistance to Israeli regional hegemony.

Must our government uncritically support Israeli policies that jeopardize our national interests in a vitally strategic region, and arguably threaten Israel itself?

Why, then, the dearth of debate on this most consequential foreign policy issue? Do McCain and Obama so fear alienating pro-Israeli voters, campaign contributors and media commentators, who castigate any politician challenging Israeli policies? Might open debate of U.S. Middle East policies lead Americans to recognize the real costs of our support for Israel - and thus to rethink it?

Palestinian-Americans and their friends cannot match the larger, better-funded and longer-established pro-Israeli lobby. Thus, politicians suffer little electoral downside to endorsing the most extremist Israeli demands.

But while candidates harvest short-term political gains, we as a nation incur long-term strategic costs, in the form of ever-deepening resentment of our policies.

As voters and campaign contributors, Americans of all ethnicities must let politicians know that knee-jerk support for extreme Israeli positions jeopardizes Israeli Jews, Palestinian Arabs and Americans alike.

Ironically, support for hard-line Israeli policies may not even be necessary to garner American Jewish votes. While Jewish community leaders tend to support any Israeli government in power, individual American Jews hold divergent views toward Israel. Some question a "Jewish state" that privileges Jews over Christians and Muslims. Others oppose Israel's military occupation of Palestinian lands. The organized Jewish community largely supported the Iraq war; American Jews disproportionately opposed it. AIPAC agitates for a confrontational stance against Iran, with no clear mandate from American Jews they purportedly represent.

Electoral costs of a more balanced Middle East policy may, in fact, be lower than politicians fear.

Our presidential candidates may believe it necessary to pander to Israel's U.S. supporters to gain office. But in doing so, they narrow future policy options to those that damage our national interests. That is business as usual, not the change that both major party candidates have promised our nation.

Bisharat is a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.


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