Thursday, May 26, 2011

A (Half-Hearted) Defense of the Congressional Democrats

Like almost all serious critics of Israel and of U.S. policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, my initial reaction to the Congressional fawning over Netanyahu and the apparently unanimous standing ovations awarded to Netanyahu’s latest demagogic lies was one of outrage. It’s one thing for the Republicans to participate in this charade—nothing good on almost any issue can be expected from the current Republican party—but from the Democrats, the only rational political party in America, as well?

Yet, on further cold reflection, if I had been in Congress, I might have done the same thing, on the basis of the following premises:

1. Israel today is hopeless, beyond rational or elementary moral calculation. In the current circumstances, there is no chance that it will agree to a fair two-state settlement of the conflict and a less-than-zero chance it will agree—ever--to a one-state “solution,” a binational democratic Israeli-Palestinian state.

2. The only possible change in U.S. policies that would force Israel to negotiate a settlement with the Palestinians would be for the U.S. to end all of its military, economic, and diplomatic support of Israel until it agreed to such a settlement.

3. However, even if Obama would like to adopt such a policy—itself hard to imagine—there is not the slightest possibility that Congress would go along.

4. Moreover, it is by no means obvious that serious U.S. pressures on Israel would result in serious changes in Israeli policies. Given the state of mind in Israel today, it might be equally possible that Israel would spurn even the United States, retreat even further into defiant isolationism and belligerency, and tell “the goyim”—that is, the US and the rest of the world--to go to hell.

5. Indeed, strong US pressures could even prove to be dangerous. An Israel armed with hundreds of nuclear weapons cannot be trusted not to resort to the Samson option if it felt itself alone, abandoned, and increasingly militarily vulnerable. In such a state of mind, it cannot be ruled out that Israel might quickly resort to nuclear weapons in any war with its Arab neighbors—or maybe even “preemptively.”

Given these premises, I am driven to the reluctant conclusion that the Democratic party stands to gain nothing but to lose a great deal if it even hints at pressuring Israel. It would lose a considerable amount of Jewish financial support and possibly enough Jewish votes to lose close elections—and not only in Congress but even in the 2012 presidential election, where Jewish defections could tip some states into the Republican column.

It is likely that Obama has reached this same conclusion, for much the same reasons. Even if his recent mild criticism of Israeli policies suggested that meaningful—or even meaningless—changes in U.S. policy might be in the offing, one of the safest bets you can make is that as the election approaches Obama and the Democratic party as a whole will flee from the suggestion—perish the thought—that it might apply even the mildest pressure on Israeli. In Obama’s shoes, I’d probably do the same thing.

This argument will not impress those who think that I am referring to mere “partisan politics.” In my view, however, what is at stake in America are liberal values and even rationality: I would go very far to avoid the risk that the next congress or president could be Republican.

In short, given the unlikelihood that any U.S. action could save Israel from itself, as well as the dangers inherent in any serious U.S. pressures, at this point I would not be willing to accept the possible domestic U.S. consequences of abandoning unconditional support of Israel. I guess that if I were in Congress, I would have also leaped to my feet and joined the Republicans in cheering Netanyahu.


fuster said...

You're right, Slater. Under current circumstances, Israel will not reach a negotiated settlement that will be seen to be perfectly fair.
You're also right that the US will not force Israel into doing that, under present circumstances.


---" cannot be ruled out that Israel might quickly resort to nuclear weapons in any war with its Arab neighbors—or maybe even “preemptively.”---

is maybe merely a product of anger and frustration.
It's not all that likely that the Israelis are gonna preemptively nuke Turtle Bay in September or suddenly find it a good idea to loose off a few at Beirut or Cairo.
What's going through your head that leads you to posit Israel preemptively people?
They gonna bulldoze the Al Aqsa Mosque first?

Jerome Slater said...

For some time there has been a substantial literature--or informed speculation, if you prefer--on the possibility that Israel could launch nuclear weapons preemptively if it felt its security was in great danger. If the US were to say we are ending all aid, including military aid, unless you agree to the consensus two-state solution, the possibility--note, I say only the possibility--that Israel would feel sufficiently cornered to have a light trigger finger on its nuclear weapons, especially in an otherwise-limited war with a major Arab state or states.

It is an established fact that in the early days of the 1973 limited war with Egypt Golda Meir warned the US, and I believe took internal steps, that further Egyptian advances would cause Israel to use its nuclear option. Others have speculated that Israel might be tempted to use tactical nuclear weapons against hardened Iraqi nuclear sites.

Incidentally, in 1991 Seymour Hersh wrote a famous book on this issue, The Samson Option.

In your argument, you should try much, much harder to avoid setting up straw men: the danger, whatever its dimension, is not of a nuclear attack on the UN, or even Beirut or Cairo.

fuster said...

thank you, Slater. I will try to avoid outlandishness.

perhaps you could speculate as to which "major Arab state or states" you might have in mind.

I can't think of any that would or could challenge the IDF. Matter of fact, only Egypt comes to mind as possessing much in the way of conventional military strength.
So, if it's not Cairo getting nuked, and it not Beirut, capital city of the Hezbollah rockets, don't know who you think to be in the crosshairs.

(did you mean hardened IRANIAN nuke sites rather than Iraqi?)

Jerome Slater said...

Yes, of course Iran, not Iraq--thanks for the correction. However, in addition, Israel has always worried about "an attack from the East," which means some combination of a Syrian, Iranian, or even Iraqi attack: in fact, that's why it insists on having Israeli troops along the Jordan River, to guard against such a contingency.

So yes, Iran today, but Israel will argue, who knows about the future? Once again, the likelihood of such wars, and the possibility of an Israeli nuclear response, seems small, but not nonexistent.

By itself this argument would not be sufficient to convince me that the US shouldn't condition its aid to Israel on a fair two-state settlement, but when added to the stronger arguments--there is no chance of the US adopting such a policy and even if it did, Israel might still refuse such a settlement--it adds to the argument that Obama and the Democrats generally should eschew a quixotic attempt to save Israel from itself, focusing instead on saving the U.S. from itself.

Anonymous said...

Your argument makes a certain horrifying sense, but I doubt that too many of these Congresspeople operate on a level that patriotic. I think they do it for the donor money and whatever fraction of the AIPAC and Christian Zionist vote they can get.


Anonymous said...

Your position is that Israel is successfully blackmailing the western world with its irrational position and military superiority.

Yes, it is.

But the solution is not to continue with the protection racket payments. The solution begins in telling the truth about the situation. Who among the democrats are doing that? Any?

This will not and cannot end well. But the sooner the criminals are called out, the less damage they will do.

Ran Greenstein said...

Point 4 is simply wrong: even a hint of very mild international pressure is bringing many in the Israeli business community to a state of profound anxiety (,7340,L-3517511,00.html), not unlike that of SA business leaders in the late 1980s, which led them to embark on a series of meetings with the ANC in Dakar, Harare and other places. As pointed out by many, far more Israelis visit London and NY regularly than they do the settlements, and any interference in their ability to travel, trade and shop freely would have serious implication for their support for policies that lead to isolation. This wouldn't affect the lunatic right-wing, but nothing will.

As for Israelis using nuclear weapons, it is extremely unlikely, whatever nonsense about 'all options must be kept on the table' Jeffrey Goldberg and his ilk disseminate.

What do Democrats and Obama have to gain from pressure on Israel? Not much except maybe for restoring some sense of dignity: cannot have been much fun for Obama to groveling to Netanyahu like that...

The good news is that it doesn't really matter that much any longer what the US is doing and what the NYT is saying: things are changing regardless of Obama's cowardice. See Robert Fisk yesterday's piece:

Jerome Slater said...


I hope you're right, but I doubt that even the disenchantment of the Israeli elites is sufficient to turn things around. Meanwhile, if the price for saving America from the Republicans is Democratic groveling, it will have to be paid.

Ran Greenstein said...

But then, if Democratic groveling means adopting Republican policies, what's the difference between them?

I realize there is more to US politics than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but looking at it from that angle there is nothing to tell Obama apart from Bush (except for minor differences in rhetoric, which never get translated into action). Even very mild steps, such as NOT vetoing the UNSC resolution on the settlements (never mind voting for the resolution) are precluded because of fear.

There is no chance in my view of any change in US policies in the short-medium term, but there is a strong chance that the decline in US power and authority which started with Bush, will continue with Obama, and beyond. That's the only realistic prospect for meaningful change in the region, it seems.

Jerome Slater said...

"I realize there is more to US politics than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Precisely. From overseas it might not seem that there is no difference between Obama and Bush, let alone between Obama and the Republican party today, but up close it is the difference between rationality and irrationality.

I read the Fisk article you cite, and while it is very eloquent, it is not much interested in acknowledging and taking into account the real dilemmas that the "Arab spring" has posed to the U.S. government. Not only that, it is by no means clear that the Arab revolutions will ultimately succeed--even in Egypt--and not much reason to believe that if the U.S. had more forcefully sided with them--verbally--that they would have done so.