Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Time to reassess our relationship to Israel

I've touched on this subject before and now that Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud has won Israel's election, it seems like a good time to say it again: the U.S. needs to take a fresh look at its relationship to Israel.

No relationship between nations is without friction, and the U.S. goes through hot and cold periods with most of the nations with which it's on nominally good terms. What should prompt a revisiting of the U.S.-Israel relationship right now is Benjamin Netanyahu, both his person and his policies.

His brazenly partisan appearance before Congress rubbed a lot of us the wrong way. He used our legislative body as a campaign prop for his election, and aligned himself forever more with the Republican Party. His apologists note, correctly, that there's no love lost between Netanyahu and President Obama, but his personal dislike of the President does not excuse his blatant violation of diplomatic courtesies. Bibi's appearance amounted to a slap in the face not of President Obama, but of the entire United States.

It sounds like my gripe is with Netanyahu himself. It's not. While he does piss me off, Netanyahu also pursues policies that stick in the craw of anyone who is interested in easing tensions throughout the region — and anyone who's interested in simple justice. That's where the U.S. faces real risk by reflexively supporting Israel.

The headline from 16 March 2015 says it all: "Netanyahu Says No to Statehood for Palestinians". Left unsaid is how Netanyahu thinks Palestinian grievances should be addressed. The implication is that he doesn't give a damn.

That's certainly the attitude of ultra-Orthodox (read: fundamentalist) Jews in Israel, for whose illegal West Bank settlements Bibi has showed unabashed enthusiasm. Not that Bibi is the only Israeli prime minister who has tolerated them. They're a testament to just how much ultra-Orthodox Jews, and their enablers in Israeli political circles, do not care about justice, and how much they do care about themselves as The Chosen People. Jewish fundamentalism is as big a threat as Islamic or Christian fundamentalism. It leads to acts of reckless stupidity and needless provocation. And that's on its good days. Ultimately, fundamentalism is incompatible with pluralism, or even democracy.

By reaffirming their support for a Likud-led government, Israelis have sent a message: "we're okay with the status quo". Now the U.S. has to ask: are we?

Rethinking our relationship to Israel should start by figuring out what we want from that relationship. Do we want Israel to be a reliable strategic partner in the region? That certainly seems to be how we've thought of it historically. Israel has done dirty work for us. It also has kept the Arab nations distracted, which has been useful for those Arab governments which would rather preserve their status quo rather than redress their populaces' grievances; that, too, was a net plus for the U.S. when we had reliably pro-U.S. autocrats running things. But things have changed. The Arab world has been roiled in ways that are still playing out. Israel, too, is changing, becoming more right-wing. That rightward shift has made Israel more pugnacious, more inclined to act preemptively against what it regards as existential threats.

Will — can — Israel continue to be a reliable strategic partner to the U.S.? Or have our nations' interests diverged in ways the U.S. hasn't taken into account?

A deeply emotional factor is also at work here. Israel exerts a powerful hold on the Western conscience: it's the living reminder of the West's failure to stop genocide in World War II. Even after seven decades, that failure weighs heavily on our collective conscience. Supporting Israel has been one way to redress it.

Israel will still serve as a reminder to us all. That's an aspect of its national identity it can never lose. However, it is no longer possible or even reasonable to excuse Israel's shortcomings because of the country's "specialness". And maybe that's how it should be. To view Israel solely as — I hate this term but I can't think of a better one — reparation for the Holocaust is to view it as an abused child, incapable of taking responsibility for its actions. That, of course, is not the case. Israel's policies may have "never again" as their subtext (in Israeli minds, anyway), but that subtext does not excuse the negative consequences of those policies.

Netanyahu's reelection — even though he wasn't on the ballot, that's how things seem to have worked out — is a really good time for our own government to take a long look at our relationship to Israel. We know where Israel stands. Where do we?

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