Why the West is turning on Israel
The newfound discomfort with Israeli aggression is a symptom of the West’s loss of conviction in itself.
As tensions rise between the USA and Israel over the Israeli military’s crackdown, the chaos on the streets of the occupied West Bank seems to be causing confusion in the minds of many Western commentators.
Defenders of Israel protest that Washington is giving into Arab terrorism and sacrificing its democratic ally. Supporters of the Palestinian cause argue that, on the contrary, the visit of US secretary of state Colin Powell to the Middle East is just a smokescreen, behind which President George W Bush is allowing the Israelis to run riot in the West Bank.
Too many of these interpretations are attempting to fit events in the Middle East into the framework of the past. It is important to set the current crisis in the context of the changing relationship between the USA and Israel over recent years, and the defensive US/Western mindset that has come to the fore especially since 11 September.
During the Cold War years, the USA essentially looked upon the state of Israel as its gendarme in the Middle East, a pro-Western bulwark against the threats (real and imagined) of Arab nationalism backed by the Soviet Union. This relationship was never tension-free: the 1956 Suez crisis, when Washington forced Britain and Israel to abandon their military action against Egypt, was only the most public fallout. But the USA always backed Israel when it mattered, most notably during the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, and refused to countenance the claim for a Palestinian homeland.
The start of the 1990s was marked by two events that brought latent tensions between the USA and Israel to the surface: the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and the Gulf War against Iraq. Taken together, they marked the demise of Arab nationalism as a potent political force. Washington became increasingly concerned about consolidating its wider influence in the changing Middle East, rather than propping up its old Israeli agent. Over the past decade or so, US administrations (both Republican and Democrat) have pressurised Israel into signing up to the ‘peace process’, recognising the creation of PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s autonomous Palestinian Authority, and reining in the zealots building new settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.
Since President Bush assumed office last year, the pro-Israeli lobby has harboured high hopes that he would stand by Israel more firmly than his predecessor. Then, on 4 April 2002, Bush issued an ‘historic’ statement which not only condemned Palestinian terrorism, but more significantly declared that ‘Israeli settlement activity in occupied territories must stop, and the occupation must end through withdrawal to secure and recognised boundaries’. The president also stressed US support for ‘the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people for a Palestinian state…living side by side in peace and security’ with Israel (1).
If this came as a shock to pro-Israelis in Washington, other members of the US foreign policy establishment have gone further. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, announced on US television that ‘the Israelis are becoming increasingly like the white supremacist South Africans, viewing the Palestinians as a lower form of life’ (2). Such a statement from a respected Washington figure would have been unthinkable even in the recent past.
Let’s be clear: it is not that Israel is behaving worse than before. Indeed, to date the offensive is quite limited compared to many previous bloody conflicts in the region. Nor is it that the American authorities, which demonstrated their contempt for civilian life in Afghanistan, are suddenly concerned about the suffering of the Palestinians. It is more that the Israelis are now being condemned for actions that would previously have been condoned by the White House. The USA remains closely involved with the Israeli state: without American arms and aid, Israel would have been unable to maintain its offensive against the Palestinians. But the responsibility for the violence in the Middle East is being increasingly shifted on to Israel’s shoulders.
This is not a one-way process. Recent debates have shown that there remains a powerful pro-Israeli lobby in the US Congress, and a survey of American newspaper columnists suggests a heavy majority sympathetic to Israel (3). But the very fact that these people now feel they have to make such shrill appeals on Israel’s behalf (something that would have been considered unnecessary in the past) confirms that the central dynamic of Washington policy is now moving in a different direction.
Elsewhere in the Western camp, antagonism towards Israel is more obviously in the ascendant. UK foreign secretary Jack Straw has made clear that Israel’s offensive is not part of the war against terrorism, and media correspondents have been accused of bias towards the Palestinians. The German government has offered to send peacekeeping troops to the Middle East (something which has been considered taboo since the Holocaust, raising the spectre of German soldiers firing on Israeli Jews). And in Belgium, a court is attempting to prosecute Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon for ‘crimes against humanity’, over his alleged role in the massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
The accelerating shift in US/Western thinking is not determined by events on the ground in the Middle East. It is shaped more by a mood developing within the West. The discomfort with Israel is a symptom of the West’s loss of conviction in itself – something which has become increasingly evident in the aftermath of 11 September.
There is now a widespread discussion of the problem of America being ‘too powerful’ in the world. ‘The fundamental problem’, writes the pro-American British conservative Timothy Garton Ash in the New York Times, ‘is that America today has too much power for anyone’s good, including its own…. Not since Rome has a single power enjoyed such superiority – but the Roman colossus only bestrode one part of the world. Stripped of its anti-American overtones, the French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine’s term “hyperpower” is apt’ (4).
Yet in reality, America is far less powerful than it appears. It certainly dwarfs any other state in terms of its military and economic assets; as Garton Ash notes, US military expenditure is ‘greater than that of the next eight largest military powers combined’. But arms alone do not necessarily equal global power. An empire also requires the moral authority and self-certainty to project that power. The USA, however, has become afflicted by a serious loss of nerve. Thus the only superpower on Earth appears hesitant about projecting its power on the international stage.
Throughout the conflict in Afghanistan, spiked has noted the incoherence and lack of conviction behind the war effort of a US administration that only seems comfortable fighting from 50,000 feet in the air. The same nervousness about direct engagement is now influencing US policy towards the Middle East. As with Afghanistan, the problem is not one of insuperable opposition; the notion that Ariel Sharon, premier of a tiny state, could really push poor little Colin Powell around is ridiculous. It is rather a case of the Americans lacking the internal will fully to commit themselves, for fear of the imagined consequences.
It might well suit the main drift of US foreign policy to be shot of their Israeli ‘friends’ altogether. But Washington is too scared of what might follow. Lacking the nerve to act decisively, it is content for now to make a public stand against Israeli aggression while looking for a compromise.
For their part, the Israelis would no doubt love to give two fingers to the USA and get on with crushing Palestinian resistance. But they are even more fearful of the long-term consequences of such a break. That is why, behind the scenes, they are making more concessions than media reports might suggest; as one US official hinted, Americans should not ‘base what we say only on what we see’ (5). However, the Israelis know they have to make a show of defiance, aware that to cave in too obviously now could signal the end of the road.
The result is that we are left with a theatrical public stand-off between the USA and Israel, the ambiguity of which suits both sides for now. How long it continues depends upon how far Israel is prepared to brazen it out, and how much more involvement the nervous White House is willing to risk. The one certainty is that the heightened levels of US and Western intervention in the conflict will make impossible any lasting resolution of the problems afflicting the peoples of the Middle East.
It has long been considered axiomatic that opponents of oppression should stand with the Palestinians against the Israeli state, and many of us feel an instinctive solidarity with the people on the receiving end of the military crackdown, regardless of the degraded politics of much of the Palestinian movement today.
However, while expressing that solidarity, it is also important to recognise how the debate about the Middle East has changed here in the West. Israel may still be a reactionary state – but there is nothing progressive about many of the anti-Israeli arguments now gaining popularity.
In the eyes of many today, Israel’s crime is to be the most forceful expression of Western values. The Israeli state is seen as a beachhead of Western civilisation in a hostile world. That used to be its greatest asset in winning international support. In the downbeat atmosphere of our times, however, Western civilisation has fallen into disrepute even within its own heartlands, and Israel’s image has suffered accordingly.
Particularly since 11 September, we have seen a rise in animosity towards Israel and the Jews around the world. This looks less like old-fashioned anti-Semitism than a kind of ersatz anti-imperialism, with Israel set up as the most hated symbol of the West. Thus the Israelis have been widely blamed for bringing about 11 September. Many in the West say that the Israelis provoked the terrorist attacks on America by oppressing the Palestinians (even though no link has been established between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the hijackers). Others, especially among Muslim communities in the West and around the world, accept without question wild claims that the Israelis themselves staged the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.
A global consensus against Israel has taken shape among all those who hate Western society, drawing together an unlikely alliance of Islamic fundamentalists with the fashionable protestors of the anti-capitalist movement. So the 50 Western demonstrators who recently turned up at Yasser Arafat’s besieged Ramallah compound were drawn from the ranks of seasoned anti-globalisation protestors, somewhat bizarrely including José Bové, the French farmer who once famously smashed a McDonald’s storefront (6).
As we have argued elsewhere on spiked, Western society today is infected by a powerful sense of self-loathing and a rejection of its own political, social and economic achievements. Those sentiments are no more progressive when aimed against Israel as a symbol of the West, than when they are directed in an irrational campaign against, say, GM crops or the literature of Dead White Males.
The fact that we feel sympathy and solidarity with the plight of the Palestinians is no reason to endorse many of the reactionary arguments now masquerading as anti-imperialism. Populist anti-Israeli rhetoric is cheap, but it offers no solutions – especially when it ends with a demand for even more Western intervention in the affairs of the Middle East. The long-suffering peoples of the region deserve better than this moralistic posturing.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked, and is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.
spiked-issue: After 11 September
The USA can’t help, by Brendan O’Neill
(1) Bush’s statement on the Middle East 4 April 2002, New York Times
(2) Breaking news: US media biased in Mideast coverage, Chicago Tribune, 8 April 2002
(3) Quoted in Breaking news: US media biased in Mideast coverage, Chicago Tribune, 8 April 2002
(4) The peril of too much power, 9 April 2002, New York Times
(5) Defiant Sharon losing support in White House, Washington Post, 11 April 2002
(6) Hawks in doves’ clothing, Slate, 8 April 2002
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