Wednesday, August 06, 2014

The latest Gaza war

The whole field of US policy toward Israel is frustrating for me to think about.

Because fundamentally the US has a real interest in a peaceful and permanent resolution of the problem of the occupied territories. Israel's perceived interest appears to be the opposite.

So we end up with the kind of bipartisan ship in which every time Israel goes to war, Congress immediately leaps in with a unanimous or near-unanimous and one-sided vote of support for Israel. This constricts the range of discussion of options in the US at the start, because our lazy national media can't present "both sides" if the political consensus is in agreement on everything but which side is more militant in its support of the Israeli government making war. And this in support of a country with which the US does not have a mutual defense treaty. The US has offered to make one but Israel has refused, because such a treaty would require a legal definition of the border to be defended.

Like in earlier wars, Israel's spokespeople repeat the refrain that Israel has the right to defend itself. Not that any American politician is questioning that, or anyone else I know of. I assume jihadist groups would deny that right but presumably they expect restraint from Israel less than anyone.

What that endlessly repeated declaration means is that Israel presents all of its actions in the Gaza war, targeting of UN schools and refugee centers included, as legitimate defense. What's playing out in that war right now certainly looks like neither side, Hamas or Israel, has any principled objection to deliberately killing civilians to terrorize the other side. But Israel has immensely greater ability to do so, and is in fact doing so in the current phase of this conflict.

The Young Turks did a long commentary on the Gaza War that takes up the first half hour or so of this video, The Young Turks - 08.04.14: Gaza, Israel, John Kerry, Police Brutality & What's In A Name?:

One of the constructive aspects of the Obama Administration so far is that, ironically, Obama has to some extent opposed the bad bipartisanship in Congress over Israel policy by withdrawing from Iraq and pursuing negotiations with Iran over their nuclear program. The latter in particular is something Israel opposes and it's been an annual ritual for years for Israel to threaten to go to war with Iran if the US doesn't. (Rupert Murdoch's Times of London is famous for every year or so printing a story about Israel's impending attack on Iran.)

And this is a toxic bipartisanship over Israel policy, because the Republican side of it is driven by a fanatical Christian fundamentalist ideology that wants escalating war in the Middle East so Jesus can hurry up and return to Earth - and do away with all the Jews in the process. There is also a subtext (not so "sub" actually) that the fundis see Israelis as white people fighting against dark-skinned Muslims. Even though a considerable number of Palestinians are Christians, and I'm sure American fundi tour groups are often surprised at the complexion of many non-Arab Israelis. I saw some poll recently that showed during the current Gaza war, the only group in which general approval of Israel had increased during the war was Christian fundis.

The Arab governments in reason are pretty cynical about the whole business. But even monarchies and dictatorships have to take account of public opinion in some way. It's certainly believable that those governments are happy to Israel as a permanent enemy to show their zeal for Islam in the form of publicly criticizing Israel.

Now that we're not directly making war in Iraq and are finally wrapping it up (hopefully!) in Afghanistan, that removes some of the urgency for the United States from the old "winning hearts and minds" in the Muslim world effort. Not that we were ever good at it. The fact that supposedly serious commentators adopted without irony the "winning hearts and minds" phrase that became a bad joke of the Vietnam War is a symptom of how poor the effort was.

But it's hard to imagine that resolving the Palestinian statehood issue and also reaching a permanent settlement over Kashmir between India and Pakistan wouldn't at least remove some of the potential for anti-American politics in the Muslim world. The latter is virtually unknown in the United States, but supposedly well known in Muslim countries; it has been a major factor in Pakistan's relations to the Afghan government, which Pakistan perceives as pro-India.

Andrés Cala, whose foreign policy writing I only recently discovered, has a good commentary on Israel, Israel’s Bloody but Hollow ‘Victory’ Consortium News 08/05/2014:

Like in the past, Israel has more than enough geopolitical support – or silent complicity – from Western governments, even if the rest of the world condemns Tel Aviv for its disproportionate use of force and the terrible civilian death toll, now approaching 2,000 Gazans killed, including many children.

During the four-week-long onslaught, Israel has found that it’s getting harder to justify its overwhelming assault on the narrow Gaza Strip, especially attacks on United Nations-designated buildings shielding civilian refugees. But Israel apparently is willing to ignore the global outrage as long as its vital Western allies – chiefly the United States – continue to insist Israel has “a right to defend itself.”

But European public opinion – with discreet and isolated political consequences so far – is turning decisively against Israel’s use of force against the 1.7 million Gazans who are blockaded on all sides by Israel and Egypt’s military regime. Though most European governments continue to mute their criticism of Israel, popular disgust with these periodic attacks — called "mowing the grass" in Israel — could tilt the geopolitical balance in favor of the Palestinians.
The US has developed an unhealthy relationship with Israel which amounts in practice to one-sided support of Israel, even when they are doing things that conflict with US interests, at least as conceived in a reasonably realistic way.

Until the US can change the domestic political context of our support for Israel to the point where we can have a normal set of trade-offs, our ability to influence Israel's policy in a constructive way will be minimal. For instance, the US needs to be able to credible condition its level of aid on the status of settlement activity in the West Bank. But until that happens, we'll be stuck in the position of providing large amounts of aid to Israel and providing effectively uncritical support even to Israel's most reckless military actions, while having little direct effect over Israel's actual policies. Thereby having the rest of the world, not implausibly, see the US as directly complicit even in the worst Israel does.

Obama's success so far in keeping the Iranian nuclear negotiations going and pressuring leading Democrats in Congress not to sabotage them is an example of how policy can begin to change.

It's also a reminder that when Obama wants to use the Presidency to implement policies that support peace and progress, he's able to get substantial things done in that direction.

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