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May-31-2010 15:27printcomments

Time to Redefine U.S.-Israel Foreign Policy

President Obama recognizes that the U.S. must make real progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace in order to regain credibility in the Middle East.

Netanyahu and Obama
Netanyahu and Obama

(SAN FRANCISCO) - Isn't it time for a long overdue debate of our current Israeli foreign policy? The fallout from Israel’s 2006 war with Lebanon; its 2009 invasion of the Gaza strip; its erecting a wall or fence, which cuts deep into Palestinian territory, joining large Jewish settlement blocks to Israel; and its  establishment of new settlements (called outposts), demolishing homes and uprooting plantations in the process.  And now Israel's predawn attack against the international aid convoy Gaza Freedom Flotilla, in which 20 activists onboard were killed and more than 60 wounded.  The present indirect Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations will probably be suspended, or even ended.  Clearly, peace with the Palestinians is not an Israeli high priority.   Will there be genuine White House and Congressional outrage over the attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla?  Hopefully, the U.S. will begin to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a new light.  Before, it was David (Israel) versus Goliath (the Arab ring states). For many, Israel is now seen as the neighborhood bully.  

However, it is unrealistic for the U.S. to suddenly become neutral in all things Middle East, but we must end our lockstep support of Israel with little or no public debate.  Instead, we must redefine what it means to be pro-Israel. 

Pro-Israel Tilt to U.S. Foreign Policy 

Through the George W. Bush administration, there has been a clear pro-Israel tilt to U.S.-Israeli foreign policy. Consider that since 1972, the U.S. has cast over 40 vetoes in the United Nations to protect Israel. And Israel counts on the support of the U.S., a permanent  member of the UN Security Coucil, to block the Goldstone Report, the 575-page document concluding that Israel used disproportionate force, deliberately targeted civilians, used Palestinians as human shields and destroyed civilian infrastructure during its 2009 incursion into the Gaza Strip to root out Palestinian rocket squads.

Since the October War in 1973, until recently supplanted by Iraq, Israel was the largest annual recipient of direct economic and military assistance since 1976, and is the largest recipient in total since World War II. Israel receives about $3 billion in direct assistance each year, roughly one-fifth of the foreign aid budget, and worth about $500 a year for every Israeli. 

Critics of U.S. aid policy, particularly some in the Middle East, argue that U.S. foreign aid exacerbates tensions in the region. Many Arab commentators insist that U.S. assistance to Israel indirectly causes suffering to Palestinians by supporting Israeli arms purchases. 

In the past, the United States reduced loan guarantees to Israel in opposition to continued settlement building, but it has not acted to cut Israel’s military or economic grant aid.  Maybe it is time to reconsider this policy.

In addition to U.S. foreign aid, more than $1.5 billion in private U.S. funds are sent to Israel annually in private tax-deductible donations ($1 billion) and  in Israeli bonds ($500 million).

The Myth of Israel Vulnerability

Although there is open hostility between Israel and many of the other Arab states, the latter do not pose a direct threat to Israel at this time. Even though an Arab alliance has a quantitative advantage, Israel can rely on its technological and military dominance.  Israel has a nuclear monopoly in the region, although there is fear that Iran will develop this capability.  It has a military superiority vis-a-vis any possible coalition of Arab forces.  It has the fourth largest air force in the world after the U.S., Russia, and China.  It is the only state in the region with its own defense industry.  It has the most modern military in the region with about 160,000 personnel.    

Consider today, Israel is the leading source of home security gadgetry and anti-terrorist technologies.  Israel has over 600 security and homeland-security related companies. In 2006, Israel exported $3.4 billion in defense products -- well over a billion more than it received in U.S. military aid. That makes Israel the fourth-largest arms dealer in the world. In sum, Israel is now an advanced industrial economy which, according to the World Bank, places it among the top 50 richest nations in terms of per capita income

Pro-Israel Lobbies

There are a number of pro-Israel lobbies seeking to influence U.S. policy. The most successful is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) AIPAC, JStreet, a new kid on the block, JStreet, and the Anti-Defamation League AIPAC

AIPAC is a self-described pro-Israel lobby.  AIPAC was established in the 1950s and now claims 100,000 members.  Most candidates for political office feel obligated to appear before AIPAC to woo wealthy pro-Israel campaign donors.  For example, in May 2007, then presidential candidate Obama gave a speech to AIPAC in Chicago who up to then had generally leaned towards his main rival Senator Hillary Clinton.  All presidents and presidential candidates meet with Israel’s advocates.

AIPAC cultivates single-issue partisans.  American Jewish voters are overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic, but as Jewish groups moved to the right along with Israel in the 1980s, AIPAC increasingly leaned toward the Republican Party, which from the time of Ronald Reagan is seen as more staunchly pro-Israel than were the Democrats. AIPAC has begun to work with the evangelicals who form the Republican base and tend to be pro-Israel.  This may have implications for the next presidential election.

J Street is a year-old lobbying group with progressive views on Israel.  (JStreet derived its name from the alphabetically named street plan of Washington where the J Street is missing from the grid -- the street naming jumps from I Street to K Street.). Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and executive director set forth its purpose: “We’re trying to redefine what it means to be pro-Israel. You don’t have to be noncritical. You don’t have to adopt the party line. It’s not, ‘Israel, right or wrong.’ ”  

JStreet favors the freezing of Israel settlements and a two-state solution based on 1967 borders with negotiated land swaps with Jerusalem as the shared capital. (In 1947, when the United Nations partitioned the land, the Jews were given 55 percent of Palestine; Israel now has 78 percent.)  It also believes Israel should engage with Hamas at least indirectly through intermediaries.  JSreet does not want to appear anti-AIPAC.  But notably, its views are closer to Obama’s than AIPAC’s.

Anti-Dafamation League

According to its mission statement,“the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry in the U.S. and abroad through information, education, legislation, and advocacy.” 

I recommend "Defamation," a documentary directed by Yoav Shamir.  In "Defamation," Shamir examines the realities of anti-Semitism as an identity issue. Is it a continuing threat on the verge of leading inevitably to a second Holocaust? Or is it a scare tactic used by right-wing Zionists to discredit their critics? Most opinions fall in the gray area between two vastly different poles. Representing one end of the spectrum is Abraham Foxman, head of the ADL and an ardent advocate of the theory that anti-Semitism is widespread and requires constant vigilance to be kept in check. His protagonist in the debate is Norman Finkelstein, a controversial author, professor, and son of Holocaust survivors, who asserts it is a vast conspiracy orchestrated by Israel itself to undermine critics of its policy.

President Obama’s Approach

There was some indication that the Obama adminstration is attempting to moderate the U.S. policy toward Israel or at least redefine what it means to be pro-Israel in reconition that real progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is vital to regain U.S. credibility in the Middle East. 

Unlike his predecessors, Obama is pushing hard for a Mideast peace settlement. He appointed George Mitchell as his negotiator, and Mitchell is trying to wring concessions from Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states. In the case of Israel, this means freezing settlements and accepting a two-state solution -- Israel and Palestine.  

In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Obama. Obama pressed Netanyahu to place a total freeze on settlement expansion.  Netanyahu refused to make such a pledge.  Later Netanyahu met with Jewish legislators and was advised to listen to President Obama about the settlement issue.

In his June 2009 Cairo Islam speech, he called for a Palestinian state and a freeze on Israeli settlements.  The Obama administration seemed to be announcing a neutral U.S. policy in all things Middle East or at least a less pro-Israel approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  We were overly optimistic.

In July, President Obama met with leaders of American Jewish organizations, including AIPAC and JStreet.  These organizations were displeased at Obama’s willingness to publicly pressure Israel to freeze settlements and his public concern about the plight of the Palestinians. During this meeting, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told Obama that “public disharmony between Israel and the U.S. is beneficial to neither” and that differences “should be dealt with directly by the parties.” Obama disagreed, observing that: “We had eight years of no daylight [between George W. Bush and successive Israeli governments] and no progress.”

In May this year, indirect peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO began.

Does Obama have the support of Congress in his present approach to Israeli relations?  There is some indication of a slight shift in Congress, away from a lockstep pro-Israel stance, but many still view criticism of Israel as political suicide.

How about American Jews?  A July 2008 poll conducted by JStreet showed that 60 percent of the American Jews surveyed opposed further Israeli settlements. and agreed that the U.S. should be actively engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

No Easy Solution

Clearly, Israel must soon realize that there is no military solution to what is fundamentally a political conflict.  Netanyahu  -- as his immediate predecessors, Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon concluded -- must recognize that Israel cannot survive as a democratic and Jewish nation unless it is willing to allow a viable Palestinian state to be established, which in turn would require abandoning Israeli settlements.  The alternative is continual conflict resulting in the slow annihilation of the Palestinian people.

But the problem and the solution are not just Israel’s alone.  The Arab leaders on whom Obama is counting to help pay for a new Palestinian state and to put pressure on Hamas, have so far been reluctant to step forward.  

To further complicate matters, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is still far too weak to take on Hamas, which controls Gaza and fought Israel to a political standstill at the beginning of this year. The very real danger posed by Hamas makes Israel profoundly reluctant to make significant concessions.  And to further muddy the waters, Abbas has threatened to resign as president of the Palestinian Authority because of the failure of the U.S. to force Israel to stop building or expanding settlements on the West Bank.


President Obama recognizes that the U.S. must make real progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace in order to regain credibility in the Middle East. This goal’s  condition precedents are an Israel freeze on settlements and recognition of a two-state solution.  In the meantime, Congress and the American people, especially American Jews, must be willing to publicly support President Obama’s approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and dare to be publicly critical of Israel.  

Perhaps the upside of Israel's attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla will be a rethinking of U.S. lockstep support of Israel.  I am not optimistic.
================================================== writer Ralph E. Stone was born in Massachusetts. He is a graduate of both Middlebury College and Suffolk Law School. We are very fortunate to have this writer's talents in this troubling world; Ralph has an eye for detail that others miss. As is the case with many writers, Ralph is an American Veteran who served in war. Ralph served his nation after college as a U.S. Army officer during the Vietnam war. After Vietnam, he went on to have a career with the Federal Trade Commission as an Attorney specializing in Consumer and Antitrust Law. Over the years, Ralph has traveled extensively with his wife Judi, taking in data from all over the world, which today adds to his collective knowledge about extremely important subjects like the economy and taxation. You can send Ralph an email at this address

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