January/February 2012, Pages 8-10
By Rachelle Marshall
The hundreds of billions of dollars the U.S. has poured out to Israel since it became a state are only part of the price America has paid for what President Barack Obama refers to as our "unshakable commitment" to the Jewish state.
That commitment has also entailed 60-plus years of complicity in Israel's violations of international law and in an illegal military occupation that has robbed three million Palestinians of their basic rights.
The U.S. has stood alone in vetoing more than 40 U.N. Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, including those condemning Israel's annexation of Jerusalem, its confiscation of Palestinian land for illegal settlements, its repeated attacks on Lebanon, and most recently its war crimes against civilians during its 2008-09 assault on Gaza. In 1990, Israel's routine use of torture, as testified to by Israeli and international human rights groups, prompted the Security Council to call for an investigation of Israel's abuses of Palestinians under occupation. A U.S. veto made sure there would be no investigation.
The policy of unqualified support for Israel forces U.S. officials to go before the world and defend actions that run directly counter to American principles. The rights of freedom of speech, association and assembly are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, yet Palestinians have no such rights, and Israelis are seeing theirs steadily eroded. Israel recently shut down four Palestinian civic organizations in Jerusalem without explanation, and closed a radio station jointly run by Israeli and Palestinian peace activists for "inciting" against Israel. Bills currently before the Knesset would limit the ability of Israeli human rights and civil liberties groups to raise money abroad.
Most of the world is aware that the weapons Israel uses to subdue the Palestinians are produced in the the U.S., including the tear gas Israeli soldiers fire at villagers holding peaceful protests against the separation wall. The giant tanks and F-16s that carried out Israel's devastating assault on Gaza in 2009 were made in America, as were the Apache helicopters that constantly roar overhead.
Hamas has observed an informal truce for two years, but an Israeli air strike in late October that killed several members of a militant group provoked a week-long exchange of violence that left 1 Israeli and 12 Palestinians dead. Since then sporadic Israeli air strikes and tank incursions have continued, with targets seemingly chosen at random.
A pre-dawn attack by an F-16 on Nov. 6 destroyed Sufyan Musaa's home and all 40 of his olive trees. "It's like the farm was hit by an earthquake," he said. "Now there is nothing; no farm, no yield, no point." Ibrahim Alean and a fellow farmer were picking strawberries in a field 500 yards from Gaza's border on Nov. 6 when they were shot by Israeli police and then killed by fire from an Apache helicopter.
A Nov. 14 raid by Israeli warplanes destroyed the compound of Gaza's coastal police, killing an officer and wounding 7 others. Severely injured in the attacks were the French consul in Gaza, Majdi Jameel Shaqqoura, his two children, and his wife, who suffered a miscarriage. All were sleeping when the shells exploded next to their house.
Such crimes make no dent in America's unlimited support for Israel, however.
That support reached the point of absurdity in early November, when the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted 107 to 14 to admit the Palestinians. Despite the overwhelming international support for the measure, the U.S. immediately stopped all funding of UNESCO, costing the agency $80 million—22 percent of this year's budget.
Like most U.S. policy toward Israel, punishing UNESCO runs directly counter to American interests. UNESCO's mission is to promote literacy, science, clean water, and equal treatment of girls and women, as well as preservation of historical sites—all objectives the U.S. claims to support. Yet according to UNESCO's Director General Irina Bokova, the loss of U.S. dues will require severe cuts in these programs and a freeze on new ones.
The programs affected include improving access to clean water in Iraq, conducting ground water surveys in the drought-stricken sub-Sahara, and providing literacy training to Afghan soldiers. Washington's withdrawal of support became especially embarrassing when tiny Gabon offered to add an extra $2 million to its UNESCO dues this year.
According to White House spokesman Jay Carney, UNESCO's decision to admit the Palestinians would "undermine efforts to achieve a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the agency's decision "inexplicable." What is in fact inexplicable is how membership in a U.N. educational and scientific body could undermine Middle East peace efforts, or why the U.S. does not cut off funds to Israel for continuing to build illegal settlements.
The two officials would be unable to explain such inconsistencies without confessing to the powerful role played by Israel and its Washington lobby in shaping U.S. foreign policy.
A law passed by Congress in 1994 requires the president to refuse funding to any U.N. organization that admits the Palestinians. Like similar laws on behalf of Israel that undermine U.S. credibility in the world, it was undoubtedly written and passed under the guidance of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which serves the interests of Israel's right-wing leaders, not those of ordinary Americans and Israelis.
Israel punished the Palestinians for their admission to UNESCO by hastening their dispossession from the land and suspending the turnover of tax and customs payments it collects for the Palestinian Authority. The Netanyahu government immediately announced plans to build 2,600 housing units between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which when completed will completely isolate the two major Palestinian communities from each other. The Israeli watchdog group Peace Now called the new settlement "a game changer that significantly changes the possible border between Israel and Palestine."
To make room for steadily expanding settlements, Israel is destroying Palestinian homes in Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, and elsewhere in the West Bank, along with water tanks, irrigation systems and even a solar plant built by a Spanish NGO near Hebron. Meanwhile Palestinians face constant harrassment from soldiers and settlers. The army makes almost nightly arrests, seizing 64 Palestinians during a single week in late November. At least five of the detainees were among the prisoners Israel released in October in exchange for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
The government's relentless punishment of the Palestinians, together with the tripling of settler violence recently reported by the U.N., is obviously a greater threat to the peace process than Palestinian membership in UNESCO. Even more threatening to peace, however, is Israel's four-week delay in turning over the $100 million in tax revenues it owed the Palestinian Authority.
According to the International Monetary Fund and the U.N., the Palestinians under President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have established the institutions essential to an independent state. If the Authority is unable to provide the services Palestinians depend on, or pay its tens of thousands of employees, those institutions could collapse.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who represents the Middle East peace group composed of the U.S., U.N., Russia and the European Union—and who rarely criticizes Israel—said, "Only those who oppose peace and Israeli-Palestinian cooperation benefit from the withholding of PA funds." The Israelis relented in the face of international pressure, claiming their intent was to warn the Palestinians not to pursue U.N. membership or reconciliation with Hamas. "We are trying to send a clear message," an aide said.
Nevertheless, having defied the U.S. and Israel by going to the U.N., Abbas did so again by meeting with Hamas leaders in late November for the purpose of forming a national unity government. In addition to a cabinet and prime minister acceptable to both sides, the new government would be largely composed of technocrats who, according to Fatah official Nabil Shaath, would be pledged to nonviolence.
As usual, Washington reacted in lockstep with Israel, denouncing the Palestinians' effort at reconciliation and threatening to cut its already dwindling contributions to the Palestinian Authority. With Egypt and Syria increasingly in turmoil, the U.S. should welcome the oasis of stability a united Palestine would provide. It has chosen instead to act against its own interests and to the detriment of peace.
The Palestinians' bid for full U.N. membership reached a dead end in early November when, after relentless U.S. lobbying, it failed to receive the requisite nine votes in the Security Council's membership committee. But no sooner had Washington's concern over that issue died down than rumors arose of an imminent Israeli attack on Iran. Shortly before the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran may be working on a possible nuclear warhead, reports emerged in Israel that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were urging a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. The Israeli air force held widely publicized practice drills in the Mediterranean using simulated missiles designed to reach Iran.
Given the reluctance of some Israeli military officials, however, and the Pentagon's fear of a war that would endanger thousands of Americans in the area, the rumors appeared to be largely a ploy aimed at pressuring the U.S. and its allies to impose tougher sanctions on Iran. Such an assumption seemed even more justified when a mysterious explosion at an Iranian military base in mid-November killed the founder of Iran's missile program, Gen. Hassan Terhani Moghaddam and 16 members of the Revolutionary Guard. Israel neither denied nor admitted responsibility, but the "accident " caused a serious setback to Iran's nuclear program without risking retaliation by Iran.
With Russia and China opposed to further sanctions, the Israelis proceeded to put pressure on other U.N. members, suggesting that if they did not punish Iran economically and diplomatically, Israel would be forced to take military action. The U.S. and its major allies accordingly agreed to impose a new round of sanctions designed to discourage foreign investment in Iran's oil and gas industry and limit the transactions of the central bank.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee, ever responsive to AIPAC, went even further, with a bill called the Iran Threat Reduction Act, which would be likely to increase rather than reduce threats to U.S. security. In addition to imposing tougher sanctions, the bill would forbid U.S. government employees from having any contact with Iranian officials unless the president could convince Congress that U.S. security was at stake.
Two former diplomats who served in the Reagan administration, Thomas R. Pickering and William H. Luers, called the proposed bill self-defeating. "Ignorance of this powerful adversary," they wrote, "dangerously weakens our ability to know how to achieve U.S. objectives and protect U.S. interests." Foreign affairs analyst Fareed Zakaria agreed, saying more diplomacy aimed at Iran is needed, not less. "Iran sits astride a crucial part of the world," he pointed out. "It cannot be sanctioned and pressed down forever. We need a strategy that combines pressure with a path to bring Iran in from the cold."
Israel's bellicose warnings, whether or not they were bluffs, were designed to have the opposite effect, securing international cooperation in isolating Iran from the rest of the world. The danger of such a policy is that putting Tehran on the defensive is certain to intensify the Iranians' efforts to produce a bomb, and increase the tensions that can lead to war. This possibility will be even greater if the Republican candidates for president have their way.
Mitt Romney would seek "increased military coordination with Israel in order to make clear to Iran that the military option is very much on the table." Newt Gingrich would not "second guess" an Israeli prime minister. Rick Perry would support Israel "in every way...whether it's overt or covert operations up to and including military support."
The possibility that America could be drawn into a war instigated by Israel is therefore not out of the question. Wars have begun under more trivial circumstances. But the fact that serious candidates for president are considering such a possibility suggests that the costs of U.S. support for Israel may eventually be far greater than we imagine.
Rachelle Marshall is a free-lance editor living in Mill Valley, CA. A member of Jewish Voice for Peace, she writes frequently on the Middle East.