Clueless in Washington and Tel Aviv

Israel/Palestine
on 32 Comments

Virginia Tilley’s post, “Why the U.S. will not ‘do something’ about Palestine,” analyzing the complex relationship between US hegemony and the Israel lobby, was sobering and spot on. A couple of points are worth further clarification and elaboration.

I’m not so sure that the “Palestinian movement” was or is under any illusion that, if only “the U.S. really knew what was going on, it would ‘do something,’” presumably become fair-dealing and help end Israel’s occupation. I never had perceived this about either Palestinians or Arabs. If anything, after decades of such US-Israel spectacle, they were convinced of the opposite, that the US will do nothing—but support Israel and undermine them. The PA elites and Arab leaders of course waited forlornly for the US to “do something,” but as American-dependent clients working against the interests of their people, there was no other route for them. They were simply hoping that, if they were to throw themselves at American mercy, convince Washington by talking to it, the US, rewarding such staunch “allies,” would assume a truer mediating role. For the people, “do something” is an exclamation of the US’s hopelessness regarding Palestine, not naïve hope, a frustrated exasperation at how the Americans could resignedly watch the Israeli occupation indulge in brutality day after day, then defend it. The Palestinian public is probably one of the most informed of any publics anywhere. Generally, they understand it’s about lobbies and imperialism and Arab autocrats, the activists (which I suppose would mean every Palestinian), quite sophisticated analysts. Palestinians have virtually tried everything, many times, to end the occupation but crushed by power from all sides. Next, and soon, may be a mass campaign of peaceful protest and resistance.

Which brings me to a second point of elaboration, comprised of two elements: (a) the causes, and definition, of US “hegemony” and (b) Dr. Tilley’s suggestion that US dominance will last a long time—which may not be in tune with the convincing analysis that economic calamity and retrenchment are much nearer than we might think.

First regarding “hegemony,” to me a descriptive more than causal term. I think of it as the (self-defeating) imperialist drive to dominate the world’s political and economic order, a determination to pry the world open to American trade, investment and commercial dominance to maintain the artificial, debt laden American standard of living, the American consumer’s thirst for cheap imports, oil, and credit. It is fundamentally about expanding global capital, finance, and production, of capitalism’s need for an ever-expanding market. American empire is not identical to the old politically and territorially based empires directly subjugating and exploiting other peoples, swallowing them up in an imperial union. It is an empire without territorial limits or frontiers, its presence and control delimited only where global market expansion—the globalization of production, trade, and finance, aka, globalization—does not reach. Militarism and the national security state are the instruments for maintaining this order, and America’s policy elites, institutions and bureaucracy are an immovable object in the face of which American presidents are helpless. Richard D. Wolfe offers the most compelling argument that America’s economic problems are structural and long term, an overproduction crisis of capitalism and stagnant wages that began in the mid-1970s, after 150 years of expansion of production, labor, and wages.

The second element, regarding decline, is that, in fact, there is an emerging consensus—Andrew Bacevich, Chalmers Johnson, Immanuel Wallerstein, Johan Galtung, Ivan Eland, Alfred McCoy, to name just a few—that it may occur in the next 10-15 years (Galtung projects 2020; Johnson says imperial collapse arrives with the speed of a FedEx package). Indicators include the severe erosion of the US industrial base and social infrastructure especially education, job losses, and loss of technological and manufacturing competitiveness. The net effect of profligate spending in the cause of empire and domination that costs us (in treasure, blood, economic exhaustion) far more that it nets or benefits, are massive borrowing and growing trade deficits, probable fall of the dollar, skyrocketing prices, major drop in standard of living, and potential government bankruptcy. The sad reality is that elites, animated by fantastic ideas about how the world works, pursue them to the cost of their nation’s well being. The economic damage is self-inflicted, the economic, social, and political problems self-made, and they cumulatively beckon the coming crisis. Our elites are clueless and American culture does not easily accept the reality of becoming one among many powers. The other side of American genius is folly of character, the hubris thing and that urge to power that seems to grip all great states. It may be that scientific and technological advances, such as in materials science, will generate another period of economic expansion and thereby delay collapse, but I think the structural problems are not going away. When crisis finally comes, dependency on US power, trade, technology, armaments, etc. will disappear overnight as others will fill what it cannot not.  That’s the way of the world.

Now to the third point I wanted to make. Whatever theory one chooses to explain the US-Israel relationship—imperial dominance, national security state, oil, Israel lobby, hegemonic stability theory, containment, mutual Western-Islamic antipathy, Islamic extremism, cultural or shared values, Holocaust guilt—the depth, effectiveness, and pervasiveness of Israel’s influence in American politics, the reflexivity of US support, is obvious and puzzling, even bizarre. Some argue that Israel serves as America’s gendarme and base for US power while others say it’s all the lobby. The argument that Israel is a projection of US power and pursuit of global primacy is generally true, that is, US behavior flows from American historical, ideological, cultural, and economic foundations, but this explanation is incomplete, confused by the fact that the US and Israel have become indistinguishable. The “Israel lobby” has an enormous influence over US Middle East policy not only because of its own organized domestic power, including the mass media’s sanitizing everything related to Israel, but also because of the confluence with it of American of imperial hegemony. This convergence ebbs and flows; when it ebbs, American Zionists ensure its unrequited flow even at the detriment of American interests. The US-Israeli alliance converges and is mutually reinforcing.

What are the implications of all this? I’ve always argued that change will only come with a transformation in the configuration of power. Optimally, these include US retrenchment leading to domestic pressure that puts the US before Israel and weakens the lobby overnight; Arab democratization whose foreign policies reflect popular will; and the critical tipping point of demographic changes in Palestine-Israel. I anticipated the US factor and Palestinian-Israeli demography but not the changes sweeping the Arab world. It suddenly seems the three are converging with rapid speed.

Despite all this, and just as Dr. Tilley said, change will not come voluntarily, certainly not from wisdom or true self-interest, and I’m referring to both the US and Israel. While the American elite is rushing headlong towards ruining this great nation, the Israeli Zionist elite has not even begun to internalize the implications of these changes. Their goals are unchanged. (a) Colonize Palestine, separate Jew from Palestinian, wall/imprison the Palestinians, before all three variables change the strategic environment critically and permanently. (b) Obstruct normalized relations between the US and the Middle East. (c) Fragment Arab states and societies through wars and covert violence and destabilization. (d) Exasperate, encourage, and provoke the threat of Islamic, al-Qaida type terrorist violence against the West, especially the US. (e) Maintain military primacy and monopoly over WMDs, the weapon of terror. (f) Obstruct/ignore international law. One factor, Arab revolt for democratization, undermines the Israeli argument of a common Muslim enemy out to destroy and takeover the West. They continue, oblivious, on their colonialist, nationalist-militarist suicidal path and mentality, enabled by the West, Washington, American Zionism, and the American religious right.

The most urgent action Israel can take is immediate withdrawal from the Palestinian occupied territories, the Golan Heights, and Lebanon’s Shebaa farms, enter into a comprehensive peace (including Syria and Lebanon) based on two states and resolution of the refugee issue, and offer full equality to Palestino-Israelis. If not this, if colonization of the West Bank is institutionally, politically, and bureaucratically irreversible, and it is, if in such a small place the separation of the two peoples along national lines is equally impossible, then there is only one thing to do: grant citizenship and equality to all Palestinians and turn Israel into a liberal democratic state.

The best, most urgent decisions America should make is end its two wars, close down all its military bases around the world, from Japan to Europe, slash its military budget at least in half and reduce its nuclear arsenal, through mutual treaty with the Russians, to a tiny number of warheads, cease encircling Russia, stop aid to Israel and force it to make peace. Deal with the debt and deficit problems, infrastructure, and a sound industrial policy. (Here’s a really scary thought: conservatives and neocon allies retake the White House in two or six years and cause mayhem, of course hastening, like George W. before them, the date of America’s reckoning.)

The following paragraph is unrelated to Virginia Tilley’s article: Zionism emerged in the 19th century because of anti-Semitism, the influence of ethnic nationalist movements, and colonialism. However, judged by Israel’s actions rather than words or declared intentions, it seems the colonial facet dominates. Israeli liberals’ insistence that pre-state Zionism was a romantic, heroic movement corrupted after the 1967 occupation is fundamentally flawed. Israel’s colonization constitutes an unbroken thread, both internally and in the occupied territories as it separates Palestinians, privileges Jews, and demolishes any trace of Arab Palestine. I suppose that, fundamentally, originating as foreigners, they simply cannot and will not accept or fit in with indigenous people and culture. But we must not get giddy and strident in our statements regarding Zionist Israel’s sociopolitical end and its transformation into a progressive, liberal state for all its citizens. It is not South Africa. Threats, violence, declarations about impending demise are foolish and frighten ordinary Israelis, making them feel besieged. That is wrong on a number of counts. It’s better to appeal to reason, common sense, self-preservation, decency and humanity, peaceful coexistence, reaffirmation of life, regardless of how futile and impossible that may seem now, regardless of Israeli violence and brutality.

Morally, Israel as a Zionist state merits no support. However, what I care about are the current victims, the Palestinians, the potential victims, Israeli Jews, and most of all the wellbeing of this country, whose “friend” accelerated its misfortunes.

(21 February 2011)

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