Right now Barack Obama is probably bent over a legal pad scratching out ISIL and putting in ISIS then thinking that over and scratching out ISIS and putting in ISIL, as he figures out the U.S. “strategy” to combat the radical terrorist group operating in Syria and Iraq.
Isn’t it interesting that our closest ally in the Middle East– Israel — is yet again of no use to the United States military or political establishment in this confrontation? As it was no use in the Gulf War of ’91. No use in the Iraq invasion of 2003 (except to help foment it in our “homeland”). No use in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, you name it.
In fact, Israel is one of the greatest impediments to our efforts to combat ISIS, because we can’t form a natural alliance with one of the strongest nation-states in the region, Iran. Israel wants to demonize Iran forever because it needs an existential threat, someone to blame for radical Islam. Just as Israel seems to like ISIS around, because it can then argue that the United States is at war with the same forces it is contending with; ISIS = Hamas, in the Israeli prime minister’s feverish imagination.
The Israel lobby makes sure these bizarre ideas contaminate our discourse. New York Congressman Gregory Meeks was on Chris Matthews’s show last night saying that he could support putting US “special forces” in Syria And last week Meeks was in Israel assuring Netanyahu that the U.S. and Israel are brothers and sisters. He echoed Netanyahu’s nonsense that ISIS and Hamas are the same:
We come together in support with our friends, our only true friend in the Middle East, and that’s Israel. And we want to make sure that you know we will always stand side by side, because we understand that what affects you affects us.
Israel is useless to us in this confrontation not just because Arab and Muslim states want nothing to do with it, but because it demonstrates the complete hypocrisy of our point of view. How can we oppose the creation of a militant Islamic state that is regarded as an occupier when we are the leading backer of a militant Jewish state that occupies lands not its own? Why are we supporting a religious state in the region? As Harry Truman complained to his wife, when he was being pressured by the Zionist lobby to support Israel’s existence, people have worse arguments over religion than they do over money, and that’s why he respected a great democratic principle, the separation of church and state. He and FDR feared (as John Judis reports) that establishing a Jewish state in a region that opposed it was a recipe for World War III, and it’s hard to look at the unending unrest in the Middle East without fearing that it threatens global stability.
Barack Obama came into office aware of what a huge liability rightwing Zionism represented to U.S. interests, which is why he went to Cairo to declare that the settlements must end. The former professor of constitutional law is surely as convinced of this belief as he was five years ago, and so the best strategy he could announce tomorrow is that the United States opposes religious states in the region and it wants to help Israel move toward a democracy.
As Obama could explain to the American people in simple terms, Israel is a place where,
–Few Palestinians serve in the military, though they constitute nearly 20 percent of the population. The U.S. got rid of that discrimination in 1948.
–A Barack Obama could never be appointed Prime Minister; Palestinian political parties don’t count when it comes to forming governing coalitions. The U.S. got rid of that discrimination in 1964.
–About 5 million Palestinians live without rights in permanently occupied territories, right alongside Jews who do have rights. The U.S. got rid of that system with the end of slavery in the 1860s and then Jim Crow 100 years later.
All these forms of second-class citizenship and worse exist because Israel calls itself the Jewish state, and Jews are fuller citizens than non-Jews. That’s a religious distinction, and one that only helps ISIS, which can argue that Muslims need their religious state too that is ready to dispense violence to maintain its existence.
When Jews walk through the streets of Jerusalem saying Death to the Arabs, and when Israel grabs another 1000 acres of the West Bank to build a Jewish settlement, these aggressive acts come out of a religious ideology. And the failure to separate church and state.
If Israel and Palestine moved toward equal rights for all citizens, that would do more to cool the Middle East and defang ISIS than all the drone attacks to kingdom come. And I’m not talking about the two state solution. You could have three four forty states between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. But they should honor the principle of equal rights. As John Brown said when he acted to bring down slavery, the self-evident truth of the first line of the Declaration of Independence was no different from the Golden Rule: the principle that you do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you is the same as the principle that all people are equal.
That’s a real strategy: Affirming American democratic principles and seeking to hold up the U.S. and its allies as models not scourges. Obama has it within his power to end 70 years of support for religious nationalism inside the U.S. establishment and announce that henceforth we will abide by a core idea of democracy.
Yes, there’d be hell to pay in the U.S. But better to have it out here than overseas.