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U.S. must save Israel ‘morally’ so as to save the U.S. — liberal Zionists’ circular argument

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Israel’s liberal supporters in the United States are organizing against a calamity, the plans from Israel’s rightwing leaders, encouraged by Trump, to annex portions of the West Bank. So they have mounted a campaign to stop annexation.

The liberals’ main concern seems to be Israel’s image, the threat that annexation poses to Israel’s “standing as a respected member of the family of nations,” to Israel’s status as “democratic homeland of the Jewish people,” and therefore to the special relationship between the United States and Israel. They’re warning, Do this and more U.S. Jews and politicians will turn against you.

Palestinian human rights don’t really figure in this liberal Zionist campaign. Though that’s surely the reason the global community and even some Democratic presidential aspirants are angered by Israel’s endless expansion of occupation, the effect on Palestinians. The 13 American Jewish signatories mostly talk about Israel’s future as a democracy.

“We need Israel to live up to the Zionist dream” is the core sentiment of the dozen statements here. Only Daniel Sokatch of New Israel Fund and Jill Jacobs of T’ruah speak about Palestinian persecution and lack of human rights.

This realpolitik, or self-involvement, was evident in a recent Democratic Party conference call with two liberal Zionists who sought to quash the burgeoning argument by progressives to condition U.S. aid on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Daniel Shapiro, Obama’s former ambassador to Israel who now works for an Israeli thinktank, and Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum argued that the special relationship between the two countries is a “moral” cause that must never be endangered. The United States needs Israel strategically, so it needs Israel to continue to be a beacon of democracy in a bad neighborhood. The thought that the U.S. should cut Israel loose if it continues its Jim Crow policies and make do with other allies simply never crosses these experts’ minds.

Here’s their argument.

Shapiro said that the U.S. military assistance of $3.8 billion a year is based on “common values and common interests” going back more than 70 years.

Common values means that Israel is a “moral” cause. It is “the only civil democracy” in the Middle East, and the U.S. long ago made a “moral commitment to… a democracy that has faced different threats since its founding.” The threat used to be Arab armies. Now it’s the threat of Iran seeking nuclear weapons or arming “terrorist organizations and other proxies around the region with precision guided missiles to attack Israel… from Hamas to Hezbollah to Isis to al Qaeda.”

As for common interests, Iran threatens the United States, too. “You look at a region that is rife with threats that also threaten US interests, US troops, other U.S. allies,” Shapiro said. So making sure Israel can deter those threats serves the United States. “The US assistance to Israel is not an act of altruism.”

Michael Koplow said that annexation was a “giant step” that would threaten or erode both that U.S. moral commitment and strategic interest.

From the aspect of the United States’s moral commitment to Israel, obviously we support Israel as a democracy and as a Jewish homeland, and annexation would threaten Israel’s ability to be both Jewish and democratic at the same time, and it would certainly raise questions for some about the US commitment to Israel and whether the strength of that moral commitment still should exist in the same robust manner following annexation.

Annexation would bring huge costs to Israel. It would cost billions to maintain a larger occupation. And it would be politically costly too, in the way progressive Democrats look on Israel.

[It] will put a lot of stress certainly on the US-Israel relationship, and it’s certainly something that will bring this discussion of conditioning aid, which has so far been somewhat limited, will bring it to the forefront.

Shapiro also spoke of what annexation would do to the “picture of Israel” in America.

Unilateral annexation…. probably puts the two-state solution into the dustpile, and it puts the picture of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in a high degree of uncertainty, maybe even makes it impossible for it to sustain its Jewish and democratic character, and that becomes a major negative factor toward the US Israel relationship, whether we can sustain the common values that undergird the relationship, and upon which we’ve built the security partnership, if Israel doesn’t have that same Jewish and democratic [character], I’m very much in question. So it’s very much in US interest that annexation not occur and we should be active and vocal in making that clear to Israelis.

Again, I’d point out that these men simply don’t consider the possibility that if Israel chooses to go that way– as it has chosen expansion and segregation again and again– we should just say, We need more distance in this relationship! And have cordial, not special, relationships with lots of countries in the region, including Iran and other violators of human rights. After all, countries don’t vow, Till death do us part. And an evenhanded U.S. policy might well lead to less violence in the region.

No, for these Israel lobbyists, continuing U.S. support is the ultimate cause, no matter the moral or strategic circumstances. So somehow it’s always in the U.S.’s strategic interest to maintain Israel’s moral edge. Do you see the circular logic?

When any realistic look at the region would suggest that a big reason Israel faces these never-ending threats going back to its founding in such a terrible neighborhood is its treatment of Palestinians, which is a very unpopular policy. That is the moral question progressive Democrats are struggling with: justifying the special relationship.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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9 Responses

  1. eljay on November 18, 2019, 12:56 pm

    For Zionists it’s all about:
    – maximizing Jewish / “Jewish State” supremacism; and
    – minimizing (to the point of entirely eliminating) justice, accountability and equality.

  2. Donald on November 18, 2019, 3:12 pm

    Not going to look it up, but a few weeks ago Roger Cohen in the NYT was writing about the protests in Lebanon. Like many Western reporters/pundits (hard to tell the difference sometimes) he portrayed it as a revolt against the sectarianism of Hezbollah. I gather from reading other people that this isn’t exactly correct.

    But the funny thing was he was arguing that people in the Mideast are revolting against sectarianism and he obviously approved, but there was one country he left out of his column. You can guess which country he didn’t bring up as an example of the problems sectarianism can cause.

  3. Peter in SF on November 19, 2019, 2:21 am

    Dan Shapiro is quoted:

    it puts the picture of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in a high degree of uncertainty, maybe even makes it impossible for it to sustain its Jewish and democratic character, and that becomes a major negative factor toward the US Israel relationship, whether we can sustain the common values that undergird the relationship, and upon which we’ve built the security partnership, if Israel doesn’t have that same Jewish and democratic [character], I’m very much in question.

    The United States does not have relations with any other country that labels itself a “Jewish and democratic state“. I can see why a state’s abandonment of any pretense of being democratic would make it harder to talk with a straight face about “common values that undergird the relationship“, but I can’t see why a state’s abandonment of any pretense of being Jewish would have that effect. Did he explain that?

    By the way, is the transcript of this call available, or a recording of it?

  4. ancientenough on November 19, 2019, 9:03 am

    Phil, not sure what you mean by “an evenhanded approach”

    Day by day, month by month and year by year, our policies, foreign and otherwise, continue to be dictated by the Israel Lobby in ways that are inimical to US interests, particularly with respect to the billions we give to Israel without asking anything in return, like reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians, pulling back the settler project, stopping confiscation and destruction of Palestinian homes, agricultural land, schools and hospitals, attacks and war crimes, shooting of innocent civilians in Gaza and so on, certainly way out of proportion to bad acts of Hamas and any violence caused by Palestinian civilians – all of it fomenting unrest in the Middle East and anti-American sentiment and, ironically, the terrorism we’re supposedly so eager to stop.

    Basic understanding of conflict resolution shows that to bring parties together, we need the carrot and the stick. Israel gets the carrot, but not the stick. People keep speaking about the two-state solution, which many observers believe is dead, because Israel has shown no inclination to get serious about peace on any basis.

    Even if two-state were a realistic road to peace, we’re not using our resources to force Israel to the table to pursue it.

    As Walt and Mearsheimers’s “Israel Lobby” book and the Washington Report’s annual conference shows, this powerful lobby is controlling Federal and State governments to slant all our policies in the U.S. and the Middle East in favor of Israel and against relatively harmless countries, like Iran. Zionist neocons pushed the Bush administration into a disastrous war with Iraq and ill-fated post 9/11 military adventures like the War on Terror continue to this day, with almost unimaginable human and monetary costs, including US military doing Israel’s dirty work:

    Americans in general are dissatisfied with our foreign policy, endless war in the Middle East and favoritism to Israel. Moreover, they’re disgusted with official policy that equates criticism of Israel or Israeli operatives with anti-Semitism. Like saying the Israeli ambassador, David Friedman, had dual loyalty. What malarkey! The charge doesn’t go far enough. His and many politicians primary loyalty is to Israel, even to the disadvantage of the American people. Haim Saban on the Democratic Party side and Sheldon Adelson on the Republican side come right out and say their issue is Israel.

  5. Misterioso on November 19, 2019, 9:36 am

    A must read. Once again, Professor Davidson nails it!

    “The Problem of Localized Ethics—An Analysis” (12 November 2019) by Professor Lawrence Davidson

    “Part I—A Local Legal Hero: Meir Shamgar

    “On 19 October 2019 Meir Shamgar died. He was 94 years old. Shamgar is not exactly a household name here in the West, but he was renowned in Israel. He was given a state funeral that was attended by most of Israel’s top Zionist leaders. Benjamin Netanyahu eulogized Shamgar as the man responsible for ‘strengthening the foundational principles of justice and the law, and guaranteeing individual and national freedoms.’ Others described him as a ‘great man of towering intellect and deeply held ethical values.’

    “Shamgar reached this status and accomplished these tasks in his roles as Israel’s military advocate general, attorney general, supreme court member and then finally as the president of Israel’s supreme court. He was obviously a capable legal mind with real administrative talents. Yet, as he went about shaping Israel’s liberal-for-Jews national legal environment, he simultaneously undermined international law and human rights for non-Jews. He therefore can be seen as threatening civilized legal standards both at home and in the international arena.

    “Part II—The Denier of Human Rights: Meir Shamgar
    “Here is how Michael Sfard, an Israeli attorney who specializes in international and human rights law, describes Shamgar’s legal treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories: ‘As a judge, he handed down rulings that legalized almost every draconian measure taken by the defense establishment to crush Palestinian political and military organizations, and to establish Israeli control over the occupied people and their land for generations. Demolition of suspects’ houses (rendering their families homeless); wholesale use of administrative detentions against Palestinian activists; expropriation of lands and the establishment of settlements; undemocratic appointments of mayors; and the imposition of curfews and taxes—Shamgar sanctioned them all.’

    “Sfard is accurate in this description. However, he also thinks that Shamgar personifies a ‘paradox’ that lies at the heart of Zionism—Israel’s national ideology. He tells us that this is ‘the paradox of a movement that is based on the moral ideal that every nation has the right to political freedom. … And yet, has denied those same freedoms to millions of people who belong to another nation.’

    “I am afraid Sfard has this part wrong, at least as far as the Zionist belief in a ‘moral ideal’ that every nation has a right to freedom. There is no historical evidence that the Zionist movement ever asserted such an ideal except as a brief bit of useful post-World War I propaganda. Quite the contrary, Zionist nationalism was pursued as an extension of European colonialism. Early on Zionist leaders hitched their national ambitions (via the Balfour Declaration) to British imperialism—which, under no circumstances, espoused the national rights of the peoples they ruled. Thus, the Zionists turned on the British when they no longer needed their patronage, in order to force them out of Palestine. Just so, according to the latest biography of David Ben Gurion (Tom Segev’s A State At Any Cost), modern Israel’s founding father always understood the movement of European Jews into Palestine as one of ‘conquest.’

    “Thus, it is much more accurate to say that Zionists reserved, and still reserve, the ideal of national freedom in Palestine solely to themselves. And they do so without the ‘dissonance’ Sfard claims is engendered by a simultaneous belief in a universal right of national freedom. Indeed, any such ideal that might support rights of any kind for the Palestinians on an equal basis with Israeli Jews is anathema to most Zionists. It is within this context that Meir Shamgar could at once be the nation’s legal hero and simultaneously deny the application of universal human rights and international law in Israel’s ‘Occupied Territories.’

    “Part III—The Broader Lesson
    “We can understand this disparity more broadly once we realize that ethics, or value-systems generally, are locally generated. This means that, while in principle, each value-system might have concepts such as fairness, honesty, humaneness, that have universal character, they have traditionally, that is historically, been put into practice in a more narrow way for the benefit of particular in-groups. Over time these in-groups have gotten larger until today the largest of them is now the nation state. However, the nation state has also been a source of world wars and large scale atrocities. After World War II, and the experience of a number of genocides, efforts were made to establish a set of trans-national values laid out in international law and in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was hoped that nation states could be persuaded (by the memory of the horrors of World War II, if nothing else) to adhere to humane international laws that transcended national in-groups.
    Despite the historically proven fact that an in-group approach to ethics has encouraged racism and other forms of bigotry as well as horrific war, there still continues a struggle between those who would apply ethical standards universally and those who would hold to the traditional in-group exceptionalism. Meir Shamgar and the Zionists followed this latter approach.

    “The road they have chosen has certainly generated exclusive ethics and values reserved for just their in-group. Inevitably, this has resulted in a highly discriminatory Israeli environment which many (including some Israelis) see as creating an apartheid society. Apartheid is a form of racism recognized under international law as a crime against humanity.

    “The cost here is not just the injustice done to the Palestinians. There is also a serious undermining of both international law and the moral integrity of the Jewish people. One wonders if Meir Shamgar ever thought of his legal rulings and administrative reforms in this way? Or, for him, was there nothing beyond a narrow version of the ethnic nation state, where the rule of law was a sole possession of a sub-group of citizens. Of course, great men of ‘towering intellect and deeply held ethical values’ should not think and act in such exclusionary ways. However, those who would readily sacrifice the well-being of millions do.”

  6. Elizabeth Block on November 19, 2019, 11:41 am

    “We need Israel to live up to the Zionist dream” – excuse me? Israel IS living up to the Zionist dream. The Zionist dream is of a land entirely controlled by Jews, and if possible entirely populated by Jews. That was the intent from the beginning.
    Yes, there were some Zionists who thought it was a mistake, that Jews and Arabs (as they were called then) could and should live together. But they lost. The victors were the ones whose intent, carried out, is what we see today.

    • echinococcus on November 19, 2019, 3:21 pm

      “The Zionist dream is of a land entirely controlled by Jews, and if possible entirely populated by Jews. That was the intent from the beginning.”

      Well said.

      But you should observe that where “there were some Zionists who thought it was a mistake, that Jews and Arabs (as they were called then) could and should live together” …they pretended to think they could live together against the explicit wishes and protest of said roommates.

      Another circle to square. There can be no decent Zionists.

  7. Vera Gottlieb on November 19, 2019, 12:16 pm

    When did theft become a moral commitment???

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