President Obama began his tenure with a promise to put “some daylight” between Israel and the U.S., Israel’s most steadfast friend, but it now seems daylight isn’t enough; the darkness of night would seem a more apt description. Indeed, the latest version of the President’s approach may produce a security chasm between the U.S. and Israel, a chasm that would certainly threaten Israel’s continued survival. But it also entails the risk of a moral and political chasm into which the United States might fall and which, in the long term, bears a grave threat to the health of the American polity.
The President made clear his present approach in his response to the electoral victory of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He chose to seize upon and condemn two of Netanyahu’s campaign comments, one about the prospects of a Palestinian state and the other regarding the Arab vote in Israel. Despite efforts by Netanyahu to provide a meliorating interpretation, the President has deliberately adopted the most extreme understanding of the Prime Minister’s words. On the basis of his interpretation, Obama has leveled two charges: first, that the Israeli Prime Minister has rejected the principle of a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute; but second and actually more gravely, that Israel is now or is becoming a non-inclusive, undemocratic, and racist state.
Netanyahu has replied by saying that he was only declaring the obvious: first, in saying that no Palestinian state would be established during his tenure, he was pointing out that conditions are not ripe for a state in the West Bank given both the dangerous extremes of radical Islamist violence, both Shi’a and Sunni, that presently surround Israel and that the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza has already produced a Palestinian “state” but a terrorist one, governed by Hamas, which is devoted to Israel’s destruction. Israel cannot easily run the risk of a second terrorist state. Second, Netanyahu explained that his remark about Israel’s Arabs “voting in droves” was no more than an appeal for an energetic turnout of his own supporters to counter the turnout of his opponents—merely a bit of ordinary democratic electioneering.
Netanyahu’s explanations have considerable force, especially as his remarks were uttered in the heat of a political campaign, and he has subsequently undertaken to make amends with an apology to Israel’s Arab citizens. But the Obama Administration has refused to be mollified. The question now is how far the President intends to pursue these lines of attack and how much damage they will do.
Of the two, the attack on Israel’s democratic integrity, including its claims to “inclusivity,” is the most absurd. By common consensus, the process of the recent Israeli election was fair and almost entirely free of fraud. Moreover, and as a particular irony, at the time of Obama’s attack, Israel was awaiting the required legal confirmation of its results to be delivered by Salim Joubran, a Muslim who is a justice of Israel’s Supreme Court. The latter fact is but a small expression of not only how democratic a country Israel is but also how inclusive and generally liberal, in the American and any reasonable sense of that term.
Should Obama pursue these accusations, however, the consequences will be anything but absurd. Administration officials are already suggesting that they will adopt a different posture at the UN regarding resolutions that might prescribe a “solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Indeed, the Administration has just taken the small step of refraining from usual American practice of opposing the ritual denunciations of Israel at the UN, in the present case a condemnation of Israel for its performance on “women’s rights,” a particularly if not uniquely absurd charge. Former Senator and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once described an earlier American lapse at the UN of this sort as “joining the jackals.”
President Obama has been leaning toward joining Israel’s attackers, in fact, since the beginning of his first term. As noted before, early on the President explicitly undertook to alter the U.S.-Israeli relationship and diminish its closeness, “to put some daylight” between the two. And so he has. His ostensible purpose was to put more pressure on Israel to reach an agreement that would result in a Palestinian state. Earlier administrations, both Democratic and Republican, had generally credited the sincerity of Israel’s attempts to reach a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as shown most recently in the generous Israeli proposals of 2000, 2001, and 2008, not to mention on earlier occasions such as 1947, 1967, etc. They understood, along with Israel, that the failures of those proposals were largely the consequence of Palestinian demands that would amount to the destruction of Israel.
By contrast, this President has adopted a very different approach and tone. Over the course of several years, he has more and more frequently blamed Israel rather than the Palestinian Authority for the lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, despite substantial evidence to the contrary, including Israel’s compliance with his request to reduce building in disputed territory. Obama’s latest attacks on Netanyahu are perhaps more transparently vindictive than usual, but no one would call them unexpected.
If Israel is indeed losing the support of the American administration, however, it will not be the first time Western and ostensibly democratic friends have turned their back on the Jewish state. Were the United States to begin to deny Israel’s clearly powerful commitment to peace and democracy, it would move in the direction of Europe’s current perspective.
During its first 20 years of existence, Israel enjoyed widespread respect in Western Europe and also deep sympathy for its perilous plight, though only modest material support. This reached something of a peak on the eve of the Six Day War of June 1967 when it seemed possible, even likely, that Israel would be annihilated by the combined Arab armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.
Unfortunately, over the last 45 years this attitude has radically changed. In Europe, Israel is frequently and broadly vilified. The ostensible ground of this hostility is Israel’s alleged resistance to official Palestinian statehood and its alleged mistreatment of Palestinian Arabs. This hostility is, however, increasingly accompanied by attacks on the liberal and democratic character of Israel as well as an upsurge in more or less openly expressed anti-Semitism. In fact, European antipathy towards Israel more and more resembles the venom regularly expressed by the United Nations, which spends more time and effort denouncing Israel than criticizing all the other nations of the world combined.
The UN has been heavily influenced by the Arab and more generally Muslim view of Israel: that the Jewish state has as such no right to exist and that the world would be a better place without it. These views are grounded less by the Palestinian issue than by Muslim repugnance at the very idea that Jews should enjoy political sovereignty at all, not to mention at the fact that Jews currently enjoy such status and maintain it through superior force of arms. Israel’s political and military advantage over its Arab neighbors is at odds with the millennial Muslim conviction that Jews are not so much an enemy people but a despised and contemptible lesser race, “the offspring of pigs and monkeys,” put permanently in their place by the glorious political and military success of Islam. In light of this belief, the very existence of the state of Israel, and worse still its consistent triumphs over Muslim military forces, is an intrinsic outrage. Secular Europe has not (openly) embraced racial and religious prejudices against Israel as Muslims have, but it is increasingly inclined to adopt the same conclusion: that the Jewish state has no right to be.
How did a Jewish state come to be so isolated from Western countries that affirm the liberal and democratic principles to which Israel conforms? Joshua Muravchik’s recent and excellent book, Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel, provides the answer, and a depressing picture of the place to which Obama’s antipathy may lead America and its policy toward Israel. Thoroughly researched, it provides not only a reliable history of Europe’s shameful desertion of Israel but a persuasive analysis of its most critical factors.
Alas, the story Muravchik tells is a very ugly one entailing vices, moral, political, and intellectual. It is one of feckless cowardice, greed, and vanity, of ideological corruption, especially of European socialism, of wholesale moral and political hypocrisy, and of academic and intellectual lying or chicanery.
Muravchik clearly and succinctly lays out the original factors that led to the respect in which Israel was originally held, and then the various factors that subsequently contributed to its decline. From its founding Israel had to contend with the objections of foreign policy professionals—“realists”—in America as well as Europe, who contended that Arab and Muslim hostility to the Jewish state’s existence put at risk the West’s larger geo-strategic interests. But that was countered by sympathy for the plight of Jews after World War II and the Holocaust, and respect for Israel’s democratic and especially socialist experiment. The latter especially made it a “David,” an underdog favorite of many if not all of Europe’s democratic socialist parties. That began to change after the Six Day War. The erosion of respect had its origins in fear: first fear of terrorism, especially airplane highjackings, the first modus operandi of the variety of Palestinian terrorist organizations; then the fear of the Arab “oil weapon” first successfully deployed after the 1973 war. In the case of oil, greed also played a role.
Israel, out of necessity, developed more or less successful counters to terrorism that others could have adopted, but it was easier for many governments to bargain with terrorists. Muravchik gives a thorough account of this ugly spectacle: “As the toll of Palestinian terrorism mounted, the world repeatedly submitted, paying ransoms and releasing prisoners, and granting a miscellany of other demands. In this climate, terrorists never needed to fear capture.” This, for example, included the terrorists who carried out the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, who were freed with the not-atypical connivance of the German government.
The problem of energy was no doubt more complicated, though America endured the same threat from OPEC without abandoning Israel. Our European allies, however, having refused even to allow America over-flight rights for the U.S. resupply of Israel during the 1973 war, would not follow our lead. Western Europe, especially France, already chafed at American leadership, and thus submitted to Arab pressures. This even entailed for a while a betrayal of some of their own European allies, such as Holland and Germany. Moreover, America’s closeness to Israel, a relationship not really consolidated until after the 1973 war and especially after the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty of 1979, meant that Europe’s resentment against America could be expressed easily and at low cost by hostility to Israel.
All these motives are understandable. But they are not respectable. It was thus too likely, if not inevitable, that Europeans and others would attempt to describe behavior that began with base motives as evidence of superior morality. This is the course they have followed. This too is an important part of Muravchik’s tale, especially as it entailed a process of inner corruption. One important political part of this story involves the rise of a “New Left” and a great transformation in the ideology of socialism from its earlier focus on class to that of race. Muravchik describes this political transformation extremely well, including its sordid association with anti-Semitism. Of particular importance was the malignant role of Bruno Kreisky, the Socialist Prime Minister of Austria. At a meeting of the Socialist International, the piteous appeals for support delivered by Golda Meir, the Labor Party Prime Minister of Israel and long an active participant in the International, were met with complete silence.
This political description is complemented by Muravchik’s powerful account of the way in which the new political trends came to be incorporated in academic and intellectual spheres and reinforced by them in a manner detrimental to Israel’s standing. At the core of his account is the role played by the exceptionally dishonest and evil genius of Edward Said. Muravchik’s chapter on Said has the great merit of drawing together the devastating criticism of Said’s work, including that by critics sympathetic to Said’s politics. As some of this examination has shown, Said presented a largely bogus account of his life. This underpinned an account of “Orientalist” Western scholarship designed to show that such scholarship was intrinsically and deliberately biased to demean non-Westerners and advance “colonialism.” The only remedy was to accept only “authentic” non-Western voices, their views, and their grievances. This account has also been shown to be demonstrably false and deliberately so. Alas, as Muravchik observes, despite the justice of that criticism Said’s “conquest of academia for Palestine” and “political correctness” generally endures.
As this mention of Said implies, there have been many American as well European hands that have set themselves to the labor of defaming and delegitimizing Israel. Indeed, as Muravchik recounts, there have been several American Jewish and even Israeli hands, through what he calls the rise of an Israeli adversary culture, busy at this work. All this has exacerbated Israel’s predicament.
Despite the force of these developments in American intellectual and academic spheres, at the political and social levels America and its policies largely resisted, albeit with some ups and downs, the trend of European antipathy over the last 45 years. This for Israel was a saving grace, but under the current President’s leadership this benefaction is now at risk of disintegrating.
Obviously this presents a danger to Israel, but as one sees from Muravchik’s book, it also presents a danger to the United States—a danger to its principles and therewith to its political, moral and intellectual health, a danger to which the European West has already succumbed.
What has saved America from this disease? As Muravchik observes, the United States held firm against the moral and political direction of Europe not primarily because of a “Jewish Lobby” or an “Evangelical Lobby,” though those were not unimportant. It held firm largely because most Americans recognized and respected what Israel truly is: a liberal democracy similar to their own and like all liberal democracies threatened by forces hostile to such regimes. They have continued to believe as George Meany, the head of the AFL-CIO, once said, that the failure to defend Israel would imperil “the security of our country, of the entire free world.”
That our material security would be at risk were Israel were to be destroyed is relatively clear. In the Middle East, America has no other liberal democratic ally, and Israel wields significant power. Yet even more harmful to our health would be the betrayal of our principles and its political and moral consequences. Joining the jackals, as Europe has now frequently done, may yield short-term gains. But as Muravchik ably shows, in the long term the U.S. bears the risk of actually becoming a jackal. This is a condition that has and will continue to corrode Europe whether or not Israel eventually succumbs to its enemies. Alas, over the course of the next few years, political and moral changes in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, which may now have been set in motion by the President, may oblige America to face a similar risk of inward corruption. Muravchik’s book is a deeply cautionary tale and should be read as a preparation for addressing that danger.