Barack Obama’s trip to the Middle East is being met with rave reviews from liberals and from disdain by conservatives. Liberals praise him for moving beyond the alleged arrogance of the Bush Administration. This is a common theme the American Left hits and they apparently believe it so much, that they spill it out even when there’s no cause. In Foreign Policy In Focus, University of Maryland scholar Adil Shamoo noted with pleasure that Barack didn't blame the entire Islamic world for actions of a small minority of "violent extremists.” Shamoo goes on to write that Osama found a middle ground between warring extremists—apparently placing George W. Bush on the same plane as al-Qaeda and other terrorists. To his credit, the new president has not engaged in such hyperbole against his predecessor, even if he has been harshly critical (as one would logically expect out of men from opposing parties).
One has to ask—when did former President Bush ever pin the events of 9/11 on the entire Islamic world? Bush bent over backward calling Islam a “religion of peace”, almost to the point of sounding foolish, as he passed himself off as an expert on the Koran. Is left-wing hatred of Bush so blinding that they can’t see when he’s saying exactly the same thing as Osama? It’s akin to the reaction many on the right are having to the nomination of Sonja Sotomayer to the Supreme Court. Had John McCain picked someone who had ruled in favor of pro-life groups in her only two chances to do so, while compiling a more liberal record elsewhere, the Right might have been mildly disappointed, but they wouldn’t be gearing up an attack machine. Both situations are examples of blind partisanship run amok.
But I digress. Let’s return to the Middle East. Osama took a substantial political risk in criticizing Israel for building settlements on the West Bank, but it was a risk he was correct to take. I understand Israel’s position. They are completely surrounded by hostile countries who want them wiped off the map. Naturally, they are going to go all-out to secure as much territory as possible. But in taking away the West Bank, it’s denying the Palestinian people their one chance for a homeland and creating the fertile ground that terrorist organizations such as the PLO have used to build up their support. Israel has suffered greatly, but it does not therefore follow that Palestinians, who have been mostly abandoned by the West, should suffer too.
Criticizing Israel involves substantial risk because of the political clout of AIPAC, the American-Israeli Political Action Committee. AIPAC has been ruthless in dealing with anyone who even mildly critiques Israel. Suggest that giving 20 percent of our foreign aid budget to a country with an already-developed economy is excessive? Expect yourself to be tarred as an anti-Semite. Suggest that making Israel the complete centerpiece of our Middle East policy is unwise? Why, you’re one small step from Adolph Hitler. No president has ever gotten Israel to do something it doesn’t want to do and the political and media power of AIPAC is the reason why.
It’s long past time to ask—is our Middle East policy designed to serve Israel’s best interest, or the United States’ best interest? If it’s the former, then there’s no reason to change. But if it’s the latter, then we need to ask ourselves serious long-term questions. Does a relatively small nation, completely surrounded by enemies, and in existence only since 1948, really have a serious future? Exactly how long can Israel hold back the tide, even if we continue to use our considerable influence exclusively on their behalf? Nations that prosper over time are in unique circumstances that allow it do so. The United States, protected by both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from the world powers at the time of its infancy is a prime example. Israel is not in this situation.
Furthermore, there is no more reason for the Jewish people to have a nation of their own than there is for the Catholic people to have their own country. Both have suffered over the years—while Jews were being destroyed by Hitler, Catholics were being destroyed by Stalin. Now, on the Protestant Right, some people have theological reasons for tying the return of the Jews to their homeland to the Second Coming and therefore see Israel’s existence is tied in with the end times. But I see the return to the homeland as being something more spiritual and involving the return of the people of Abraham to the Catholic Church (I think I’m understanding Catholic doctrine on this point accurately, but would strongly insist that no one take my word for it without consulting more learned people). But now I’m really digressing. Suffice it to say, I have no problem with a Jewish state, but nor do I see a reason to make our foreign policy prostrate in the cause of one.
It boils down to this—there is no reason to make Israel the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy. The only argument that exists for our undying support of the Israeli government regardless of what it does, is that we have a moral obligation to do so, rooted in our long protection of Israel and cognizant of how vulnerable they would be if we stepped away. This is a good argument and one which does have to be addressed as part of any responsible and ethical shift in U.S. policy.
The United State should announce a date certain and soon—say, five years, at which point our preferential treatment of Israel in Middle East diplomacy will end, along with our foreign aid. In conjunction with that, we should announce a completely open immigration policy in which any Israeli citizen who wants to come to the United States, can do so, and we should strongly push the European Community to do the same. It’s well past time Europe started doing something to rectify its history of anti-Semitism, which is the principal non-theological reason many had for believing a Jewish state was a practical necessity.
We should then move to a policy of neutrality. Our interests in the Middle East involve the free flow of oil and the containment of nuclear weapons, and the loosening up of the Arab world. Related to that, our moral interests involve the human rights violations committed against women and Christians in these communities. And our most important strategic interest is to not get involved in other people’s quarrels if we don’t have to. Going neutral is the only way to ensure that.
President Obama’s gentle critique of Israel’s settlement tactics are mild, but they are a start. The question now is whether it will be followed up with constructive action. Past Administrations have not been able to get beyond words, be it deliberately or because of political fear. The Arab world is watching to see if this time around will be more of the same, or if it's change that can be believed in.