“No Aid to Israel?” wonders a recent Facebook ad sponsored by US President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. “Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich say they would start foreign aid to Israel at zero. Reject their extreme plan now!” the ad implores, directing people to sign a petition to that effect on my.barackobama.com (“Stand against “zeroing out aid to Israel””).
After signing the petition, the caption underneath a beaming photo of the president declares that “Any plan to cut foreign aid to zero across the board is dangerous and ignorant. It’s up to us to get the word out about it. Donate now to help us spread the facts about the Romney-Perry-Gingrich plan to wipe out foreign aid to allies like Israel.”
As Salon writer Justin Elliott correctly notes, “the Obama ads are incredibly dishonest. First of all, the Republican candidates were talking about setting foreign aid at zero each year as a starting point in discussions about how much to give, not setting it at zero as a matter of policy” (“Obama’s dishonest Israel ads, Salon, 12 December 2011).
However, the Obama campaign is far from unique in employing a breathtakingly simplistic strategy of artifice and vituperation (both against opposing candidates and against Palestinians) to bolster their pro-Israel street cred in a transparent ploy to attract campaign donations and votes. US support for Israel, once a carefully nurtured bipartisan consensus, is fast degenerating in the context of the 2012 presidential election into a mud-slinging partisan contest as to which party, in the words of Mitt Romney, who leveled the accusation against Obama, is more guilty of having “thrown Israel under the bus” (“Mitt Romney accuses Obama of “throwing Israel under the bus”,” CBS News, 19 May 2011).
Last month’s presidential forum organized by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) managed to ratchet up the rhetoric another notch. Invoking the ghost of Neville Chamberlain, Michele Bachmann accused Obama of having “confused engagement with appeasement.” Romney blamed Obama for “immeasurably set[ting] back the prospect of peace in the Middle East.” Rick Perry asserted the administration has unleashed a “torrent of hostility towards Israel.”
Not to be outdone, Newt Gingrich took to the airwaves the next day to dub Palestinians an “invented people.” Unnoticed until recently, Rick Santorum topped all other comers when he stated in November that “all the people who live in the West Bank are Israelis, they’re not Palestinians” (“Pro-settler Santorum claims Mexico and the West Bank,” Salon, 6 January 2012).
This rhetoric occasioned Arab American Institute founder James Zogby to lament that “all of this goes beyond the normal platitudes offered up in an election year. It was dangerous, shameful and crass pandering, making it clear how far today’s GOP has moved from the reality-based foreign policy of the Bush-Baker era” (“GOP candidates discuss Israel-Palestine,” 12 December 2011).
Obama’s clear legacy of support for Israeli policy
Notwithstanding this political hot air, no political elite, whether in the Democratic or Republican Party, can legitimately be accused of “throwing Israel under the bus,” least of all Obama. On behalf of protecting Israeli occupation and apartheid, the president has employed the only US veto at the UN during his term to derail a mild condemnation of Israel’s illegal settlements and backtracked on his hope to see Palestine admitted as a member of the UN this year, while deploying the full arsenal of US diplomacy to block the initiative behind the scenes.
Also lost in the heat of this faux electoral debate is the fact that the Bush and Obama administrations, with a bipartisan rubber stamp in Congress, have tag-teamed to ramp up to unprecedented levels both military aid to Israel and the joint research, development and field testing of anti-missile projects financed separately by the Pentagon. According to the terms of a memorandum of understanding signed by the two countries in 2007, the US is scheduled to provide Israel with $30 billion in tax-payer funded weapons between 2009 and 2018, a 25 percent average annual increase over previous levels (Memorandum of understanding, 2007 [PDF]).
While presidential candidates make risible claims that the other party is abandoning support for Israel, this increasing partisan sniping is no laughing matter to those advocating for a strong US-Israel relationship. In September, the Center for Strategic and International Studies released a policy paper by Haim Malka, deputy director of its Middle East Program, warning that this “partisan wedge is likely to deepen, posing considerable challenges to Israel and the US-Israeli partnership.”
This burgeoning fear led two stalwarts of the Israel lobby — the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee — to issue a National Pledge for Unity on Israel, which beseeches “national organizations, elected officials, religious leaders, community groups and individuals to rally around bipartisan support for Israel while preventing the Jewish State from becoming a wedge issue in the upcoming campaign season” (“National pledge for unity on Israel”).
However, instead of calming the waters, the pledge initiative served only to roil them more. The ultra-alarmist Emergency Committee for Israel’s Bill Kristol responded in Washington Jewish Week with a dismissive “You must be kidding” statement, accusing the organizations of needing “a refresher course on the virtues of free speech and robust debate in a democracy” (“Should Israel be a partisan issue in American politics?,” 2 November 2011).
Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, declared that “This effort to stifle debate on US policy toward Israel runs counter to this American tradition.”
Far from rethinking US policy on Israel
Yet Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of “liberal” Israel lobby group J Street, lamented in The Washington Post that this debate is redefining what it means to be “pro-Israel” and rendering it the “exclusive property of the political right. In doing so, they are breaking new ground. Their agenda is not to ensure bipartisan support for aid to Israel or nurturing US-Israeli ties based on shared interests and values” (“What pro-Israel should mean,” 16 December 2011).
Instead, he rather naively accused the candidates of “seek[ing] political advantage,” as if everything that politicians do were not based on their political calculus of what is expedient to them.
While fretting about Israel as an electoral issue has been confined largely so far to the self-described “pro-Israel” crowd, an open and honest debate about US policy toward Israel and the Palestinians desperately needs to take place in the broader body politic as well.
However, this debate must be one which is more substantive and critical than the cotton candy served up in this electoral circus. For far too long, the US political system has treated Israel as a sacred cow, leading to unconditional military and diplomatic support for its illegal 44-year military occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and its human rights abuses of Palestinians.
Now that Israel is becoming just another issue over which the parties squabble, even if it is to trip over each other in a modern day redux of “who lost China?” (a debate over communism that raged for much of the twentieth century), US support for Israel is becoming in the process normalized as a political issue.
Proof of this normalization occurred after the bipartisan failure of the super-committee to produce a deficit reduction plan, triggering across-the-board budget cuts in 2013. Because of this deadlock, regular appropriations of US military aid to Israel are set to substantially decrease for the first time since President Gerald Ford’s 1975 “reassessment” of US policy toward Israel.
Obama was to have requested a record-breaking $3.1 billion in military aid to Israel in his Fiscal Year 2013 budget, the level at which weapons to Israel was expected to plateau until 2018.
However, according to Nathan Guttman, writing in the Jewish Daily Forward, Israel will lose an estimated $250 million yearly from its military aid package when across-the-board budget cuts take effect. Surprisingly, Guttman notes, AIPAC, the largest pro-Israel lobby in the US, has yet to publicly protest the upcoming cuts in military aid to Israel, because it “may fear a backlash if Israel is singled out for special treatment in the face of broad cuts favored by both Democrats and Republicans” (“Israel faces $250 million slash in aid,” 2 December 2011).
Even as these tangible cuts to military aid to Israel are in the offing, AIPAC and the rest of the Israel lobby also may have noted to its chagrin that inane electoral posturing over Israel has also seeped into the hallowed halls of Congress itself, thereby undermining the bipartisan consensus on Israel it has so laboriously constructed over the years.
According to the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation’s 112th Congressional Report Card, 35 of the 37 Members of Congress rating -5 or worse are Republicans — the only Democrats deserving of the dubious distinction are Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (New York) and Representative Steve Rothman (New Jersey’s ninth Congressional district). This demonstrates that the most significant Congressional initiatives on Israel and the Palestinians last year were largely partisan affairs designed to undermine, constrain and humiliate any White House attempts to pressure Israel, even if only in the slight, ineffectual way that Obama did during the early days of his term (“Report card for the 112th congress (2011-2012)”).
Although the elites of the Democratic and Republican parties are far from rethinking US policy toward Israel, much less even considering abandoning it, the normalization of Israel as a political issue is already commonplace at civil society levels and in political discourse. Exasperated by political leaders seemingly incapable of policy change, dozens of university campuses and community organizations are deriving lessons learned from the global South African anti-apartheid movement to organize boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against Israel and companies that profit from its human rights abuses of Palestinians. And even in the rarefied pages of The Washington Post, columnist Walter Pincus suggested in October that it is “time to examine the funding the United States provides to Israel” (“Unites States needs to reevaluate its assistance to Israel”).
By continuing to level sophomoric accusations against each other’s mythical abandonment of Israel, the presidential candidates are inadvertently and perhaps counter-intuitively helping to normalize the question of US support for Israel and providing fodder to the strengthening currents in civil society truly questioning failed US policy toward Israel and the Palestinians.
As is the case in all processes of social and political change, this grassroots ferment is a necessary prerequisite for a broad-scale policy change at the political level. Such a policy review, although a long ways off as demonstrated by the 2012 election cycle, is nevertheless essential if the US hopes to broker a just and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of human rights, international law and UN resolutions, rather than continuing to obstruct its attainment.
Josh Ruebner is the National Advocacy Director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and a former analyst of Middle East Affairs at Congressional Research Service.