US President Joe Biden made a major foreign policy speech at the United Nations on Tuesday. He reiterated unequivocal US support for “an independent Jewish state”, but said a state for the Palestinians is a “long way” away. Why doesn’t the USA promote the liberal democratic ideals of tolerance, equality, democracy and human rights in Israel/Palestine as it claims to do elsewhere? Why does it reject this approach and insist on a separate Jewish State? Ottawa researcher and author Stephen Gowans thinks he knows why… Read more and see our interview…
“The United States dominates the Arab and Muslim worlds,” observes Ottawa author and researcher Stephen Gowans. “But the United States has always been one of the world’s top producers of oil and natural gas”, he argues. “The idea that the United States needs access to Arab oil to satisfy its own energy requirements is a myth.”
Gowan argues that the main interest of the USA in the Middle East and the reason it supports Israel unconditionally, is a geo-strategic one. “China, Germany, and Japan, the United States’ top economic competitors, depend on oil from the Arab and Muslim worlds. By controlling this region and the maritime shipping and pipeline routes through which the region’s oil travels to its markets in Europe and East Asia, Washington gains enormous leverage over its economic rivals.”
Gowans argues that the Jewish State of Israel, located in the middle of the mostly Muslim middle east, has been a key instrument of US policy in this regard since 1967. Israel is able to threaten any middle eastern country showing a desire to resist US control including Iran, Syria or Iraq.
But supporting a state which many qualify as “apartheid” comes at a reputational cost to the USA. Why couldn’t it support the idea of a liberal democratic state for both Jews and Arabs? The USA claims to support human rights and equality around the globe. Why not in Israel, too?
Why does it support a separate state based on race/ethnicity? If necessary, it could even offer to provide security for any Jews living in the area. Surely that is a simple enough task, and would be a lot less costly than supporting Israel’s huge military and endless wars.
The contrarian Gowans thinks that it serves the US interest that Israel be a small Jewish state, continually under threat. Not that it vanish, but that it be threatened.
It also very much serves the interests of Israel’s politicians who project this image of a threatened Israel onto their own citizens and US policymakers e.g. “The villa in the jungle” (Ehud Barak) or “We live in a tough neighbourhood” (Benjamin Netanyahu).
The Jewish population of Israel comprises only seven million people, and it is surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs (not just Palestinians) who disapprove of the existence of a racist Jewish settler state implanted on stolen Arab land.
Without outside protection, Israel would have a hard time resisting the combined pressures of internal Palestinian dissention, Arab and Muslim hostility and the opprobrium of the rest of the world including possible international boycott or other sanctions. As a result, argues Gowans, the USA and Israel have a symbiotic relationship: Israel depends on the USA for its diplomatic cover and military protection, and in return the US gets a very reliable strategic ally.
However, continues Gowan, if Israel were to give up the Zionist idea, and remake its constitution so that ALL its citizens were equal, this situation would be dramatically revised. A genuinely liberal democratic Israel, would no longer be threatened by Palestinians, nor would it face any special emnity from its Arab/Muslim neighbours or world criticism. By the same token, if Israel were no longer under threat, it would no longer need US support, and would be a less reliable US ally.
What about other factors – including the “lobby”?
Gowans’ analysis seems to downplay some other factors including the historic weight of the Holocaust on American public opinion, the importance of the Israel lobby in the USA, and for that matter the influence of the defense lobby which makes billions selling arms to almost every country in the region. But he provides an insight into geopolitical factors which cannot be overlooked.
Can Israel count on US support forever?
The world is changing. Several factors are operating both inside and outside the USA which might lead to a recalibration of the Israel/US relationship. After several disastrous interventions in the Middle East, the USA is retrenching, the better to confront a new rising power, China. Domestically, attitudes towards Israel are changing. Polling indicates that young American Jews have less attachment to Israel than their seniors.
Some US geostrategists feel that the cost of supporting Israel is increasing at the same time that its “value” to the US is declining. In an interview with Paul Jay of “The Analysis”, Lt. Colonel Larry Wilkerson former Chief of Staff to US Secretary of State General Colin Powell argues that American one-sided support for Israel is already becoming a strategic danger to U.S. interests. He even worries that intemperate Israeli actions might even drag the US into a war with Iran.
Wilkinson’s view is still a minority one in the USA but as the world turns the USA will continue to adjust its policies depending on its interests.
Israeli politicians have noticed this development. Mr. Netanyahu cultivated a network of ethno-nationalist world leaders who, far from condemning Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, treat it as admirable: Brazil, Hungary, India and others. In a recent article in the New York Times, Israeli political analyst Dahlia Sheindlein dubbed it the “other friends” policy. Whether those potential new “friends” of Israel would be able to offer the same diplomatic and military protection that the worlds leading superpower has been able to do, and for how long, is an open question.
An old British adage comes to mind: “Countries don’t have permanent friends, they have permanent interests”.
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Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about Canada’s response to the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.
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This seems to be a rather elaborate conspiracy theory rooted in the idea that the US is up to no good and Israel is the tool of its malevolent strategy. There are a number of arguments in this article that I find lack credibility.
First and foremost is the fact that it takes as fact that Israel is a racist state. The authour does not even address Israel’s raison d’etre and historical context which is that Israel is the reconstituted nation state of the Jewish people, a people who have returned to their traditional territory and reestablished sovereignty there after almost two thousand years in which they have been displaced by many different conquerors and the waves of settlers that flowed in in the wake of those conquerors. For eighteen centuries any Jews that did live in the land were subject to the edicts of the conquerors and did not have any right to govern themselves.
Here in Ottawa many people begin their meetings by noting that they take place on unceded Algonquin territory. Canadians who have been living in this area for ten generatons are called settlers if they are not descended from the aboriginal peoples.
The same situation exists in the land of Israel. The territory between the river and the sea is all unceded Jewish land. The Jews are now in control of that territory after a 1900 year hiatus, and if any of that territory is to be ceded to another nation, it is the Jews who must give it up.
I favour a two state solution and I believe that some of the traditional Jewish territory that has not been formally annexed to the State of Israel should be ceded to the Palestinian Arabs so that they too can have a sovereign state which expresses their national aspirations. In order for this to happen, the Palestinians must acknowledge that they are settlers on traditional Jewish land and accept that concessions by the Jews must be reciprocated by an end to the 100 year Arab campaign to once agains drive the Jews from their country.
Thanks for your answer. While we often disagree, I find your comments thoughtful. I would like to comment on 2 points.
1. I don’t think you need to see a conspiracy – just try to calibrate the interests of the different players. I am of the “realist politics” school. I think all countries try to follow their own interests. They never do things just for “moral reasons” although their own reputation can figure in the balance. (I think Canada is no different in this regard.) The USA has its interests and Israel has its interests. We can differ on what we think those interests are because sometimes its not clear as there are pluses and minuses. I do think it is in the US’ interest to keep Israel on a leash, giving it just enough protection (eg. through the so called “Qualitative Military Edge” to keep it within the US circle.
2. IMHO, the comparison between Israel and Canada is apt, but I believe you have it upside down. The territory between the river and the sea is unceded Palestinian territory, from which Palestinians have been largely expelled. Of course Jews have lived in the area for over 3000 years. And christians have lived there for 2000 years. (And Muslims for 1500 years). You can all all of them ‘indigenous”. But in the 20th century EUROPEAN jews colonised Palestine with the help of the British Army.
Israel’s history does not fit into the European colonial model. While Britain did formally endorse the return of the Jews to the land of Israel and the creation of a “Jewish National Home”, Jews have been returning to the land of Israel ever since they were expelled from their country. Palestinian Jews are recorded as fighting in medieval wars alongside the Muslims, from their homes in the North of the land of Israel.
In every generation Jews have returned to their homeland. Zionism put the idea into modern language and gave it a nineteenth century political framework, but the idea of Jewish return is as old as Jewish exile. In that sense, Zionism has existed for thousands of years and is the common ideology of the Jewish people, not just that of the Europeans. My father-in-law was from Morocco and played a role in helping the Moroccan Jews to escape to Israel. There was nothing European about him, but he was a staunch Zionist.
The Jewish majority in Jerusalem by 1850 was a result of an influx of Jews from Yemen in the first half of the 19th century. Zionism as a political ideology was devised in Europe and envisioned the building of a modern state in the land of Israel. It was a response to violence against Jews in Russia and rising political antisemitism in Western Europe at the end of the 19th century. These events led the originators of Zionism to correctly foresee that all of the Jews of Europe were in mortal danger. The Jews who came in large numbers from Europe during the period of the British mandate came as a result of persecution under antisemitic regimes in Europe, just as the Yemenis did in the century before, and just as the Jews came from Iraq, in the 1940’s and from Morocco in the 1960’s.
Jews came to Palestine, not to displace the existing population, but to escape persecution themselves. They came from Asia, Africa even more than from Europe (where, tragically, the great mass of Jews did not escape in time).
The conflict with the Palestinian Arabs was not a colonial imposition on the part of the Jews, but an anti-immigration movement on the part of the existing Palestinian Arab population, which prevented the rescue of the bulk of European Jewry.
Hey David, thanks again.
I agree with some of what you say, but not all. Probably not even most. But instead of responding myself, I will wait for a couple of days to see if others would like to take up the discussion. After that, i will chime in with a few observations of my own.
Hey David, Thanks for pursuing the discussion.
As usual, you pack a lot into your comment. I will limit myself to referring to only one point – whether “colonisation” is an appropriate term to describe the creation of the State of Israel.
I think the Jews of Palestine/Israel” can be divided into 3 groups depending on how and when they came.
There is a big difference between “natives”, “immigrants” and “settlers”.
Some Jews are “native” to Palestine. Until the movement to create a Jewish homeland, their language was arabic. Hebrew was used for liturgical purposes. These are the descendents of Jews who have lived in the area for thousands of years.
Some Jews were “immigrants” to the area. Some came as early as 1500 from Spain and Portugal. Others came from Yemen and other countries as you mentioned. Their reasons varied, but they came as “immigrants’ to Palestine which was at that time a province under the Ottomans. They wanted freedom from persecution and wanted religious freedom. But they came to make a new life in an existing country.
Over the 400 years (+/-) of the Ottoman Empire, any Jewish citizen of the empire – from Yemen to Morocco, who wanted to immigrate to Palesltine, and had the means and the motivation, could do so. The Ottomans tried to keep out religious groups from the West – including Christians missionaries and Jews. But a few were able to do so in the late 1800’s as the Empire started to crumble.
Finally, there were the waves of European Jewish “settlers” who came under the British Mandate after 1921. They didn’t speak Arabic (most spoke Yiddish). Their express AND PUBLIC intention was to COLONISE Palestine – to create a new society by overriding the previous one. They were mostly Ashkenazi Jews and they wanted to colonize Palestine – to create a European-type society, displacing and expelling the existing Palestinian/Arab society, mostly Muslim. (A process very similar to what European colonists did here in Canada. In those early years, the “colonising” of Palestine was a publicly stated objective, although today Israel’s defenders try to hide it.)
Your relatives in Morocco most likely came well after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The European Ashkenazi Jews needed to recruit as many Jews to come to Israel as they could to outnumber the Palestinians. Jewish Agency personnel went to Morocco (and elsewhere) in the ’60’s to recruit poor Misrahi Jews with images of Jerusalem. They were also told that on independence from France, Morocco’s Jews would be slaughtered. It didn’t happen. But many were frightened, tens of thousands came. Most of them were very badly treated on arrival in Israel, as I am sure you know. There have been many articles in Ha’aretz recently about this.
Happy to continue the discussion on this. Best.
Apparently you believe in ethnic cleansing and believe that that is not racist. Amazing!
Briefly: Whatever one believes about the geopolitical interests the U.S. has in supporting Israel in its current form (and the role of oil in this), clearly Biden strongly believes the U.S. has such interests:
“Were there not an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region.”
The history cited above is interesting and broadens my understanding of the centuries of migration and movement among peoples in the region, including Jews from many places.
The last paragraph, however, concludes that it was the Palestinian Arabs that were mainly responsible for preventing Jews from escaping Europe. I find that extremely simplistic, and let’s the west (including Canada and the US), for example, off the hook – these countries refused to accept boatloads of European Jews and sent them back to their deaths in Germany (and Poland, etc.). There were, and still are, many factors that impact on Israel then and now. To single out Palestinians, to me, is just one more attempt to blame them for the mess.
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