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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