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Israel's false friends

U.S. presidential candidates aren't doing the Jewish state any favors by offering unconditional support.

January 06, 2008|John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt | John J. Mearsheimer is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. Stephen M. Walt is a professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. They are the authors of "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," published last year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Once again, as the presidential campaign season gets underway, the leading candidates are going to enormous lengths to demonstrate their devotion to the state of Israel and their steadfast commitment to its "special relationship" with the United States.

Each of the main contenders emphatically favors giving Israel extraordinary material and diplomatic support -- continuing the more than $3 billion in foreign aid each year to a country whose per capita income is now 29th in the world. They also believe that this aid should be given unconditionally. None of them criticizes Israel's conduct, even when its actions threaten U.S. interests, are at odds with American values or even when they are harmful to Israel itself. In short, the candidates believe that the U.S. should support Israel no matter what it does.

Such pandering is hardly surprising, because contenders for high office routinely court special interest groups, and Israel's staunchest supporters -- the Israel lobby, as we have termed it -- expect it. Politicians do not want to offend Jewish Americans or "Christian Zionists," two groups that are deeply engaged in the political process. Candidates fear, with some justification, that even well-intentioned criticism of Israel's policies may lead these groups to turn against them and back their opponents instead.

If this happened, trouble would arise on many fronts. Israel's friends in the media would take aim at the candidate, and campaign contributions from pro-Israel individuals and political action committees would go elsewhere. Moreover, most Jewish voters live in states with many electoral votes, which increases their weight in close elections (remember Florida in 2000?), and a candidate seen as insufficiently committed to Israel would lose some of their support. And no Republican would want to alienate the pro-Israel subset of the Christian evangelical movement, which is a significant part of the GOP base.

Indeed, even suggesting that the U.S. adopt a more impartial stance toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can get a candidate into serious trouble. When Howard Dean proposed during the 2004 campaign that the United States take a more "evenhanded" role in the peace process, he was severely criticized by prominent Democrats, and a rival for the nomination, Sen. Joe Lieberman, accused him of "selling Israel down the river" and said Dean's comments were "irresponsible."

Word quickly spread in the American Jewish community that Dean was hostile to Israel, even though his campaign co-chair was a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Dean had been strongly pro-Israel throughout his career. The candidates in the 2008 election surely want to avoid Dean's fate, so they are all trying to prove that they are Israel's best friend.

These candidates, however, are no friends of Israel. They are facilitating its pursuit of self-destructive policies that no true friend would favor.

The key issue here is the future of Gaza and the West Bank, which Israel conquered in 1967 and still controls. Israel faces a stark choice regarding these territories, which are home to roughly 3.8 million Palestinians. It can opt for a two-state solution, turning over almost all of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians and allowing them to create a viable state on those lands in return for a comprehensive peace agreement designed to allow Israel to live securely within its pre-1967 borders (with some minor modifications). Or it can retain control of the territories it occupies or surrounds, building more settlements and bypass roads and confining the Palestinians to a handful of impoverished enclaves in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel would control the borders around those enclaves and the air above them, thus severely restricting the Palestinians' freedom of movement.

But if Israel chooses this second option, it will lead to an apartheid state. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said as much when he recently proclaimed that if "the two-state solution collapses," Israel will "face a South African-style struggle." He went so far as to argue that "as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished." Similarly, Israel's deputy prime minister, Haim Ramon, said earlier this month that "the occupation is a threat to the existence of the state of Israel." Other Israelis, as well as Jimmy Carter and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have warned that continuing the occupation will turn Israel into an apartheid state. Nevertheless, Israel continues to expand its settlements on the West Bank while the plight of the Palestinians worsens.

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