I was deeply disturbed last week when US Secretary of State John Kerry, in response to criticism from former Senate colleagues, felt compelled to walk back his warning that Israel risked becoming an “apartheid state” if it failed to make peace with the Palestinians. What troubled me most was that Kerry, after acknowledging that many Israelis have offered the same warning, apologized for using the word “apartheid” saying that “it is a word best left out of the debate here at home.” In other words, Israelis can have this debate, but we can’t.
This affair brought to mind a comment I heard from former Senator Joseph Lieberman back in 2000 in which he acknowledged that it was easier to debate issues like settlements and Jerusalem in the Israeli Knesset than to have the same debates in the US Senate. The question is, how can the US lead Israeli-Palestinian peace-making when we can’t criticize Israel or have an honest debate about their policies?
For more than two decades now America has assumed for itself a unilateral role in Israeli-Palestinian peace-making. During all that time our leadership has repeatedly been tested. And all too often, we have come up short. Our inability to pursue peace, independent of domestic political considerations, has had dramatic consequences. Not only have we failed to help resolve the conflict, we have also contributed to a deterioration in the political environment in both Israeli and Palestinian societies and to harming the image of our country in much of the world. Even when presidents have tried to make a difference, as many have, going back to President Ford, they have been slapped down by a Congress more focused on short term political expediency than protecting the long-term interests of the United States. In the process they have repeatedly compromised our nation’s stated commitment to universal human rights and democracy.
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In the eyes of much of the world, we have become like the crowd in Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. We see only what we want to see, and deny what we find uncomfortable to acknowledge. For decades, we turned a blind eye to the daily realities confronting Palestinians living under a brutal and humiliating occupation. Even when we did acknowledge these abuses of human rights, we failed to demonstrate the resolve needed to challenge Israeli behavior.
It is not merely a problem of our weakness and inability to publicly criticize Israel. It is as if we cannot bring ourselves to see Palestinians as full and equal human beings and to stand up and defend them when their rights are so flagrantly violated. We decry settlements when they are announced, then call them “realities” when they are built. In other conflicts around the world: we defend innocent civilians who are victimized by collective punishment; we defend those who are imprisoned without charge or expelled from their homes without any due process; we decry “ethnic cleansing” and other violations of international human rights law; and we maintain that it is the right of refugees to return to their homes and to reclaim lost property. But we do not accept the same rights for Palestinians. We have put Israel above the law, an exception to the rules; and we have acted as if Palestinians have no rights at all. Nations who aren’t furious with our double-standard toward Israel just dismiss our policies with a rueful “well that’s the way the US is.”
The result of this gross imbalance in our approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is everywhere in evidence. Both societies have become driven by pathologies that we have either enabled or encouraged by our policies. Israelis behave like spoiled children, while Palestinians behave like abused children.
Listening to the debate inside Israel is as instructive as it is depressing. To be sure, there are Israelis who continue to champion human rights for Palestinians, but they do not have the upper hand. Within the ruling government coalition, the dominant trend is to reject any recognition of Palestinian rights and any acceptance of even the most minimal withdrawal from the occupied territories. Not unlike spoiled children, they have internalized the fact that there are no sanctions for bad behavior. Congress will always have their back, giving them what they want.
Meanwhile, Palestinians have internalized the idea that nothing they ever do will be good enough to earn the support of the United States. For them, there is no reward for good behavior. Since Congress will never have their back, moderate Palestinian leader feel exposed and vulnerable, while hard-liners are emboldened to act out their anger and frustration, oftentimes in outrageous and deplorable ways.
US military leaders, from Generals Schwartzkopf and Zinni to Patreaus, not caught up in the mind-numbing game of our politics have been warning us for decades that our failure to press for a just peace continues to cause grave damage to our standing and our ability to work with Arab allies to protect our interests.
With the “peace process” at an impasse, America has a choice to make. Instead merely of pushing for an extension of open-ended negotiations, it is time to decide whether we can muster the resolve to put our foot down and speak the truth to Israelis about their behavior and its consequences. Congress may scream and political operatives may squirm, but if we are serious about peace then we must show the way with decisive leadership.
Coddling the Israeli right, only emboldens them – they know how to take advantage of an opening and play for time. Firm pressure from America, will empower progressive Israelis who understand the deep hole being dug by their irredentist leaders. They should be supported in their efforts to make change. A firm challenge from America will help spur needed debate and change in Israel.
A decisive stand by America will also empower progressive Palestinians who are, at this point, under siege from Israel, on the one side, and Palestinian extremists and cynics, on the other. Moderates have little to show for their efforts and desperately need support. With America showing seriousness and resolve, we will strengthen the hand of Palestinians who have chosen the path of peace, non-violent resistance, and negotiations.
Will all this come to pass? While I’m not counting on it, I know that without such leadership, we will surely fail. If we cannot muster up the strength to challenge Israel and play a constructive role in peace-making, then we ought to get out of the way and let the Palestinians take their case to the International Criminal Court and let the world community decide how to resolve this conflict that has lasted too long and taken too many Israeli and Palestinian lives.