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What Drives US Foreign Policy Towards Israel?

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Andrew Levine says that Cold War strategic thinking about the Middle East is no longer relevant.

Andrew Levine says that Cold War strategic thinking about the Middle East is no longer relevant.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

We’re continuing our discussion about U.S. foreign policy with Andrew Levine, who now joins us in the studio. Andrew is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, and also the author of many books, including Political Keywords. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a research professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park. He regularly writes for CounterPunch and other places.

Thanks for joining us.


JAY: And I should say, regularly you’ll find his writing on The Real News as well.

So let’s talk about Obama and his policy in Palestine and Israel. I have just never understood why he started this big peace initiative and sent Kerry there and all of this. And we were doing interviews on The Real News, and I was asking all our experts, why are they doing this? And nobody could give a good answer, ’cause it seemed so clear it was going to end up nowhere. It was clear Netanyahu, the last thing they want is any kind of real resolution, a peace resolution that gives any sense of dignity or justice to the Palestinians. Why go there?

LEVINE: Well, you could ask the same question: why, when Obama came to office, did he send George Mitchell as an envoy to the area to try to make peace? If he understands anything, which he probably does, he has to realize that the only way that the status quo or some reasonable improvement over the status quo will come to pass is if the United States forces Israel to accede to it.

JAY: Yeah, everyone knows that. So he has to know that.

LEVINE: And he resolutely refuses to do that.

JAY: So why send Kerry and make all this big initiative that’s sure to fail?

LEVINE: Well, it buys time for—I think the Israelis like it because peace negotiations, or the appearance of peace negotiations, give them time to create further facts on the ground and to further weaken—.

JAY: Meaning more settlement.

LEVINE: Yeah, and to further weaken the Palestinian leadership or to make it seem less like there actually is a, quote, partner for peace, as the saying goes. And for well-meaning people it looks like, when there are negotiations, that the administration is doing something constructive, and if it fails, it fails, they can always say, because this is a, you know, age-old struggle that can never be resolved or that—some nonsense like that. But it’s a kind of nonsense that’s widely believed. And so it doesn’t hurt him. It doesn’t hurt them to fail.

I think a bigger question is why he puts up with the humiliation.

JAY: Well, that was part of my question. Like, why do you something you know that’s going to make you look bad in the end?

LEVINE: Netanyahu, even before any Republican, was the first to recognize that Obama had feet of clay. There was always the possibility that there would be some—that a changed administration would amount to some change of policy, and there was reason to think that Obama had enough understanding and sympathy with the Palestinian situation that he would actually change things. But Netanyahu proved that right away, that he wouldn’t, that he didn’t dare, even to the point of, very early on, humiliating Joe Biden, who—when he visited Israel, announcing that there would be yet more settlements, in his presence. Now, Biden is as abject and servile a defender of Israel as the Democratic Party can muster, and yet even there Netanyahu figures—correctly so far, it’s turned out—that he can get away with anything.

JAY: But when he can walk into Congress and get a standing—what was it?—27 standing ovations from every member—.

LEVINE: Right. He owns Congress. Now, my view is that all it would take would be for someone in the position to be heard to actually declare that the emperor has no clothes. But we’re not going to get that.

JAY: We got a little whiff of it—and correct me if I’m wrong. I don’t know if it was Petraeus or one of the other military leaders. When there was a lot of rhetoric coming from Israel about attacking Iran, one of the military leaders said, well, it’s easy for Israel to want to spend American lives in a war. And I thought there was a tremendous recoil. Israel realized—and I think Netanyahu realized he’d crossed a line there, that it wouldn’t take much actually to turn American public opinion against Israel.

LEVINE: But—it wouldn’t, but it would take some American political leader to not be cowed.

JAY: And they’re cowed to a large extent ’cause there’s just so much money at stake, right? The Jewish vote is not some monolithic, I don’t think. It’s more where the money is.

LEVINE: No, not at all. But there are these—there is this—.

JAY: Sheldon Adelsons and so on.

LEVINE: Yeah, there’s this geriatric sector of—

JAY: Billionaires.

LEVINE: —extremely virulent Zionists who will see to it that anyone who shows any sign of not holding the line will have opposition in primaries or in some way or other that it will cost them. And there are enough cases—not very many, but there are enough historical examples of this that most people just don’t—I think even if they know better, they just don’t feel that there’s a percentage in taking it on.

JAY: Which—again I go back to my first question. There’s a certain naivete or something, unless it’s just a standard piece of U.S. foreign policy that you always have to have negotiations go on. It plays its role of distracting everybody and it’s kind of never-endom. But it’s just part of the policy, and you get into office and they tell you, okay, now you start this set of negotiations.

LEVINE: Yeah, but historically—.

JAY: And it all becomes preparation for another attack on Gaza.

LEVINE: Historically that wasn’t true. It took a lot of struggle for the United States to enter into negotiations with the Vietnamese, and they were able to stall them, too, well. But negotiations now used to be a slogan of the antiwar movement.

JAY: No, I’m talking particularly about Israel-Palestine, that one of your standard pillars of American policy is always look like you’re trying to get a resolution.

LEVINE: Yeah, you have to look like you’re trying to—the situation is so plainly detrimental to American interests, although it’s not widely acknowledged that it is, that the idea is out there that an effort has to be made, or at least there has to be the appearance of making an effort. But it’s an easy thing. If they really wanted there to be peace, an enduring peace in Israel and Palestine, they have to just withdraw support from Israel and not make it the case that Israel has carte blanche to do whatever it wants.

JAY: Now, why do you say it’s not in American interest? Because that’s obviously a big debate within the American imperialist foreign policy sector. There’s a section that says it’s not in American interest, but there’s certainly a section that thinks to have essentially—some people have called it, like, an aircraft carrier, I mean, essentially like an enormous American base, that, if needed, there’s a tremendous military force there to assert joint interests.

LEVINE: I think that this was an extremely plausible position when the Cold War was—the original Cold War was still on and when the perceived threat to American interests came from secular nationalist movements in the Arab world and throughout the Middle East. And it was particularly also true at the time when there were other pillars of American imperial interests in the region that were outside the Arab world. Turkey was the main example, but Iran was as well, until the late ’70s, until the Iranian Revolution. And that has all—that situation no longer exists.

Now the main problem, as we were discussing before, comes from Islamist groups. It’s not—Israel is not helpful in combating Islamist groups, especially when, partly thanks to Israeli machinations, Hamas, an Islamist group, is a major force, probably will become the major force within the Palestinian national community, at least for the short run. And so it’s like a continual, continuous irritation that brings no good with it. If there were even the perception that the United States was doing something to diminish the level of injustice that Palestinians suffer, if, for instance, they would stop, but seriously stop, not just verbally talk about, but seriously stop settlements and put pressure for retracting the settlements to the extent that they could, I think it would have enormous consequences in the region.

JAY: Sure. Is there not also something a little deeper in why you have such almost unanimous support for Israel, especially recently, over Gaza in Congress? I mean, the attacks are brutal. They were all over the television and newspapers. In this case, in fact, I was actually a little surprised how often The New York Times had as a big front-page photograph some destruction that had taken place in Gaza without always a counterbalancing photo about some rocket that kind of may have missed something in Israel. I don’t want to unpack what that’s about, but what I’m getting at is even someone like Elizabeth Warren, for example, or some of the people in the Black Congressional Caucus, you know, who normally take, you know, for Congress, progressive positions to some extent on certain things, were militantly supporting Israel and these brutal attacks on Gaza. And is it not deeper than just there’s some money out there to be had in campaigning? ‘Cause not even all these candidates get that kind of money. Is there also not something that there is this deep thing in the Republican Party, but in some ways even more in the Democratic Party, that this is an outpost of Western civilization and it’s surrounded by, you know, crazy Islamists who don’t understand our democracy and our democratic traditions, you know, from Kennedy, and they include Truman and this and that? Like, there’s this vision of the world that Israel is this beacon or outpost of our rationality, and we have to defend it. It’s not just about money.

LEVINE: Yeah, well, it’s—I mean, we are—the United States is, Canada is, Australia and New Zealand are, they’re basically settler states. And Israel is a settler state. The others had the good fortune, I suppose, to come along at a time when you could get away with that, and also when you could effectively decimate the native populations, not necessarily militarily, although that helped, but also just with disease.

JAY: And do it quite openly, unapologetically.

LEVINE: Right. So perhaps there’s some feeling of affinity with another society that does that. But I don’t know that it’s an issue so much about—well, Islamophobia has become central to our political discourse only since 9/11. I think that it probably existed under the surface before that, but it wasn’t stirred up. Even right after 9/11, there were certain things that Bush wouldn’t say, for instance, and that he cautioned other people to say. But now it’s come to full fruition.

JAY: And it’s very good for Israel that Hamas came more and more to the fore. And you know there’s a lot of people—or evidence, even, that Israel and Mossad was in on starting Hamas to try to counter the PA and Fatah and—.

LEVINE: Yeah, because, quite properly, at the time, the threat to the existing order was seen to come from secular nationalist movements.

JAY: Yeah, Yasser Arafat.


JAY: And the more the opposition’s Islamicized, the more you can use Islamophobia to defend Israel.

LEVINE: Well, you can use it to gain support for Israel. But it’s a dangerous mix, because if you have a secular political opposition, interests matter and you can actually arrive at a compromise. But if religion takes hold, interests fade in importance before passions that are irrational.

JAY: Well, this is the whole story of U.S. foreign policy. This is Carter and Brzezinski getting the jihadists against the Russians, and the jihadists take over and interest doesn’t play the same role, the Taliban and on and on until we get the Islamic State. I mean, that’s exactly what you’re saying.

LEVINE: Right. The West has been doing this at least since the Carter years.

JAY: But [crosstalk] all begins is because the West, particularly the United States, thinks they know how to work with these forces.

LEVINE: Yeah, and they don’t. They definitely don’t. Brzezinski seems to still think it was a good idea.

JAY: Oh, I interviewed Brzezinski a couple of years ago, and he still brags about it.


JAY: He says if giving rise to al-Qaeda and the Taliban was the price one had to pay to bring down the Soviet Union, it’s a price worth paying.

LEVINE: Yeah, he’s still saying that. But the jury is definitely out on that. And we’ll see. We’ll see how long—. I don’t think there are very many people who continue to think that, because al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are now represented in ways that are much more scary than the Soviet Union was, at least since the ’70s, when detente became [crosstalk]

JAY: Well, you hear the same argument given. At least with the Soviet Union, there was a clear interest and you knew who you were negotiating with. You could make deals, and it was rational and so on.

LEVINE: And deals were made, and they were abided by, and you had a stable partner, and there was a clear compass about what favored what. It affected policies towards Third World governments. It also made it possible for Third World insurgencies and national liberation struggles to do fairly well. But once the Soviet Union went, that was all over, which explains a lot about Palestinian politics also. And so we have this situation in which we have a dominance that is so overwhelming that it swamps clarity and promotes a kind of arrogant self-assertion that can only lead to trouble.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

LEVINE: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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