The American error of taking sides in Middle East
In the midst of multiple foreign crises that demand our attention as a nation last month saw the little-noted collapse of the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Each side blamed the other. Possibly the U.S. shares some culpability since our country has rarely been an entirely neutral arbitrator in the dispute.
As if to underline the point Republican Presidential hopeful Chris Christie spent the evening of May 18, 2014, speaking to the Champions of Jewish Values International awards gala in New York. This was the second time in two months that Governor Christie had spoken to an influential group of Jewish donors. The audience included billionaire Sheldon Adelson (personal wealth estimated at $35 Billion by Forbes magazine), who funded much of Newt Gingrich’s ill-fated 2012 campaign.
During his speech Christie touted America as “the strongest moral power for what is good and right in the world.” The governor, speaking a month earlier in Las Vegas to a Jewish group that included Adelson, had made reference to “the occupied territories,” land taken by Israel in the 1967 war. Afterwards he scrambled to assure Adelson that he had “misspoke.” The pro-Israeli lobby cites the Bible and regards all occupied territory as a permanent part of the Jewish state.
One of the best accounts of the behind-the-scenes machinations leading to the creation of Israel can be found in David McCullough’s Pulitzer-Prize winning biography of Harry Truman. Recognition of an independent Jewish state was fiercely opposed by our Department of State and the then Secretary of State Gen. George Marshall (namesake of the Marshall Plan).
What followed Truman’s decision to recognize Israel remains largely forgotten by Americans. Nearly a half a million Palestinians were forcibly made to flee their homes. Some who resisted were shot and many elderly who presumably could not walk long distances were left behind to their fate. Many who survived have subsisted in refugee camps for generations or live currently under Israeli military rule on the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Herein lies the heart of the problem.
Arnold Toynbee, former professor of Modern History at the University of Jerusalem, wrote in 1967 that “the Palestinian Arabs have suffered injustice. To put it simply, they have been made to pay for the genocide of the Jews in Europe, which was committed by the Germans, not the Arabs.”
One cannot make light of the legitimate security concerns of the state of Israel. On the other hand, its desire to pursue a peaceful solution over the years can be questioned in light of its continued refusal to curtail settlement activity in the occupied territories. According to U.S. government statistics 556,700 Israeli Jews now live in the occupied territories. Israel again refused to stop settlement activity at the beginning of the latest round of peace talks.
Any U.S. politician who tries to press Israel into a more accommodating stance with the Palestinians does so at his own risk. President Obama has tried to lean on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reign in settlement activity. As a result, 2012 Presidential challenger Mitt Romney vigorously attacked the President for not being sufficiently supportive of Israel.
When Obama nominated former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to be the Secretary of Defense numerous Jewish groups cried foul and noted his past complaints about “intimidation” from the Jewish lobby. David Suissa, writing at the time in the “Jewish Journal,” also criticized Hagel for a 2006 remark that “the core of all challenges in the Middle East remains the underlying Arab-Israeli conflict.” Hagel went on to say that failure to address this problem allows the type of hate to fester that breeds terrorism. Jewish groups reject this linkage.
The 1979 Camp David Peace Agreement between Israel and Egypt taught us three lessons. First of all, it showed that peace is possible between Israel and the Arabs. Secondly, a U.S. role is key in the process. And lastly, a comprehensive Mideast solution must address the Palestinian issue. There lies the unfulfilled promise of the Camp David.
To achieve a lasting Middle East peace, the American people need to insist that our government be a neutral party pushing both sides towards a compromise.
Alan Jilka is a businessman and former mayor of Salina.