The ‘Israel Firster’ brouhaha

Israel’s hawks don’t have their country’s best interests at heart.

Since Rabin’s assassination in 1995, Israel’s government has been dominated by right-wingers [GALLO/GETTY]

I wonder what happened to Israel – by which I mean the actual country and its seven million people.

It still exists, thank God, but one would hardly know it from the way its supposed supporters discuss it in the United States.

Take the brouhaha last week that started with this article in Politico. Its thesis was that some leading progressives are no longer part of a “pro-Israel” consensus and are trying to move the Democratic Party in an anti-Israel direction.

This would, of course, be big news, if it were true.

But it isn’t, and the only evidence presented in the piece is that many progressive bloggers oppose a preemptive war against Iran. Additionally, some argue that many of the people who promote military confrontation with Iran – and oppose diplomacy – are following Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s lead on the issue.

This is hardly controversial. No one seriously denies that AIPAC has been pushing “crippling sanctions” against Iran for years with the insistence that, if those fail, war would be the only recourse. Along with its cutouts in congress, it strongly opposes dialogue as a means of resolving US differences with Iran over its nuclear programme.

Additionally, many progressives make the indisputable case that many of the neo-conservatives who are itching for war with Iran are the same people who promoted the war with Iraq. (The Council on Foreign Relations’ Max Boot is perhaps the most obvious example.)

Another complaint, made against me, is that I habitually use the term “Israel firster” to denounce those who are promoting Israel’s positions on Iran and other issues over those of the US. For some reason that drives the right crazy, although they consistently denounce both President Obama and his policies with almost obscene relish while consistently fawning over Netanyahu and his policies of the moment.

‘Netanyahu firsters’

Can anyone argue with the assertion that, for neocons, Obama is always wrong and Bibi is always right? Not only that, they denounce those who dare criticise Netanyahu over anything while never ever letting up on Obama. How can it be that the prime minister is always right but the president is always wrong?

But I need to offer a clarification. By the term “Israel firster”, I do not mean that right-wingers and neocons who advance bellicose Middle East policies are putting the interests of Israel first.

Far from it. They are putting the interests of Binyamin Netanyahu and his hardliners first. After all, if they were putting Israel first, they would not be promoting policies (such as war with Iran or the perpetuation of the occupation) that could very easily lead to Israel’s destruction or, at least, to the loss of its Jewish majority.

The people I call “Israel firsters” are, in fact, Netanyahu firsters.

After all, many of these people were anything but “Israel firsters”when the late Yitzhak Rabin was pursuing peace with the Palestinians or when Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert were considering plans that would have returned most of the occupied territories to the Palestinians, with Jerusalem converted into a shared capital. On the contrary, they fought these prime ministers, usually in conjunction with right-wing Republicans in congress.

One might ask: Why are progressives who care deeply about Israel never deemed “Israel firsters”? (Think of people like those in J Street and Americans for Peace Now who devote their lives to achieving peace for Israel.)

The answer is simple. Peace in the Middle East is clearly in the interests of both the US and Israel. In the mid-1990s an American could have gone out to the town square shouting devotion to Rabin, and no one would have blinked. And the reason was that Rabin was almost as pro-American as he was pro-Israel. He recognised that advancing an end to the Middle East conflict would have primarily benefitted Israel, but also its best friend and backer.

Hawks vs security

That is why, shortly after his 1992 election, Rabin told AIPAC that he would not be needing its services as an interlocutor with the Bush (and later Clinton) administrations. Knowing that the agenda he intended to pursue – peace – would be strongly supported by the US, he intended to speak for himself. He did not need anyone to pressure Congress. (See this in the Jewish magazine Moment).

In fact, the whole business of strong-arming the American government only comes into play when the right is in power in Israel (unfortunately, that has been almost all the time since an Israeli rightist murdered Yitzhak Rabin). An Israeli government that pursues peace does not need pressure tactics, as it can achieve support for its goals and generous US aid without them.

The bottom line here is that it is important not to allow the right to hijack Israel’s cause. For the right, Israel is all about maintaining occupation, ensuring Israel’s regional hegemony and fighting a civilisational war with Muslims.

For us, Israel is about Israel. Its creation in the wake of the Holocaust – the return of Jews to the place where their history began – was right and inevitable. Israel’s sole purpose, as I see it, is to be a sanctuary where Jewish children are safe. It has served that purpose well.

But that will not continue if Palestinians continue to suffer under occupation or if Israel and Iran go to war. Jewish children will not forever be safe if Palestinian children aren’t. Nor will they be safe if a war with Iran (and Hezbollah) spreads into the Israeli heartland.

The hawks don’t care much about that.

For them, Israel is some kind of macho symbol rather than a place with real people who just want to live in peace and security. That is why I have to conclude that the term “Israel firster” is a bit imprecise. There is no evidence that these people care about Israel at all.

MJ Rosenberg is a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at Media Matters Action Network. The above article first appeared in Foreign Policy Matters, a part of the Media Matters Action Network.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.