It’s the kind of remark we might have expected from President George W Bush. Looking out over a sea of wealthy Israeli Jews and Jewish American donors in Jerusalem, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney declared that the reason Israeli society is so much more developed than its Palestinian counterpart comes down to “at least culture and a few other things”.
Aside from the inelegant wording, there’s the intellectual laziness; the realisation that it really doesn’t matter what the “other things” are. Like the United States’ self-image vis-a-vis the rest of the world, Israel’s superiority vis-a-vis Palestinians, and the Arab/Muslim world more broadly, is assumed to be so self-evident that it requires no elaboration, certainly not before an audience of well-heeled Israelis and Jewish American donors.
Nor is it important to get the numbers correct – Israel is in fact a third wealthier and Palestinians five times poorer (in terms of per capita GDP) than Romney declared them each to be. But such details don’t disturb the overall argument for Israel’s natural and laudable superiority over the people it has been occupying for decades; if anything, it strengthens them.
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Both the United States and Israel have long defined themselves as morally and historically exceptional, guided by what Romney described as “divine providence”. Both have defined their destinies as the conquering, settling and “civilising” of land that was not originally theirs, based on a promise by God. As Romney put it, the two countries are “in many respects reflections of one another”, their economic “vitality” indicative of innate cultural and moral superiority over less deserving people. If Israel has the Palestinians, the United States has Mexico and other Latin American countries, whose poverty and innumerable political and social problems serve to highlight the greatness of the United States.
Two exceptional countries
Romney isn’t wrong about the strong ideological and political similarities between the two countries. Nowhere in the so-called developed world is the mixture of quasi-millenarian religious belief and nationalism as strong and politically salient as it is in the US and Israel:
“Ours is an alliance based not only on shared interests, but also on enduring shared values,” Romney proudly declared to the $25,000-a-plate crowd. “For an American abroad, you can’t get much closer to the ideals and convictions of my own country than you do in Israel… We speak the same language of freedom and justice, and the right of every person to live in peace. We serve the same cause and provoke the same hatreds in the same enemies of civilisation.”
It’s not surprising that observers in Israel would argue that Romney’s words seemed much more those of an Israeli prime minister than those of a prospective US presidential candidate.
Democrats are using Romney’s remarks in Jerusalem, coupled with his seeming criticism of London’s preparedness for the Olympics, as fodder to damage his credibility on foreign policy. But they are being disingenuous at best. The sad truth is that Barack Obama made the same argument as Romney about Jerusalem being the capital of Israel when he was running for president, and similarly backtracked slightly when pushed on the implications of such a change in official US policy.
Moreover, if you look at President Obama’s speeches to AIPAC, it’s hard to see much more than a “dime’s worth of distance” between his blatant pandering and obsequiousness to the Israel lobby in Washington and Romney’s words to much the same crowd in Jerusalem. Both men publicly display an equal obsession with the “values we share”; neither gives much thought to how warped those values might have become since they were first put forth by the respective “founding fathers” of the two nations.
We might want to take comfort in the thought that at least Obama tried to change the dynamics of the US-Israel relationship when he came to office by requesting a halt in settlement expansion. In comparison, Romney believes it’s better for the US to discuss settlements only “in private”. But such nuances don’t mean much in reality. Whether out of conviction or compulsion, untrammelled support for Israel is – and will remain – official US policy.
Indeed, as Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak put it, it’s almost impossible to imagine a more supportive US administration than the present one. Why wouldn’t he say that, when Obama gave Israel an extra $70m in security assistance on the eve of Romney’s trip, declaring as he wrote the proverbial cheque: “I have made it a top priority for my administration to deepen cooperation with Israel across a whole spectrum of security issues”?
Culture makes all the difference?
Romney’s Israel speeches were filled with the usual clichés about “making the desert bloom” and exporting “technology, not tyranny or terrorism”. It’s the celebration of an Israel, never mind an Israel-Palestine, that is utterly devoid of Palestinians. It’s one where there is “freedom of expression” and support for the “power of freedom, free enterprise and human rights” flow like milk and honey, precisely because Palestinians have been discursively erased (they were not mentioned once during his speech to the Jerusalem Foundation, where he declared the city to be Israel’s capital).
It is easy to be dismissive of Romney’s claim that the vast economic, political and military imbalance between Israel and the occupied Palestinians owes everything to culture. Not just Palestinians, but Israeli scholars and international institutions have all provided detailed arguments about the ways in which the occupation both has stunted Palestinian economic and political development while providing an invaluable boost to the Israeli economy.
In fact, it’s almost frightening to see how Romney badly misunderstands the arguments of a book like Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel. The former governor declares Diamond’s point is that “the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there”, a gross but useful simplification of the book’s argument, as it allows him to argue: “You look at Israel and you say you have a hard time suggesting that all of the natural resources on the land could account for all the accomplishment of the people here.”
Romney can’t recognise, or at least admit to, the synergistic roles played by the guns, germs and steel of Diamond’s title in the relatively rapid rise of Europe after the “discovery” of the Americas – something which hundreds of thousands of undergraduates are expected and manage to do every year in innumerable courses on world history and similar topics. Indeed Diamond responded with indignation to Romney’s mischaracterisation of his book, declaring that his take “is so different from what my book actually says that I have to doubt whether Mr Romney read it”.
But for Romney to have accurately represented Diamond’s book would hav meant admitting that Europe’s rise was not determined largely by its own greatness but rather owed to such unpleasant practices as massive colonialism, slavery and genocide; topics US politicians cannot discuss unless the perpetrators are its predecessors or rivals. Instead, Romney pulls another book off his shelf, David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, to argue that the economic history of the world, which Israel apparently exemplifies, teaches us that “culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference”.
Here Romney is grossly simplifying an already problematic – if at least far more nuanced – argument by Landes that “Europe, as nowhere else, was a power based on civilisation”. In Landes’ admittedly Eurocentric version, there was something unique about European culture and identity that enabled its seemingly miraculous transformation. He badly underplays the role of European imperialism, direct colonialism and New World slavery – and the unprecedented extraction of wealth it enabled – in the ascension of second-generation European powers such as the Dutch, French and especially the British to the height of global power. But at least he accounts for them, something that few US politicians are willing to do.
It’s much easier to avoid geography, biology, and changing power relations derived from extreme violence and exploitation of the past half millennium, and focus instead on the supposedly inherent superiority of one culture over others. Such a narrative has the virtue of cleaning up the messy parts of American, Israeli and so many other imperial and/or colonial histories; in so doing it enables present-day policies to continue without learning from the mistakes of the past.
“No US administration will allow even a dime’s worth of diplomatic distance to open between the United States and its favourite client.“
One could imagine Professor Obama, back at the University of Chicago or Harvard in 2013 or 2017, offering students a much more accurate review of modern world history. But the saddest part is that it really doesn’t matter what Obama or Romney believe. So powerful are the imperatives of the Israel-US relationship that no president can afford to let inconvenient histories and unpleasant realities get in the way. There’s too much money and power at stake in the myth of exceptionalism and the erasure of “other things” that might challenge the triumphalist narratives that have defined the policies of the US and Israel towards their neighbours.
Osama bin Laden well understood the US self-perception as a benign empire, and gambled – correctly, it seems – that a spectacular attack on the United States would ramp up America’s imperial hubris and belief in its unique historical civilising mission to such levels of intensity that they would eat away at the socio-economic and political fabric of the country from within. If Israel has so far avoided such a fate, this owes both to the relative weakness of its opponents and to the fact that, as Romney declared, no US administration will allow even a dime’s worth of diplomatic distance to open between the United States and its favourite client.
Yet if Romney would have read Landes’ book more carefully, or better, have read Ibn Khaldun (whom Landes barely acknowledges), he’d realise that even the greatest empires and the most unique cultures rise and fall over the course of history; their success pushing rivals to adapt and innovate as they become arrogant, complacent and overstretched. The balance of power has already shifted in the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world. Israel has so far avoided such a fate, because of the continued asymmetry in the balance of power with its neighbours and adversaries, and the unhesitant backing of the US that guarantees its military superiority and political unaccountability.
As the Arab world continues with its fitful transformation away from the old authoritarian order and towards more open societies and representative forms of government, a “new Middle East” will begin to emerge, one that is as different from the Israel-centred economic and cultural union envisioned by Shimon Peres and the architects of the now defunct Oslo order as the emerging global system is from the triumphalist predictions of unchallenged US power by neocons and neoliberals a generation ago.
Ultimately, if both countries don’t take a much more honest look at their histories and the dynamics shaping the present, they will find themselves confronting strategic environments in which egoistic self-congratulation, historical amnesia and brute force hasten rather than check the slide into national and imperial decline.
Mark Levine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.