It was as if some official, perhaps one of President Obama’s "czars," like the Czar for Demolishing American Credibility, had orchestrated a systematic campaign to isolate the US from the rest of the world, make it a political laughingstock and, finally, render it a second-rate power capable of throwing around tremendous military weight but absolutely incapable of leading us to a better future. The Israel-Palestine conflict, while not the world’s bloodiest, constitutes, for many people of the world, a unique gauge of American interests and intentions. So consider the messages this string of actions sent out to the world:
- On August 10th, a letter was send to the President initiated by Democratic Senator Evan Bayh and Republican Senator Jim Risch, both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and backed by AIPAC, the Israeli lobby. Signed by seventy-one senators, it called on Arab states to normalize relations with Israel even though Israel has not frozen settlement building, has not stopped expropriating Palestinian land or demolishing Palestinian homes, and has not lifted the severe restrictions on Palestinian life that has impoverished the majority of the population. The letter reaffirmed to Israel that it has widespread bi-partisan support in Congress and does not have to be overly concerned with demands from the Administration, while signaling to the Arab and Muslim worlds that they are not taken seriously.
- On September 17th, the Human Rights Council of the UN accepted the Goldstone Report, the UN’s fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict. Despite the mission’s charges over Israeli war crimes, South African jurist Richard Goldstone actually bent over backwards to protect Israel as much as possible. Thus the report does not mention Israel’s 42-year occupation of Gaza or its three year siege which has left a million and a half Gazans without adequate food, medical care, or the basic necessities of life. Nor does it mention the fact that, rather than defending itself, it was Israel which violated the ceasefire with Hamas and refused repeated appeals by Hamas to renew it. Indeed, the report also speaks of Hamas’s violation of international law and demands that it, too, be investigated. Notwithstanding, the American representative to the UN, Susan Rice, immediately condemned the report (whether or not she actually read its almost 600 pages) and promised Israel that the US would stand behind its fight against the report. Judge Goldstone asked the American government "to indicate where the report is flawed or unbalanced," but never received a response.
- On October 31st, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shows up in Israel and, in a press conference with Prime Minister Netanyahu, hails as "unprecedented" the Israeli government’s readiness to "restrain" its settlement building. After months of begging Netanyahu to freeze settlement construction — including a dozen visits by envoy George Mitchell — the US simply caved in. Israel will continue expanding its settlements in East Jerusalem, will build another 3000 housing units in the Occupied Territories, will continue to build "public buildings" in the settlements and respond to their needs of "natural growth," and will continue to approve additional construction — a dubious policy of "restraint" that will last only nine months or so. By thus abandoning the Palestinians Clinton opened the way for Israel to accuse them of presenting "unreasonable preconditions" for starting negotiations — which Netanyahu promptly did in the same press conference.
- On November 3rd, the House of Representatives passed, by a vote of 344-36, a resolution calling on the President and the Secretary of State "to oppose unequivocally any endorsement or further consideration of the ‘Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict’ in multilateral fora" (i.e., the UN). Sponsored by four vociferously but well-placed pro-Israel members of Congress — Howard Berman (D-CA), the Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Relations Committee, Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Chair of the Foreign Relations’ Sub-Committee on the Middle East, and Dan Burton (R-IN), the Sub-Committee’s ranking Republican member — the resolution calls the Goldstone report "irredeemably biased and unworthy of further consideration or legitimacy" and "supports the Administration’s efforts to combat anti-Israel bias at the United Nations."
- And just what haven’t American officials and members of Congress responded to? How about the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon‘s call on Israel, on the same day the anti-Goldstone resolution was passed, "to end its provocative actions" in east Jerusalem. "The Secretary General," the UN reported, "is dismayed at continued Israeli actions in occupied east Jerusalem, including the demolition of Palestinian homes, the eviction of Palestinian families and the insertion of settlers into Palestinian neighborhoods."
Underlying the growing alienation between the United States and the rest of the world community, including Europe, is America’s failure, even under Obama, to embrace human rights as a guide to its foreign policy. At a time when many of the world’s people suffer from impoverishment, conflict and a sense that their governments have failed them, have left them unprotected, the promise of universal human rights means a lot. Human rights language has yet to reach the US. When, recently, I did the rounds of Congress and the State Department promoting a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I was told that "justice" is not an active element in American foreign policy. I was advised by seasoned lobbyists not to even mention the term "human rights" in my meetings with senators and congress people, because it sounds anti-American, as if something trumps American law and policy (which human rights indeed does). But remove justice and human rights from foreign policy and you are left with short-range conflict management and damage control which, in the end, offers peace and security to no one. You certainly remove yourselves from the concerns of most people of the world.
The degree to which American policy regarding Palestinian rights diverges so sharply from even that of its European allies, not to mention from the Muslim world with which it is attempting to achieve a modicum of stability and accommodation that will allow it to remove its troops, has implications far beyond that particular conflict itself. When the US stands, as it often does, with Israel but against the entire international community on matters of human rights (as it did in regard to apartheid South Africa and support for the contras in Nicaragua, among others), it’s isolation is highlighted, rather than its leadership. All of its other slogans, such as "spreading freedom and democracy," are rendered hollow. Neither America nor its erstwhile ally Israel can avoid accountability for their policies and actions. Realpolitik cannot replace a policy based on human rights. If the US wishes to rejoin the international community and genuinely pursue its interests, there is no better place to start than carving out a foreign policy based on justice. Until then, America remains part of the problem, not the solution.
Jeff Halper is the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). He can be reached at <[email protected]>. The ICAHD is based in Jerusalem and has chapters in the United Kingdom and the United States. Please visit: www.icahd.org; www.icahduk.org; www.icahdusa.org.