US Policy on Israel Needs to Change

3 Planks of U.S. Policy We Need to Change to End the Gaza Slaughter

[Nicolas Davies leads the Progressive Democrats of America issue team to End Wars and Occupations.]

US IsraelAmerican debate on the hundreds of civilian deaths in Gaza and the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict is polarized between feelings of sympathy with civilian victims on either side and mutual vilification of the Likud-led government of Israel and the Hamas-led government in Gaza.  But it may be more constructive for Americans to think about the role that the U.S. government plays in perpetuating this never-ending and heart-rending conflict.

Opinion polling during a crisis tends to reflect the passions of the moment, but Americans have told pollsters for decades that we want our government to take an even-handed position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  A Chicago Council Global Views survey in 2012 found that 65% of Americans want the U.S. to “not take either side”, while only 30% want it to “take Israel’s side”. That majority rose to 74% vs 17% at the height of the U.S. war in Iraq in 2004.

But despite decades of presenting itself as an “honest broker” for Middle East peace, there are three ways that the U.S. unequivocally takes the Israeli side in the conflict and effectively supports the Israeli occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) with all it entails, from illegal settlement building to horrific violence:

1. Military aid. The U.S. has provided Israel with at least $73 billion in military aid and currently gives it $3.1 billion per year.  Under the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) and Arms Export Control Act (AECA), the U.S. is obliged to suspend or terminate military aid when U.S. weapons are used against civilians or in other ways that violate international humanitarian law, but these provisions have not been invoked or enforced in the case of Israel since 1982.  After resupplying the Israelis with ammunition during the Gaza crisis, the Obama administration has finally begun reviewing Israeli arms requests on a case-by-case basis and is witholding a new shipment of Hellfire missiles. Compliance with the FAA and AECA would require a suspension of military aid until recent alleged violations of U.S. law have been fully investigated, and stricter compliance could justify ending all military aid until a permanent peace settlement is reached and the occupation is ended.

2. Diplomatic cover. Since 1966, the U.S. has used its UN Security Council veto 83 times, more than the other four Permanent Members combined.  Forty-two of those vetoes have served to kill resolutions on Israel and Palestine, effectively shielding Israel from accountability under international law.  Israel has taken advantage of this effective immunity from the rule of law to violate the Geneva Conventions and other human rights laws, to continually expand its illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and to ignore UN Security Council resolutions that require it to withdraw from the OPT.  The U.S. also uses its diplomatic, military and economic power in other ways to shield Israel from international accountability.  This extraordinary use of the U.S.veto and American power to shield a foreign state from the rule of law must end, before it further undermines a fragile system of international law that has already been badly damaged and weakened by the U.S.’s own illegal actions since 2001.

3. Moral support.  Israel is now a wealthy, developed country with an advanced weapons industry, so it could adapt to even a complete cut-off of U.S. military aid.  But U.S. diplomatic and Congressional support is critical to the Israeli government’s ability to ignore otherwise universal condemnation of its illegal settlement building, human rights abuses and failure to end the occupation.  The UN General Assembly passed 21 resolutions on Israel-Palestine in 2013, mostly by at least 165-6, with the US and Israel in the minority. But U.S. support confers a false sense of legitimacy on Israeli policies.  Unconditional moral support encourages the Israeli government to press ahead with an illegal territorial expansion that the world will never recognize, leading only to endless conflict and growing international isolation for Israel itself.

These three elements of U.S. policy form a stable tripod, a three-legged stool upon which this otherwise unacceptable state of conflict grinds away without end and regularly flares up in horrific slaughter and mass destruction.

Decades of UN resolutions require Israel to end its occupation of the OPT, to dismantle illegal settlements in the OPT and to treat Palestinians, both in Israel and in the OPT, according to the rights guaranteed to people everywhere by international humanitarian law.  The U.S. officially stands with the rest of the world on the fundamental questions, that the occupation must end, that Israel’s international borders are the ones recognized by the UN in 1949, and on the protections guaranteed to civilians living under occupation by the 4th Geneva Convention.

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry adopted a public posture of “getting tough” with the Netanyahu government over negotiations and settlement-building.  But the unwavering U.S. commitment to its three pillars of unconditional support for the Israeli occupation sent Netanyahu an unmistakable message that he could safely ignore Obama’s and Kerry’s “get tough” posture.  This left them looking impotent and more than a little naive, and it emboldened Netanyahu to launch the deadliest and most destructive assault yet on Gaza.  The Israelis seem to have achieved their goal of tightening the blockade by destroying the tunnels that were Gaza’s only lifeline to the world, but this has only hardened the determination of Palestinians in Gaza to resist the even more restricted future the Israelis are seeking to impose on them.

Will Americans keep pretending that our government has been an “honest broker” in its efforts to end this horrific conflict?  Or will we finally demand real changes in the three aspects of U.S. policy that perpetuate war and occupation and deny peace to innocent civilians on both sides?

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