May 12th 2014

The Choice We Face, the Debate We Must Have

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

I was deeply disturbed last week when US Secretary of State John Kerry, in response to criticism from former Senate colleagues, felt compelled to walk back his warning that Israel risked becoming an "apartheid state" if it failed to make peace with the Palestinians. What troubled me most was that Kerry, after acknowledging that many Israelis have offered the same warning, apologized for using the word "apartheid" saying that "it is a word best left out of the debate here at home." In other words, Israelis can have this debate, but we can't.

This affair brought to mind a comment I heard from former Senator Joseph Lieberman back in 2000 in which he acknowledged that it was easier to debate issues like settlements and Jerusalem in the Israeli Knesset than to have the same debates in the US Senate. The question is, how can the US lead Israeli-Palestinian peace-making when we can't criticize Israel or have an honest debate about their policies?  

For more than two decades now America has assumed for itself a unilateral role in Israeli-Palestinian peace-making. During all that time our leadership has repeatedly been tested. And all too often, we have come up short. Our inability to pursue peace, independent of domestic political considerations, has had dramatic consequences. Not only have we failed to help resolve the conflict, we have also contributed to a deterioration in the political environment in both Israeli and Palestinian societies and to harming the image of our country in much of the world. Even when presidents have tried to make a difference, as many have, going back to President Ford, they have been slapped down by a Congress more focused on short term political expediency than protecting the long-term interests of the United States. In the process they have repeatedly compromised our nation's stated commitment to universal human rights and democracy. 

In the eyes of much of the world, we have become like the crowd in Hans Christian Anderson's "The Emperor's New Clothes". We see only what we want to see, and deny what we find uncomfortable to acknowledge. For decades, we turned a blind eye to the daily realities confronting Palestinians living under a brutal and humiliating occupation. Even when we did acknowledge these abuses of human rights, we failed to demonstrate the resolve needed to challenge Israeli behavior.

It is not merely a problem of our weakness and inability to publicly criticize Israel. It is as if we cannot bring ourselves to see Palestinians as full and equal human beings and to stand up and defend them when their rights are so flagrantly violated. We decry settlements when they are announced, then call them "realities" when they are built. In other conflicts around the world: we defend innocent civilians who are victimized by collective punishment; we defend those who are imprisoned without charge or expelled from their homes without any due process; we decry "ethnic cleansing" and other violations of international human rights law; and we maintain that it is the right of refugees to return to their homes and to reclaim lost property. But we do not accept the same rights for Palestinians. We have put Israel above the law, an exception to the rules; and we have acted as if Palestinians have no rights at all. Nations who aren't furious with our double-standard toward Israel just dismiss our policies with a rueful "well that's the way the US is." 

The result of this gross imbalance in our approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is everywhere in evidence. Both societies have become driven by pathologies that we have either enabled or encouraged by our policies. Israelis behave like spoiled children, while Palestinians behave like abused children.

Listening to the debate inside Israel is as instructive as it is depressing. To be sure, there are Israelis who continue to champion human rights for Palestinians, but they do not have the upper hand. Within the ruling government coalition, the dominant trend is to reject any recognition of Palestinian rights and any acceptance of even the most minimal withdrawal from the occupied territories. Not unlike spoiled children, they have internalized the fact that there are no sanctions for bad behavior.  Congress will always have their back, giving them what they want.

Meanwhile, Palestinians have internalized the idea that nothing they ever do will be good enough to earn the support of the United States. For them, there is no reward for good behavior. Since Congress will never have their back, moderate Palestinian leader feel exposed and vulnerable, while hard-liners are emboldened to act out their anger and frustration, oftentimes in outrageous and deplorable ways.   

US military leaders, from Generals Schwartzkopf and Zinni to Patreaus, not caught up in the mind-numbing game of our politics have been warning us for decades that our failure to press for a just peace continues to cause grave damage to our standing and our ability to work with Arab allies to protect our interests. 

With the "peace process" at an impasse, America has a choice to make. Instead merely of pushing for an extension of open-ended negotiations, it is time to decide whether we can muster the resolve to put our foot down and speak the truth to Israelis about their behavior and its consequences. Congress may scream and political operatives may squirm, but if we are serious about peace then we must show the way with decisive leadership.

Coddling the Israeli right, only emboldens them - they know how to take advantage of an opening and play for time. Firm pressure from America, will empower progressive Israelis who understand the deep hole being dug by their irredentist leaders. They should be supported in their efforts to make change. A firm challenge from America will help spur needed debate and change in Israel. 

A decisive stand by America will also empower progressive Palestinians who are, at this point, under siege from Israel, on the one side, and Palestinian extremists and cynics, on the other. Moderates have little to show for their efforts and desperately need support. With America showing seriousness and resolve, we will strengthen the hand of Palestinians who have chosen the path of peace, non-violent resistance, and negotiations. 

Will all this come to pass? While I'm not counting on it,  I know that without such leadership, we will surely fail. If we cannot muster up the strength to challenge Israel and play a constructive role in peace-making, then we ought to get out of the way and let the Palestinians take their case to the International Criminal Court and let the world community decide how to resolve this conflict that has lasted too long and taken too many Israeli and Palestinian lives.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: " Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "
Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "