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With (pro-Israel) friends like these, who needs enemies?

While the mainstream debate over Israel in the U.S. is changing as more people challenge the traditional ‘pro-Israel’ paradigm, it must also be accompanied by a shift in rhetoric.

U.S. and Israeli flags (flickr/Josh.ev9/CC by SA 2.0)

Roger Cohen, one of the New York Times writers I like most, wrote an op-ed this week called “Israel’s True Friends.” In the piece, which is centered around the Chuck Hagel nomination, Cohen argues, as I and many have, that those opposing Obama’s nomination of Hagel may consider themselves “true friends” of Israel, but in fact can only be accurately defined as friends of the Israeli right – those who, among other things, are dismissive of a two-state solution, Palestinian national aspirations, the need to end occupation and who consistently “propel Israel into repetitive miniwars of dubious strategic value.”

He clearly distinguishes them from another camp he calls the “quiet strong friend of Israel” type, comprised of Hagel, Obama and others – those who are “unwaveringly committed to Israel’s security within its 1967 borders,” and who understand that settlements are on obstacle to a solution, etc.

While I don’t disagree with the general assessment, the controversy surrounding Chuck Hagel’s nomination shouldn’t just “provoke a serious debate on what constitutes real friendship toward Israel,” as Cohen writes, but on why the term “friendship” is being used at all. After four years of Obama vs. Netanyahu, I think it is safe to say that neither these men nor their respective governments are pals, for the simple reason that they don’t share the same political values or goals.

Netanyahu has clearly aligned himself – and by extension Israel – with the right in America, from “pro-Israel” neocons like Elliot Abrams and Bill Kristol (who both made the baseless and outraging accusation that Chuck Hagel is an anti-Semite, throwing the label around like a hot potato) to Christian right-wing “pro-Israel” fanatics like Glenn Beck and Pastor Hagee (whose evangelical understanding of this region is hostile to both Jews and Arabs).

While Cohen obviously uses the term “true friends” to convey the problem with the conception of support for Israel in the U.S. and challenge the notion that “the only mark of friendship is uncritical embrace of a friend,” using it at all to describe the U.S.-Israel relationship is symptomatic of a deeply-ingrained deficiency in the debate – even among the very people challenging it.

Cohen says “the movement against him [Hagel] is a relic of a binary with-Israel or against-Israel vision that does not have the true interests of Israel or the United States at heart.”

But isn’t the Hagel affair just one among many that shows it is not a relic at all? The Israeli government and Hasbara machine, together with factors in the American Jewish, Christian and the broader conservative and Republican “pro-Israel” community all define the U.S. relationship with Israel as a “special” friendship, an “unbreakable bond,”as Obama has asserted, a rigid binary for or against dichotomy, similar to how they view U.S. policy on Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how some view abortion or gay rights or other policy issues.

If Roger Cohen and others who understand the problem with this binary paradigm really want to change it, wouldn’t a more potent and subversive critique be to change up the rhetoric itself? Why continue referring to the relationship between the U.S. and Israel as a friendship when their respective leaders are clearly not friendly? This would also turn the tables on many in America who are considered friends of Israel, but at best, could only be called friends of Israel’s occupation and its self-destructive Jewish supremacy. 

As Cohen himself admits: “Deciding who Israel’s real friends are is more difficult — and that decision is critical both for Israel itself and for the future of U.S. policy toward the Jewish state.”

All that is left now is to give up on the term “friends,” which is nothing but a charged labeling, a codification. After all, the real debate is not about who Israel’s true friends are, but what kind of foreign policy you think the U.S. should have (the “Israel firster” debate), and/or, depending on your connection to Israel, what kind of vision you have for Israel, and in turn, Palestine. 

Read more: 
The Chuck Hagel affair and the American ‘pro-Israel’ litmus test

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    1. Aaron Gross

      If “friends” is “nothing but a charged labeling, a codification” that should be given up, then why do you keep using it so polemically? In this article you attempt more than once to discredit certain self-declared friends of Israel by claiming that they can’t “accurately” be described as friends of Israel at all.

      You seem to be doing two things at the same time. On one hand, you’re arguing that people shouldn’t be claiming the mantle of “friends of Israel” for their side while denying it to their adversaries. At the same time, you’re claiming the mantle of “friends of Israel” for your side while denying it to your adversaries.

      I think the answer is to define “friend of Israel” subjectively. If you mean well for the State of Israel, then you’re a friend of Israel, no matter whether your policies would be objectively good or bad for Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      Today it is de regeur for people to call themselves “friends of Israel” and to go on to say that “Israel is a despicable state that should be boycotted and punished but I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Jews should be thrown into the sea”. Israel is a country with real people and a democratically elected government. Being a “friend of Israel” means recognizing that fact and accepting it. It is not enough to say that being a “friend of Israel” is anyone who says that they wouldn’t mind if Israel continues to exist in some form or other, but not in its current configuration. “Friendship” has policy implications. It means recognizing that the state has an obligation to protect it citizens, so someone who sympathizes with those who carry out terrorist attacks against Israel or fire rockets indiscriminately into Israel population centers IS NOT A “FRIEND OF ISRAEL”. Someone like Peter Beinart who calls for boycotts of Israel and works to cause suffering to Israeli citizens (even if he claims “it is for their own good”) is not a friend of Israel. It is tkme that these phrases have real meaning and stop being slogans thrown out in order to mislead people.

      Reply to Comment
      • Aaron Gross

        I usually agree with you, but not here. Friendship has policy implications, that’s true. But it’s also true that people mistakenly choose bad policies. A friend of Israel may choose destructive policies because he’s mistaken. I think we should charitably consider that possibility with anyone who claims to be a friend of Israel.

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        • XYZ

          I never stated that “friends of Israel” must agree with all the policies of whatever gov’t is in power. It DOES mean accepting that the state of Israel is obligated to protect its citizens, that countries or organizations who attempt to harm the Israeli population are enemies and that efforts to boycott Israel lead by people like Beinart are hostile acts and those who do so are NOT “friends of Israel”. Certainly questions like the future relations with the Palestinians are legitimate grounds for friends of Israel to disagree, but it must be done from a spirit of being a “loyal opposition” if opposing the policies of the elected government, and not by allying one’s self with Israel’s enemies.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Mark Goldstein

      In America – there is a growing resentment towards the Netanyahu administration. It is clear that despite having very moderate partners in the PA in Abbas and Fayyad – Netanyahu and his right wing coalition have no interest in finding peace.

      The problem is of course that Bibi isn’t interested in a 2 state solution; he wants a 1 state solution as evidenced by his constant and continued expansion into E1 and other lands well outside of the 1967 borders.

      Americans see what is happening here and are resentful that we continue to pay for this. Americans are growing increasingly more aware of the foreign aid given to Israel despite their strong economy. Israel is an ally. They’re a strategic ally, an ally with whom we share intelligence but they’re not an ally on par with Canada, Britain, Australia or New Zealand.

      In other words – Israel isn’t America’s BFF and this notion of “true friends” I think has strained. When the Israeli government is serious about peace then I suspect that will change dramatically. That’s the 800 pound gorilla that puts strains on America’s Arab relationships and prevents Israel from fostering and developing relationships among more of its neighbors.

      And if Netanyahu wins re-election as expected … this can only be the fault of the Israeli people. Obama has been re-elected. Netanyahu’s attempt to intervene in American politics in support of the Republican candidate Mitt Romney did not go unnoticed. This will be remembered. A large and growing movement in America is starting to crest standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

      It’s just not as visible because of whatever media blindspot that exists here. But its out there. And I’m the next generation of America Jews that finds myself identifying more with the people of Palestine than the Apartheid state that currently exists in Israel. Vote the racists out.

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        In case you have forgotten, in the 20 years since the Oslo Agreements, most of the time there were governmentment in power that were openly committed to the so-called “peace process” and were quite willing to make major concessions like dividing Jerusalem and agreeing, at least in principle, to the “right of return” of the Palestinian refugees. They all FAILED to reach agreement with the Palestinians. It is the PALESTINIANS who refuse to make peace with Israel. I think most people in the US and Europe and much of the rest of the world understand this.

        Reply to Comment
        • Mark Goldstein

          XYZ – That’s an excuse for inaction. See if you follow this rationale because it sounds exactly like what you’re saying.

          Daddy – I keep trying to ride my bike but I just fall over. I’ve already tried 10 times and I can’t do it. I’m just going to quit now because if it didn’t work the first 10 times – it won’t work now.
          ~Little Avi

          Today is a new day. There was a time when Egypt did not have peace with Israel; today – there is peace. Look at Ireland and the UK; there is today peace when so many thought it was impossible.

          For the first time – there are real credible, moderate forces in power at the PA. And Netanyahu wants to squander that. So – what will happen next?

          The PA will eventually lose credibility with its people if they can’t show that the peaceful way works. Fayyad and Abbas walk – Israel is left having to run the West Bank as the occupying force that it is.

          You do realize that Israel ranks as among the least liked nations in the world. They’re only more popular than North Korea, Iran and Pakistan. Someone needs to save Israel from itself because it is capable of itself. I see what’s happening in America. It’s boiling over. The climate is changing even if the media hasn’t figured that out yet.

          And then when America turns its back on Israel; then what? That is something that CAN happen.

          Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      Mark- You seem to live in a different reality than the rest of us.
      (1) Most people in Egypt want to cancel the peace agreement with Israel but they realize they can’t AT THE MOMENT because they would jeapordize the aid they get from the US. Mursi keeps referring to Jews as “decendents of apes and pigs”. Not a very “peaceful” kind of relationship.

      (2) The FATAH regime of the PA has already lost credibility, they were wiped out in recent local elections in the West Bank, but this is not due to “lack of progress in the peace process”, it is due to its massive corruption and lack of responsiveness to the population’s demands. Don’t forget that FATAH’s main rival, which controls Gaza is HAMAS who totally opposes the “peace process”.
      The “peace process” flounders on the “right of return” of the Palestinian refugees because the Palestinians can not and will not give up the demand for a full implementation of it, and this will kill any possible peace agreement because no Israeli gov’t can agree to it. The refugee issue is NOT a “humanitarian” one, it is a political weapon. The Palestinians HAVE to insist that the refugees return to Israel because they will never agree to absorb them in the West Bank and Gaza Strip because they are aliens in those regions.
      (3) Israel is not one of the most disliked countries in the world. True, Left-Liberal-Progressives don’t like Israel, particularly in Europe, but Europe has always had a problem with the Jews, so nothing is new there. I have spoken to numerous people who have visited the Far East, where the new booming economies are, and Israel is very popular there.

      American is going to have to back off of support for Israel due to its increasing isolationism and ecnonomic and political decline. IT is time for Israel to stand on it own two feet, and this will be good for everyone. The sooner the economic aid from the US ends, the better.

      Reply to Comment
      • Mark Goldstein

        #1 – Agreed. I’m not a fan of the Egyptian government either. The point is … peace can be had even if it means strained relations. You don’t see Egypt bombing Israel. That’s enough.

        #2 – It’s very difficult for the PA to be efficient stewards of good governance when they have been bankrupted economically by Israel. That’s simple. Israel controls the purse strings and the PA has already said they can’t pay the payroll. Israel CONTROLS everything in West Bank so it isn’t as if Abbas is failing at managing the state – he isn’t being allowed to by Israel.

        You should know this. It sounds like you’re wearing blinders by not acknowledging this economic reality. This creates dysfunction and no other government in the world could successfully run their government this way.

        You talk about “right of return”; at some point – some settlers are going to lose their homes. Either that or the Palestinians cease to exist. And that’s the Israeli gameplan and that’s why the world views Israel as a pariah state like Iran. My anger towards Iran is equal to that of Israel and vice versa.

        You say Israel is not one of the most disliked countries. Well – XYZ … you’d be wrong.

        Haaretz: Israel grouped with Iran, North Korea as world’s least popular countries


        Lastly – economic aid. This is something we agree on. If America weren’t paying the bills for the Israelis – I don’t think I would be as enraged as I am. America has more important allies in the middle east – namely Turkey. Jordan is on par with Israel if not better due to Jordan not actually creating foreign policy nightmares for the U.S.

        I want peace for Israel – I just don’t think you see where this is headed. And it’s not good.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          1) there is a big difference between ‘not bombing’ and peace or security. If the only thing preventing hostilities is the inability of Egypt to initiate them then giving up the Sinai was a terrible strategic mistake and the peace treaty is worthless. In other words, no, it isn’t enough.

          2) The PA had vast amounts of foreign money. They chose to spend the money on creating bureaucracy and now have an inefficient and oversized public sector that they can not afford. Israel had nothing to do with making these choices. No one forced the PA to employ 180,000 people given that the number employed by the Israeli civil administration was a fraction of that.

          3) Israel is viewed negatively because it is unfairly judged by European standards while existing in a non-Western environment where European rules do not apply and do not make sense. There is no resolving this problem and so it doesn’t make any sense to try.

          4) As for the American aid, I agree with XYZ. Take it and keep it, but the next time the Suez is closed and your gas triples in price because Israel is forced into acting more aggressively as a result of Arab provocation you will understand the logic behind the $3b the US sends here as a result of the Camp David Accords. The money and the qualitative advantage the US provides allows Israel to not treat every Arab threat as one that needs to be removed as quickly as possible. Because that is the only alternative strategic approach were qualitative advantage put under threat.

          Reply to Comment
      • Josh White

        XYZ, if Israel’s existence was truly threatened, I would think the PM and knesset would revoke the universal health care Israelis receive so help bolster her defnse against possible threats.

        Reality – us American Jews foot the bill at our own expense and detreiment. The reason there’s no peace is because you have over a half million sttlers who will never ever give up “Judea and Samaria” and the network of Jewish only roads.

        Reply to Comment
    5. israel is a very very poor country

      Reply to Comment