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The United States of America's relationship with Israel is probably the touchiest subject in American politics... a classic "third rail", touch it and you die, sort of subject, and yet it has become one of the major focus points of US political life. How can it be impossible to question something this important in a democracy without being expelled into the outer darkness, where there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth?
It is a subject that has fascinated me since I was a young man. Way back in the 1970s, when I was a budding, (never really flowered), news photographer, I lived for nearly a year in Tel-Aviv. Israel was a very different place then, a very austere, egalitarian, socialist country and very popular with progressives on both sides of the Atlantic. Many things have happened since then to change all that, suffice to say that everything in the previous sentence has been turned completely upside down.
I was very happy there, I met many interesting people, heard innumerable, fascinating, anecdotes and participated in political conversations where I got a crash course in geopolitics... and probably most important of all, I had a wonderful Israeli girlfriend and participated in her family's life. You could say that Israel made a strong impression on me and that I "bonded" with that country. At the same time that I loved the place and the people, even back then I had the feeling that, by holding onto the territories they had conquered in the Six-Day War, taking their resources and oppressing the inhabitants, Israel was entering into a soul destroying bargain, selling its moral birthright for a mess of pottage.
Sometimes nothing is more unrealistic than realism. Israel's moral position is/was of much more strategic value to Israel's survival than a few kilometers of military "strategic depth" or the vapors of any biblical "entitlement". This is becoming clearer with every passing news cycle. The political awakening and mass enfranchisement of the Arab peoples expressed in the words, "Arab Spring", is only accelerating this process, the amount of political energy being released is massive
With Binyamin Netanyahu as Israel's prime minister the two state solution, which already showed clear signs of rigor mortis, has begun to stink.
As Thomas Friedman has pointed out, from that point on we are looking at a clear alternative of official apartheid or opportunistic ethnic cleansing as alternatives to the liquidation of the present "Jewish state", not necessarily the end of a state where Jews live comfortably, but the end of a so defined democratic "Jewish state".
I think that Netanyahu would be comfortable with either apartheid or ethnic cleansing although I think he would prefer the latter to the former. As the reality of this sinks in, America's relationship with Israel will inevitably become increasingly conflicted.
This conflict could be symbolized by the American people choosing Barack Obama as their president. Despite his every pledge of loyalty and support of Israel he is not trusted by the Israeli government or their US lobby.
This conflict is not about what Americans actually voted for when they elected Barack Obama, but what they thought they had voted for and although they may not realize it, what they think they voted for sends a powerful message to Israel. A message which conflicts with Israel's very foundations.
Americans voted for a person who by birth belongs to no particular "tribe" or ethnic group, an amalgam of races and cultures: a person who is a symbol of some sort of "new man", freed from any historical or ethnic preconditioning. This "Adam" quality, perhaps more than any other, excited and continues to excite Americans and many others around the globe.
However this quality is in direct conflict with Israel's whole raison d'être.
To avoid being tiresome, only one example that could sum it all up: Israel is a country where a racial-religious qualification is needed to buy or lease state owned land. This simply cannot be squared with what the Americans voted for when they voted for Barack Obama. The question is: how are those who voted for what Barack Obama symbolizes supposed to have a "special relationship" with a country predicated on religious or racial identity? I am not talking about diplomatic, commercial, military or friendly relations with such a state, America has always had, has and will always have such relations with many much less attractive states than Israel, but a "till death us do part", special, most important ally, relationship?
How could two countries be more different? If any people in the world have a long memory, it is the Israelis, and no people in the world have or have ever had such a short memory as the Americans. Israel is all about purity of pedigree and lineage, of maintaining the group intact. There are literally endless discussions in Israel on the subject, "who is a Jew ". America is defined by an ancient argument between the country's culture and the country's values. Race prejudice is as old and rooted in American culture as the European colonization of America. In his inaugural speech President Obama observed that 60 years ago his father would not have been served in a Washington restaurant: that's the way it had been for hundreds of years.
Americans, in electing Obama, have symbolized the repudiation of their own tribal history and traditions and have chosen to reinvent themselves in accordance with the foundational principals of the Republic. Israelis by choosing to reoccupy land they haven't lived on for thousands of years, have chosen to reinvent themselves by embracing their own tribal history and traditions. What each country stands for is diametrically opposed to what the other stands for and their national trajectories are traveling in opposite directions. That will be an increasingly important theme in 2012 and the years to follow, of that I am sure. DS