Exclusive: Republicans and Democrats in Congress leapt to their feet again and again to applaud Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even as he was challenging the policies of President Barack Obama. Yet, this pro-Israeli solidarity could have harmful consequences for Israel, the Palestinians and the United States, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
May 25, 2011
Congress, with repeated standing ovations, showed its love for Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but the valentine may have unintended consequences by stirring dangerous passions of Likud’s rejectionist wing, which is now weighing the risks of transforming Israel into an overtly apartheid state.
These hardliners might well interpret the congressional obsequiousness as signaling that Israel still has a free hand to do whatever it wants, even if that means defying President Barack Obama’s mild pressure for movement toward peace with the Palestinians.
As Democrats and Republicans competed to see who could jump to their feet the fastest and most often, Netanyahu mixed a rhetorical commitment to peace with preconditions that he knows are unacceptable to the Palestinians, including his insistence that they not only recognize Israel’s right to exist but hail it as a Jewish state.
Palestinian negotiators have balked at accepting Israel’s Jewish identity because about 20 percent of Israel’s population is Arab. They also have said it is up to Israel to define itself as it wishes, not the Palestinians or any other outside group. But Netanyahu has made this declaration a prerequisite for peace talks.
In addition, this notion of a religious identity applying to any government runs counter to a core American principle, that governments should not show favoritism toward one religion over another and that all people are created equal.
So, there was something craven, arguably un-American, about the U.S. Congress cheering a foreign leader who insists on a religious state and even requires its acceptance by a group of people living under his military domination.
Republican commentator Pat Buchanan once got into a lot of trouble for saying that “Capitol Hill is Israeli-occupied territory.” But Congress on Tuesday behaved as if it was determined to vindicate Buchanan’s point.
Annexing the West Bank
Netanyahu also got cheers when he alluded to the religious nationalism that cites Biblical authority for Israel’s right to possess the West Bank where millions of Palestinians now live. Calling the area by its Biblical names, Netanyahu declared, “in Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers.”
Though Netanyahu insisted that he was prepared to make painful concessions for peace, including surrendering some of this “ancestral Jewish homeland,” his belligerent tone suggested that he was moving more down the route of annexation that Likud’s deputy speaker Danny Danon outlined last week in a New York Times op-ed.
Danon warned that if the Palestinians go ahead as planned and seek United Nations recognition for their own state on the West Bank, Israel should annex the territory. “We could then extend full Israeli jurisdiction to the Jewish communities [i.e. the settlements] and uninhabited lands of the West Bank,” Danon wrote.
As for Palestinian towns, they would become mini-Gazas under Danon’s plan, cut off from the world and isolated as enclaves with no legal status.
“Moreover, we would be well within our rights to assert, as we did in Gaza after our disengagement in 2005, that we are no longer responsible for the Palestinian residents of the West Bank, who would continue to live in their own — unannexed — towns,” Danon wrote.
By excluding these Palestinian ghettos, Jews would still maintain a majority in this Greater Israel under Danon’s plan. “These Palestinians would not have the option to become Israeli citizens, therefore averting the threat to the Jewish and democratic status of Israel by a growing Palestinian population,” he wrote.
In other words, the Israeli Right appears headed toward a de facto apartheid, if not a form of ethnic cleansing by willfully making life so crushing for the Palestinians that they have no choice but to leave.
Congress has made this option more likely, with its enthusiastic applause for Netanyahu and with its bipartisan criticism of President Obama for urging peace talks that use the 1967 borders as a starting point.
After watching members of Congress behave more like trained seals than as representatives of a sovereign nation, hardliners in Netanyahu’s Likud might well believe that there are no outrages against the Palestinians that the U.S. government won’t tolerate.
Many true friends of Israel find the racism that’s implicit in these Likud strategies abhorrent, both politically for Israel and as a violation of the honorable Jewish tradition of seeking justice for all, especially for the oppressed.
However, for more than three decades now, especially since the Likud rose to power in the late 1970s, Israel has been shifting away from its egalitarian founding ideals and toward a discriminatory society based on religious claims of special entitlement.
This intolerance has now spilled over from discrimination against Arabs to official separation between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
In recent years, Ariel Atias, an ultra-Orthodox Jew from the religious Shas Party and Netanyahu’s housing minister, has pushed for segregation in the housing choices of Israel’s Arab population and of secular Jews.
“I see [it] as a national duty to prevent the spread of a population [Arabs] that, to say the least, does not love the state of Israel,” Atias told a conference of the Israel Bar Association. “If we go on like we have until now, we will lose the Galilee. Populations that should not mix are spreading there. I don’t think that it is appropriate [for them] to live together.”
Atias also spoke favorably of aggressive ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Haredis, who rough up Arabs who get out of line and harass secular Jews, like those who use machinery on the Sabbath or women who dress in ways considered immodest.
In Atias’s vision, Israel would be segregated along inter- and intra-religious lines. “I, as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, don’t think that religious Jews should have to live in the same neighborhood as secular couples, so as to avoid unnecessary friction,” Atias explained.
On Tuesday, with the repeated standing ovations, the U.S. Congress also embraced Netanyahu’s presentation of the semi-mythical Zionist claim that European Jews had a right to reclaim the Holy Land because they were expelled by the Romans two millennia ago.
Academic studies have questioned the historical foundation of the so-called Diaspora, challenging the notion of a mass expulsion of Jews and instead tracing the large Jewish communities of Europe to conversion to Judaism, which in the early centuries of the First Millennium A.D. represented a competing proselytizing religion to Christianity.
For instance, in When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?. Israeli scholar Shlomo Sand challenges the Diaspora narrative as largely a myth, denying that the Jews were exiled en masse from the Holy Land and asserting that many European Jewish populations converted to the faith centuries later.
Dr. Sand, an expert on European history at the University of Tel Aviv, argues that many of today’s Israelis who emigrated from Europe to Israel after World War II have little or no genealogical connection to the land.
According to Sand’s historical analysis, they are descendents of European converts, principally from the Kingdom of the Khazars in eastern Russia, who embraced Judaism in the Eighth Century, A.D.
The descendants of the Khazars then were driven from their native lands by invasion and conquest and – through migration – created the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe, Sand writes. Similarly, he argues that the Jews of Spain came from the conversion of Berber tribes from northern Africa that later migrated into Europe.
Sand, himself a European Jew born in 1946 to Holocaust survivors in Austria, argues that until little more than a century ago, Jews thought of themselves as Jews because they shared a common religion, not because they possessed a direct lineage to the ancient tribes of Israel.
However, at the turn of the 20th Century, Sand asserts, Zionist Jews began assembling a narrative to justify creation of a Jewish state by inventing the idea that Jews existed as a people separate from their religion and that they had primogeniture over the territory that had become known as Palestine.
The Zionists also invented the idea that Jews living in exile were obligated to return to the Promised Land, a concept that had been foreign to Judaism, Sand states.
If Sand’s thesis is correct, it would suggest that many of the Palestinian Arabs have a far more substantial claim to the lands of Israel than do many European Jews who arrived there asserting a God-given claim.
Sand theorizes that many Jews, who remained in Judea after Roman legions crushed the last uprising in 136 A.D., eventually converted to Christianity or Islam, meaning that the Palestinians who have been crowded into Gaza or concentrated in the West Bank might be direct descendants of Jews from the Roman era.
Disputing Sand’s Thesis
Contrary to what might be expected, leading Israeli academics don’t dispute the core point of Sand’s argument, that the Diaspora was a myth. Rather, they have focused on disparaging Sand as a scholar whose expertise is primarily in European history.
Israel Bartal, dean of humanities at the Hebrew University, agreed that the Diaspora was a myth, but lashed out at Sand’s claim that Zionists intentionally created it.
“Although the myth of an exile from the Jewish homeland (Palestine) does exist in popular Israeli culture, it is negligible in serious Jewish historical discussions,” Bartal wrote in the newspaper Haaretz. “Important groups in the Jewish national movement expressed reservations regarding this myth or denied it completely. …
“The kind of political intervention Sand is talking about, namely, a deliberate program designed to make Israelis forget the true biological origins of the Jews of Poland and Russia or a directive for the promotion of the story of the Jews’ exile from their homeland is pure fantasy.”
In other words, Bartal, like some other critics of Sand’s book, is not so much disputing Sand’s historical claims about the Diaspora or the origins of Eastern European Jews, as he is contesting Sand’s notion that Zionists concocted a false history for a cynical political purpose.
Still, there can be little doubt that hard-line Zionists like Netanyahu and Danon exploit the Diaspora myth when addressing American audiences, including the U.S. Congress. In his speech on Tuesday, Netanyahu declared that no one could deny the “4,000-year-old bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land.”
This emotional appeal brought further applause from both Republicans and Democrats. However, Sand’s research suggests that the Palestinians, as descendants of the ancient Israelites, have their own historic bond to the land, arguably greater than that of Netanyahu, whose father was born in Poland and settled in Palestine in 1920.
However, on Tuesday, members of Congress were not interested in weighing complex legal and moral questions about who has the stronger territorial claim to the Holy Land. Nor were they thinking about what might be in Israel’s – or America’s – long-term interests from finally making the compromises needed for peace.
They were simply eager to demonstrate their unwavering support for Israel, for personal or political reasons. On the political side, the Republicans want to drive a wedge between influential Jewish-Americans and the Democrats, while the Democrats want to prevent that from happening.
So, the two sides bounced up and down cheering a foreign leader, even as he continued down a course that could lead to disaster for Israel and the Palestinians – and as he challenged the policies and prestige of the President of the United States.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a two-book set for the discount price of only $19. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.