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The American debate on Palestine-Israel

Dialogue no. 9, November 2007, between Ali Abunimah and Joshua Muravchik


Muravchik: The recent books by Jimmy Carter, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer have given new life to the canard, widely believed in the Arab world and elsewhere outside the US, that America's support for Israel is based on the power of the "Jewish lobby" or other mysterious and nefarious intrigues. The truth is much simpler. America's support for Israel is based on the belief held by most Americans, or at least a plurality, that in the Arab-Israel conflict Israel is in the right. This is shown by numerous public opinion polls, and it is truer today than ever before.

When I say that Americans believe that Israel is in the right, I do not mean that they believe it is right about everything. Rather I mean that Americans support Israel's right to exist, and they see that as the underlying issue of the conflict. And so it is.

Decades ago, the Arab side was quite frank about its desire to drive the Jews into the sea. Such rhetoric has disappeared from most Arab discourse. But it remains the idiom of Hamas and Hizballah and other powerful radical elements.

True, the so-called Saudi initiative, endorsed by the Arab League, implies a willingness by the Arab states to accept Israel's existence, but Israelis and Americans remember the duplicity of Yasser Arafat who talked peace out of one side of his mouth and jihad out of the other. Egypt's Ibn Khaldun Center conducted a public opinion survey about the popularity of various leaders. The three individuals who were the most popular with Egyptians were Hasan Nasrallah, Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, and Khaled Meshaal. What do they have in common that distinguishes them from other regional leaders? They are all sworn to Israel's destruction.

Uncertainty about the Arabs' willingness to accept a sovereign Jewish state in their midst is reinforced by the practice of terrorism by the Palestinians. Yes, the Arab world plays childish semantic games, claiming that blowing up Israeli babies and women is not "terrorism", it is "resistance". But such absurd excuses for terrorism only reinforce American sympathy for Israel. Most Americans find suicide bombing--and the celebration of these killers as "martyrs"--to be appalling and disgusting. US support for Israel comes therefore from the hearts of the American people.

Abunimah: I hear the false anti-Semitic canard that a cabal of Jews controls America being constantly repeated but principally by organizations and individuals who wish to discredit criticism of Israel and its US-based advocates in general, and of the books you mentioned in particular. The authors of those books are capable of defending themselves, but their readers will not find the canard--that you once again repeat in your opening statement--in the books. Instead, they will find reasoned arguments that we do not have enough open debate about our Israel policy. Just look at all the presidential candidates (with the exceptions of Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul) scrambling to outbid each other with allegiance to Israel and their utter failure to examine how much damage unquestioning US support for Israeli apartheid, occupation and colonization does to America's standing.

In September alone, Barack Obama came under massive attack for retaining elder statesman Zbigniew Brzezinski as an advisor (because the latter has been mildly critical of Israel). Meanwhile a prominent Rudolph Giuliani advisor called on his blog for razing entire Palestinian villages as collective punishment (a major war crime) and there was no outcry at all.

Your hypothesis that unquestioning US government and establishment support for Israel is based on popular support is certainly testable, but highly dubious. Most Americans know very little about the situation on the ground; indeed, the US public is badly misinformed about most international issues. After all, the American public--by very wide margins--believed the baseless conspiracy theory that Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the 9/11 attacks. This canard, encouraged by national leaders, was part of the campaign to gain public acquiescence for the invasion of Iraq. The US public is now waking up to the consequences of this disastrous policy both for the US and for the people of Iraq (four million of whom have fled from their fabulous new democracy since 2003).

Will I be accused of anti-Semitism for pointing out that some of the most determined and vocal supporters of "regime change" in Iraq, and now of escalating the confrontation with Iran (instead of negotiating as the US did with North Korea) were pro-Israel groups like AIPAC? Such groups do not represent the American Jewish public: American Jews were more against the invasion of Iraq than the American public at large. Of course AIPAC and other Israel lobby groups do not single-handedly determine US policy, but they do attempt--and succeed to a large extent--in shaping and limiting public and political discourse about alternatives.

Muravchik: I wrote about the canard that, "America's support for Israel is based on the power of the 'Jewish lobby'." You claim that the only people who say this are supporters of Israel. But then you say it yourself, to wit, "Israel lobby groups do not single-handedly determine US policy, but they do ... succeed to a large extent ... in shaping and limiting public and political discourse about alternatives."

You say that my assertion that US support for Israel rests on American public opinion is "testable". Where have you been? This question has been asked for decades and the results are consistent. In the most recent Gallup Poll (March 13, 2007), 58 percent of Americans say they are more sympathetic to the Israelis than to the Palestinians, while 20 percent say the reverse. Sixty-three percent say they have a favorable view of Israel, compared to 16 percent who have a favorable view of the PA. The Pew Survey (July 2006) found 45 percent expressing more sympathy for Israel to 8 percent for the Palestinians. (The rest said they favored both sides, neither, or had no opinion.)

A poll conducted in April 2007 for the Israel Project sheds light on the reasons for American support for Israel. Asked if they agreed or disagreed with the assertion that "the Arab's don't really accept Israel's right to exist", 76 percent of Americans said they agreed either strongly or somewhat, while only 20 percent said they disagreed either strongly or somewhat. (The Israel Project is a pro-Israel group, but the poll was contracted out to the leading Democratic Party public opinion agency, Greenberg-Quinlan-Rosner.)

Where would Americans have gotten such an idea? Not only from the pronouncements of various Arab leaders, but even from an Arab-American like yourself. You do not accept Israel's right to exist, but advocate instead that Jews live together with Palestinian Arabs in a binational state.

In yet another self-contradiction, this one multiple, you first say that it is "highly dubious" that Americans support Israel. Then you say that if they do, it is because "the US public is badly misinformed". And finally you say, "the US public is now waking up" about Iraq. This begs the question: if they are capable of "waking up" (translation: agreeing with you), then why does it matter if they are "misinformed"?

You claim that Carter and Walt-Mearsheimer offer "reasoned argument" that "we do not have enough open debate about our Israel policy." But all such claims, by them or you, are anything but reasoned. They are utterly absurd. Every year many books are published in the US taking anti-Israel positions. There are many periodicals that have a similar view. There are institutions like the Middle East Institute not to mention numerous Arab-American and Muslim organizations that are of a similar mind. Then there is the Middle East Studies Association, the main body of academics who specialize in the region, which is pro-Arab and anti-Israel.

I defy you to cite a single example of someone being prevented from expressing an anti-Israel position. The only evidence you have offered is that most presidential candidates take pro-Israel positions. Of course they do. Aside from the very real possibility that these candidates are pro-Israel in their hearts, like most Americans, they read the same polls I cited above. With American voters favoring Israel by a ratio of roughly 4-to-1, where do you expect presidential candidates to line up?

Abunimah: Of course the polls show high US support for Israel--I don't dispute that. What I am saying is that polls alone cannot explain why this support exists. Americans may genuinely believe Israel is a democratic state that shares their values. What I argue is that because the information Americans receive about Israel is so distorted, their views are distorted. We live in a country where respected former presidents are labeled "anti-Semites" merely for objecting to Israel's apartheid practices in the occupied territories, and where respected professors, such as Walt and Mearsheimer are dis-invited and excluded from speaking at institutions that previously welcomed them, merely for writing about the power of the Israel lobby and its distorting effect on public debate.

Most Americans are unaware of the racist basis on which the Israeli state is constructed--the laws that systematically privilege those the state deems Jewish and deny the rights of and degrade those who are not Jewish, especially the million plus indigenous Palestinians who are nominally Israeli citizens. There are good reasons why major leaders in the South African anti-apartheid struggle have stated repeatedly and in many forums that what Israel is doing is actually worse than what they experienced. Indeed, Israel has stated that it deems maintaining the demographic and political supremacy of Jews to be its ultimate goal, thus allowing the sacrifice of all other values. This is why the deputy prime minister of Israel, Avigdor Lieberman, openly advocates ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

What we need is an honest debate about the interest the US has in supporting the last western-backed colonial regime in Asia. The reality is that Israel is not an asset to the United States. It is a major burden. I would think that a true US interest would be to be on good terms with all the people of the Middle East. Support for Israeli colonialism and apartheid, in my view generated by US domestic politics, has stood in the way of the US developing good relations with much of the Arab and Muslim worlds (save for a few undemocratic regimes that are labeled "moderate" because they are dependent on US support).

Since we are citing polls, the very extensive research done by the Pew Center over many years shows that US support for Israel stands as the biggest single factor generating anti-US feeling in Muslim countries. You can now add to that the US invasion and occupation of Iraq based on lies about weapons of mass destruction.

Muravchik: After evading, now you acknowledge that the American public supports Israel in large majority. You, in contrast, hate Israel with an obvious passion. To explain the difference you accuse Americans of being ignorant and not receiving what you regard as correct information. But America has the freest press in the world. There are tens of thousands of books published in the country each year. There are also tens of thousands of periodicals and even more newspapers. Most people have access to hundreds of television channels as well as radio. And almost everyone has access to the internet, where the available information is infinite. A Google search shows many tens of thousands of internet entries referring to you. In other words, among an infinity of other sources, Americans have ample access to the opinions of Ali Abunimah. They just do not find those views persuasive.

It is easy to see why not. Although you call for "an honest debate," you can't have an honest debate by pretending that people disagree with you because of "distorted information" rather than respecting their differences. You can't have an honest debate by throwing around empty epithets like "apartheid", "racist" or "colonialist" which is little more than the kind of name-calling we boys would do in the school yard in elementary school. The fact that many people, including me, believe that Carter and Walt and Mearsheimer are anti-Semites does not prevent them from being heard. Their books sell lots of copies. They are on TV and in the news. It is funny that you object to people calling them anti-Semites, as if such an accusation is in bad taste, and then you yourself toss around the term "racist" without feeling any obligation to make a case for it. Any reader who wants to see the basis for my accusation against Carter can find my article, "Our Worst Ex-President", in the February issue of Commentary magazine that is readily available on the internet. Unlike you, I don't make accusations without substantiating them.

I also don't see how we can have a serious debate on the specific topic assigned to us by bitterlemons if you want also to debate the Arab-Israel conflict from A to Z. To answer a few points, Israeli Arabs have more than "nominal" Israeli citizenship. They enjoy more rights than the citizens of almost any Arab country. They are also treated better than many minorities in Arab countries. The accusation of "apartheid" is simply stupid. Blacks had no political rights in South Africa; Arabs have full political rights in Israel. If you want to criticize Israeli practices, go ahead. But get off the buzzwords.

And let us dwell for a moment on your accusation of "racism". Israel is racist, according to you, because it is a self-defined "Jewish state" in which non-Jews also live. How many of the Arab states assert in their constitutions that they are "Arab" states or part of the "Arab nation". Others assert that they are Islamic or that their law is based on Islam. Do you denounce these with equal passion? You advocate the abolishment of Israel, but do you also advocate the same for any Arab state? If it is only a Jewish state to which you object, then who is the racist?

Abunimah: Speaking of name calling, it seems that instead of presenting evidence and arguments against Walt, Mearsheimer and Carter, you are throwing around the ugly epithets. To call someone an anti-Semite is serious indeed. I just finished reading the Walt-Mearsheimer book. I can see why you are so angry--you are mentioned several times. I do not agree with everything in their book, but it's not "anti-Semitic" of them to point out how dead wrong you and your colleagues were to advocate for the invasion of Iraq and how bad it has been for the United States and for the world. And having learned nothing, you are now advocating for a US military attack on Iran. The arguments you made in the LA Times last November for why the US should bomb Iran (prominently among the reasons: to defend Israel) are convincingly demolished by Walt and Mearsheimer. Isn't it so much easier to smear them as "anti-Semites" than to argue against them?

As for that vaunted freedom of speech: freedom does not necessarily mean access. Take for example the decision last week of St. Thomas University in Minneapolis (the city I write to you from today): The President of the University cancelled a speech by Nobel Prize Winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a hero of the anti-apartheid struggle. The cancellation was the result of a smear campaign by Zionist groups calling Tutu an "anti-Semite" because of his strong criticism of the apartheid-like conditions Israel has imposed on the Palestinians. There are so many other examples like this. As you will be aware, the kind of criticisms Desmond Tutu has made of Israel are routinely made by Israelis in the Israeli press (with much more frequency than in the US press). Are Israelis horrified by their own country's apartheid also "anti-Semites"?

The moral case for the perpetual supremacy of Israeli Jewish rule in Palestine-Israel, and for the increasing brutality it entails, is so weak that perhaps such smear tactics are all that pro-Israel groups have left.

Now to answer your question: I oppose all political systems that include elements of racism, whether in Arab countries or anywhere else, and that certainly means I oppose the system in Israel that grants special and better rights, enshrined in law, to those the state recognizes as Jews. I do not hold as my standard Arab dictatorships, US-backed or otherwise. Israel claims to be an enlightened "western", "democratic" state. That's the standard to which it should be held. I call for the abolition of all laws in Israel that systematically privilege Jews over non-Jews, including the laws and practices that forbid the return of indigenous people who are not Jews, land and employment discrimination and ending the separate and unequal education systems. I favor a democratic, multi-ethnic system similar (but not identical) to the systems that now exist in Northern Ireland or South Africa where all the people have rights and protections and there is space for cultural expression resulting from negotiations.

The fundamental principle for any peace settlement must be that all the human beings in the country, whether Israeli Jews or Palestinians must enjoy equal rights and protections. Everyone must have citizenship. Does that make me a racist?

Muravchik: When you say that I fail "to present ... evidence and arguments against ... Carter", you forget that I already offered our readers a citation to my lengthy article about Carter in the February 2007 issue of Commentary magazine. I have not written about Walt and Mearsheimer, but I refer readers to the brief essay by Elliott Cohen, "Of Course It's Anti-Semitic" that appeared in the Washington Post last year and to the review of their book by Jeffrey Goldberg in the October 8 issue of The New Republic.

Walt and Mearsheimer have not offered any arguments about the Iraq war or Iran's nuclear program or about the Israeli-Palestinian and Israel-Arab conflicts that have not been heard thousands of times before. What they do that is new (in respectable circles) is to level the accusation that a Jewish conspiracy controls American policy. This is a) absurd and b) anti-Semitic. It is the same kind of accusation that is the basis of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and all kinds of other anti-Jewish hate literature.

You, yourself, make a similar argument when you insist, absurdly, that Americans mostly disagree with you because the information they receive is distorted and controlled. Distorted and controlled by whom?

There is complete freedom of speech in America. Of course it doesn't mean "access". You have the right to say what you want, but you don't have the right to say it in my living room unless I wish to invite you into my house. Most universities in America have not invited me to lecture, and there are many publications that have not published me or that have even turned down my requests to write for them. Does that mean that I don't have the ability to express my views to the public?

Are you seriously suggesting that you have nowhere to express your views? I mentioned earlier that there are a couple of hundred thousand web pages referencing you or written by you, and you explained during the course of this debate you were on a "book tour." You seem to have plenty of "access".

The issue is not that you and people who think like you don't have ample opportunity to express yourselves. The issue is that you want Israel to be abolished, "wiped off the map", as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad puts it. Most Americans think that position is morally reprehensible. Does it make you a racist? Perhaps. Apparently, you don't believe that the Jewish people have a right to a state. Do you take the same position about other national groups?

No one is persecuting Walt, Mearsheimer and Carter. Their books trill with a hatred of Israel that resonates in your own heart but that is opposite to what most Americans feel.

Abunimah: Joshua, you and your neo-con colleagues were dead wrong about the invasion of Iraq, and you are dead wrong about calling for the bombing of Iran. It's what Israel's leaders want and are now urging the US to pursue, but it is not what most Americans want and it's not what is good for the US or the world. The world is a much more dangerous place because of the policies you are advocating.

Rather than lashing out at everyone, including a globally respected former US president, and accusing them of "anti-Semitism" just because they rightly question the terrible consequences of unconditional US support for Israel, you should take an honest look at the havoc your wrong prescriptions have caused. I also urge you to stop advocating for a US attack on Iran and to learn from the error of your support for invading Iraq.

I believe in dialogue, coexistence and equality among all people. I oppose ethno-nationalism, whether Jewish or of any other kind. I believe in citizenship based on full equality for all people in a country regardless of religion, race or ethnic group. I do believe that if Protestants and Catholics can share a political entity in Northern Ireland, blacks and whites in South Africa, then Israelis and Palestinians can do it too. I do not believe any group of people has the right to exercise sovereignty or statehood if that means violating the fundamental rights of another group. That's the vision to which I am dedicated.

Ali Abunimah is cofounder of the online publication The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.

Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.