Why Americans Don't Understand Palestine
If a man from Mars descended to observe Israel’s attack on the Gaza strip, he would have seen one group of humans trapped in a densely populated area, largely defenseless while a modern air force destroyed their buildings at will. He might have learned that the people in Gaza had been essentially enclosed for several years in a sort of ghetto, deprived by the Israeli navy of access to the fish in their sea, generally unable to travel or to trade with the outside world, barred by Israeli forces from much of their arable land, all the while surveyed continuously from the sky by a foe which could assassinate their leaders at will and often did.
This Martian also might learn that the residents of Gaza—most of them descendants of refugees who had fled or been driven from Israel in 1948—had been under Israeli occupation for 46 years, and intensified closure for six, a policy described by Israeli officials as “economic warfare” and privately by American diplomats as intended to keep Gaza “functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis.” He might note that Gaza’s water supply is failing, as Israel blocks the entry of materials that could be used to repair and upgrade its sewage and water-treatment infrastructure. That ten percent of its children suffer from malnutrition and that cancer and birth defects are on the rise. That the fighting had started after a long standing truce had broken down after a series of tit-for-tat incidents, followed by the Israeli assassination of an Hamas leader, and the typical Hamas response of firing inaccurate rockets, which do Israel little damage.
But our man from Mars is certainly not an American. And while empathy for the underdog is said to be an American trait, this is not true if the underdog is Palestinian.
Among the chief milestones of Washington’s reaction to Israel’s military campaign were: President Obama stated from Bangkok that America supported Israel’s right “to defend itself” and “no country on earth would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens” while national-security aide Benjamin Rhodes added “the reason there is a conflict in Gaza is because of the rocket fire that’s been launched at Israeli civilians indiscriminately for many months now.” Congress took time off from partisan wrangling about the fiscal cliff to pass unanimously two resolutions, in the Senate and House, expressing its “unwavering commitment to the security of the State of Israel” and backing its “inherent right to protect its citizens against acts of terrorism.” Its members could further inform themselves by attending a closed briefing by Israel’s ambassador Michael Oren on November 28, the only figure invited by the House Foreign Affairs Committee to testify.
As the fighting continued, Walter Russell Mead, a prominent political scientist, conveyed impatience with the just-war tradition seemed to inhibit Israeli air attacks, which by then had killed and wounded scores of people. Mead asserted that Americans would back an Israeli response of “unlimited ferocity.”
When Republican governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell, not known for his foreign-affairs opinions, issued a statement backing Israel’s response to “unwarranted and random violence,” he was assumed to be signaling his presidential aspirations. The polls seemed to back him up: Americans told pollsters they supported Israel’s actions against the Palestinians in Gaza by 57 percent to 25 percent, though the percentage of backers were somewhat lower among Democrats (41 percent), and the young (45 percent).
One explanation for such sentiments is that most Americans take foreign policy cues from political leaders, and no prominent American politician is willing to publicly express sympathy or compassion for Palestinians at the expense of Israel. Since roughly the time of John F. Kennedy, the politically ambitious have understood that expressing a wish for even-handedness between Israel and Palestine would threaten one’s career. Whatever their private views might be, by the time they get to Congress legislators learn that uncritical support for Israel is the “smart” political choice.
The spectrum of Congressional debate is shaped by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose leaders vet potential candidates from across the political spectrum for their willingness to promote AIPAC-sponsored views on the Middle East, and ensure the access of those who agree to the lobby’s superb national fundraising networks.
Those who stray are punished. Among notable victims was Illinois Senator Charles Percy, a moderate Republican once considered by many a possible future president. But after Percy refused to sign “the letter of 76” senators opposing President Ford’s call for a reassessment of U.S. Middle East policy, and described Yasser Arafat as relative moderate among Palestinians, he faced well-funded opponents in the primary and general elections, and an outsider from California spent more than $1 million in negative ads against him. As J. J. Goldberg, editor of the Forward, noted a decade ago, “there is this image in Congress that you don’t cross these people or they take you down.” Given the absence of any publicly Palestine-sympathetic politicians at the national level, it may be surprising that support for Israel’s strikes is not higher than 57 percent.