Stephen M. Walt

It’s time to redefine “pro-Israel”

Over at Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald has posted some typically sharp and forceful comments on the gap between American public opinion on the conflict in Gaza and the public stance taken by our politicians. Citing a recent Rasmussen poll, he shows that Americans “are closely divided over whether the Jewish state should be taking military action ...

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Over at Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald has posted some typically sharp and forceful comments on the gap between American public opinion on the conflict in Gaza and the public stance taken by our politicians. Citing a recent Rasmussen poll, he shows that Americans “are closely divided over whether the Jewish state should be taking military action against militants in the Gaza Strip” (44-41%, with 15% undecided), but Democratic voters overwhelmingly oppose the Israeli offensive — by a 24-point margin (31-55%).” Yet Democratic party leaders like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are standing squarely behind the brutal Israeli offensive and the Bush administration has put the blame solely on Hamas and blocked a UN Security Council statement calling for an immediate cease-fire. So far, only a couple of members of Congress have offered even the mildest criticism of Israel’s actions.

This pattern of behavior is all-too-familiar. During the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, numerous surveys showed that American public opinion was deeply divided about the conflict and the wisdom of Israel’s assault on Lebanon. A USA Today/Gallup poll in July 2006 found that 38 percent disapproved of Israel’s actions and that 65 percent of the respondents said that the United States should take “neither side” in the conflict. An ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 32 percent thought Israel was using “too much force” and 46 percent thought Israel and Hezbollah were “equally to blame.” Echoing these findings, a Zogby poll in August 2006 found that 52 percent wanted the United States to remain neutral.  

Did U.S. policy reflect the people’s will, even a little? Hardly. “Pro-Israel” groups went into overdrive, targeting any politicians or human rights organizations that dared to question what Israel was doing to the civilian population in Lebanon. The Bush administration backed Israel to the hilt and delayed a ceasefire resolution — just as they are doing now — in a futile attempt to give Israel time to eke out a military victory. Not to be outdone, Congress passed a resolution of support by a vote of 410-8, after deleting a clause from the initial draft that called for both sides to minimize harm to civilians. The result of all this “support” was a major setback for Israel, however, as the ill-conceived war undermined Lebanon’s fragile democracy and left Hezbollah stronger and more popular than before. Delaying the ceasefire also cost more Israeli and Lebanese lives.

And here’s the real tragedy: giving Israel unconditional support wasn’t a true act of friendship then and isn’t a genuine act of friendship now; on the contrary, it’s positively harmful to the long-term interests of the Jewish state. Those congressmen, senators, and other government officials who are falling over themselves to defend Israel’s behavior, along with the usual apologists like Marty Peretz and Alan Dershowitz, are no friends of Israel, though they undoubtedly think they are. Their support helped Israel shoot itself in the foot in 2006, and they are helping it do the same thing today.

Pundits like Walter Russell Mead are fond of claiming that the U.S.-Israel “special relationship” reflects shared religious traditions and the will of the American people. The evidence suggests otherwise: although most Americans support Israel’s existence and have more sympathy for them than they have for the Palestinians, they are not demanding that U.S. leaders back Israel no matter what it does. But that’s what American politicians reflexively do, even though it encourages Israel to continue immoral and self-destructive policies (including the continued expansion of settlements) and contributes to Arab and Islamic anger at the United States.

The only thing missing in Greenwald’s excellent analysis is a full explanation for this phenomenon. Part of the reason, he notes, is the one-sided coverage that this issue receives in American mainstream media. But if you really want to understand the gap between what the American people want and what our foreign policy establishment gives them on this issue, well, I’ve got a book for you to read.

Bottom line: the sooner we redefine what it means to be “pro-Israel,” the better for us and the better for Israel. Needless to say, it would be much better for the Palestinians too.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images News

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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