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The 'Both-Sides-Are-Awful' Dismissal of Gaza Ignores the Key Role of the US Government

The temptation to wash one's hands of the whole conflict is understandable, but US support of Israel is a central force driving it all

photo: U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

Everything about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict follows the same pattern over and over, including the reaction of Americans. In the first couple of days after a new round of violence breaks out, there is intense interest and passion, which is quickly replaced by weariness, irritation, and even anger that one has to be bothered by this never-ending, always-ugly and seemingly irresolvable conflict. These sentiments then morph into an attempt to separate oneself from the entire matter by declaring both sides to be equally horrendous and thus washing one's hands from any responsibility for thinking further about it ("I'm sick of both sides"), followed by recriminations against anyone who actually has an opinion that is more supportive of one side than the other.

Esquire's Charles Pierce, one of the nation's best political writers, provided a classic case of this mindset yesterday in his post entitled "There Is No Side Worth Taking In Gaza". The crux: "I would like to have an opinion on this continual bloodletting that didn't sound banal but, goddammit, I'm out of them. I am thoroughly sick of both sides here." One encounters a version of this mentality with increasing frequency each day that the violence escalates.

This temptation is genuinely understandable. Few things are more depressing than paying attention to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The carnage and mutual hatred seem infinite. The arguments are so repetitive and fruitless. As is true in all wars, including those depicted in pleasing good-vs-evil terms, atrocities end up being committed by all sides, leading one to want to disassociate oneself from all parties involved. It is just as untenable to defend the indiscriminate launching by Hamas of projectiles into Israeli neighborhoods as it is to defend the massive air bombing by Israel of what they have turned into an open-air prison that is designed to collectively punish hundreds of thousands of human beings.

Virtually everyone wishes the entire conflict would just go away. With the exception of extremists on both sides who benefit in various ways, nobody relishes having to become involved in any of this. It is exhausting, draining, soul-crushing, and miserable. Embracing "screw-both-sides" nihilism and doing nothing else is so tempting because it appears to provide relief from the burden of paying any further attention to the horrific violence or bearing responsibility for any of it.

But for two independent reasons, this reasoning, understandable though it may be, depends upon patent fictions, and is thus invalid. The first reason, which I will mention only briefly, is that there is not equality between the two sides.

As my Guardian colleague Seumas Milne superbly detailed in his column Tuesday night, the overarching fact of this conflict is that the Palestinians, for decades now, have been brutally occupied, blockaded, humiliated, deprived of the most basic human rights of statehood and autonomy though the continuous application of brute, lawless force (for that reason, those who like to righteously condemn Hamas' rockets (Pierce, defending Obama; "he happened to be correct the other day. No country can tolerate the bombing of its citizens") have the obligation to state what form of legitimate resistance Palestinians have to all of this). Moreover, as these clear numbers from the Economist demonstrate, the violence and carnage so disproportionately harm the Palestinians that to suggest some form of equivalence between the two sides borders on the obscene.

But the second reason, to me, is even clearer. The government which Americans fund and elect, and for which they thus bear at least some responsibility, is anything but neutral in this conflict. That government - certainly including the Democratic Party - is categorically, uncritically, and unfailingly on the side of Israel in every respect when it comes to violence and oppression against the Palestinians.

For years now, US financial, military and diplomatic support of Israel has been the central enabling force driving this endless conflict. The bombs Israel drops on Gazans, and the planes they use to drop them, and the weapons they use to occupy the West Bank and protect settlements are paid for, in substantial part, by the US taxpayer, and those actions are shielded from recrimination by the UN veto power aggressively wielded in Israel's favor by the US government. As the excellent Israeli writer Noam Sheizaf put it on Chris Hayes' MSNBC program this weekend:

"Ultimately, the status quo is the solution from the perspective of [the Netanyahu] government. . . . . There's no incentive for the current [Israeli] political leadership to move from it, especially with the free hand it gets from the world and from the United States."

Just consider the actions of the US over the last week as violence in Gaza escalated. On Tuesday, the US vetoed a UN Security Council cease-fire resolution on the ground, in essence, that it was too balanced. The US State Department publicly attacked its Nato ally, Turkey, for condemning Israeli aggression. As always, the US Congress and the US Executive Branch are virtually unanimous in their full-throated, completely one-sided support for Israeli actions.

Last night, a producer for Rachel Maddow's MSNBC program, the long-time liberal blogger Steve Benen, gloated that the GOP's election-year attacks on Obama over Israel have been proven false because, as Benen noted [emphasis added]: "An Israeli official close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Obama administration's response to the conflict 'has been everything we could ever hope for.'" Though it should produce serious dismay rather than gloating, Benen is absolutely right in his factual claim: Obama specifically and Democrats generally have long been, and still are, every bit as loyal to and supportive of all Israeli actions as the American Right believes the US should be.

So this "both-sides-are-hideous" mentality is not what drives the actions of the US government. Quite the contrary: the US government is as partisan and loyal a supporter of one side of this conflict as one can possibly be. So if people want to rail against anyone who has convictions about one side or the other - Pierce: "The only people who make me more ill than the two active sides in this endless slaughter are the people far from the killing grounds who are so very goddamn sure they know what to do . . . I hate the cheering squads over here today" - then the place to begin is with the US government, the Obama administration, whose unstinting, multi-faceted support for and enabling of Israel is central to all of this.

Pierce does say that "I wish American arms and American dollars weren't being used to demolish entire impoverished neighborhoods," but in the next breath asks: "People are waiting for the president to do something, but what is to be done?" But he answered his own question: the US need not be, and should not be, such an active, one-sided participant in this aggression. That one should vehemently condemn rocket attacks on civilians and bombs on Tel Aviv buses outside of an Israeli military facility does not mean sanctioning the years-long fueling of the Israeli side of this conflict by the US government.

If one wants to try to wash one's hands of this entire matter by declaring both sides equally culpable, that's fine. But doing so requires an acknowledgment that the US government is doing nothing of the sort. It is fueling, funding and feeding the Israeli war machine, and, with its own militaristic conduct, is legitimizing the premises of Israeli aggression.

This is exactly what I was referencing when I wrote on Saturday that one must stop pretending that the US is some sort of helpless, uninvolved party in this war between two distant, foreign entities. That is complete fiction. If an American citizen really wants to advocate for neutrality on the ground that both sides are equally horrible and they're sick of the whole conflict and wish it would all just go away, then the place to begin with that advocacy is US government policy which, as unpleasant as it might be to face, has long been, and remains more than ever, a key force that drives the bloodshed.