To Help Palestine, Be Pro-Israel Too
Three viewpoints on the Gaza war fill the U.S. mass media: pro-Israel, anti-Israel, and neutral or even-handed. All three are harmful to the suffering people of Gaza. The one view that can help them is the one that barely gets a hearing. It's pro-Palestine, pro-peace, AND pro-Israel.
It's easy enough to see why support for Israeli policy hurts the Gazans. U.S. political leaders are heavily influenced by the view that's usually called "pro-Israel," equating support for Israel with support for its government's war policies. Even if our leaders might want to take a different approach (and it's doubtful how many really would), they fear the political repercussions. So they don't put U.S. weight behind any effort toward a just peace.
As long as that one-sided view prevails at the highest levels, the U.S. cannot be the kind of neutral broker that most Americans want us to be. According to columnist Glenn Greenwald, a recent poll shows 71% of the public here wanting the U.S. to support neither side. But our politicians consistently tilt toward Israel, pushed on by the overly loud voices that see Israel always in the right and Hamas in the wrong.
Yet a neutral, even-handed approach in the U.S. news media is dangerous for the people of Gaza too. It treats Israel's massive high-tech firepower, which has killed over 500, as somehow equivalent to Hamas' aimless, largely ineffectual rockets that have killed five. That gives Americans the impression there's a fair fight going on between two equally violent and equally suffering sides. Most people conclude that if neither side is the good guy, it's none of our business and we should just ignore it. At least they themselves ignore the conflict. That gives the "pro-Israel" lobby and the U.S. government a freer hand to follow a one-sided course.
Even for the minority of our people who want to be politically aware and involved in the Middle East, the even-handed view makes a realistic approach difficult, because it ignores or masks so many crucial facts beyond the disproportionate violence.
Israel, not Hamas, broke the recent truce, both by attacking Hamas on November 4 and by imposing an economic strangle-hold on Gaza. Israel's blockade left the people of Gaza desperately lacking in food, fuel, electricity, medical supplies, and other necessities for weeks before the current attack began. Israel has consistently ignored Hamas truce offers. Instead, helped by the U.S., it has tried to destroy the Hamas government, which Palestinians democratically chose to rule them. Israel, helped by the U.S., has also consistently inflamed tensions between Hamas and Fatah and blocked their efforts at creating a unified regime.
Anyone who does not know, or ignores, those crucial facts can hardly hope to frame a just resolution to the conflict. Yet all of that background simply disappears from the supposedly even-handed approach in our news media.
That might seem to leave only one fruitful approach: Stand up for the Palestinians, condemn Israel as the aggressor, and demand that it stop its attack immediately. It's understandable that Americans of good moral conscience might take such an approach. But from a practical point of view, it will not do the Palestinians of Gaza any good. It might even harm them more.
Political action that is merely "pro-Palestinian" allows the mass media to portray the engaged public divided into two neat camps-pro-Israel and anti-Israel-as if those were the only two options. Of course the mass media like simplistic pictures of two protest groups, diametrically opposed, on opposite sides of the street. It boosts their ratings. But it also lets supporters of Israeli policy feel even more justified, saying that "everyone who's not for us is against us."
It also encourages the average American to assume that there is no way out of this mess except to choose sides. In that case, since most know only what the political leaders and mass media tell them, they will choose the Israeli side.
Most importantly, action that is merely "pro-Palestinian" makes it harder to achieve the only political goal that really counts here in the U.S.: getting our government to take a different direction. There are some members of Congress and some mid-level staffers in the Obama administration who are not locked into a knee-jerk pro-Israel position. They are open to the possibility of using U.S. influence to change Israeli policy. The only way to set that change in motion is to encourage these "movable" figures in the government to speak out for a new direction.
But that would be very risky for their own careers. If they appear to represent a stridently anti-Israel view, they won't get anywhere -- except perhaps ushered out of the government entirely. So they need political cover. They have to be able to urge a new U.S. policy as a pro-Israel policy. Then they have at least a chance of making some headway against the existing pro-Israeli tilt.
Fortunately for them, and for us, a genuinely pro-Israel policy -- one that cares about the peace and security of the Israeli people -- will and must oppose the militaristic policies of the current Israeli leadership. The only way for Israel to achieve peace is to recognize the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to their own fully independent and completely viable state in all of the West Bank and Gaza -- with no Israeli settlements or security roads or military personnel left in Palestine; with the Palestinians left alone to have whatever government they democratically choose, even a government devoted to Islamic principles; with no surreptitious Israeli policies undermining the political and economic success of the Palestinian state; with the Israeli people living in peace and safety, within the borders of June 4, 1967 (with minor border rectifications mutually agreed upon, if necessary); with the Palestinian people compensated, both monetarily and by formal Israeli apology, for the injustice and suffering they have endured for sixty years.
This is the truly pro-Israel policy. It's the only one that can break down the wall -- both literal and psychological -- that Israeli Jews have created to separate themselves from their neighbors. It's the only one that can give Israel peace and security and release the energies of its people to realize the Zionist dream, to fulfill the highest aspirations of the Jewish people. It calls for the Jewish people to give up nothing that is truly their right and due.
It's also pro-Palestinian and pro-peace. It opens the way to productive cooperation between Jews and Palestinians, living side in two secure states, not merely in grudging toleration but in genuine friendship and mutuality.
If enough of the "movable" people in congress and the Obama administration start making that argument, both in public and in private, U.S. policy will begin to change -- very slowly, to be sure, but it will change. And that will produce fundamental change in the Middle East. Regardless of what Israeli leaders say to win votes at home, in fact they need U.S. support to continue their policies of occupation and force.
So even if your only goal is to relieve the suffering of the Palestinians, the best strategy right now is to avoid the appearance of being a one-sided "pro-Palestinian" advocate. The best strategy is to declare that you are pro-Palestine, pro-Israel, and pro-peace. Demand an end to the Israeli occupation and a guarantee of full independence for Palestine, but at the same time insist over and over that you support this program because you want the best for everyone in the region, Israelis as well as Palestinians.
This is the program being advocated by Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, J Street, and other Jewish peace organizations in the U.S., as well as by Gush Shalom and other Jewish movements in Israel, which can still bring thousands into the streets to demonstrate for peace and justice. The best way to help the Palestinian people now is to forge a powerful alliance between these groups and the many groups advocating Palestinian rights, recognizing that ultimately we all want the same thing.