Too Close for Comfort?

Newsweek, February 22, 2010 | Go to article overview

Too Close for Comfort?


Reassessing America's special relationship with Israel.

Eleven minutes after Israel announced its independence in 1948, President Harry Truman recognized the new state, and American support has been crucial to -Israel's survival and a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy ever since. But as Washington's focus has shifted toward Iraq and Afghanistan, and as President Obama has begun new overtures toward moderate Arab states such as Egypt, some are questioning whether that policy still serves the national interest. Should the U.S. step back from its special relationship with Israel? That was the topic of last week's Intelligence Squared U.S. debate at New York University.

Arguing in favor of reassessing the relationship were Roger Cohen, a former foreign editor and a columnist for The New York Times, and Rashid Khalidi, professor of Arab studies at Columbia University and an adviser to the Palestinian delegation at the 1991-93 peace talks.

Arguing for keeping the relationship intact were Stuart Eizenstat, former U.S. ambassador to the European Union and undersecretary of state, and Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University.

The moderator was John Donvan of ABC News. Edited excerpts of the debate:

COHEN: In life, when we fail, we call it stupidity to burrow deeper into failure. Measured by any standard, American policy toward Israel has failed. We are no closer to peace. Israelis and Palestinians are farther apart than ever. What makes America's relationship with Israel special is its uncritical nature, even when U.S. interests are being hurt, and also the incredible largesse that the United States shows toward Israel--over the past decade, almost $60 billion. To what end is this money being used? The ongoing Israeli settlement program in the West Bank has grown to 450,000 Israelis beyond the [1967] borders, a repressive apparatus of settler-only highways, reserved military areas, and a "separation wall"; of Israelis in their fast cars booming down these superhighways, while Palestinians on their donkey carts make their way on dirt tracks to their orchards.

"Two states for two peoples" is the declared U.S. objective, [but] the U.S. is bankrolling the very Israeli policies that are dashing these hopes by making two states almost unimaginable.

America's perceived complicity in Israeli violence carries a heavy price. It is a potent terrorist recruitment tool. If America is to pay the blood, the treasure, and lost peace of mind that comes with supporting Israel, it should be ready to speak openly and critically of Israeli mistakes when needed. For if there are not two states, there will be one state, and, sooner or later, the number of Palestinians in it will outnumber the number of Jews, and what then will remain of the Zionist dream?

EIZENSTAT: For the United States to stand back from its special relationship with Israel would betray the very principles of morality upon which U.S. foreign policy is based. It would mean abandoning the only democratic, reliable ally in the region. What message would this send to other allies? America has to stand behind its allies, or it will not have many left anywhere. It's a specious argument that President Obama's outreach to the Muslim world is inconsistent with a special relationship with Israel. This is not a zero-sum game; we can and do have both. The Arab states know that Israel can make concessions because it has a dependable American ally. To step back from that relationship would undercut the very basis of the only bipartisan foreign policy we have in this country.

KHALIDI: Let me list a couple of the problems that result from this special relationship. One is an almost total deafness to public opinion in Palestine and in the Arab world. Everybody knows there is a big fat U.S. thumb on the scales when the United States acts as a mediator. …

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