x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

US politicians fall over themselves to bow down to Israel

The perceived need to pander to Israel can make American politicians say and do some remarkably foolish things, as the examples of the last week demonstrate clearly

When it comes to issues involving Israel, politicians in Washington can become quite hysterical, make the dumbest remarks or do the most illogical things. Such bizarre behaviour abounds, and the past few days have provided several examples.

Taking the top prize would be the newly elected Republican senator of Illinois, Mark Kirk. Mr Kirk wants the United States to use military assets to stop the humanitarian flotilla on its way to Gaza. He wrote that the US should "make available all special necessary operations and naval support to the Israeli navy to effectively disable flotilla vessels before they can pose a threat to Israeli coastal security or put Israeli lives at risk".

Apparently it doesn't matter to Mr Kirk that several dozen US citizens are on those ships (including a number of retired US military personnel), and that hostile action by the US military would put the lives of its own citizens at risk. It also doesn't appear to matter that the United States is engaged in several conflicts in the region and Arab perceptions of the United States are at a record low. A hostile act against the flotilla would, in fact, only serve to further compromise the US agenda in the Middle East.

Almost as disturbing as Mr Kirk's call for military action was the letter sent this week by the Texas governor Rick Perry to Attorney General Eric Holder. Mr Perry, who is widely believed to be considering entering the Republican presidential primary, takes his hysteria over the flotilla in a different direction. In his letter, he said: "More importantly, I write to encourage you to aggressively pursue all available legal remedies to enjoin and prevent these illegal actions, and to prosecute any who may elect to engage in them in spite of your pre-emptive efforts."

Mr Perry doesn't specify which US laws have been violated. Nor does he describe which "legal remedies" should be pursued. What he does reveal is that in his pursuit of the presidency, he will say or do most anything.

And then there's the action taken this week by the entire US Senate when it unanimously passed a resolution that expresses its "opposition to the inclusion of Hamas in a unity government ... Palestinian efforts to gain recognition of a state outside direct negotiations demonstrate absence of a good faith commitment to peace negotiations ...[that] will have implications for continued United States aid".

In advocating a bill that threatens aid to the Palestinian Authority, two senators in particular made noteworthy comments. The lead sponsor of the legislation, Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, accused the United Nations of having a "well documented record of being hijacked" by Palestinians for use against Israel. Ms Collin's co-sponsor, the Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, denounced the UN effort, describing it as a "unilateral attempt by the United Nations to establish a Palestinian state".

Ms Collins, of course, ignores the many times the US Senate has been "hijacked" by supporters of Israel to force actions that have harmed the Palestinians - like this very resolution, which threatens to cut US aid, and the infamous Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act of 1996, which had a devastating effect on perceptions of the US across the Arab world.

And while Mr Cardin's description of possible UN action has been so overused as to become cliché, it is nonetheless nonsense. It defies logic to describe any action voted on by more than 190 member states of the United Nations as "unilateral". But when it comes to demonstrating loyalty to Israel, logic and good sense are put aside in favour of outlandish displays.

All this might just be dismissed as political pandering or more harmless hot air from politicians who specialise in both. But such rhetoric is dangerous and has consequences. In the first place, actions and statements like these send an absolutely horrible message overseas about the inability of American politics to deal fairly with any Middle East issue that involves Israel. And this ends up undercutting US diplomacy.

Secondly, these actions, and the skewed, one-sided politics they reflect, tie the hands (or, at times, force the hands) of White House administrations, negatively affecting the ability of policymakers to act. And finally, in the end, these comments and actions embolden hardliners in Israel and the Arab world, who both come to believe that there are no restraints on Israeli behaviour and no way that Arab concerns will be heard or respected in US policy debates.

And so, far from being harmless hysteria or just plain dumb, all this posturing can be damaging. It is a large part of the reason why US foreign policy is such a mess regarding the Middle East, and why a just resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict appears to be so difficult.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute