Empty gestures

When Americans love Israel more than even the Israelis do, then something is wrong. And beware of friends who are willing to love Israel to death.

January 8, 2017 20:56
4 minute read.
Obama Trump

Obama and Trump. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The US presidential campaign season is over yet its bellicose pronouncements, pandering promises and empty gestures are still very much with us. Nowhere is that more evident than with respect to Israeli-American relations, in particular the proposal to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.

First, there was President Barack Obama’s decision to have the US abstain at the UN Security Council’s vote declaring Israeli settlements “illegal.” The vote itself was lacking in any legal significance, and once the US chose to abstain, its outcome was a foregone conclusion. After all, when does an anti-Israel vote not pass at the UN unless the US vetoes it? Yet even empty gestures can have consequences. For one thing, the US abstention weakened President Obama’s legacy as a supporter of Israel, this after eight years of providing Israel with more military aid and political cover at the UN than any prior US president.

It came across like pointless 11th hour payback for a long list of perceived grievances by a lameduck administration. In terms of political calculus, it aligned the Democratic Party with its most progressive elements precisely at a time when Democratic strategists have been arguing that the party should move to the center and find common ground with Republican moderates so as to serve as an effective opposition to the incoming Trump administration.

Then there was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response, which seemed almost unhinged given the practical insignificance of the resolution. He loudly announced that Israel was revisiting its $8 million annual UN contribution (of course, the members who supported the resolution contribute $38 billion annually), and called home the Israeli ambassadors from New Zealand and Senegal, which supported the resolution. He also threatened to cancel an impending visit from the Jewish president of Ukraine, and called in the ambassadors of the supporting countries for a dressing down. With these steps, Netanyahu singlehandedly did more to isolate Israel than did the UN resolution.

As usual, Trump contributed to the UN theatrics with showmanship of his own, tweeting messages in support of Israel and pressuring President Abdel Fattah Sisi of Egypt to withdraw his sponsorship of the resolution. Trump’s efforts undercut the intuitively sensible US tradition of “one president at a time,” but achieving the political “disruption” that he seems to crave and which enables him to keep winning headlines. And, of course, his efforts accomplished nothing; once Egypt withdrew its sponsorship, the resolution was immediately sponsored by other UNSC members. So Trump’s empty gestures failed to block the UN’s empty gestures.

The real curiosity, however, has been the excitement and anticipation among Israel’s right-wing supporters in the US over Trump’s promise to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. Whether or not Trump actually follows through with that promise – unlike, say, his promises to “build the wall” and “lock her up” – the real question is: who cares? What exactly is supposed to happen if the sign on the American Consulate on Agron Street is changed to say “Embassy”? Would it mean that Jerusalem has somehow been “saved”? Would it somehow strengthen the Jewish claim to west Jerusalem, which nobody seriously questions anyway? Would the Palestinians stop insisting that east Jerusalem be the capital of their future state? So what exactly would it accomplish? But, as I’ve said, empty gestures come with consequences, particularly when they involve Jerusalem.

Ariel Sharon pulled an election stunt in September 2000 when he visited the Temple Mount, supposedly to “reinforce” the Jewish claim to this sacred site. The result was the Second Intifada which produced over 1,000 Jewish dead, many of them children (not to mention over 2,000 Palestinian dead), and devastated Israel’s economy. Nothing changed in terms of the Mount’s political status, but for the families of the dead a lot changed. So here are some questions for supporters of the move: how many Israeli lives are you potentially willing to sacrifice in order to change the sign on the American Consulate? How much economic damage are you prepared to have Israel suffer? How much political damage? One reason why prior American presidents did not move the US embassy was because they all came to the same, sensible conclusion: that the US has no business risking even one Jewish or Palestinian life for a meaningless political gesture. Moving the embassy makes for great US campaign rhetoric, and cheering it on may make some Americans feel like they are earning their Zionist stripes, but it puts Israelis at risk. Tellingly, therefore, not a single Israeli prime minister (not even Netanyahu) has asked the US to make the move. There are times when, sadly, Jewish lives must be risked, such as when Israel or its people are threatened. But to invite violence for no tangible benefit is irresponsibility at its highest.

It’s time for all American friends of Israel to clear their heads of the election nonsense and to start thinking again in terms of realities on the ground. Every one of us wants the most for Israel. We all want it to have the most territory, the most power, the most peace, the most democracy, the most international support. But Israelis know – and Israel’s American friends should know – that achieving all these things will not be possible. Complex, difficult choices will have to be made, including some painful compromises.

These decisions will rest in the hands of Israel and its democratic systems, precisely where they should be. That’s what Israel needs from its American friends: support and respect for its democracy.

But when Americans love Israel more than even the Israelis do, then something is wrong. And beware of friends who are willing to love Israel to death.

The author is an attorney living in Lawrence, New York.

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