The shifts in American attitudes toward Israel are born out of the collapse of a political consensus in the U.S. and European civil society's landscape on relations with the Zionist state. Political and public shifts in attitudes take shape over a long period and are directly connected to unfolding past and present events.
Here, the shifts underway are an outcome of a process that commenced with direct U.S. military intervention, operations and deployment in Operation Desert Storm, some 25 or more years ago, and are crystallizing in the present.
Moreover, the election of U.S. President Donald Trump has accelerated the collapse of taboos on all issues including Israel's standing and relations within the U.S. political landscape. Additionally, the advent of social media has considerably curtailed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's (AIPAC) and Israel's ability to control and dominate the narrative.
In the 1970s, '80s and early '90s, AIPAC and other major American Zionist organizations managed to forge bipartisan support for Israel, which resulted in connecting Israel to the U.S. on military, economic, educational, social and religious fronts. The Cold War allowed Israel to play an essential role in U.S. foreign policy, but the diligent and systematic organizing work of AIPAC and American Zionist organizations translated the alliance of convenience into an untouchable taboo in American politics and media discourses.
The end of the Cold War brought Israel's role, as an important regional and global ally, into question as new ideas and visions were introduced for forging a "new world order" that did not project the old alliances into the future. Israel's role was unique and crafted through a combination of the U.S. and NATO's desire to counter the USSR in the Arab and Muslim world and the diligent skillful work of AIPAC's lobbying that managed to stitch Israel's interest into the foreign and military policy infrastructure.
Israel's role in the post-Cold War era began to take a decisive turn in the U.S. build-up and push for the 1990-1991 invasion of Iraq. Israel's status, as the regional hegemonic power, became a significant liability to the U.S. war efforts and the need to recruit Arab and Muslim states into the invading alliance. More critically and after the Gulf War, Israeli leaders called for neutralizing and removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from office due to his continued support for the Palestinians, which led to the U.S.' adoption of a new policy on Iraq.
The change in approach and the push for regime change was communicated with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the form of a policy document, titled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm."
It was developed with the involvement of the following individuals: Participants of the Study Group on "A New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000," Richard Perle, American Enterprise Institute, Study Group Leader; James Colbert, Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs; Charles Fairbanks, Jr., Johns Hopkins University Douglas Feith, Feith and Zell Associates; Robert Loewenberg, President, Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies; Jonathan Torop, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy; David Wurmser, Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies; and Meyrav Wurmser of Johns Hopkins University.
While "a clean break" might appear to be "clean" from Netanyahu's perspective, the implication is an end to the actual "land for peace" formula and a move toward pacification of the Palestinian population internally and the removal of Arab support regionally. "A clean break" for Palestinians was translated into large settlement activities, land confiscation and unrestrained Israeli violence, while regionally as an urgent call for regime change in Iraq, which finally was adopted by the U.S. government.
The push to commit U.S. troops directly in the Arab world and the move toward military operations in the region is directly connected to the collapse of the political taboos related to Israel and Zionism. Here, the various political elites, including the Israel lobby, despotic Arab regimes and the military-industrial complex – each having its own set of interests, worked to forge the post-Cold War system which coalesced around the policy of regime change and direct military intervention in the region. Regime change in Iraq meant an end to the "peace process" as an avenue to address the Palestinian-Israel conflict and an open-ended regional war to remove any opposition to normalizing relations with Israel. Thus, the problem from Netanyahu's perspective is not Israel's occupation and torment of the Palestinians but so-called "Arab and Muslim world rejection" of Israel, as a Jewish state, which must be addressed before tackling the internal Palestinian file. Indeed, the shift makes Israel again the central player in the post-Cold War era and reconfigures U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds toward Netanyahu's priorities.
Israel lost its unique Cold War role and went out to constitute a new one that fits its vision and matches the interests of its extreme right-wing political elite, which was committed to the undoing of the peace process one settlement at a time. Rather than reaching a real agreement with the Palestinians, Israel and Netanyahu opted to change the regional landscape to fit its ideological orientation, which involved regime change and bringing the U.S. into direct military involvement.
This should not be taken to mean that the U.S. was a helpless actor in this shift; instead, the American political elite already had an orientalist worldview and was a willing participant in the attempt to secure its oil and economic interests in the region, but the policy choice was heavily influenced by Israeli priorities than the U.S. imperial interests, which were achievable through soft power. In reality, the U.S. has had total domination of the regional landscape without having to commit troops or adopt a regime change by military force in Iraq. The consequences of direct U.S. military intervention and troop deployment into the battlefields in Iraq was the beginning of the cracks in public discourses around Israel and Zionist taboo in politics. As long as the debates in the U.S. were confined to AIPAC's efforts to cement the alliance with Israel, increase foreign aid, provide protection for Israel against international consequences and isolate the Palestinians regionally and globally, then the taboo and limits in public discourse were maintained.
However, once the U.S. committed troops and became involved militarily, then all bets were off, whereby discussions and debates regarding Israel and the political taboos on its role in U.S. foreign and domestic policies were no longer sustainable. Initially, it was on the margins of America's political landscape, but as the military deployment dragged-on and the complexity of the conflicts became apparent, Israel and its lobby were no longer in a position to maintain the political taboos, which included a split within the ranks of the American Jewish community itself. Netanyahu's vision of "a clean break" did materialize but with it came all the unintended consequences inside the U.S. and across many parts of the world.
The change by the Democrats
The current realignment in the Democratic Party is a definite indication of the shattering of the political taboos in relation to Israel and Zionism underway in the country. This process started much earlier than the arrival of the 2018 midterm elections and the newly elected class of Democrats, which includes a number that was not only ready to take Israel to task on human rights violations but also to speak on the untouchable taboo, namely the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
The cracks appeared during Barack Obama's presidency due to Netanyahu's strategy, which involved mobilizing the Republicans to frustrate and curtail Obama's Arab and Muslim world agenda that called for a shift back into soft power and away from military intervention. Needless to say that Netanyahu won and was able to reconstitute his vision with the help of a Republican Party that was ready and willing to oppose Obama at all costs, including collusion with the Israeli prime minister against a sitting U.S. president.
Everyone that watched the Republicans give a standing ovation to Netanyahu's speech in Congress, in opposition to Obama's Iran deal and Secretary of State John Kerry's attempts at curtailing settlements, understood that Israel had become a partisan issue in the U.S. The fact that democratic members in Congress are ready to push back against AIPAC and Israel is evidence of the breaking of the taboo and a readiness to shift the conversation. More importantly, the Democrats rank and file across the country are emboldened and ready to push the debate further than it is at the national level, and this will become more evident in the 2020 election cycle.
Zionism gains momentum
Trump's arrival on the political scene and his readiness to break all political, social, racial, gender and cultural taboos is another critical contributing factor to the shift. Trumpism and its attacks on established political norms and discourses created an opening for every conceivable issue under the sun, including Israel and Zionism. Here, the alliance and public embrace between Netanyahu and Trump brought Israel and Zionism into a head-to-head confrontation with the resistance movement that developed in opposition to what Trumpism represents. Netanyahu has put all of Israel's eggs in the Republican and Trump's leaking political basket, which accounts for the Republican base but nothing else. Yes, Netanyahu and Adelson got the U.S. Embassy moved to Jerusalem, a tacit recognition of the legitimacy of the settlements and the ending of UNRWA funding for the Palestinians; but what all of this accomplishes is only a delay of the conflict with the Palestinians and not its solution. The push toward annexation of Golan Heights or even the West Bank and a possible military campaign against Iran is only adding muck to Israel and Zionism standing in the U.S. and the world while bringing it further into the ongoing fragmentation of America's politics. Israel and its allies in the U.S. are operating as if nothing has changed and from a pre-collapse mindset, which is beginning to compound AIPAC's and other Zionist organizations' failure.
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