Why the United States and Israel?

Anthony Barnett
20 October 2004

The war in Iraq and how to fight terror on a global scale are playing a defining role in the United States presidential election. It is exceptional that foreign policy should be so central in a contest usually decided by domestic differences.

But there is something very strange about the way that this is happening. The foreign country Americans care about more than any other, Israel, is barely mentioned. Yet it is deeply involved in a terrible conflict with Palestinians which is at least as central to the “war on terror” as Iraq.

Many people of goodwill are cautious to voice in public their concerns over the nature and direction of the current alliance between the United States and Israel and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

There has been no discussion about these issues, only the briefest mention, in the three candidates’ debates between George W Bush and John Kerry.

This week openDemocracy, which is proud to enjoy a high proportion of American members amongst its worldwide readership – as our vigorous forums testify - publishes a full-scale, passionate exchange on the issue missing from the US election, in three major articles.

In his new anatomy of the contemporary United States, America Right or Wrong: an anatomy of American nationalism, the reporter and historian Anatol Lieven, now a senior associate at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argues that the alliance between the US and Israel has become a fusion of regressive nationalisms that carries great dangers for both countries.

In September, openDemocracy published a special essay by Lieven summarising the key points in his argument, which stretches far beyond America’s relations with Israel.

openDemocracy stands for open politics and honest, insightful argument where the case made by others is taken at its strongest. We asked the scholar Emanuele Ottolenghi to critique Lieven’s analysis of US-Israeli relations.

In his review, Ottolenghi charges Lieven with ignorance over nationalism, incoherence over liberalism, indulgence over anti-semitism, and inaccuracy over American foreign policy. He argues that Washington, far from needing to change its approach by putting pressure on Israel to reach a peace agreement with its Arab and regional neighbours, has in fact consistently acted for peace, and that its recent disengagement is the consequence not the cause of a diplomatic failure in which Palestinian terrorism and Arab intransigence were major factors.

Anatol Lieven responds in turn: the failure of the American political elite to discuss this critical issue, he argues, has betrayed the national interests of the American people and of loyal American allies, and will prove a disaster for Israel, a country he strongly supports.

To help readers make up their minds, we also carry an extract from the relevant chapter of Lieven’s book. It contains a very striking analogy. The first world war was precipitated by Serbian extremists whose ambitions had been inflamed by their confidence in the massive support extended to Serbia by the vast Russian empire of the Czars. Could Israel, thanks to its American alliance, be similarly overconfident today?

openDemocracy is committed to sustained, serious debate which seeks to understand the deeper issues at stake. In the case of Israel and neighbours, see for example, Eyal Weizman’s pioneering mapping of Israel’s West Bank occupation policy in his two series: “The politics of verticality” (April-May 2002) and “Ariel Sharon and the geometry of occupation” (September 2003).

This approach is continued by a recent exchange in our Letters to Americans series, where Israeli journalist and West Bank settler Yisrael Harel and American peace campaigner Jo-Ann Mort ask America and Israel: what kind of friends?.

In the conclusion to our six-part series on Abu Ghraib this week, the Jordanian-Palestinian journalist Rami Khoury identifies a missing link in debates over Iraq and its occupation: the failure of Arabs to achieve the application of universal principles of law, justice and accountability in the lands they themselves govern.

All too often charges of anti-Semitism, anti-Arabism, racism and prejudice, are used to intimidate, silence, caricature and dismiss those who wish to develop these and similar arguments.

Our exchange between Anatol Lieven and Emanuele Ottolenghi touches on these claims with some force and passion as it confronts the larger issues of nationalism, justice and democracy. Our aim is to see it continue. If Americans are not able to engage as they should then it is the responsibility of the rest of the world to do so.

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