An Open Letter to Barack Obama

Please take a few moments to reflect on the relations between the United States and Israel in the light of a recent incident
Avi Shlaim
28 May 2010

Dear President Obama, 

On 16 May, Noam Chomsky, the renowned Jewish-American academic, was prevented by Israeli officials from entering the West Bank to deliver a lecture at Birzeit University near Ramallah. He came from Jordan across the Allenby Bridge, was interrogated at the border crossing for three hours, and was then expelled with his passport stamped "Denied Entry". In response to his question about the reason for this decision, he was told that the Israeli government does not like his views and that it resented the fact that he chose to speak only at Birzeit and not at an Israeli university. The 81-year old professor replied that he had frequently spoken at Israeli universities and that there was no government on earth that liked his views.  

This flagrant violation of academic freedom of an American citizen speaks volumes about the character of the government that committed it. Israel prides itself on being an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism. The present government, however, is no friend of democracy, of the rule of law, or human rights. Democracy requires a government to deal with critics not by silencing them but by engaging with them in an open public debate. Preventing individuals from expressing their views, suppression of academic freedom, detention and arbitrary expulsion, are all features of totalitarian regimes. Even from the perspective of Israel's own narrow interests, the decision to expel Professor Chomsky was unutterably stupid because he is not short of platforms from which to denounce Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people. But then stupidity too is a common feature of totalitarian regimes. 

This crass and self-defeating treatment of a distinguished compatriot should prompt you to reassess your country's special relationship with the State of Israel. Two main arguments used to underpin this special relationship in the past - the strategic and the ideological. During the Cold War Israel was widely regarded as a strategic asset in the containment of Soviet advances in the Middle East. After the ending of the Cold War, the strategic value of Israel sharply declined. The other main pillar of the special relationship was the ideological one. Israel stood for values with which Americans readily identified: democracy, political freedom, and human rights. But Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories since 1967 has gradually transformed it from a liberal-democracy into a brutal colonial power. The occupation has eroded the democratic foundations of Israeli society and has resulted in ever more savage treatment of the Palestinian people. As Karl Marx had foreseen, a people that oppresses another cannot itself remain free. Then there is the issue of Palestinian national rights, the right to a state of their own alongside the State of Israel. By signing the Oslo Accord with Israel in 1993, the PLO gave up the claim to 78 per cent of mandatory Palestine in return for what they hoped would be a mini-state on the West Bank and Gaza. But it was not to be. There are many reasons for the breakdown of the Oslo peace process, notably the Palestinian resort to violence, but the single most fundamental reason is the expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land. These settlements are illegal and they are the main obstacle to peace. Land-grabbing and peace-making simply cannot work in tandem. It is one or the other.  

Left to their own devices, Israel's right-wing government will continue to prefer territorial expansion to peace. There is only one power on earth that can compel Israel to change its priorities: the United States of America. This is where you, Mr President, come in. America is Israel's main arms supplier; it supports Israel to the tune of nearly $3 billion a year; and it regularly uses its veto on the UN Security Council to defeat resolutions critical of Israel. It is this almost automatic, some would say blind American support that has enabled Israel to defy the rest of the international community.  

Since your efforts at gentle persuasion have failed, you'll need to step up the pressure in order to compel Israel to suspend its illegal activities on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem and to stop abusing the human rights of the Palestinians living under occupation. For the last 43 years America has given Israel money, arms, and advice. Israel took the money, took the arms, and ignored the advice. All you have to do is make the money and the arms conditional on heeding American advice. It really is as simple as that. 

With best wishes, Avi Shlaim  

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