Cohen on the GOP candidates’ fawning over Israel

Normally this type of endorsement would be done with a quick hit on Twitter, but I thought Michael Cohen‘s article over at Foreign Policy was so ‘necessary’ (usually such a pretentious way of putting it) that it deserved to be flagged in its own post. It is not that he says anything particularly revolutionary, but rather that he says it at all – and that so few others have done the same.

Cohen assesses the disturbing implications of some of the recent statements by various GOP presidential candidates on the Israel-Palestine conflict. These statements are not just factually incorrect (that in itself is not wholly surprising) but borderline racist and certainly discordant with US policy and interests, at least as articulated by the last two or three administrations.

So why are these things said? Because the candidates (barring, seemingly, Ron Paul) are in race to appear the most sympathetic toward Israel and thus the most damning of Palestine. In this quest, accuracy and – even – decency go out the window.

I will ask you head over to Foreign Policy to read the article yourselves, but let me just add that it is surprising that these types of statements have not elicited more outrage in the normally very easily outraged media. It is strange that in a society that is normally so politically correct, where statements about ‘lipstick on pigs‘ or ‘fucking retarded‘ activists can stir a media frenzy, comments about ‘the Palestinians being terrorists‘ or the ‘West Bank being part of Israel‘ go mostly unnoticed. The main point for the media was Gingrich’s comment on the Palestinian people being an ‘invented people’ – hardly the most contentious statement of the evening (for so, of course, are most nationalities, not least Newt’s own).

Perhaps the silence relates to the emotion underlying the Israel-Palestine conflict and the tendency for those who participate to be lambasted by whatever party is feeling threatened (not entirely unlike the ongoing zero-sum conversation on counterinsurgency, in fact). Still, the fear of being attacked cannot prevent us from calling things by what they are, as Michael Cohen does in this important piece.

Finally, there are several sound reasons why the United States ought to distance itself from Israeli positions. For starters, providing an echo-chamber makes it very difficult to amass any credibility with the Palestinian political leadership, which will be important if the US wants to (as it must) play a part in breaking out of the current impasse. A few weeks ago, I attended a discussion between Yossi Beilin and Samieh al-Abid on this particular issue. It was a fascinating exchange, and Beilin made a very salient point on the danger of having no daylight between US and Israeli preferences for the region. With regard to a certain recently retired Special Advisor for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, he notes that…

he thought that real friendship with Israel means to collaborate with Israeli prime ministers (whoever it is) and he created a situation whereby it was impossible for the Palestinians to know whether the ideas which stemmed from the [US] administration were our  ideas [Israel’s] or theirs. So the suspicion was always that whatever an American president suggested was an Israeli suggestion. And this was one of the problems, especially in Camp David, when Arafat was sure that everything [the US] suggested was an Israeli idea – and by definition for him to accept an Israeli idea was not a preference.

The discussion was in fact fascinating for many reasons. For those of you with extremely good hearing or a lot of patience, you can catch a very poor-quality recording of it here and here.

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29 thoughts on “Cohen on the GOP candidates’ fawning over Israel

  1. David Betz says:

    I’m not so happy about cohen’s piece myself. First, I think he soft soaps palestinian rocket and terror attacks. Second, the major thesis here is the Israel wags the American dog theory which is a) not true and b) talked up all the time. I didn’t need to hear it more. Worse, however, was hearing it under the headline ‘chosen people’ which is a dog whistle for Jew-haters who will flock to the piece with talk no doubt of the ziolobby running the USA and the world’s banks/media in 3, 2, 1… Third, Palestinians really do teach some incredibly vile and violent things in their schools and this is a problem. Fourth, well here maybe Cohen and I would agree, not sure, the best thing the USA could do for the region is back off.

    • Ed (the real one) says:

      Palestinians really do teach some incredibly vile and violent things in their schools

      Citations?

    • This is about the rampant anti-Semitism in some Palestinian schools and Hamas’ infamous use of Mickey Mouse type characters to inculcate ideas of martyrdom and hatred of Jews. It is pretty vile. Brainwashing of kids. I can find an explanation for it, given the context, but there is absolutely no excuse for it.

      Having said all of that, I was shocked to see a similar, albeit more subtle, phenomenon at play in a recent documentary – Defamation – where some Israeli schools were shown to inculcate a siege mentality among the young, particularly with regard to Europe (this about their visit to Poland around the 8 and 17 minute mark). “They all hate us” is sort of the purpose of the trip.

      Here is the link:
      http://watchdocumentary.com/watch/defamation-video_8270175d4.html

    • Ed (the real one) says:

      I would just like to see evidence of the nature and extent (including how widespread it is) of the propaganda in Palestinian schools. I am entirely open to this being true, but I have learned that it is best to be rigorous when it comes to that part of the world (and all other parts, actually).

    • David Betz says:

      Yes. though there are certain balances to be maintained. First, while the USA pours military and economic aid into Egypt in accord with the Camp David agreements I think that it needs do the same with Israel. I see good reason for America to consider whether any of that money is well spent. Israel’s economy is doing quite well, compared to America’s. It could pay its own way. Another consideration though is that American aid buys a certain strategic behaviour from Israel: American security guarantees hold them back from preemption. Israel without America will more frequently smash up the armies of its neighbours (which it is quite able to do as they’re probably even more decrepit now than they were in ’67), I would suggest. Anyway, all that aside, yes, prosperous Israel should buy its own guns.

  2. Michael Cohen says:

    “Second, the major thesis here is the Israel wags the American dog theory which is a) not true”

    David, I’m curious why you would say that. If you watched the GOP debate every candidate basically said they would take their cues on the peace process and overall US policy toward the region from Israel. Romney even said that he would consult with Bibi before making provocative comments re: the Palestinians. If Israel is not wagging the dog of US policy what else would you say is going on here?

    PS. I didn’t choose the headline.

    • David Betz says:

      I suspected that you hadn’t chosen the headline. It seemed an FP flourish at odds with the more cautious case you were presenting. Not that I agree with your case, as noted; just to say that the title looked like an editor’s raw meat come on to certain readers.

      My take on the GOP debate is that they are simply positioning themselves in relation to Obama whom they perceive as pro-Palestinian/pro-Arab. There’s no loss to them in ramping up the rhetoric because it’s just seen as confirmation of the heinousness of their opposite number. I doubt many Israeli hearts are warmed by this guff. In power, a Republican president would revert to the more or less narrow range of possibility which US-Israel relations have taken since ’73.

      Israel has never wagged the dog. A few million stolidly Democrat voting Jews are supposed to outweigh the foreign policy urgings of nearly 300 million other Americans? America wags itself, largely still in ways congenial to Israel and increasingly against the Muslim world for which ‘Average Joe’ has developed a palpable dislike bordering on contempt.

    • Michael Cohen says:

      “A few million stolidly Democrat voting Jews are supposed to outweigh the foreign policy urgings of nearly 300 million other Americans?”

      David, you don’t really believe that 300 million Americans have distinctive foreign policy urgings do you? This is interest group politics 101. And for the record, none of the GOP candidates were trying to appeal to Jewish voters; they were pandering to evangelicals who are more solidly supportive of israel than american jews.

    • Michael Cohen says:

      “My take on the GOP debate is that they are simply positioning themselves in relation to Obama whom they perceive as pro-Palestinian/pro-Arab. There’s no loss to them in ramping up the rhetoric because it’s just seen as confirmation of the heinousness of their opposite number.”

      You think there’s no loss in the GOP frontrunner calling all Palestinians terrorists? And of course the notion that Obama is pro-Palestinian is an insane notion.

  3. Thomas Rid says:

    Michael — I’m somewhat surprised you would ask such a question: why is the Israeli tail not wagging the American dog? Well, let me ask you back: does the American right represent Israel? Does the American right even represent Likud? What Israeli view is represented by the American right? If you’d be a moderate Likudnik, why would it be in your interest what Gingrich said? And why would you want to be identified with that position? Even worse, why should it be in any Israeli’s interest to be identified with the position of American right wing lunatics? Are the most important supporters of Israel American Jews? Are American Jews a diverse group with diverse views on Israel? Is this kind of talk further dividing American Jewry? Is it perhaps even dumbing down the debate (see Berkeley’s J Street incident)? Why am I asking these questions, not you?

    • But Thomas, has there ever been much, if any, daylight between US and Israeli (often quite conservative) positions on the Middle East peace process? Bush raised headlines when he publicly supported a Palestinian state, but in terms of concrete policy, it does seem like the US government prefers to ‘represent Israel’ as you put it. Do you not agree with this?

    • Michael Cohen says:

      “But Thomas, has there ever been much, if any, daylight between US and Israeli (often quite conservative) positions on the Middle East peace process?”

      Yes! There was significant daylight during the Carter, Reagan, Bush I and to a lesser extent Clinton Administrations. There is daylight between the Obama Admin and the Netanyahu govt on settlements. The problem with the current crop of Republicans is they point with pride to the fact that they agree with everything Israel does.

    • Fair qualifications, though let’s not overstate the Obama administration’s position on settlements. To the extent that there is actual daylight here, it has been mostly rhetorical.

      The broader point though is to distinguish between administrations and aspirants. With that distinction in mind, how different is the current crop of Republican aspirants from the last bunch? It certainly seems as if new lows have been reached, but I’d be interested to compare it with four or eight years ago.

    • David Betz says:

      David, it might advance this discussion–for me at any rate–if you would state what you think is the correct position which US administrations ought to take on the ‘peace process’. I mean we could all go read A Choice of Enemies or whatever and remind ourselves of the positions taken by various presidents over the last four and a half decades, but what is it that the present government is not doing that it should and what ought a hypothetical Republican president 1 year and a bit from now not do that you fear he will?

    • Michael Cohen says:

      “Fair qualifications, though let’s not overstate the Obama administration’s position on settlements. To the extent that there is actual daylight here, it has been mostly rhetorical.”

      Not true. The Administration pushed for a settlement freeze in 09 and got it. Wasn’t rhetorical. But to my earlier point; would any of the current GOPers ask for that freeze. Hardly.

    • The Bush administration also pushed for a settlement freeze but never really got anywhere. Obama may have gotten a ‘deal’ out of it, but how effective has it really been? Not very, by my estimation.

      I agree with David B. that if elected the current bunch would probably continue on a similar trajectory. There has been more continuity than change between successive administrations and absent a radical shift in strategic outlook I don’t see that changing. But that still does not condone the borderline racist and ridiculous statements made on the podium in the last week or so.

    • Michael Cohen says:

      It’s true that the Bush Administration pushed for a settlement freeze (as did Obama) but my point is that if one these GOPers is elected President they won’t even take that meek step – which has been US policy toward the region since the Reagan Administration.

      You’re right that US policy toward the region is defined far more by continuity than change, but that is a recent development (post 92 I suppose). But don’t underestimate the ability of the GOP to be even worse and more slavishly supportive of israel – particularly as Iran gets closer to a nuclear weapon. I would fully expect a President Gingrich to along merrily with an Israeli strike into Iran – I don’t think the same can be said of a second term Obama Administration.

    • Michael Cohen says:

      Thomas, forgive me for asking but I can’t tell if the questions you’ve posed are meant to be serious one or offered in jest. I have to sort of assume the latter since surely the answers are obvious.

  4. Michael Cohen says:

    Thomas, in case you are being serious I would just say that there are clearly broad areas of agreement between the American right and the Israeli right on the threat from Islamic terrorism, Iran etc – and that the Israeli right has cultivated these links for many years, particularly to the evangelical community. Bibi in particular had led the outreach to the most odious members of the Christian right community in the United States like Hagee and others. Indeed, all the posturing from GOP candidates has little to do with American Jewry and almost everything to do with evangelicals.

    As for why israel would want to associate themselves with such people – well if you believe that Israeli is surrounded by enemies in constant danger of elimination etc then unvarnished and unquestioning support from the US is what you would be seeking. And clearly it’s what they’ve achieved.

    • David Betz says:

      Michael, this appears to be the crux of it: ‘…if you believe that Israeli is surrounded by enemies in constant danger of elimination…’ No? I believe this.

      And I’m about as far from evangelical as you can get while remaining on the culturally Christian, all my Bible knowledge comes from Sunday school 35 years ago and vaguely apprehended Tim Rice lyrics, spectrum.

      Why wouldn’t anyone?

    • Michael Cohen says:

      “if you believe that Israeli is surrounded by enemies in constant danger of elimination…’ No? I believe this.”

      It’s one thing to argue that Israel is surrounded by enemies (ish). its not really true since israel is at peace with Jordan and Egypt; Syria has bigger fish to fry and the PA is basically an arm of the IDF. Still I suppose one can make the argument.

      But if you believe that Israel is in danger of elimination, well that’s crazy. Clearly that is not true

  5. The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

    It seems to me that this debate is a ringing endorsement of a Constructivist theory of international politics. Certain quarters of the US polity and politicians have confected their own version of what they believe Israel to be, what it’s best interests are, and how those interests affect the US and its perceived best interests, all the while in opposition to largely confected notion of an enemy. This accounts for the range of interpretations as to what the best idea is and how to act upon it.

    It illustrates that while the world is made up of material things (yes, Virginia, Islamic extremists do exist), it is often how those things are viewed (and into what kind of narrative that they are placed) that makes the difference.

    Note, too, that Constructivist accounts of international politics do not necessarily lead to ‘liberal’ strategies. It is entirely possible to espouse a Constructivist-Realist view of the world.

    To paraphrase Alexander Wendt ‘Israel is what the United States makes of it.’

  6. Madhu says:

    Saudi Arabia is the “Lord Voldemort” of GOP and Washington Consensus foreign policy debates. Not a tail that wags the dog but the subject responsible for many a middle eastern policy point of view that is understood by insiders, but rarely articulated well to the public.

    The debates are not of the highest caliber and this is not necessarily our top bench of people running (I say as one sympathetic to the libertarian end of the GOP-hood). The debates are about what many political debates are about: partisan and “vote bank” positioning, televised “gotchas” and lazy foreign policy habits so engrained few question them at a certain level of our government.

    Power attracts, corrupts, and requires practice and management and Washington is filled with every foreign policy influence peddler, lobbyist, ideologue, well-meaning crusader, and any other type of person filling the large, stumbling foreign policy bureacracy.

    What has disappointed me over the years is the poor quality reporting and scholarship on this subject – that seems to be my “beef” these days. Despite the holiday mood, I retain my essential online grumpiness). The left loves to talk about the outside effects of the Israel lobby and the right loves to talk about international institutions and their moderating our foreign policy but who will put this all together? All of it? The good, the bad, and the ugly?

    NATO (I’ve long been a skeptic of NATO as a global peace keeping force, it’s nothing new for me but a long held bias), this alliance/that alliance, Saudi oil, State, DOD, the White House, the economy, foreign policy habits of mind and caste within our military and civilian intellectuals? What if it is not the tail wagging the dog but a very confused and middle aged doggy at that?

    America, who do you want to be in middle age?

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