/ 28 February 2024

Making sense of the dangerous liaison between Israel and the US

Pro Palestine Demonstration In Medellin
Printed United States and Israel flags with red paint on the ground with the faces of President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a demonstration in support of Palestine on November 29, 2023 in Medellin, Colombia. The initial four day truce between Israel and Hamas was extended by two days pausing the seven weeks of warfare that has killed thousands in Gaza as a result of the October 7th Hamas attack in Israel. (Photo by Fredy Builes/Getty Images)

The Israel-Gaza war has now taken the centre stage especially because of the savagery of Israel’s disproportionate military response to the Hamas 7 October 2023 attack on Israel. A dystopian spectacle is happening in real time and invades our daily lives through an array of merciless media platforms. Not to be deeply offended by the savagery reveals a worrying incapacity for empathy, which is an essential trait of human sensibility.

It is reported that more than 30 000 deaths have been registered so far, twice as many have been wounded, mainly children and women. No doubt the number of body wraps and the wounded will increase in the coming months. Blockades of humanitarian assistance, wanton destruction of infrastructure and starvation have become “normal” occurrences. It is difficult to imagine the state of mind of those who have been traumatised by the decimation of their neighbourhoods and attacks on hospitals, schools, universities, mosques and other public facilities. 

Part of the shock that has reverberated throughout the world may be a result of the incongruity of it all; it is hard to contemplate destruction of this magnitude being committed by a people who barely a hundred years ago were victims of racial hatred, pogroms and genocide (the Holocaust) would themselves do the same to others. 

The derogatory, demeaning and demonising language used by Israeli leaders against Palestinians is so guttural and frighteningly reminiscent of language used in Nazi Germany against non-Aryans in general, and Jews in particular. 

What has equally become a puzzle is the unwavering support the United States has provided Israel since 1948, with the notable exception of the 1993 Oslo Accord. As I write, the US has again vetoed a cease fire resolution in the United Nations Security Council and vigorously opposed South Africa’s charge of plausible genocide against Israel’s action in the occupied territories. Thirteen out of 15 of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) judges voted in favour of the South African submission. 

One way of explaining the incongruity is through an historical lens. There is a vast body of work that suggests parallels between the US and Israeli historiographies. It is through this lens that the complicit behaviour of the US in the Israel-Palestine conflict can be understood (for purposes of brevity the United Kingdom and other accomplices will be spared). 

The slogan “taxation without representation is tyranny” was first used by John Hamden in 1637 against King Charles I of England; and before the US War of Independence Patrick Henry declared, “give me liberty or death” You would be forgiven if you thought that the historical experience of the 13 US colonies under King George III that found expression in the Declaration of Independence’s claim that, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism … it is their duty, to throw off such government”, is drawn from the Communist Manifesto. 

Land dispossession and near decimation of the native population were common occurrences in the early colonisation of the US and followed by the forced importation of Africans who were subjugated to the slavery system. After the Civil War (1865), which abolished slavery, came a turbulent century marked first by the 10-year period of enlightenment dubbed The Reconstruction, followed by a vicious so-called Redemption period that sought to restore the pre-Civil War conditions of slavery and racial oppression. The Redemption, popularly known as Jim Crow, was characterised by a general reign of terror in which the Ku Klux Klan acted as an enforcement agency with extra-legal powers. Lynchings, destruction of properties owned by black people and disenfranchisement were the hallmarks of this period.  

Let’s not forget that nearly a century after the American Civil War, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy were assassinated for their strong campaigns for expansive social justice and Muhammad Ali was banned from boxing for his opposition to the Vietnam War. 

Turning to Israel: Israel is a result of the 1917 Balfour Declaration that sought to establish a state for the Jewish people and a way of addressing anti-Semitism in Europe generally, and the UK in particular. In 1948, Israel came into existence by a United Nations resolution that partitioned the British protectorate of Palestine. The Israeli Declaration of Independence enshrined the principle of equal rights for all citizens regardless of race, religion, gender or nationality. Since its inception Israel has been praised as a democracy and has enjoyed support from the West and beyond.

Yet, since 1948 the promise of equality for all by the Israeli Declaration has not been enjoyed by all and there have been 16 wars between Israel and Palestine. Israel has won the wars thanks largely to the US largesse to the tune of $4 billion a year. Land occupation and annexation have followed each war and Israeli prisons are populated by thousands of Palestinians whose crime is opposition to Israeli occupation. It can be said without fear of contradiction that were John Hamden, Patrick Henry, and later Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, Robert F Kennedy and Muhammad Ali Palestinians today, they would have been dead or rotting in Israeli prisons. 

Crucially, Israel has built a formidable pro-Israeli constituency that has lobbied energetically to ensure that every US administration since 1948 is inextricably tethered to the state of Israel. Looming large behind the historical commonalities is the geostrategic value of the Middle East, especially its oil and gas endowments. Israel plays a pivotal role as a counterweight to real and imagined enemies of the US in the region.

An important consideration after the end of World War II was the creation and strengthening of the global governance system through the UN. Within its broad architecture is the now 193-member General Assembly alongside a much smaller Security Council with 15 members, five of which enjoy permanent membership. Any one of these privileged minority is vested with veto powers. 

As a member of the permanent five, the US has, as in the case of apartheid South Africa previously, vetoed any resolution intended to sanction Israel for its violation of the Palestinians’ human rights. 

Consider the fact that the US projects itself as the champion and custodian of freedom, democracy and human rights and a fervent advocate of the rules-based global system. The sharp dissonance between word and practice has been laid bare through its opposition to anti-Israel measures most of the rest of the world considers fair and just. 

Most worryingly are the far-reaching repercussions of this alliance which has led to some US university presidents having to resign or forced to resign because they did not sufficiently censure pro-Palestinian students protestors and the excessive Israel Defence Forces military operations in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Names of students who participated in pro-Palestinian protests have been sent to companies so they can be blacklisted and thus barred from any future employment. And now the same pyromaniacs, metaphorically speaking, who stoked the resignations have launched an attack on diversity, equity and inclusion programmes. Ominous times indeed. 

There are, encouragingly, voices that express opposition to what can only be described as hegemonic practices on the part of the US and its allies. Recently John Lander, a former Australian deputy ambassador to China, observed: “We’re seeing a wholesale and unprecedented attack on all institutions meant to preserve international law,” an allusion to the US support for the Israeli military operations in Gaza, the West Bank and the US’s increasing bombings of the Houthis in Yemen. He continues, “Israel and, ultimately, their backer the US who defend the rules-based order, meaning a system outside of international law that essentially defends whatever the US judges is in its and its allies’ interests at any moment in time.” 

Clearly, there are many explanations behind the fatal attraction between the US and Israel. Lurking behind the standard feed fed to the international public are: kinship that derives from conquest, subjugation and the ideology of white supremacy. These features are clothed in the vocabulary of liberal democracy even though the experiences of discriminated or marginalised people in these countries suggest otherwise. 

The practical application of maxims such as “power corrupts”  and “might makes right” has become quite evident. So when a superpower, its coterie of allies in the European Union, many of whom have benefited from the colonial project, and the on-the-ground regional gendarme pronounce on temporal matters, none dare differ for fear of severe retribution. For example, South Africa is being threatened with sanctions and the prospect of being struck off the African Growth and Opportunity  Act because its application to the ICJ against Israel is contrary to the rules of the game as established by the hegemons.

None other than William F Buckley Jr, a certified conservative sophisticate of yesteryears, understood this when he quipped: “History is but the polemics of the victor.” In other words, the conqueror commands the narrative and demands it to be accepted faithfully without protest. What is written about the past is not true unless written or sanctioned by the victors’ scribes; history begins when they arbitrarily declare it so. Only they have the authority to give meaning to words and redefine boundaries through brutal military force, if other measures fail.

Indeed, the ties that bind the US and Israel are complex, deep and far reaching. There is, according to Noam Chomsky, a broader entanglement that implicates other states whose involvement to one degree or another bedevils the crisis in the Middle East.

Fatal attractions often are blinded by perceptions of mutual benefit that are often delusional and, by extension, destructive. There are fatal consequences, politically speaking, that are suffered by both parties (the victors in the analogy). US support for Israel may cost President Joe Biden dearly at the polls (he may escape only marginally because of the greater fear that Donald Trump inspires), not to mention the shredding of whatever little moral authority the US may still have. On the Israeli side, the age-old goodwill Jews may have enjoyed over the years may suffer irreparable damage as the extreme right-wing delivers a death blow to the prospect of an enduring stability in the Middle East.

Finally, fatal attractions of the type described here have the potential of sparking a wider war that can spread uncontrollably with far more devastating consequences of dystopian proportions. So let all global citizens who appreciate all life endeavour to see justice realised everywhere.

Mokubung Nkomo is a retired academic.