Sunday, 21 March 2010

The close unshakable bond

"We have a close, unshakable bond between the United States and Israel," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week, at the very height of the diplomatic furore between the US and Israel – sparked when the leader of the religious Shas party, who also happens to be the Interior Minister, announced a new building project in a Jerusalem district well over the Green Line*, at the very moment the US Vice President stepped foot in the country to initiate the proximity peace talks.

This "close unshakable bond" is a great puzzle to many. The "reds under the beds" theorists, of whom there are many, of course ascribe it to the result of some malign Zionist conspiracy, whose aim is to achieve heaven-knows-what sinister ends – all on a par with the notorious, and long-discredited, forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" (still quoted as a sort of gospel by extremist Islamist spokesmen).

Others more prosaically nominate the "enormously powerful Jewish lobby at the heart of the Washington machine." They are referring to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). AIPAC is indeed powerful, and has proved very successful during both Democratic and Republican administrations in achieving its main objective: to ensure that American support for Israel remains strong.

But why should American policy-makers allow US policy to be shaped by such lobbying?

The current international dynamic suggests a whole host of reasons, including Israel's strategic position in the heart of the Middle East. Israel's western values and democratic traditions provide a strong and reliable base from which to counter extreme Islamist activity in the region – notably from Iran, Syria, Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, to name but some. Current American perceptions see potential threats not only to US interests, but actually to homeland security, from these sources and their international connections.

Considerations such as these have developed over the years, but they are essentially peripheral to a more fundamental rationale for that "close and unshakable bond" between the USA and Israel that is such a mystery to many. I am referring not to the so-called "Israel lobby", but to the Jewish connection to the body politic of the USA.

Visit the Jewish museum in Philadelphia (or the National Museum of American Jewish History,to give it its formal title), and you find in an early display cabinet a letter of greetings to the leader of the Hebrew Congregation of Philadelphia signed by George Washington. A little further down sits a letter from Abraham Lincoln to the head of his Jewish community, thanking him for his loyal address. The fact is that the history of the United States is quite unlike that of any other western country, and that Jews were part and parcel of the foundation of the nation. The US is a nation of immigrants, and the Jews were there from the start.

In fact, the connection runs even deeper, for most of the early immigrants left their native shores in order to escape religious persecution. The national identity of the United States is embedded in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and belief in God is at the heart of the Declaration of Independence. The Bible is a cornerstone of the American national structure. Early fundamentalists, no less than those of today, would base their support of the Zionist dream on the Old Testament, its account of the release of the Jews from slavery and their journey, under God's guidance, to the "promised land, flowing with milk and honey".

The Jewish population of most nation states is minute. France has the largest in Europe, and there Jews represent some 0.8 per cent of the total population. In the UK there are something less than 300,000 Jews out of a total population of some 61 million – that is less than 0.5 per cent. But while Jews in European countries are counted in their thousands, in the States they number millions. Estimates vary but, according to some, more Jews live in the United States than in Israel. So Jewish opinion counts in the States, and both major political parties court it. Jews notoriously disagree among themselves on almost everything, and they spread their political favours accordingly. Nevertheless, a majority would certainly be in support of Israel's continued secure existence, no matter how opposed they might be to the policies of any individual Israeli government.

Given this background, Hillary Clinton's remark does not, perhaps, seem so surprising. Nor, perhaps, that she and Benjamin Netanyahu will be meeting later today (Sunday) at the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington, which they will both address. Nor indeed that President Obama will also be meeting Netanyahu during his visit to the USA.

So the world had best acknowledge that, for better or worse, the USA has two self-imposed international obligations: its "special relationship" with the UK, and its "close unshakable bond" with Israel. Perhaps it should be added that neither is immutable. What is, in politics? Or in life?

*Note on the Green Line
The war between Israel and its Arab neighbours that followed the establishment of the State of Israel was brought to an end in an armistice agreement in 1949. Green ink was used during the armistice talks to draw the lines on the map that would separate Israel from her neighbours (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria). The term was later applied to delineate also the territories that Israel captured in the Six Day War in 1967. These include the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and those parts of East Jerusalem captured from Jordan.

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