Some Yiddish words will live forever, and chutzpah is one of them. What better word could describe Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand for more U.S. aid after he tried to obstruct President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran with a personal appeal to the Senate? But don’t expect aid to Israel to be a campaign topic. Both candidates favor it.
The U.S. and Israel have been bargaining since early July over a proposed ten-year U.S. aid package to Israel. The U.S. is offering Israel $40 billion in aid over that period, an increase of $10 billion a year, which the White House called “the largest pledge of military assistance to any country in U.S. history.” But that amount is not enough for the Israelis, who are demanding more.
For a recipient to bargain with a donor over the size of a handout is unusual enough, but Israel has received more U.S. aid over the years than any other nation in the world, despite having one of the highest per capita incomes in the Middle East. Israel has also benefited from its exemption from the rule that recipients of U.S. military aid must spend the money on American-made weapons.
The Israelis have nevertheless felt free to reject requests from Washington whenever it suits them. Every president since Jimmy Carter has asked Israel to freeze settlement construction, saying the settlements were an obstacle to peace. Israel has continued to build and expand settlements while objections from Washington have faded into silence. As long as this situation remains, however, there can be no peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
A powerful effort by the U.S. and its allies is needed to change the current situation, but Israel’s well-funded American supporters have so far been able to stave off any attempt to pressure Israel. Defenders of what President Obama calls America’s “special relationship” with Israel frequently describe the Jewish state as the only democracy in the Middle East, and claim it is surrounded by potential enemies. Today, 50 years after Israel’s establishment, that description no longer fits the facts.
With the fifth largest military in the Middle East, and firm backing from the U.S., Israel no longer faces danger from its Arab neighbors. For the 2 million or so Palestinians who make up some 40 percent of the population, Israel is a flawed democracy at best, one in which they are second-class citizens. For the more than 4 million Palestinians living in Israeli-occupied Gaza and the West Bank, Israel is an oppressor nation.
After capturing the West Bank from Jordan, and Gaza from Egypt, in the 1967 war, Israel proceeded to build Jewish settlements in the newly occupied territories despite the fact that the Geneva Conventions of 1945 specifically forbid a conquering nation to build civilian settlements on captive territory. Since then the U.N. Security Council has passed numerous resolutions condemning Israel’s continued settlement construction and calling for its withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. The U.S. cast a veto each time.
At Oslo in 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed an agreement with Palestinian president Yasir Arafat in which he pledged to freeze settlement building in the occupied territories and make it easier for Palestinians to travel between Gaza and the West Bank. The agreement held out a promise that the Palestinians could soon establish an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza.
But the Oslo agreement was never implemented. The massacre of 29 Palestinians in Hebron by a Jewish settler in February 1994, followed by a round-the-clock curfew on Palestinians in that city, ignited often violent Palestinian resistance. Israel’s response was harsh and indiscriminate, involving pre-dawn house raids and arrests on the West Bank, targeted assassinations, border closings, travel restrictions and the placing of hundreds of new check points throughout the West Bank. Rabin’s assassination by a right-wing Israeli in November 1995 marked the effective end of Oslo.
Since then the cycle of Israeli oppression and Palestinian violence has continued, with periods of violence alternating with periods of uneasy calm. Several negotiating sessions between Israel and the Palestinians brokered by the U.S. have faltered, doomed by the great imbalance of power between the two sides and by Washington’s refusal to intervene in behalf of the Palestinians.
Gaza meanwhile has endured repeated Israeli air strikes and three full-scale invasions by Israel troops, along with a nine-year blockade that Israel imposed in 2007 after the Gazans elected a Hamas-led government. As a result of Israel’s actions, that densely populated territory has seen the collapse of its economy and a broken infrastructure. Homes, schools and public buildings destroyed or damaged by Israel bombing have yet to be rebuilt, and a majority of Gazans now rely on United Nations handouts to survive.
On the West Bank, meanwhile, hundreds of new homes for Israelis are under construction. Earlier this month, State Department spokesman John Kirby described Israel’s latest authorization of new settler housing as “fundamentally undermining the prospects for a two-state solution.” In fact, the prospects for a two-state solution had already faded. The number of settler homes has steadily increased over the years, so that today 600,000 Israelis live in the West Bank, and thanks to government subsidies more are moving in.
The territory is criss-crossed by highways intended for settler-use only and barred to Palestinians. Netanyahu declared after Israel’s last election that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, and several members of his government have openly declared their opposition to a two-state solution. According to Deputy Prime Minister Tsipi Hotovely, “God willed all of Palestine to Israel. This land is ours.”
Such statements issuing from a close ally of the West undoubtedly arouse anger in the Arab world and may even influence the handful of young Arab immigrants to Europe who turn to violence. Yet Israel’s continuing occupation is seldom mentioned in public discourse, and it’s a safe bet that it won’t be a prominent issue in the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Consequently, an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement based on two independent states will remain a distant hope, and American taxpayers will continue subsidizing a military occupation that deprives millions of
Palestinians of their freedom.