Why support Israel?

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As election season is heating up, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, has made his way to Israel to garner Jewish support and raise funds for his campaign. The Obama administration responded with security support and loan guarantees, sending Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to meet with his counterparts.

Are Iran’s nuclear ambitions the glue that binds Israeli and American interests in the Middle East? Is the claim that Israel is the only legitimate democracy in the region the main focus for American support? Or, as some would have us believe, is the Jewish lobby in America (AIPAC) really that strong to secure political support?

We should recall that the Soviet Union was more eager to support the establishment of a socialist-leaning Israel during the 1947 two-state United Nations resolution than the U.S., which was uneasy at the time to get involved in the post-British Mandate.

As my American girlfriend (a Christian) was visiting me in Israel, and as I was showing her around the holy sites of the Abrahamic religions (Jewish, Christian, Muslim), it dawned on me that despite politicians’ proclamations about democracy, they are in fact concerned about other issues. It’s not quite hypocrisy, but confusion.

Let me explain. Democracy is a valuable political ideal, especially when compared to other political systems, such as dictatorship or tyranny (military or other). Democratic nations tend to promote human rights, value equality and freedom, and are based on the rule of law.

But if Israel’s democracy were the linchpin for American foreign policy in the region, any other nascent democracy would do as well. How about the democratically-elected Palestinian Authority? Why are we stymied by the results of the Arab Spring? If the majority of Egyptians prefer the Muslim Brotherhood, who are we to object? Why wax nostalgically about the good old days of President Mubarak?

One could cynically suggest that at least Mubarak guaranteed the peace agreement brokered by President Carter in 1979, and provided as of 2008 some 60 billion cubic feet of natural gas annually through a direct pipeline from Egypt to Israel. He controlled the military and the military controlled the country, hence Mubarak had his way, even when it got to Israel. American annual foreign aid ($1.55 billion) reflects this point.

If democracy isn’t the most important reason for American support of Israel, two other standard arguments remain. One has to do with strategic alliance, harkening to the Cold War when the Soviet Union supported the Arab world while America supported Israel and Turkey. Israel could test American weapons in the region — there have been many wars since 1948 — and provide feedback on potential improvements. This military-alliance argument remains central in current debates regarding an attack on (almost nuclear-ready) Iran, with no mention of Israel’s own nuclear capability and its refusal to sign the international non-proliferation treaty.

Given that the U.S. has engaged in two wars against Iraq without Israeli involvement (other than intelligence), this argument is weak. We are left with the Jewish-factor argument, one that has veiled anti-Semitic undertones. If American Jews are rich and control the liberal media, they have undue influence over politicians of both parties; to get the “Jewish vote,” presidential and congressional candidates support Israel. This assumes that Jews and Israelis are interchangeable, which of course isn’t true.

Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is the poster-child of this view. Should one example be generalized about a whole minority? No. As many Jews support Israeli policies as those who oppose them; there are as many poor Jews as rich, and as many liberal Jews as conservative. Not all Jews are alike.

Annual foreign aid to Israel ($3.1 billion) and other Middle-East countries is in fact domestic subsidy since all expenditures are to be spent on grain or arms, unlike the billions handed to local chieftains in Iraq and Afghanistan. It therefore has wide congressional support; it’s pork-barrel policies.

So, what is it that compels America to support Israel? It’s the holy sites! If America were to gamble on who would protect them, ensure that Christian pilgrims who come to Israel annually can worship peacefully (53 percent of 3.5 million tourists), it would be on Israel rather than any other Arab state. This is the tipping point that moves Americans of all Christian denominations to support Israel as the Holy Land’s custodian.

Driving from Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee to Jerusalem, it’s clear that a free Israel welcomes pilgrims from around the world, inviting them to worship safely and respectfully, with guards in every gate and on every rooftop.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com