One of the few things that critics and friends of Israel can agree on is that Israel is a special sort of nation. It represents a special idea; it is different.
This is especially so for America's so-called realists. Whether they are sympathetic to Israel or scornful, they are convinced U.S. support for Israel fuels hatred and instability. Hence their obsession with the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
For instance, when then-national security advisor Gen. James Jones spoke in 2009 to J Street — the "pro-Israel" lobby that isn't very pro-Israel — he said that if he could solve just one problem in the world, it would be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the "epicenter" of U.S. foreign policy.
Such thinking falls somewhere between wild exaggeration and dangerous nonsense. Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Al Qaeda remains dedicated to our destruction. Turkey, a once-staunch ally, is Islamifying. Russia is careening toward autocracy and China is on the march. Oh, and the United States is fighting two land wars. But the national security advisor's No. 1 priority was keeping Israelis from building houses in East Jerusalem? Really?
This too is the product of treating Israel like an abstraction. Obviously, hatred of Israel and the plight of the Palestinians (real and imagined) contributes to the Middle East's problems. But the simple fact is that Israel is not the source of the Middle East's problems, never mind the keystone to U.S. foreign policy challenges.
In Egypt, the popular uprising unfolding is not about Israel but about autocratic brutality, economic stagnation and skyrocketing prices. The same goes for Tunisia as well as the popular protests brutally crushed by Iran's mullahs in 2009. Turkey is not Islamifying because of the Palestinians. Al Qaeda surely hates Israel, but its roots lay in hatred of the Saudi royal family and the Islamist ambitions of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
And yet the "realist" fantasy that an Arabs-first (or Muslims-first) foreign policy will yield rich rewards endures. The French have followed that advice for generations. They nurtured the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in exile. They give special preference to their former colonies. They pander to Arab sensibilities. And what has it gotten them? A lot of burning cars but few lucrative oil deals.
As we've recently been reminded, Israel is the only truly democratic regime in the region, and therefore the most stable. But, we are told, if we were only more conciliatory to corrupt dictatorial regimes and more sympathetic to the "Arab street," the region would be more stable. (Ironically, this is very close to Israel's own position, no doubt because it will take any peace it can get.)
No doubt this is what the solons of American foreign policy hear from their Arab and Muslim interlocutors. And it is certainly what the autocrats in the Middle East want everyone to believe, starting with their own subjects. Tyrants always want to focus on scapegoats, insults to national honor and shadowy enemies. Why apologize for skyrocketing bread prices when you can demonize the "Zionist entity"?
Addressing the real problems in the region is just too hard, particularly when any effort to take attention off the Palestinians is greeted with outrage from an anti-Israel industry that cravenly singles out Israel as the worst human rights abuser in the neighborhood. Israel puts Arab critics in the Knesset. Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia put them in jail or in an unmarked grave.
All of this would be just as true if Israel retreated to the 1949 armistice lines tomorrow.
Israel's actual realists know this because they can't afford the self-indulgent abstractions and the cynical lies that pass for "realism" outside its borders.
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