By Prof. Lawrence Davidson
An interesting commentary by Gideon Levy, entitled “A Peace Crime,” appeared in Haaretz on July 11, 2010. It focused on comments made by Bashar Assad, President of Syria, in an interview he gave to the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir about a week earlier. In the interview Assad said, “Our position is clear: When Israel returns the entire Golan Heights, of course we will sign a peace agreement with it.” However, Syria wants the prospective peace to be comprehensive and durable. “What’s the point of peace if the embassy is surrounded by security, if there is no tourism….that’s not peace. That’s a permanent cease-fire agreement.”
To Assad’s offer can be added to that of the Arab League’s Saudi Plan. In other words, there can be little doubt that if Israel wants peace with just about the entire Arab world it can have it in short order. Levy is rightfully frustrated that the Israeli press and political establishment let the Assad interview pass without so much as the blink of the eye. Levy protests, “How long must he [Assad] knock in vain on Israel’s locked door?”
Levy’s conclusion is that “Israel does not want peace with Syria. Period. It prefers the Golan over peace with one of its biggest and most dangerous enemies. It prefers real estate….” He is quite right, and we can complement this situation with the recent behavior of the American government on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. Last month the Obama administration had a real opportunity to lay that controversy to rest. Turkey and Brazil had, with the acquiescence of Washington, negotiated a deal with Iran to have its nuclear fuel processed by a third party country. Then, Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton essentially double-crossed the Turks and Brazilians, and chose to push through greater sanctions against Iran in the Security Council.
It does not take a genius to observe that the pursuit of national interests, defined in common sense terms, would have led to very different behavior by the U.S. and Israeli governments. But both failed to pursue such a course. Their doors remained locked. The question why is a seminal one. It touches on war and peace and thus the lives of millions. So let’s look at some of the factors that might go into an answer to this question–why was national interest not pursued?
1. Both the U.S. and Israeli governments are democratically elected. However, normally such governments are brought to power by votes cast on domestic issues. Foreign policy is a secondary factor (or as often as not a non-factor) for most voters. It is to be noted that for a minority of Israeli voters impassioned by religious zealotry, expansion into the West Bank is a domestic issue.
2. On the rare occasions when domestic populations are brought to consider foreign issues they do so through a media and government constructed filter. This filter is laden with largely uncontested propaganda and biased reporting despite the “free press” environment that might theoretically exist. Over time, reporting based on a consistently biased storyline can create a population wide “thought collective” on a particular topic. That is, a broadly held popular point of view created by the manipulation of public opinion (i.e. the “existential” threats from Iraq or Iran or the assertion that all Palestinians are terrorists). In addition, there is the fact that most of the population has little or no independent understanding about the foreign events and issues that the media sources speaks of. Their limited interest in foreign matters also means that few will take the initiative to go looking for non-partisan data. Lacking an independent viewpoint they are not in a position to make a critical judgment on the reporting. Many simply assume that they are being told the truth. Soon they are locked into an artificially created “thought collective.” This has certainly happened in both the United States and Israel in relation to the Palestinians and the Arab world.
3. The domestic priorities of most voters means that, in a default sort of way, foreign policy formulation comes under the influence of small but powerful interest groups that do have serious interests in these issues. When it comes to the Middle East, the relevant interest groups in Israel and in the United States are allied reflections of each other. And in both cases, their influence has not been confined to politics but has also extends to the media so as to shape the thought collective process just laid out. The result is a melding of interest group politics and managed popular attitudes.
4. What this adds up to is that, in practice, there is no such thing as “national interest” under the conditions described above. Of course, in theory, it is in the interest of the whole nation of Israel to take up the Saudi Plan and open the door to Assad’s offer. Of course, in theory, it is in the interest of the U.S. nation to take advantage of the negotiations carried on by Turkey and Brazil with Iran. But, alas, it is not the nation’s interests that are in guiding policy here. In both these cases policy formulation is in the hands of special interests organized into powerful lobbies with money and votes to influence the appropriate political elites.
In the case of Israel, foreign policy formulation is in the hands of special interests that are ideologically committed to “real estate.” This special interest, which has both secular and religious devotees, has been operating since before the founding of the country. That is why Israel has never declared final borders. It might very well be that most Jewish Israeli voters would trade land for peace if the question was put to them in a straightforward and objective way. But it has not, is not now, and may never be so put. The question of land for peace has been embedded in a “thought collective” that emphasizes the erroneous concept that the Arabs are untrustworthy barbarians, and the archaic notion that all the Palestinians want to destroy Israel. It also emphasizes the patently absurd, but widely believed, notion that Israel is susceptible to such a fate.
In the case of the United States foreign policy formulation as regards Israel, Palestine, Iran and often the Middle East as a whole is definitively influenced by Zionist lobbies that are either undeclared agents of a foreign power (Israel) or ideologically driven religious zealots (Christian Zionists). This influence is also of long standing and has only been openly challenged in the last decade. It might take decades more before those who are contesting that influence have the financial and political wherewithal to succeed. In the meantime, the special interests in charge will proclaim that the threat of a “nuclear Iran” as real. This in turn will allow Israel to assert that Iranian behavior, and not Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians, is the most pressing Middle Eastern problem for the U.S.
The explanation given here helps us to understand why Bashar Assad can knock at Israel’s locked door and no one in that country will bother to open it. It also helps us understand why Obama and Clinton turned their backs on the Turkish and Brazilian efforts to negotiate a deal with Iran. Both are reacting to the power and influence of domestic special interests. Compared to these interests, the “national interest” does not stand a chance
Lawrence Davidson is Professor of Middle East History at West Chester University in West Chester, PA. He is author of two recent books: Islamic Fundamentalism (Greenwood Press, 2003) and America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood (University Press of Florida, 2001). He also has written over twenty published articles on US perceptions of and policies toward the Middle East.