Although I richly deserve a reputation as something of a polemicist, I’d like to think that I am not so shrill a partisan that I don’t admit that times have changed. In the beginning of the assault on Gaza, I joined Glenn Greenwald and others is saying that the American media consistently tells only one side of the story in the Israeli/Palestinian divide, and that side is Israel’s side. While I continue to believe that our national conversation is far from an equitable or fair one, I have to admit that things have changed; there is more criticism and questioning of Israel and its actions than I would have felt possible before the conflict began.
To be clear, even now to call American press coverage one-sided would to represent a major understatement. You can expect more pro-Israel coverage and opinion, simply measured in the amount of ink, space and time, by a large margin, in the mainstream media. More, and more importantly, what is considered pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian coverage continues to be skewed. Almost without exception, those who are considered to be arguing from a pro-Palestinian position take pains to explain (as they should) that violence against Israeli civilians is untenable. Meanwhile, you will find plenty of mainstream figures, like Tom Friedman, in the pages of major newspapers and on national cable news networks, who enthusiastically speak of “punishing” the Palestinian civilian population. I am certainly not unbiased in regards to this question, but from my perspective our national conversation on Israel is made up of those who make every appropriate qualification and proviso, and are considered extremists, and those who speak in absolutes and categoricals, and are considered moderates.
Still, the fact remains that our discourse on Israel has undergone an evolution. I am seeing more criticism of Israel, in more places, than I thought possible. When Time magazine, perhaps the perfect symbol of mundane, middle-brow media in America, runs a cover story questioning Israel’s actions, it’s time for me to stop saying that Israel goes virtually uncriticized in the United States media. Granted, the tenor and content of that coverage remains deeply divided– you’ll note that criticism of Israel is made up primarily of questions of efficacy and wisdom for Israel’s gain, not criticism that operates under the burden of what is right for the Palestinians. But there is more criticism in the American press of Israel than there was even two years ago, and that criticism seems to have begun to seep into public consciousness, and it’s incumbent on me to point it out.
The question is whether this evolution continues, and vitally, what it means for American politics and governance. Because on the level of partisan politics in America, the unanimity on Israel is nearly universal. With a few exceptions in the House of Representatives– and by a few, I mean a dozen or less, in a body of nearly 500– there simply are no prominent elected politicians willing to waver from the established line on Israel and Palestine. I won’t go into the details of why this is so weird, in a deeply politically divided country with a partisan system that encourages difference between the two parties. Greenwald and Yglesias have already done yeoman’s work on that score. The question is whether this will change in the same manner as our media is slowly changing.
I’m hoping it does, for reasons I have written about at length. But I’m skeptical. There are many issues in American politics where even broad majorities can’t seem to make major changes in public policy. The reform of marijuana laws, for example, enjoys large margins in favor, depending on the phrasing of the question, in poll after poll. The problem is that although many would choose to reform America’s marijuana laws, the committed minority on the side of keeping the status quo is better positioned and better funded than the committed minority on the side of reform, who are (usually unfairly) relegated to niche status. Similarly, support for a change in our approach to Israel policy might enjoy broad majorities someday (currently, the best information I’ve seen is a divided electorate), but if the pro-Israel hardline maintains mainstream status, in comparison to continued relegation of the pro-even handed side to niche status, our policy might never change.
This is crucial because, as almost anyone will tell you, only America ultimately can broker peace in Palestine. This is because the deep economic, military and diplomatic investment of the United States in Israel gives us the power to deeply influence Israeli policy moving forward. As much as countries like Egypt and Jordan can provide legitimacy in the Palestinian street, and as much as the European Union can act as a powerful third-party arbiter, the simple fact is that there is no other country on earth that has the power and legitimacy within Israel to generally effect change. The sad fact is that, while Israel’s democratic nature gives it a meaningful opportunity for internal reform that Hamas does not have, political realities in Israel make it very difficult for a genuine, internally-brokered offer that represents a genuine chance for lasting peace to emerge. This is precisely the kind of situation where a relationship like that between the United States and Israel can have great benefit. The United States is uniquely positioned to show Israel a little tough love, put genuine pressure on Israel’s political process, and finally bring about the two-state, pre-1967 borders that has been widely supported for decades.
The problem is, instead of acting like the older-brother powerbroker that the United States is, we act instead with deference and apology towards Israel in the region. We fund Israel, protect Israel, have a degree of military interoperability that is literally unprecedented, and diplomatically shield Israel constantly. Any adult appraisal of that situation would suggest that the United States therefore has legitimate reasons to expect influence in Israel’s behavior. There are those who would claim that there should be no “coercion” within the Israel/US relationship. But there are two responses to that. The first is that Israel always has the option of walking away from its various entanglements with the United States; that would have consequences, but, well, that’s the price we pay for independence. The second response is that what people want and what they need are often different, and the same is true of countries. We can perhaps do whats best for Israel, and whats right for Palestine, by influencing Israel in ways that its citizens might not like in the short term. But we can only do that if we realize that we are not minority partners in this relationship, and that we have both a reasonable expectation of influence within Israel and a moral imperative to try to create positive change within.