Edward Said, 13 years dead but intellectually un-buriable, used to say that there was only one “last taboo” in the United States. You could talk about blacks, gays – pretty much anything you wanted – the Palestinian scholar, linguist, historian and musician would tell us. But you can’t talk about America and Israel. Not, at least, in any critical sense.
But here we are in an American election year and Bernie Sanders is calling for a more “even-handed” approach to the Palestinians; Vice President Joe Biden has expressed his “overwhelming frustration” with Benjamin Netanyahu; even Hillary Clinton – who, of course, is going to be the next US President – has managed (just) to refer to “damaging actions” by Israel, “including with respect to settlements”.
Not exactly earth-shattering stuff, and they’ve all uttered the usual prayers. America is committed to Israel’s security which is “non-negotiable” (Clinton) and the US is Israel’s “only absolute friend” (Biden). The future President Clinton picked up 56 rounds of applause when she addressed Aipac, Israel’s most powerful lobbyists, in New York last month – that’s 18 more rounds than Netanyahu got when he addressed Congress a year ago, but he also received 23 standing ovations from the would-be Knesset members who represent American voters.
Let’s not get romantic. La Clinton even offered “a new 10-year defence memorandum of understanding” with Israel to Aipac, made the usual references to “Palestinian terrorists” and “Iran’s continued aggression”, and repeated the mantra that “Israel and America are seen as a light unto the nations” – albeit not, perhaps, unto the Palestinian ‘nation’.
“I would vigorously oppose any attempt by outside parties,” she announced, “to impose a solution, including by the UN Security Council”. In other words, goodbye to UN Security Council Resolution 242 – Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967 – which was supposed to be the foundation stone of the whole wretched peace process.
Yet the shift in emphasis is clearly there. Sanders is Jewish – his father was an immigrant from eastern Europe – and most of his family died in the Nazi Holocaust. You might expect he would try to outgun Hillary in her support for Israel. Yet he accused her of devoting “only one sentence… that even mentioned the Palestinian people” in her Aipac hug-in, only “one line on the Palestinian people”.
This was not strictly accurate, although a close reading of La Clinton’s text shows that her references to Palestinians were more in the form of an appendage to Israeli security than a denunciation of Palestinian “suffering” – a word that Sanders has actually used about the occupied Arabs of Palestine.
Bernie believes “Israel must have the right to exist in peace and security, just as the Palestinians must have the right to a homeland in which they and they alone control their political system and their economy”. To that extent, it’s the usual stuff: no mention of Palestinian security – that will be left to Israel – but they can do what they like inside their pathetic little “homeland”.
Where Bernie has stuck out, however, is in his condemnation of Israel’s “targeted killings” (or, political murders), “further Israeli settlements on Palestinian land” (or, colonies) and “the destruction of Palestinian homes…,” Israel’s attacks on Palestinians have been “reprehensible”, he says.
He may not have called a spade a spade, but he got it right. He was the first US senator to refuse to attend Netanyahu’s speech to the joint session of Congress last year, saying that the Israeli prime minister “inappropriately used the appearance for his own political purposes”.
Joe Biden might not have quite the same heft. He’s been used before as the silly mid-off to defend Obama, deniable and jokey but still his master’s voice. He warned that “the present course Israel’s on is not one that’s likely to secure its existence as a Jewish, democratic state… we have to make sure they understand that we understand… where the ultimate solution lies.”
Translated, this means what the US administration has been telling ‘J-Street’ and other moderate American supporters of Israel: that if Netanyahu and his cabinet members continue to steal Arab land and gobble up the West Bank, they have either got to give occupied Arabs the vote – in which case, goodbye to Israel – or they’ve got to run an apartheid state in which the majority Arabs are denied the vote.
Beneath this verbal concern lies the growing success of the boycott movement (or the ‘de-legitimisation of Israel’ as it is called by Netanyahu – the man who is doing more than anyone else to de-legitimise Israel) and the equally growing disenchantment of Jewish Americans with an Israel which looks less and less like a light unto anyone’s nation.
What is left of the Left in Israel takes a very worrying view of the boycott campaign, but far more serious in the long term is Washington’s growing disenchantment with the Middle East.
The Saudis are being ditched in favour of the Iranians (the Saudis and Israel both loath Tehran) and an America which can stomach the anger of Arab allies of 70 years’ standing is clearly in no mood to suffer the humiliations of Israel forever.
No, the ‘last taboo’ has not been broken. The umbilical cord between Washington and Tel Aviv remains. But in future, it may not be free of charge.