Mondoweiss / August 22, 2022
Western support for Israel is explained away by shared interests and realpolitik, but this elides an underlying anti-Palestinianism which motivates pro-Israel bias.
Almost immediately after the first Israeli missile hit Gaza, the US State Department affirmed Israel’s “right to self-defense.” Britain’s Foreign Minister, Liz Truss, too, was unreserved in saying that the UK “stands with Israel and its right to defend itself.” A softer but rather vague statement came from the EU, which called for “maximum restraint on all sides to avoid a further escalation and further casualties.”
The cream of the crop was the statement from Ukraine’s embassy in Tel-Aviv, which expressed sympathy for Israel and likened Israel’s attack on the besieged Gaza Strip to Ukrainians’ fight against Russia.
For Palestinians, the statements were astonishing not only because of their speed in condemning them and denying their right to self-defense, but also because they ignored the fact that Israel attacked Gaza unprovoked.
Israel justified the military operation on the sheer assumption that the Islamic Jihad movement was planning to retaliate in response to Israel’s crackdown on the organization in the West Bank.
The overall concept of anti-Palestinian bias is unsurprising, certainly coming from Washington. It has become so normalized that most Palestinians no longer pause to ponder its absurdity and preposterousness. “It is what it is, what do you expect?” they say.
Traditionally, observers and scholars interpret the bias along the lines of mutual interests. However, as I theorized in a previous article — while not downplaying the role of realpolitik in cementing the Israel-West alliance — mutual interests do not work in a vacuum.
In the Palestinian context, they represent the visible layer of a much deeper prejudice with historical, ethnic, and religious dimensions, which made it not only possible to identify with Israel, but also, inevitably, acceptable to devalue the suffering and basic rights of Israel’s victims.
On the surface, it’s realpolitik
The U.S. under Harry Truman was among the first nations to recognize Israel in 1948, but American support for Israel did not begin to become “semi-unconditional” until 1967. Before that, the U.S. even refused to provide any military assistance to the Jewish state.
Israel’s 1967 victory over the Soviet-equipped Egyptian and Syrian armies enthroned Tel-Aviv as a major Cold War asset for Washington. Partly as a result, the US did not even try to force Israel to withdraw from the territories it occupied during the war, as it did in 1957 in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis.
Israel’s success in presenting itself as existentially threatened in the run-up to the war provided Tel-Aviv with overwhelming public support in the post-Shoah Western World. This public deployment was in fact a significant factor in propelling the Israel lobby in the US.
Boosting Israel’s profile put Tel-Aviv on a fast track toward impunity, and concomitantly further sidelined Palestinians’ grievances and silenced their story.
Today, Israel is the United States’ top recipient of financial and military aid. It is the only country to which the U.S. makes 10-year security funding commitments. In the latest agreement signed by President Obama in 2016, the US began giving Israel about $3.8 billion in military assistance annually. Funds for weapons development, like the Iron Dome, are not included in the annual deal.
Last month, before his visit to the region, Biden vowed to grant $4 billion to Israel, the largest annual sum to the country in U.S. history. The Palestinian Authority was promised $500 million in aid, which makes the share of an Israeli eight times larger than that of a Palestinian.
None of that would have been possible without strong and persistent congressional support, despite the growing pro-Palestine movement among the progressive democrats.
Behind the Congress, US public opinion continues to view Israel more positively than they do the Palestinians, although views favoring Palestinians have been growing over the past two decades, especially among the younger generation.
In Europe, the shifting dynamic favoring Palestinians is more pronounced than in the U.S. Nonetheless, a significant section of the mainstream institutions — media and governmental — remain either apathetic towards Palestinian plight or expressly pro-Israel.
In last year’s Gaza onslaught, European officials were divided among those who expressed unreserved support for Israel and blamed Hamas (Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovenia), and others who criticized Israel and Hamas (Irish and Belgian foreign ministers).
Add to that the anti-BDS laws, as in the United Kingdom, and the utilization of politically biased definitions of antisemitism to witch-hunt Palestinian and pro-Palestine activists, journalists, and academics, as in the case of Germany.
In the majority of these cases, especially in the US, the pro-Israel posture is justified on the grounds of Israel’s security and right to exist.
In its views of Israel’s security, the United States almost fully embraces Israel’s definition. Biden and the majority of US lawmakers, much like every US administration in the past 50 years, note that Israel is constantly surrounded by direct threats from its neighbors.
As of today, the threat is Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, which the US labels as terrorist organizations and reject Israel’s right to exist, as do Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. As such, a critical output of the US-Israeli security cooperation is to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region, which is also beneficial for the US regional interests.
The US and Israel have recently been pushing for a regional security alliance with Arab states to combat Iran. With that, the US hopes to outsource part of its regional role to Israel and make Tel-Aviv a gateway to Washington for the region’s regimes. This means planting Israel at the heart of the Arab national security network, ultimately extending Tel-Aviv’s strategic depth and heightening its regional leverage.
When Israel’s security is supplemented with the notion of Israel being “the only democracy in the Middle East,” it gives Israel’s perception and implementation of security a halo of righteousness. Any disturbance to this security, be it through dissidence or mere criticism, is decontextualized and presented as a violation of Israel’s right to exist.
Others argue that Israel’s righteous position in U.S. politics, in particular, is also driven by the Western collective memory of and identification with the Shoah. In a way, argues Holocaust historian Tim Cole, the Holocaust has penetrated American national consciousness and become “as American as apple pie.” It has been incorporated into the country’s fundamental mythos of pluralism, tolerance, democracy, and human rights.
John McCain once wrote: “the Holocaust underlined the moral basis for Israel’s founding … In standing with Israel, we are merely being true to ourselves.”
Under the surface, it is prejudice
When Israel is viewed in terms of realpolitik, mutual interests, and/or Shoah guilt, this explains why most western mainstream media and official bodies still make excuses for its behaviors, despite its appalling human rights record.
This still does not fully account for the limited acknowledgement of Palestinian human rights. After all, the notion of universal rights has come to define the modern global system, around which the western world has constructed its socio-political identity.
So, why the half-hearted, hesitant support — or lack thereof? Why does Ukraine, for instance, matter, and Palestine does not? Why Mariupol and not Gaza?
We can always redeploy the “mutual interests,” or even the socio-economic framework to explain, and they will always provide a satisfactory answer to many. But such an analytical framework has limitations; it overestimates the human capacity to make rational moral decisions. And, it does not take into account the psycho-social dynamics at play behind politics.
To present a broader picture of anti-Palestinian bias, we should look specifically at the psycho-historical prejudices that drive politics, and here I point to the long-standing historical conflict between “East and West.”
The conflict manifests in the ethno-religious “othering” of Muslims and Arabs, whose values and culture are seen as antithetical, and often inferior, to western ideals. That is, the expressions of prejudice against the out-group’s social identity, practices, and values are morally justified and socially legitimized on the grounds of defending the in-group’s values and culture.
Palestinians are viewed and framed by most Western media outlets, as well as state institutions, as part of that “othered” value system. Yet in addition to the typical racist stereotypes applied to Arabs and Muslims, Palestinians are also subjected to “political racism.”
Palestinian values of freedom and self-determination are decontextualized or outright rejected because they are antagonistic to Israel. Not only for political reasons, but mainly because they clash with Israel’s alleged western-based value system. In other words, Palestinian activism and advocacy, let alone resistance, are viewed as anti-western, not because they are illegitimate, but because they are seen as inferior to and in conflict with Israel’s superior western values.
It only takes a trip into history and back to see how Zionism had been constructed and promoted as an extension of western values, and how Jews were “whitened” to fit that purpose. Despite all the claims and efforts toward indigeneity in Palestine, Zionists still largely position themselves as different from the surrounding “Middle Eastern muck,” to borrow American political scientist Ian Lustick’s term, and that Israel is a western-styled and affiliated country.
This entails an outlook on Arabs/Muslims — the Palestinians in particular — as irrational, violent, intractably antisemitic, and sustained by deep anti-western resentment. Meanwhile, Israeli Jews, to quote Avraham Burg, are seen as “the forward post of Europe, and the fence separating [the West] from the barbarians.”
What is more, to cite Rashid Khalidi, many of the underlying features of the Zionist project fit well into the settler-colonial mindset that defined the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Zionism is arguably a relabeled but nevertheless old-fashioned form of turn-of-the-century western colonialism.
The indigenous populations of each of those regions were deemed inferior, savage, and uncivilized. It was therefore morally permissible not only to confiscate their victimhood and reattach it to the victimizing colonizer, but also to eliminate them through genocide and ethnic cleansing.
Within this framework, Palestinians and what they represent are seen as “the other,” and Israeli-Jews as “shared values.” This has made it compunction less in many Western decision-making circles and media platforms to label Palestinian acts of dissidence, as well as criticism of Israel, as illegitimate.
When antisemitism is thrown into this “shared values” mix, Palestinians and their value system — be it self-determination or anti-occupation resistance — are even further delegitimized.
Examples of the aforementioned processes of anti-Palestinian prejudice abound, too many to enumerate here, but suffice it to say that whether we’re talking about pro-Israel bias in US media coverage, or the prohibitions of European (and particularly German) media outlets of using words like “apartheid” and “colonialism” to describe Israel, anti-Palestinianism is not only socio-cultural, but decidedly institutional and systemic.
“Negative affiliation”: no aversion to real antisemites
An interesting phenomenon today is that anti-Palestinianism and, as a result, pro-Israel posture, is rife among western far-right groups who are also, intrinsically, antisemitic.
Think of Hungary’s former prime minister Viktor Orbán, the right-wing politician who waged a campaign against Jewish philanthropist George Soros and supported the rehabilitation of Miklós Horthy, the WWII leader who sent 400,000 Jews to their deaths. Orbán did not shy away from expressing support for Israel and even visiting Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
Also, think of Germany’s right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which portrays itself as philosemitic and pro-Israel. The same trend is found among other European far-right leaders such as N. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France, and Nigel Farage in the UK.
They see in Israel and Zionism a nationalist role model, let alone that in the wake of the Holocaust, showing support for Israel has become a way to make far-right populism and racism socially tolerable.
Israel — the country that was born out of antisemitism — does not seem to have a problem with forming alliances with antisemitic groups, for the sake of beneficial realpolitik.
What these groups and Israel have in common is their fear of Islam, MENA immigrants, and by extension, Palestinians.
On the surface, the alliance can easily be considered shared interests, which to some extent is true. Yet it still works within the same Orientalist parameters, not literally in terms of shared values, but more of a shared dislike and fear of a third other.
In previous writings, I have called this phenomenon “negative affiliation.” It means that parties who do not necessarily share many values or goals, or are antagonistic to each other, may still find common grounds in the negative views of a third party. The phrase “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” is perhaps the closest analogy.
It may also be hierarchal — western right-wing groups support Israel not so much because they identify with Jews and Judaism as it is because they dislike what the Palestinians represent — being “uncivilized” Arabs who are mostly Muslim.
This is further supported by the fact that, according to Hatem Bazian, many pro-Israel groups in the US are also the primary funders and producers of Islamophobic content. Bazian points to a particularly poignant example of an ad put out by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI, which read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel, Defeat Jihad.” This is also a typical case of negative affiliation — highlighting what Israel and the west do not share with the Palestinian “other.”
These days, we see a similar pattern in the Israeli-Indian relationships, where Islamophobia has emerged as a bonding mechanism between Israel and India’s far-right Hindu nationalists. This has translated into a strong, albeit uninformed and naive, anti-Palestinian sentiment among Hindu nationalists.
Realpolitik or socio-cultural bias?
Realpolitik and mutual interests can explain the western, largely pro-Israel — and by extension, anti-Palestinian — posture. After all, what western governments gain from Israel, both in terms of political and economic benefits, far exceeds anything the Palestinians can ever deliver.
Realpolitik, however, is only one layer of the story. It foregoes the ethnic, historical, and religious factors at play behind politics, which have laid the ground for a “shared values” system between Israel and the west, and as such has steered the emotional orientation of western politics.
The result is a hierarchy of identification playing largely in Israel’s favor. The Palestinians, meanwhile, were frozen in a stereotypical, Orientalist framework where their victimhood and rights became seen as less pressing or valuable than Israel’s security needs. This made it possible to accept and even elevate the Zionist settler-colonial narrative and marginalize, or reject, the narratives and worldviews of Zionism’s victims.
Emad Moussa is a Palestinian-British researcher, whose focus is the social psychology of mainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict