America's Israel problem: The U.S. government chooses sides while taxpayers foot the bill

No other country has received such a large "aid" package from the United States

Published September 18, 2016 3:59PM (EDT)

A Palestinian solidarity protest in Times Square, New York City on Oct. 18, 2015  (Ben Norton)
A Palestinian solidarity protest in Times Square, New York City on Oct. 18, 2015 (Ben Norton)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


The United States government, led by President Obama, has pledged Israel $38 billion over ten years in military assistance. This money will include Israeli purchase of American missile defense systems — a shield against attack. But this is not what defines the deal. The money will mainly go to Israel’s offensive military capacity that includes weapon systems used against Palestinians — particularly in the frequent attacks by Israel on Gaza. The ‘aid’ package is not only for Israel — which benefits greatly from this largess — but it will be a massive boondoggle for U.S. arms manufacturers. The U.S. taxpayer will pay Israel $38 billion so that Israel has to turn around and buy weapons systems from the U.S. weapons monopoly firms. This is a cozy agreement, which benefits Israel and the weapons dealers but not the U.S. taxpayer and not the Palestinians. They are the ones who lose.

For the record, each U.S. taxpayer will be paying over $300 per head to the Israelis and the arms industry.

No other country has ever received such an enormous ‘aid’ package from the United States. Israel’s previous deal was for $3.1 billion per year — now raised to $3.8 billion. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted the United States to give Israel $4.5 billion per year. Obama’s people resisted that amount, although both the Israelis and the arms industry lobbied his administration. His resistance is not evidence of balance towards the Palestinians. There is no such balance on display here.

Over the ten months that the United States, the Israelis and the arms industry worked on this deal, Netanyahu has shown nothing but contempt for Obama and for the tepid concerns of the United States over Israel’s illegal settlement program in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s animosity to Obama goes back to the first term of the President, and was underscored by his embarrassingly partisan speech to a joint session of Congress before Obama’s 2012 re-election. The public posturing against the Iran deal and the disdain for the U.S. statements over the illegal settlement policy are part of a long-standing lack of concern by Netanyahu and the Israeli leadership for American policy. In 2011, Netanyahu went to a settlement where he said — candidly — "I know what America is. American can be easily moved. Moved to the right direction." In other words, America’s criticisms are not serious. The $38 billion deal is proof that Netanyahu is correct.

Impact of BDS

What the Israeli political elite fear more than anything else is the shift in public perception in the United States. It is the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) movement that gives the political class and its U.S.-based Israel lobby sleepless nights. They can ‘move’ Obama, but they can’t so easily ‘move’ civil society. Evidence for a pro-Palestinian stance can be found in the Movement for Black Lives endorsement of BDS, in the connections between the Standing Rock struggle and the Palestinian Youth Movement, and in other social movements — including sections of the U.S. labor movement. On college campuses, Students for Justice in Palestine continue to thrive. New books by mainstream authors provide a richer understanding of the Israeli occupation and have received attention from the chattering classes (most recently Ben Ehrenreich’s "The Way to the Spring," which I had reviewed here in June). Pulitzer Prize winning writer Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman — both celebrated American writers — are editing an anthology on the 1967 War, when Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. After a trip to the Occupied Territories, Chabon told Naomi Zeveloff that what he had experienced was "the most grievous injustice I have ever seen in my life." Chabon, Waldman and Ehrenreich were born between 1961 and 1972 — they are the generation that has known nothing other than the Occupation and U.S. complicity in it.

Bans on BDS continue — most recently in New Jersey, where the state pension system has been banned from any BDS action on Israeli firms, and in California, where the legislature wishes to penalize firms that boycott those complicit in the Israeli occupation. Congress has put on the table the Combating BDS Act of 2016. It is unlikely to pass only because it is blatantly unconstitutional. In 1966, the NAACP called for a boycott of white businesses in Clairborne County, Miss., as a tactic to force the community to comply with equal rights provisions. The businesses went to the courts seeking relief against the boycott. Finally, in 1982, the Supreme Court found that the tactic of boycott came under the protection of free speech. It was a constitutionally protected action. The Justices quoted from Alexis de Tocqueville’s "Democracy in America," where the Frenchman extolled the right of association. "No legislator can attack it without impairing the foundations of society," wrote de Tocqueville; this is a sentence that members of the Congress should bear in mind.

Banning BDS actions by firms is an important thrust, but U.S. history shows that it is of little consequence. U.S. firms have routinely gone around sanctions barriers from the days of trading with Nazi Germany to the present. The history of U.S. corporations and South African apartheid is a telling one — and documented at the time by Ann Seidman and Neva Seidman in a series of important articles and books (now sadly quite forgotten). At the urging of Congressman Ron Dellums, an Anti-Apartheid bill went before the Senate, where Republicans filibustered it. When the Act was passed, President Ronald Reagan vetoed it. He called the bill "economic warfare." Congress passed an override, but the Reagan administration did not enforce the act. "Punitive sanctions," Reagan said, "are not the best course of action." At the same time, Reagan’s administration pushed for and won the right to garrote Libya with an economic sanctions regime. Principle was not the issue here. It was politics (Hillary Clinton, for instance, is against BDS since she says sanctions are bad, but she is in favor of sanctions against North Carolina, Iran and Syria).

If firms are not reliable, more dangerous for the Israel lobby is the turn on college campuses toward a fair discussion of the occupation of the Palestinians. The mere existence of a Students for Justice in Palestine club is occasion for hyperventilation. The most recent example of scandalous behavior by college administrations is at the University of California-Berkeley. An undergraduate — Paul Hadweh — planned to teach a course on Tuesday evenings called Palestine: A Settler-Colonial Analysis. Hadweh is no stranger to controversy. Last year, he was interviewed by The New York Times’ Ronnie Cohen about pro-Palestinian activism at Berkeley. The article that came out suggested that campus activism for Palestinian rights was anti-Semitic. Indeed, Hadweh, at that time, said that the reporter kept pressing him to admit that BDS is anti-Semitic. Hadweh’s course alerted the sentinels of the Israel lobby. Forty-three Jewish organizations wrote to Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, suggesting that the course "meets our government’s criteria for anti-Semitism and are intended to indoctrinate students to hate the Jewish state." Dirks, who will step down at the end of the year because of corruption charges, suspended the course.

A student designs a course. It has a faculty sponsor (Hatem Bazian) and another faculty member (Keith Feldman) has agreed to come speak to the class. It goes through the formal process for the acceptance of the course. All that takes place. Then an outside group says that the course is distasteful to it and the senior administration suspends the course. When BDS activists call for the academic boycott of Israeli institutions that are complicit in the occupation of the Palestinians, they are charged — often by these very organizations — for the violation of academic freedom. In this case, there is no protection of academic freedom.

The United States government donates scarce taxpayer money to finance the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Criticism inside the United States of the occupation itself grows — whether on college campuses, in religious institutions or in labor unions. Unprincipled attempts by the Israel lobby — helped on by the U.S. and Israeli political elite — to change the tide will not be successful. Sure, one class was cancelled. Others will be taught. Hadweh’s guest speaker — Keith Feldman — has written a wonderful book ("A Shadow Over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America"), which unravels the U.S.-Israeli "special relationship." Voices such as Feldman's will not be easy to silence. Hadweh is a student. He will graduate. He will continue to be part of the conversation. That is the tide. It cannot be dammed. This $38 billion deal represents yesterday’s consensus. The emerging consensus will not be prepared to underwrite the illegal Israeli occupation of the Palestinians.

By Vijay Prashad

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He has written more than twenty books, including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (The New Press, 2007), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013), The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016) and Red Star Over the Third World (LeftWord, 2017). He writes regularly for Frontline, the Hindu, Newsclick, AlterNet and BirGün.

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Alternet Barack Obama Bds Benjamin Netanyahu Gaza Palestinians Ronald Reagan