Two very different ways for the United States to deal with Arabs and Israelis were on show last week in the United States. The contrast was stunning between the televised debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in which “I Love Israel more than You Love Israel” was the background theme song that permeated most discussions of issues, and a letter to Congress by 15 American religious leaders asking for aid to Israel to be assessed according to law-based human rights standards that Washington applies around the world.
The tilt toward Israeli views at the top of American politics is nothing new, and therefore is not surprising or even meaningful; it is the way politics works in Washington, where Israel usually can expect 90 percent or more of Congress to blindly support it, regardless of the morality, legality or consequences of Israel’s actions. The letter by the 15 church leaders is new, however, and therefore significant, because it reflects a growing recent trend to demand that the American government, churches and others treat Israel like they treat other nations, rather than allow Israel to live by a separate set of rules.
The 15 religious leaders represent many major faith groups in the U.S., including Presbyterians, Evangelical Lutherans, United Methodists, the National Council of Churches, the American Friends Service Committee, the Mennonite Central Committee, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, American Baptist Churches, United Church of Christ and others.
They stress their evenhanded commitment “to support both Israelis and Palestinians in their desire to live in peace and well-being,” and state that, “it is our moral responsibility to question the continuation of unconditional U.S. financial assistance to the government of Israel. Realizing a just and lasting peace will require this accountability, as continued U.S. military assistance to Israel – offered without conditions or accountability – will only serve to sustain the status quo and Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories. We request, therefore, that Congress hold Israel accountable to these standards by making the disbursement of U.S. military assistance to Israel contingent on the Israeli government’s compliance with applicable U.S. laws and policies,” particularly in the realm of human rights issues and the use of American-supplied weapons.
Holding Israelis and Palestinians alike responsible for the prolonged violence in the region, the church leaders state that “unconditional U.S. military assistance to Israel has contributed to deteriorating conditions in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories which threaten to lead the region further away from the realization of a just peace. Furthermore, such aid sustains the conflict and undermines the long-term security interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.”
They ask for an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act and the U.S. Arms Export Control Act, which prohibit assistance to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations and limit the use of U.S. weapons to “internal security” or “legitimate self-defense.” They urge Congress to hold hearings to examine Israel’s compliance, and request regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance. They base this call in part on the 2011 U.S. State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices which details widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinian civilians, many of which involve the misuse of U.S.-supplied weapons (including separate and unequal legal systems for Palestinians and settlers, confiscation of Palestinian land and natural resources for the benefit of settlers, and violence by settlers against Palestinians).
The letter and the position of the churches it reflects are significant for several reasons. The most important is that this approach brings together American values, laws and foreign policy positions in a manner that the U.S. government itself often fails to do. Its call for a review of foreign aid policies on the basis of American legal requirements is a position that most Americans would support. It also clearly affirms that Israelis and Palestinians alike should have the same rights to peace, security and well-being, pre-empting the usual Israeli outcry that such demands for legal compliance by Israel are acts of reflexive anti-Semitism or some other twisted view.
These three elements demand that American foreign policy reflect American legal and ethical principles, and they are also driven by concerns at the grassroots by ordinary American men and women who dislike how the pro-Israeli tilt in Washington has disfigured the integrity of faith-based values and legal dictates in the U.S. This combination of ethics, law and activism that are anchored in mainstream America causes real problems for the pro-Israel lobbies and associated political thugs in Washington whose intimidating impact centers on politicians in the capital who often value incumbency over legality or morality.
That is how politicians behave; but now, in response to the excesses of that process, we have a refreshing example of how faith leaders behave to redress the ethical imbalances that define American foreign policy in the Middle East.
The writer is a columnist at the Lebanon-based Daily Star, where this article was published on Oct. 29, 2012