A little more evenhandedness might just help

October 05, 2003|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

LAST SUNDAY, I wrote about Israel's uniqueness as a democracy in a region where no other government is freely elected.

This was in the context of news that more than two dozen officers of the Israeli air force were refusing to participate in attacks against civilians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, especially the assassination raids against the leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others responsible for suicide bombings against Israelis in the past three years. Too many innocent Palestinian civilians were being killed in the process, the officers said.

Now let's talk about the relationship between that troubled democracy and this troubled democracy, the United States.

On Tuesday, I gave a talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at an Episcopal church in Owings Mills.

Afterward, a woman who did not tell me her name asked me why the U.S. government is so lopsidedly in support of Israel, why Israel has been the beneficiary of tens of billions of dollars in aid from the United States over the past five decades. Why so, when the United States appears to have so little influence over Israel's behavior? Would there ever be a "groundswell" in America against such lopsided support?

Unlikely, I told her. The ground in America tends not to swell over such complex, foreign issues. America's historic support of Israel is grounded in the belief that Jews were entitled to a state-homeland, especially after the horror of the Holocaust.

Its existence as a democracy and an ally of the United States was viewed as particularly important during the Cold War. America has an energetic and forceful community of interests in support of Israel, which wields considerable political influence.

U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Arab conflict is not "evenhanded," as Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democratic candidate for president, angrily reminded Howard Dean in a recent debate right here in Baltimore. Evenhandedness, Lieberman said, would "break a 50-year record in which presidents, Republican and Democrat, and members of Congress of both parties have supported our relationship with Israel based on shared values and common strategic interests."

Last week, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon demonstrated how confident it is that the United States will not react forcefully against Israel even when it defies the clearly stated policies of its political and economic benefactor.

The Sharon government went ahead with plans to continue building a so-called security fence, a wall between Israel and the West Bank.

This wall is designed to protect Israel against terrorist attacks, a desperate measure by a government desperate to protect its people. But the United States objects. It objects because the wall creates an impression of imprisonment for the Palestinians and because much of the fence is being built on disputed territory; it is being built on territory that the Palestinians consider to be theirs. Eventually, under the Sharon plan, the fence will extend to surround Israeli settlements in the West Bank, settlements that the United States and much of the rest of the international community hold to be illegal.

Then the Sharon government let it be known it would be expanding existing settlements in the West Bank. This even though the United States -- having effectively given up its position against settlements -- pleaded with Israel to desist from settlement expansion while Washington tried to press ahead with its so-called road map for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Israel argues that it is under no obligation to fulfill its commitments under the road-map provisions while the Palestinians are not holding up their side of the bargain, especially the provision that there would be no more Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis.

Having spent a large part of the past 30 years living among the chief combatants in this relentless fight, I am confident that so long as Ariel Sharon and the Likud Party are in charge of Israel, the settlements will not stop. They will expand because it is a fulfillment of the fundamental ideology of the Likud Party. And as long as the settlements continue, accompanied as they are by destruction and seizure of Palestinian property, the terrorists will have that among their incentives to keep killing Israelis.

What if Israel, which is a strong nation, with a powerful military, even a nuclear arsenal, and which is a free country supported by the most powerful nation in the world, were to make an extraordinary gesture toward peace? What if it were to stop building and dismantle some real settlements? What would it lose with the test?

Not much economically. The settlements are a financial drain on Israel's severely depressed economy. The construction, infrastructure and other civilian service costs were found by the newspaper Ha'aretz to total $500 million a year. Most Israelis do not support the settlements.

Recently, the U.S. government threatened to reduce its loan guarantees to Israel by an amount equivalent to the cost of constructing the Israeli security fence. What if Washington were to tell the Sharon government that if Israel laid another trowel to one more settlement brick in the West Bank or Gaza, Washington would cut that $500 million from direct aid? If that seemed too evenhanded, Washington could take away a like amount from the $2 billion a year it gives Egypt until President Hosni Mubarak holds an honest and free election.

The results might be amazing. Helpful, too.

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