Finally, a close friend and political advisor of mine, Ralph Brave, took me for a walk, looked into my eyes and said: “Tom, you can’t do this. You have to stop.” He was right, and I did. In the California Legislature, I went to work on Holocaust survivor issues while withdrawing from the bind of Israeli-Palestinian politics. When the first Palestinian intifada began, I sensed from experience that the balance of forces had changed, and that the Israeli occupation was finished. Frictions developed between me and some of my Israeli and Jewish friends when I suggested that Israel must make a peace deal immediately or accept a worse deal later.
It is still painful and embarrassing to describe these events of nearly 25 years ago, but with Israel today again bombing Lebanon and Israeli officials bragging about “rolling back the clock by twenty years” and reconfiguring the Middle East, I feel obliged to speak out against history repeating.
How do I read today’s news through the lens of the past?
What I fear is that the “Israeli lobby” is working overtime to influence American public opinion on behalf of Israel?s military effort to “roll back the clock” and “change the map” of the region, going far beyond issues like prisoner exchange.
What I fear is that the progress of the American peace movement against the Iraq war will be diverted and undermined, at least for now, by the entry of Israel from the sidelines into the center of the equation.
What I fear is the rehabilitation of the discredited U.S. neoconservative agenda to ignite a larger war against Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. The neoconservatives’ 1996 “Clean Break” memo advocated that Israel “roll back” Lebanon and destabilize Syria in addition to overthrowing Saddam Hussein. An intellectual dean of the neoconservatives, Bernard Lewis, has long advocated the “Lebanonization” of the Middle East, meaning the disintegration of nation states into “a chaos of squabbling, feuding, fighting sects, tribes, regions and parties.”
This divide-and-conquer strategy, a brainchild of the region’s British colonizers, is already taking effect in Iraq, where America overthrew a secular state, installed a Shiite majority and its militias in power and now portrays itself as the only protection for Sunnis against those same Shiites. The resulting quagmire has become a justification for American troops to remain.
What I fear is trepidation and confusion among rank-and-file voters and activists, and the paralysis of politicians, especially Democrats, who last week were moving gradually toward setting a deadline for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The politics of the present crisis favor the Republicans and the White House in the short run. How many politicians will favor withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq under present conditions? Isn’t this Karl Rove’s game plan for the November elections?
What I know is that I will not make the same mistake again. I hope that my story deepens the resolve of all those whose feelings are torn, conflicted or confused in the present. It is not being a “friend of Israel” to turn a blind eye to its never-ending occupation.
One might argue, and many Americans today might agree, that Hezbollah and Hamas started this round of war with their provocative kidnappings of Israeli soldiers. Lost in the headlines, however, is the fact that the Israelis have 9,000 Palestinian prisoners, and have negotiated prisoner swaps before. Others will blame the Islamists for incessant rocket attacks on Israel. But the roots of this virulent spiral of vengeance lie in the permanent occupation of Palestinian territories by the overconfident Israelis. As it did in 1982, Israel now admits that the war is not about prisoner exchanges or cease-fires; it is about eradicating Hezbollah and Hamas altogether, if necessary by an escalation against Syria or even Iran. It should be clear by now that the present Israeli government will never accept an independent Palestinian state, but rather harbors a colonial ambition to decide which Palestinian leaders are acceptable.
In 1982, Israel said the same thing about eliminating PLO sanctuaries in Lebanon. It was after that 1982 Israeli invasion that Hezbollah was born. I remember Israeli national security experts even taking credit for fostering Hamas and Islamic fundamentalism as safe, reclusive alternatives to Palestinian secular nationalism. I remember watching Israeli soldiers blow up Palestinian houses and carry out collective punishment because, they told me matter-of-factly, punishment is the only language that Arabs understand. Israelis are inflicting collective punishment on Lebanese civilians for the same reason today.
It is clear that apocalyptic forces, openly green-lighted by President Bush, are gambling on the impossible. They are trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in Iraq through escalation in Lebanon and beyond. This is yet another faith-based initiative.
If the American people do not see through the headlines; if the Democrats turn hawkish; if the international community fails to intervene immediately, the peace movement may be sidelined to a prophetic and marginal role for the moment. But we can say the following for now:
Militarism and occupation cannot extinguish the force of Islamic nationalism. Billions in American tax dollars are funding the Israeli troops and bombs.
There needs to be an exit strategy. The absence of any such exit plan is the weakest element of the U.S.-Israeli campaign. Just as the White House says it plans to deploy 50,000 troops on permanent bases in an occupied Iraq, so the Israelis speak of permanently eliminating their enemies, from Gaza to Tehran. The result will be further occupation, resistance and deeper quagmire.
The immediate conflict should not become a pretext for continuing the U.S. military occupation of Iraq. American soldiers should not be stuck waist-deep in a sectarian quagmire. Congressional insistence on denying funds for permanent military bases is a vital first step. Otherwise we will witness a tacit alliance between Israel and the U.S. to dominate the Middle East militarily.
Most important, Americans must not be timid in speaking up, as I was 25 years ago. Silence is consent to occupation.