Mass Killings Won't Change America's Relationship with Israel

Dozens of civilians are dead and thousands more injured in the latest outburst of insane violence in Gaza. Yet the US debate seems frozen.
May 16, 2018, 6:44am
A wounded demonstrator is tended to near the Gaza/Israel border on Monday. (Photo by Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images)

When Israeli security forces killed at least 60 Palestinians marching on the Gaza fence and injured some 2,700 others Monday, it was a reminder that America's closest ally in the Middle East is capable of horrific acts of violence against civilians. But despite smoldering outrage over the killings, there is little chance the US will abandon, or even seriously rebuke, Israel. Ever since President Harry Truman recognized Israel's sovereignty on the same day it declared independence in May 1948, the United States has been a steadfast ally of the Jewish state, lending successive governments a steady stream of financial, diplomatic and military support. That US backing has helped Israel survive in the face of challenges, military and otherwise, from Arab nations that have long been deeply hostile to its very existence.

Palestinians have always had advocates in the US, especially on the left, and the idea of a two-state solution has long been in the political mainstream. But thanks in part to what critics describe as an all-powerful domestic lobby, Israel has enjoyed the lion's share of clout in Washington—even as the country's government has, in recent years, turned aggressively toward the right.

Still, Donald Trump's decision in December to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital—and move the US embassy to that city—represented a new level of comity with the most extreme elements of modern Zionism. Past presidents have held off from making the mostly symbolic change, recognizing that it might hamstring their ability to help hammer out a peace deal that almost certainly would have to allow for Palestinian control of East Jerusalem.

Trump's move helped spark a new wave of demonstrations and actions in Palestine, where anger over the long, painful economic blockade of Gaza was already simmering. Hundreds of Palestinians were injured and well over a dozen killed in protests marking "Land Day," an annual commemoration of Palestinian civil resistance, earlier this spring. And on Monday, the latest major march on the fence dividing the Gaza Strip from Israel was met with live fire from security forces, with tragic results. Meanwhile, as the New York Times reported, the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka were just a few dozen miles away, beaming as the new embassy was formally opened. Besides slamming extremist group Hamas, which controls Gaza, as the cause of the bloodshed, the White House barely acknowledged the tragedy—and even some Democrats seemed content to bask in the glow of Israeli victory, fraught though it may be.

For some perspective on how we got to a moment of uniquely deadly violence on one hand—the worst since at least 2014—and exultant American political elites on the other, I called up Brian Katulis. A senior fellow at the mainstream liberal Center for American Progress, Katulis worked on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration and recently traveled to Palestine. He explained why America reacts to these events the way it does—and where we go from here.

VICE: How strong would you say Israel’s connections or ties to this administration are compared to those that preceded them?
Brian Katulis: The real shift here is that you've got a certain faction inside of Israel that is aligned with the current prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] that has coordinated well with a certain faction inside our [US] political system. Under Obama, there was a clear and concerted effort to try to make US support for Israel a partisan wedge issue—meaning that you had conservative groups inside the United States at times coordinating with the right-wing in Israel to paint Democrats and President Obama as weak on Israel. You had unprecedented initiatives like the Emergency Committee for Israel. I thought it did a disservice to US-Israel ties by trying to make these attack ads against a range of Democrats—not just Obama but pretty conservative Democrats.

That was really unfortunate because Democrats have demonstrated strong support for Israel’s security concerns even while trying to press forward on the peace process, whether under Obama or under Clinton before him. In some ways that coordination between conservative groups here and in Israel is on steroids right now with the current powers that be in both governments.

How do you make sense of the almost invisible US response to all this bloodshed?
What’s happening in Gaza is horrific. I fear for my friends there. But you look three hours to the northeast, and Syria—you know, Syria does register episodically in our consciousness... I hope this doesn't sound too cynical, but in the next day or two maybe we’ll have more coverage of Gaza and the protests. But then, I would bet by next week, you're not doing a story on it.

Democrats as well, this registers for a few members but not in the way that it does on other issues consistently. So you’ll get a statement from someone like Barbara Lee, who’s from a district in California and hears a lot from her constituents on this because she comes from a pretty liberal district. Generally, that’s not a mainstream Democratic view.

And the best example of that, obviously, is Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. He's of course liberal on lots of issues, but put out a statement essentially saying this is the one thing he agrees with Trump on—the moving of the embassy—despite the violence.
I don't feel like that's a surprise. What will be interesting to see if there are alternative voices that evolve that have credibility on this, that capture the mainstream of the party. And by that I mean Democrats, not just Bernie Sanders, who's technically not a Democrat. I don't know where the center of gravity is in the Democratic Party, but I would guess it's closer, at least in terms of elected officials, to where Schumer's at than where some on the left are, on this issue. Does that reflect where public opinion polls are with the Democratic voter? I doubt it. If you talk to people like Peter Beinart and other smart analysts like him, they say that's shifting and ultimately will remake political trends in the party. That, I think, assumes a certain salience to this issue relative to others that Democrats will be considering heading into the midterms and 2020.

How likely is this embassy move and capital recognition, from a strictly national security perspective, to cause blowback on the US?
Where I would look for it to have an impact is on the more pragmatic countries like Jordan, which has been deeply critical of the embassy move. I look to them—it doesn't surprise me the sort of statements we've seen coming out from Hamas or even Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Where I think the potential national security blowback—where I think the Trump administration has gotten a little over its skis—is the risk that it's taking in putting countries that it's trying to build alliances with like Jordan, even Saudi Arabia, Egypt to some extent—these are countries that when he made his initial announcement on Jerusalem in December came out at the UN, were critical, despite Trump's threat to cut off aid to any country that did this.

What I would watch is how much pressure these moves place on countries like Jordan, which is a partner in the fight against ISIS, which hosts thousands of US troops today, but also doesn't see eye to eye with Trump on this. And also, unlike Saudi Arabia, this is their number-one foreign policy question and issue just because of the domestic considerations that they have as well and the special obligations they have on things like Jerusalem by virtue of the peace treaty they have with Israel.

So we touched on this earlier, but do you think the longer-term effect of this new policy and the attendant violence will be a real shift in the US debate on Israel and Palestine?
It could happen, but I don't think it'll happen unless you see a shift inside of Israel's politics. Unless you see the rise of a center-left that is a partner in some sort of way and that is distinctive from their right-wing and has some purchase and sway.

That's one issue. Second, I'd be surprised if this is the thing that comes out on top, whether it's in a presidential primary or in your ordinary congressional district. Unless there's a huge flare-up—a huge atrocity, a real war. If it's like what we've seen [Monday]—which is terrible, I want to highlight—I doubt it makes ripples inside of the politics.

It is fair to say that this administration—right now, at least—is watching the bloodshed and not doing anything about it, right?
I don't recall seeing a Trump administration statement in the way that you saw under Obama, Bush, Clinton, calling for restraint and a de-escalation of violence.

And you attribute that to the newfound power of extremists in Israel lining up with those in this White House?
I think that's a big part of it. The other thing I'd say, it's interesting you mention the two-state solution. I came out of this last trip, I was in Hebron, in Ramallah, in East Jerusalem. This is going to sound like an academic point, but it's important: The more that the notion of a two-state solution seems to recede from the horizon, it really raises questions about not only how Palestinians but also Israeli citizens who are Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, how they start thinking about or talking about what a viable endgame is. In Israeli politics, it's not even under discussion. What's interesting to me is to think through how the Palestinians, both Israeli citizens and in the territories, are starting to shift this conversation among themselves. Israeli Arabs in Jerusalem who are citizens for years rejected the notion of participating in municipal elections, but are now reconsidering. I don't know that they'll come out in droves but i thought it was interesting that there was some discussion of building joint [candidate] lists with the Israeli Jewish left.

My expectation, to your bigger question, is that unless something really—not to minimize what's happened here, because I think do think it's seminal. But unless something really seismic—some major conflict on the order of a new Intifada—happens, I'd be surprised if this shakes up US politics in a big way.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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