“The Friends of Israel Initiative.” It sounds innocent enough. Hey, I’m a friend of Israel too. But with “Friends” like these — an international network of hard-core neoconservatives — Israel doesn’t need enemies. Though they claim to be apolitical and take no positions on the specifics of the Israel-Palestine conflict, these neocon “Friends” are clearly out to bolster Israel’s right-wing policies, which would condemn Israelis as well as Palestinians to an endless round of conflict, insecurity, and suffering.
The “Friends” first organized themselves in Europe. Their chief spokesman (or is it front man?) is former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar. Their supporters include the one-time progressive hero of Czech freedom, Vaclaw Havel, as well as Northen Ireland’s Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble, and Alejandro Toledo, who was a self-proclaimed liberal as president of Peru. Old neocons don’t die, it seems. They go global.
Their latest and most importance appearance was in Washington, where Aznar was very busy addressing the Council on Foreign Relations, hosting a dinner for the neocon elite, giving copious interviews, and talking with friendly members of the House and Senate. Opening doors for Aznar was the most prominent American supporter of the “Friends,” John Bolton, who once carried the neocon flag proudly as G. W. Bush’s ambassador to the U. N.
But Bolton apparently forgot to tell Aznar the first rule of America’s neocons: never reveal your true agenda in public. Everywhere Aznar went, he blurted out the whole ideology — racist, xenophobic, paranoid warts and all — the same dangerous witch’s brew of neocon ideology that we thought was just a dead relic of failed Bushite foreign policy. Here’s the gist of Aznar’s message. (If you can’t quite believe it, you can read full texts of his presentations here, here, here, here, and here.)
It begins with a simplistic version of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” fantasy: “We believe in the West, in the values we all share,” Aznar proclaimed. Now “it is necessary to enforce” Western values, because “the threat to our way of life from radical Islamists is real. … There are those who would like to destroy our system to impose their vision, like the revolutionary ayatollahs in Iran, or the jihadists led or inspired by Al Qaeda.”
Reflecting the racism of the neocon worldview, Aznar scorned Osama bin Laden for “reveal[ing] the Arab mind” when Bin Laden said that “if someone has to choose between a strong horse and a weak horse, he will invariably choose the strong one.”
Yet Aznar immediately revealed the neocon mind’s own obsession with strength and its fear of weakness. “For decades if not centuries,” he said, “the strong horse has been the West. … The threat is the weakness of the European system, the Western system of values. … Our weakness, perceived or real, is the strength of our enemies.”
However (and this is a point the neocons’ critics often miss) the war they want to wage is not primarily the old-fashioned kind, fought with guns and bombs to gain territory or resources: “If we want to prevail over our adversaries we must start reinforcing ourselves, starting with the ideological front and the war of ideas. … We can counter- attack, defend ourselves, and strengthen our values. … It is indispensable to defend our moral values.”
The overriding issue for neocons is what Aznar called “moral clarity. … There is still right and wrong in this complicated world.” Their greatest fear is not Iran or Al Qaeda but what they see as the blurring of moral absolutes, the moral chaos, in the West: “If we allow those fundamentals to be blurred and eroded and confused, we will all be dangerously adrift.”
So what does this all have to do with Israel? Everything, Aznar insisted — and if you have trouble following his breathtaking leaps in logic, I sympathize. But here goes:
The argument begins by affirming precisely the fact that drove so many Arabs to resist Zionism from the beginning: “We consider Israel not as a Middle Eastern country, but a Western country in the Middle East. We share the same traditions, roots, values. … Israel is a corner stone of our Western civilization,” because “Judeo-Christian values form the roots of our civilization. … Therefore, the interests of Israel are our interests.”
And Israel, it seems, is now the place where Judeo-Christian values are most under attack, making it the front line in the global battle of values: “Israel is the first line of defense against global jihadism. … Defending Israel is ultimately defending the western roots, the western values that many in Europe, and some in America, seem to have forgotten. They are not obsolete. And the best proof is precisely Israel and its people.”
Why is Israel the best proof? I’ll skip over Aznar’s fulsome praise of Israel’s Western-style democracy, not only because that democracy is so flawed (even in Israel itself, and much more so in the occupied territories) but because neocons have never seriously cared very much about democracy anyway.
Their main concern has always been preserving the traditional values that (they imagine) are the only thing standing between us and total anarchy — especially the value of self-restraint, as shown in strong (masculine) will power and a readiness for self-sacrifice. Israel is so valuable in the neocon’s eyes because, Aznar claimed, “it is one of the few nations willing to pay a price for your survival, a nation that will do whatever it takes to defend itself.”
In this weird tangle of twisted thinking, one contradiction is especially glaring. Aznar said over and over that Israel must be treated as a legitimate, normal country, just like any other. Yet over and over he treated Israel as a unique country that carries a distinctive and heavy weight of symbolic meaning unlike any other. It’s precisely because Israel and its right-wing supporters constantly insist on the unique symbolic value of the “Jewish state,” and claim unique privileges for their state, that they’ve run into the problem that they call delegitimization in the first place. Most of Israel’s critics would back off if Israel presented itself, and behaved like, an ordinary normal nation.
Aznar went deeper into illogic by offering a new version of the old domino theory: “Israel is under a new kind of attack — an attack on Israel’s legitimacy, on her right to exist. … Delegitimizing Israel undermines our identity, warps our values and put at risk what we are and who we are. … if Israel at one moment disappeared or was attacked as a consequence of threats, the next territory to be confronted directly would be Europe. … Letting Israel be demonized will lead to the deligitimation of our own cherished values. If Israel were to disappear by the force of its enemies, I sincerely doubt the West could remain as we know it. …If Israel goes down, we all go down … the West as we know it would cease to exist.”
Why? Because, the neocon clearly implied, Bin Laden was right when he called it a battle of perception: “The strong horse [the West] is not perceived to be strong anymore. … Israel is an integral part of the West, and the weaker it is, the weaker the entire West will be perceived to be.” Again, Israel is valuable not for itself but as a stalking horse — either a strong one or a weak one — for “the West” in the midst of the Middle East.
The supposed weakness of the West, especially its moral weakness, is a favorite theme of neocon paranoia. “Major parts of the West are suffering a kind of crisis of identity,” Aznar lamented. “Europe is a good example. With a declining population, increasing numbers of Muslim immigrants, many of them exposed to radical ideas, multiculturalism has imposed itself as the politically correct way … Judeo-Christian values are aggressively challenged every day and” — here we get to the heart of neoconservatism — “the 68-generation that dominates our current leadership does nothing to defend them. Peacenik Europe has been fighting the West for too long.”
Yes, it’s those ‘60s-era peaceniks who are the ultimate enemy. It’s their fault, Aznar contended, that Europe “has been so hypercritical of Israel” while sympathizing with the radical Muslim purveyors of evil: “The West has lost the moral clarity needed to fight the anti-semitic critics of the State of Israel.”
In Washington, Aznar stressed similar failures of the U.S., though in more circumspect terms. When he said “This is a question of will … Do you have the will to win or not? To have indecision in the government is very bad,” he was ostensibly talking about the administration’s vacillating policies in Afghanistan. But for neoconservatives, specific political situations are always symbols of the larger moral battle. And the U.S., the Spanish neocon charged, “is going through a period of introspection, exhaustion, and even confusion.”
Once again, by some twisted logic, this all leads back to Israel as the test of American, and thus Western, moral will: “I don’t think the growing attacks against Israel, and the general campaign of deligitimation are unrelated to the crisis of the West, and more particularly, the crisis of confidence that emanates from the White House today.” Obama is “embracing many enemies of America while punishing its traditional allies,” especially — you guessed it — Israel. That apparently is proof enough that the U.S. president is one of those ’68 peaceniks who are destroying the Judaeo-Christian values and moral fiber of the West.
It might be tempting to dismiss all this as paranoid nonsense — just as it was tempting to dismiss the paranoid nonsense purveyed by neocons like William Kristol and Robert Kagan in the late ‘90s, when they laid the ideological groundwork for Bush’s “war on terror.” But it would be just as dangerous to dismiss the neocons now as it was then.
Military aggression is always on their minds, as Aznar occasionally let slip: “Israel is increasingly threatened by the scenario of a nuclear Iran — something the world must certainly act urgently to prevent. … If the U.S. keeps fading away as a force for good in the world, Israel will be forced to play a growing role in the region, and possibly beyond the region.”
John Bolton spelled it out more concretely, in an interview in Ha’aretz. Netanyahu “tries to stay as close as he can to the Obama administration,” Bolton contended. “He has demonstrated his willingness to do whatever it takes to satisfy the administration’s demands on dealings with the Palestinians. And at some point, if the [Israeli] military decides to use military force against Iran’s nuclear weapons program I hope the president will reciprocate.” That kind of saber-rattling, from a group whose tentacles reach to the highest levels of power and are now going global, has to be taken seriously.
Less clearly but just as importantly, Aznar’s words should be taken seriously because he proclaims out loud what so many others — especially in this country — think but hesitate to say, or perhaps believe unconsciously without even realizing it: The Israelis are “our kind of people,” standing on the front line, defending “our way of life” against against Arab and Muslim evildoers who would destroy us.
That prejudice, sometimes blatant but often quite subtle, tilts the public in favor of the military occupiers and against the occupied. Perhaps it explains why, in a recent poll, Americans said they want their government to support Israel, not the Palestinians, by a margin of eight to one. And they saw Israel more committed to peace than the Palestinians by a margin of six to one.
The results of that poll might not be quite representative of the public, because Republicans and conservatives were a bit overrepresented in the sampling. And, as many recent polls have shown, conservative Republicans are rather more likely than others — even Jews — to give strong support to Israel’s policies.
In fact House GOP leader John Boehner sounded like he was reading from Aznar’s script when he recently declared that “Israel is on the front lines of the ideological and violent clash we are confronting. The attacks against it … are often the vanguard of what our country will face … Where I come from, you stick by your friends, you stick by people who share your values. You do not send a message of strength to your enemies by shunning your friends and allies.”
It’s hardly likely that Republicans have a special affection for Jews. It’s far more likely that the stereotype of Israel as the defender of Western values and “our way of life” is the crucial factor here. Nor should we discount the lingering effect of habits built up through four decades of cold war, when Israel was seen as a bulwark against communism. In many respects, “the Arab (or Muslim) terrorists” have simply replaced “the Reds” in a scenario that remains a simplistic, cowboy-movie tale of good against evil — a scenario that always appeals most to conservatives, neo- or otherwise. But the neocons seem especially adept at stirring up the fear of “evildoers,” giving it an intellectual veneer, and eventually turning into government policy.
So it’s not surprising that a Republican, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, introduced a resolution in the House supporting the goals of the “Friends.” So far H. Con. Res. 315 has only one co-sponsor (Democrat Albio Sires), and it may not go anywhere. But the right-wing Israel lobby often uses such Congressional resolutions to create a bandwagon effect, especially when the “danger” of meaningful peace talks lurks anywhere on the horizon. So it’s worth letting your representative know that you don’t want any part of these “Friends,” who would use their racist, chauvinist, “clash of civilizations” ideology to snuff out the tiny glimmer of hope for peace in the Middle East.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His Alternet blog focuses mainly on issues of U.S. national (in)security. Ira writes frequently for progressive websites, especially on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S.