Foreign affair

When it comes to California’s relationship with Israel, love may no longer be blind

Near Bethlehem, Palestinian children protest the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008.

Near Bethlehem, Palestinian children protest the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008.

Photo By patricia daugherty

For decades, questioning America’s unconditional support for the state of Israel has been the third rail of our nation’s politics. To do so, whether it be on the floor of Congress or in the pages of a newspaper, is to risk the wrath of what’s loosely called the “Israel Lobby.” The lobby includes powerful organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, wealthy campaign donors to both political parties and a seemingly infinite army of supporters willing to write letters to the editor any time Israel is criticized in the press.

For better or worse, the lobby has set the terms of the debate in the Middle East for years. Considering the events of the past weeks, it appears to be losing some of its juice.

Last week, the UC Berkeley Student Senate passed “A Bill in Support of UC Divestment From War Crimes” on a 16-4 vote, directing the student government to divest holdings in companies profiting from Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine and advising the Regents of the University of California do the same. The Senate plans to divest its holdings in General Electric and United Technologies, which provided aircraft and support for Israel’s highly criticized invasions of Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008.

Also last week, the Davis Food Co-op Board of Directors rejected an effort by local members of the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions for Palestine movement to place a measure calling for a boycott of Israeli products on the Co-op’s ballot. The measure inspired intense debate after activists secured enough member signatures to qualify for the ballot last month; a large number of Israel supporters threatened to boycott the Co-op if it came to a vote. The board unanimously turned back the bid, after consulting with legal counsel, citing more than a dozen reasons, including the fact that the board “is not qualified to pass judgment on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of actions or policies of any foreign government, particularly with respect to extraordinary actions by such governments that are invoked in the name of national security.”

The Berkeley Student Senate vote may be mostly symbolic and the Co-op boycott campaign may have failed, but both might indicate a growing willingness to openly criticize our strongest Middle Eastern ally—and largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. A rather poignant example occurred last month, after Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown as well as Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner criticized the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System for not fully complying with the California Public Divest From Iran Act. The AIPAC-sponsored legislation was approved unanimously by the Legislature in 2007, and requires the pension funds to divest from international companies doing business with Iran.

To date, the funds have not fully done so, as Marc Carrel, chairman of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California (and a vested CalPERS member), pointed out at a legislative joint oversight hearing in late February.

“After several meetings with top executives from both CalPERS and CalSTRS,” Carmel stated, “we have been frustrated by the inaction, and dismayed by the persistent excuses offered for why the largest state-employees pension fund in the nation and the largest teachers pension fund in the nation feel it is acceptable to ignore a law that did not just pass both houses overwhelmingly—it passed without a single ‘no’ vote.”

Although most of California’s mainstream media supported Poizner and Brown’s position, the candidates earned a scathing and highly unusual rebuke from the San Diego Union Tribune’s editorial board. Titled “Politics at its most pathetic/Vapid anti-Iran posturing reflects terribly on Poizner and Brown,” the editorial characterized Assembly Bill 221 as being among the worst legislation in years and lambasted both Poizner and Brown’s support for its enforcement, accusing Poizner of “seeking to endear himself with red-meat conservatives and supporters of Israel” and Brown of following suit.

“This is unadulterated folly,” the U.T. editorial board contends. “Among the many respected international firms whose affiliates do business with Iran are Royal Dutch Shell, Siemens AG, Hyundai and Alcatel. Their operations are perfectly legal under U.S. and international law. Their decision to do business with Iran has not raised red flags with the vast majority of the world’s investment analysts or with the great majority of nations around the planet. Nevertheless, Poizner (and perhaps Brown, too) has decided Sacramento should have a foreign policy separate from Washington’s.”

Coincidentally, CalSTRS spokesman Ricardo Duran told SN&R approximately the same thing. “We don’t try to be the U.N. or do foreign policy,” he said. “Our mission is to serve the financial security of our members.”

If there is a growing willingness to criticize Israel, it couldn’t come at a more inopportune time for Israel’s supporters, seeing as how the Israeli government forced Vice President Joe Biden to eat dirt last week.

As has been extensively reported, Biden, on a mission to soothe Israeli tensions with the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, was blindsided upon his arrival by the announcement of 1,600 new, exclusively Jewish housing units to be built in East Jerusalem. Although tolerated by the United States for more than four decades, settlements in the occupied territories are by definition illegal under international law. They remain a major obstacle to peace, so the announcement wasn’t exactly perceived as an olive branch. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went so far as to call Biden’s treatment by the Israelis “insulting.”

For that transgression, AIPAC took Clinton and company to task on its Web site: “The Obama Administration’s recent statements regarding the U.S. relationship with Israel are a matter of serious concern. AIPAC calls on the administration to take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish State.”

To be sure, Clinton, after berating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for 45 minutes on the telephone last week, reassured Netanyahu during his visit to Washington, D.C., this week for the 2010 AIPAC Policy Conference that America remains “rock solid” behind Israel, even if every once in a while “painful truths” must be given voice.

Although the secretary will no doubt be disinclined to discuss it, one of those painful truths, perhaps the most painful of all, is the growing perception that the so-called Israel Lobby exerts undue influence on the American political process, particularly in regard to U.S. Middle East policy. There’s no better recent demonstration of that influence than the United States’ rejection of the Goldstone Report last year.

Compiled by the United Nations fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict, the Goldstone Report alleged that both Israelis and Palestinians had committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during Operation Cast Lead, the December 2008 invasion of Gaza that left nearly 1,000 civilians dead and 58,000 homes destroyed or damaged. The report recommended that Israelis and Palestinians investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes by both sides, in the International Criminal Court if necessary.

Although praised by the European Union and other world powers, Israel profusely objected to the Goldstone Report’s findings. After pressure from AIPAC and other groups, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 344-36 to condemn the report as “irredeemably biased”—despite the fact that Israel refused to cooperate whatsoever with the U.N. fact-finding mission.

The Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions for Palestine campaign that failed in Davis and the Berkeley Student Senate’s vote to divest from General Electric and United Technologies base their grievances in part on information contained in the Goldstone Report, and they’re not so quick to dismiss it.

“This vote is an historic step in holding all state and corporate actors accountable for their basic violations of human rights,” noted Emiliano Huet-Vaughn, co-author of the UC Divestment From War Crimes bill, in a written statement issued after the decision. “The broad cross section of the community that came out to demand our university invest ethically belies the notion that the American people will tolerate the profiteering from occupation or other human rights abuses.”

They’re a little naive, these kids from Berkeley. The lobby is a formidable foe, and any significant change in Middle East policy is unlikely, at least in the near future. Still, the students can’t be faulted for wanting to join the debate. That’s what democracy is all about.