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Was Gaza Israel’s Waterloo?

Jay Forrester, the father of System Dynamics, famously observed that people intuitively recognize leverage points in complex systems – and they just as intuitively tend to push them the wrong way. Recent actions by Israel and its primary supporter in the US, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) seem a perfect example. Their apparent victories are likely, in the cold light of history, to be seen as a string of self-inflicted injuries that helped tip the world toward a just peace in the Middle East.

While not terribly important in itself, the Charles Freeman incident is a recent illustration. Freeman, a solid professional, was selected by Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair to head the National Intelligence Council. As soon as President Obama nominated him, Freeman was attacked by the pro-Israel lobby on grounds he was insufficiently biased in favor of Israel.

The usual suspects who savage anyone questioning the AIPAC / Neo-Con party line that America and Israel are Siamese twins conjoined by identical interests delivered the attacks. They were coordinated by former AIPAC official Steve Rosen (currently on trial for allegedly passing top secret US documents to Israel) and featured congressional obeisance by members as senior as senators Joseph Lieberman and Charles Schumer.

The counterintuitiveness is stunning. The message that America’s intelligence officers should follow any party line, rather than operate analytically and objectively, is a red flag to thoughtful Americans of all political persuasions. It is particularly foolish mere weeks after the departure of an administration that twisted intelligence to “slam dunk” the US into Iraq.

The subtext is even more important – AIPAC, Lieberman and Schumer have tacitly acknowledged that America’s strategic and security interests are secondary to Israel’s. For this reason, future historians will likely see the Freeman affair as the apex of a policy arc in which America moved toward Israel, and is now beginning to head away.

This irony is especially poignant because AIPAC’s stated mission is, “to help make Israel more secure by ensuring that American support remains strong”. It takes credit for much of the pro-Israel bias in the US Congress, including: “Passing more than a dozen bills and resolutions condemning and imposing tough sanctions on Iran during the past 15 years. Securing critical security assistance to Israel each year to ensure that Israel remains capable of facing increased threats. Passing legislation requiring the administration to evaluate all future military sales to Arab states in the context of the need to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge over potential adversaries. Passing multiple resolutions affirming congressional support for Israel’s right to self-defense in the face of terrorism by the terrorist groups Hamas and Hizballah.”

AIPAC was also behind the 390 to 5 vote in favor of a US House resolution supporting Israel’s “right to defend itself” during its recent invasion of Gaza. The fact that this “self defense” included using white phosphorous and US-supplied cluster munitions against civilian populations somehow escaped the notice of those 390 supporters, which included the bill’s sponsor, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

What AIPAC failed to notice is that while it has racked up a string of successes in the policy arena, the most important “initial condition” in the equation – the mental models of American Jews – has shifted. The momentum to reassess and revise America’s strategic relationship with Israel is approaching critical mass.

The first cracks in the facade appeared when John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published an article titled The Israel Lobby in the London Review of Books in early 2006. Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago, and Walt, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, boldly stated that, “The combination of unwavering support for Israel and the related effort to spread ‘democracy’ throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized not only US security but that of much of the rest of the world.”

AIPAC and its allies immediately launched a full-scale assault on the paper and its authors, labeling them conspiracy theorists, anti-Semites, academic incompetents and more. Unfortunately for Israel’s supporters, those attacks gave the article, and the follow on book, ever more publicity. By protesting too much, AIPAC gave the idea legs.

Jimmy Carter’s 2007 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, set off a similar paroxysm of vitriol and paranoia within the American pro-Israel community. Again, rather than engaging in a reasoned debate of the issues (or better yet, from a tactical perspective, speaking kindly of the former president while bemoaning his “naiveté”), AIPAC and its allies brutally attacked the former president. This resulted in even more air time and exposure for the book and Carter’s position. Further, the attacks firmly embedded apartheid in the lexicon of Middle East debates.

It was the January 2009 Israeli invasion of Gaza, however, that shifted the issue from intellectual to visceral. Whereas previous AIPAC moves had stirred discussion, its blind support of Israeli actions in Gaza spurred disgust. Not only did Israel destroy the meager remnants of its David versus Goliath mystique by using fighter bombers, tanks and helicopter gunships against a minor militia equipped only with small arms, it also surrendered forever what remained of its “good guy” image by intentionally leveling hospitals, clinics, schools and mosques.

The effect of this on American Jews was chilling. In recent decades, American Jews have comprised the core of the American liberal movement. They were a persistent voice of conscience through the civil rights era, Viet Nam, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Iraq 1 and 2, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. They remain among the most passionate advocates for social justice in the world. That they were largely unable to apply that advocacy to Israeli excesses was a bitter, but often unspoken schism that separated the Holocaust generations from their activist children and grandchildren.

Now, the denial many American Jews have maintained around Israel’s immoral and illegal behaviors is evaporating. True change, after all, occurs when the inconsistencies between actual and desired realities become too great – when the resulting tension compels action. The Israeli mugging of Gaza, and AIPAC’s unexamined and unfettered support for it, has clashed with the Jewish ideal of tikkun olam – “repairing the world”.

In light of this, it is likely that AIPAC’s membership, donors and influence over American foreign policy will steadily decline. As they do, more pragmatic and balanced approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will emerge. These may occur because of American leadership; in the absence of an American veto; or through the discontinuation of the American aid that helps keep the scales tilted in favor of Israel. In a best-case scenario, it might occur because of all three.

In our dynamic, nonlinear world, the most successful nations, institutions and individuals are those best able continually to reexamine and narrow the inconsistencies between their beliefs and positions, and objective realities. Institutions built on fundamental inconsistencies – whether companies such as Enron or countries such as the Soviet Union – most often prove insufficiently robust in the long term. To frame it another way, they tend to have a relatively short shelf life in the marketplace of history.

JOHN GOEKLER is a trainer and consultant specializing in applying emerging scientific understandings to organizational effectiveness, transformative policy and global security. He is the founder of Change Factors, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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