At least a quarter of a million Israelis protested in August over the cost of living. In Tel Aviv alone, 200,000 people took to the streets. The protests, however, were over more than simply against the high cost of basic essentials and housing: "The people demand social justice!" they cried. As the Occupy Wall Street protests grow around the world, it seems clear that demands for change in the economic stratification have arrived.
The J-14 protests in Israel, so called because they started on 14th July, reflect similar demands. Given the calls for change around the world, calls which reflect the state of economies around the world and the unfortunate position in which many currently find themselves, the need for change in the relationships between countries, especially in financial relationships, must also be assessed. In terms of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the effects of the current economic crisis and global calls for social justice, the relationship between the United States and Israel must be taken into account. This relationship is ongoing, both philosophically and financially. It's one in which the US gives $2.5 billion in military aid to Israel every year; this is increasingly problematic given the economic situations of both countries.i Furthermore, the economic component of this relationship is enmeshed in the philosophical and ideological elements which underpin the relationship. These include America's post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts and shared notions of security as well as supposedly similar democratic ideals.
What does the US gain from its relationship with Israel? Military support seems an obvious answer. For the American government, military ties with Israel provide a safety net against any possible threat from other nations in the Middle East, such as Iran. While a thorough discussion about such an attack is beyond the scope of this article, it is relevant to consider how fear of attacks from Middle Eastern countries influences US foreign policy. Given this fear, Netanyahu's reference, in his UN speech on 21st September, to the potential nuclear threat posed by Iran rang the right bells for the US.
While the US often operates an isolationist-style foreign policy, the approach with Israel seems anything but. American school children often learn from George Washington's iconic farewell speech that the US should consider an "unnatural connection with any foreign power… as intrinsically precarious."ii America's relationship with Israel, however, has proven to be anything but precarious, spanning some sixty-three years, and Washington's wallet remains open.
While September 11 is not directly related to the US-Israel relationship, it has strengthened America's inclination to support Israel. The US alliance with Israel stretches back well before 9/11, of course, but I want to emphasize the element of fear that has become ever-present in the US since the attacks on New York and Washington DC. This fear is apparent in US foreign policy, including American support for Israel. Washington's financial support for Israel gives the US some political and military clout in a region which oftentimes seems to represent, at least for the US government, chaos and aggression. Fear of an attack from Iran or a non-state adversary of the US, possibly even due to American policy towards Israel, gives Washington enough of a reason to continue its support for the one country in the Middle East that would come to America's aid in the event of such an attack. In part, that's why the US backs Israel.
Nevertheless, I believe that the nature of the US-Israel relationship has to change. In discussing this, I will consider some of the important aspects of America's relationship with Israel within the context of the current economic climate in order to demonstrate the reasons why the 'unshakeable' support for Israel is increasingly puzzling.
The declining economies of the US and Israel as well as the financial crisis of the Palestinian Authority have created a situation in which American funding for Israel is not only curious but arguably untenable. Professor Norman Finkelstein said in his article "It's Not Either/Or" that the US will not pressure Israel out of the Occupied Palestinian Territories until Israel becomes a liability.iii Given the economic crisis in the US, has Israel not already become an economic liability that the US can ill-afford to maintain? Moving away from the standard rhetoric about the conflict, we have to ask why America still supports Israel financially despite their economic decline, while also attempting to approach the conflict creatively and constructively.
The J-14 Protests
The leader of Israel's National Student Union, Itzik Shmuli, told the Guardian that, "as a result of an ultra-capitalistic ideology, a genuine security challenge that takes a financial toll, and a failed political system that allows minority groups as well as corporations to gain access to national resources way beyond their size or needs, Israel is ranked the second OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] country in terms of its social and economic gaps."iv If a large portion of Israelis are unhappy with the socio-economic situation, then it seems apt to question how beneficial America's financial support to Israel really is in terms of helping ordinary Israelis. Remember, this financial aid is ongoing at a time when the US economy is taking a hammering.
The minority groups that Shmuli likely includes are Israeli settlers who live illegally in the occupied West Bank yet are still provided by the state with basic amenities such as water in their homes. What Shmuli does not address, is a substantial sector of the population in Israel proper as well as the majority in the Occupied Territories–the Palestinians. It seems that social and economic justice for this group does not really figure in the J-14 protests. Shmuli wrote, "What is this all about? It is about social justice. It is about returning to the core values that guided the founding fathers of the Jewish state. It is about rewriting the story of our lives in our beloved country."v The country to which Shmuli refers appears to be an Israel without Palestinians or at least with little regards to them; it seems more the Israel that the US tends to support and the Israel of which the founding father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl dreamed. It is a state with a Jewish majority. With such leadership of the J-14 protests, social justice takes on a limited meaning.
In an article in the US Jewish life magazine, Tablet, Adam Chandler argues that the protests during August and September united "Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Christians, Druze, gays, the religious, the secular, the left-wing, and the right-wing in common cause. In its final rally on Sept. 3, 2011, 400,000 people participated—roughly 6 percent of the country's population."vi Such protests provide common ground for expressing discontent, ground which, in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is often missing. At the same time, however, these protests unite those who already have some semblance of a voice, that is, those who do not live in Gaza or the West Bank (apart from Jewish settlers). Hence, the Palestinians continue to be marginalised by the Israeli government. Their struggle remains difficult, and America's strong ties to Israel continue to test the Palestinians' ability to overcome this major problem.
Nonetheless, what the J-14 protests clearly demonstrated are the economic hard times upon which Israel has fallen. The US suffers from similar difficulties, and this makes Washington's continued financial aid for Israel problematic. Many, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), claim that the US and Israel "have developed a resilient friendship, based in large part to an unshakable dedication to common values. Commitment to democracy, the rule of law, freedom of religion and speech and human rights are all core values shared between the United States and Israel."vii It seems, though, that what the US and Israel have in common now is perhaps not as much shared values of democracy as economic hardship. The US deficit stands at about $1.3 trillion as of the 2011 fiscal year,viii and the unemployment rate reached 9.1% in September. In such a situation, giving $2.5 billion to a foreign country is an unusual gesture given that there is little money in the treasury to the first place. The Israeli budget deficit, meanwhile, stands at about 1.6 billion shekels (around $430 million);x unemployment fell to 5.5% in August, which is the lowest it has been since 1985.xi
What's happening on Wall Street?
The cries for social justice witnessed in Israel during the J-14 protests are similar to those being heard on Wall Street today. According to the protest movement Occupy Wall Street, "The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants."xii
The Americans involved in Occupy Wall Street are angry. Their protests express the frustration of economic and social marginalisation. Just like the Israelis in the J-14 protests, the people who march on Wall Street call for a change in the current system. The above statement demonstrates the way in which the movement promotes unity among people as the driving force of the protests. Whether or not Occupy Wall Street is successful in uniting people from different socio-economic backgrounds is the subject for a different article. However, such unity is lacking in the J-14 protests, because a major group of people, the Palestinians living in Israel and under Israeli occupation, are basically left out of the equation. Joseph Dana pointed out in his article "J-14: The Exclusive Revolution," that many Palestinians who live in Israel were fearful to join the protests due to the personal risk that would attend to their participation: "They fear that by joining the movement their own national identity will be co-opted to advance a struggle that will betray them in the end."xiii This fear of the movement turning against them demonstrates the way in which the movement not only lacks unity with those who are affected by the economic troubles of Israel, but also demonstrates the way in which there is uncertainty that the movement will actually bring about social justice.
Thoughts on the side
The J-14 and Occupy Wall Street movements call into question the continued economic support provided to Israel by the US. Two basic points come to mind, one being economic, the other being social:
- Israel continues to suffer economically despite America's help, but the US continues to give Israel billions in aid despite its own economic instability.
- The J-14 Movement calls for a limited form of social justice, one that if successful would continue to deny Palestinians their basic rights.xiv
If US policy towards Israel does not change in a way that reduces Washington's financial support, then Israel will continue to marginalise the Palestinians. During a time in which social and economic justice has been at the forefront of global protests, and when economies and people around the world are suffering great hardship, the US should change its policy. This would benefit its relationship with other countries in the Middle East, and it would help to relieve the economic strain that America is experiencing. It might also persuade the Israeli government to end its financially-draining military occupation of the Palestinian Territories.
i. Human Rights Watch, Separate and Unequal, 19 December 2010.
ii. Washington's Farewell Address 1796. Accessed via Yale Avalon Project. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp. 17 November 2011.
iii. Finkelstein, Norman. http://www.normanfinkelstein.com/article.php?pg=11&ar=205. 1 May 2006.
iv. Shmuli, Itzik. "The New Israelis Have Unite in Protest." The Guardian. 9 September –2011.
vi. Chandler, Adam. "Israeli Spring." Tablet Magazine. 6 October 2011. http://www.tabletmag.com/news-and-politics/79947/israeli-spring/
vii. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Shared Values. aipac.org.
viii. Bloomberg.com. 14 October 2011.
x. "Israel Posts September Budget Deficit as Tax Revenues Fall." Bloomberg Business-Week. businessweek.com. 6 October 2011.
xi. Bloomberg.com. "Israel Unemployment Rate Declines to Lowest Level since 1985." 31 August 2011.
xiii. Dana, Joseph. "J-14: The Exclusive Revolution. 972 Magazine. 972mag.com. 26 August 2011.
xiv. This aspect of the Occupy Wall Street movement will not be discussed in this report, yet while it is more inclusive, I do not mean to imply that no one has been excluded.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.