Shireen Abu Akleh graffiti on the West Bank barrier in Bethlehem Shireen Abu Akleh graffiti on the West Bank barrier in Bethlehem. Source: Dan Palraz - Wikicommons / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-SA 4.0

The needs of the Israeli settler-colonial state and US imperialism are not perfectly aligned, argues John Clarke

There have been two recent indications of friction between the US and Israel, and the implications that flow from them are worth considering. The first of these was Washington’s response to the participation of the head of Israel’s far-right Otzma Yehudit party, Itamar Ben-Gvir, in a memorial service for the infamous terrorist Meir Kahane. This is highly significant because Ben-Givr’s party is one of those with which the newly re-elected Benjamin Netanyahu has formed a coalition in order to establish a government.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price offered a sharply worded condemnation of this development. He noted that the organization Kahane founded and led, ‘remained designated as a specially designated [sic] global terrorist organization,’ and suggested that: ‘Celebrating the legacy of a terrorist organization is abhorrent – there is no other word for it.’

A celebration of Kahane’s life is, indeed, an endorsement of political terrorism and extreme racism. ‘Kahane’s followers have murdered dozens of people and injured hundreds of others in numerous violent attacks against Palestinians, Americans, and others in Israel.’ He campaigned throughout his life for Palestinian citizens of Israel to be deported or enslaved.

The participation of Ben-Givr in a Kahanist gathering is disturbing to the State Department precisely because he is no fringe hatemonger. He is an elected member of the Knesset, his party props up Netanyahu, and he is vying for the role of public security minister in the next government. Recently, the Otzma Yehudit leader has taken to cultivating a more ‘moderate’ image, assuring the media that he no longer takes up the chant of ‘Death to the Arabs,’ having replaced it with ‘Death to the Terrorists’. This kinder, gentler image is, however, little more than a cynical political ploy.

Ben-Givr may have become a little more cautious than he was in days when ‘he was convicted of incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organization,’ but his present publicly stated views aren’t a great deal better. His decision to court controversy by attending the Kahane event, moreover, is a strong indication of the importance he places on preserving ties with the most rabidly racist elements within the Zionist political spectrum.

IDF killers

The second note of discord that has been struck in Israel’s dealings with its US sponsor is over the brutal murder of Shireen Abu Akleh, the greatly respected Palestinian-American reporter who was gunned down by IDF killers in May of this year. The US Department of Justice has announced that it is opening an investigation into the murder, which has been widely condemned internationally.

Indeed, so much attention has already been paid to this dreadful crime that: ‘Since the killing, investigations by Middle East Eye, The Washington Post, The New York Times, as well as international bodies and the United Nations, concluded that Israeli forces had in fact killed Abu Akleh.’ There had been considerable pressure on the Biden administration to take this step, including a call for an independent investigation by a ‘bipartisan group of US lawmakers’.

The Israeli Defence Minister, Benny Gantz, was far from conciliatory in his response and he testily described the decision to investigate Abu Akleh’s death as ‘a grave mistake’. On Twitter, he declared that: ‘I made it clear to the American representatives that we stand behind the IDF (Israeli army) soldiers, that we will not cooperate with any external investigation, and we will not allow interference in Israel’s internal affairs.’

Disagreements with Washington have taken place before, and it would be absurd to suggest that these two examples represent any immediate threat of a major worsening of relations between the Zionist State and its most powerful enabler. Still, this friction happens in a context that is worth considering and that points to the possibility of greater levels of discord.

Zionism emerged in the nineteenth century as a nationalist ideology that rapidly went over to a settler colonial project focused on Palestine. From the beginning, the Zionist leaders understood that the support of the major imperialist powers was vital to the success of their undertaking. Hence the role of their proposed state as a garrison of Western interests in the Middle East was always stressed. As the movement’s main founder, Theodore Herzl, infamously put it: ‘There [in Palestine] we shall be a sector of the wall of Europe against Asia, we shall serve as the outpost of civilization against barbarism.’

In later years, US imperialism would fully embrace this very idea of an armed ‘outpost’, that furthers its agenda of regional domination. Indeed, just last month, Joe Biden welcomed Israeli president Isaac Herzog to the White House and assured him that ‘our principles, our ideas, our values, they’re the same values’. For good measure, Biden added that: ‘I’ve often said, Mr. President, if there were – if there were not an Israel, we’d have to invent one.’

These glowing terms of endearment would seem to be at odds with the harsh words of the State Department and the conducting of a high-level investigation into an extrajudicial killing by Israeli armed forces. However, the source of this discrepancy can be found in a misalignment between the two factors I identified previously. The needs and interests of the settler-colonial venture can come into conflict with the role of Israel in effectively serving the interests of its backers.

‘Democratic values’

Following the erratic and volatile Trump presidency, Biden was placed in the White House largely in the hope that his administration could restore stability to US dealings on the international stage. In conditions of escalating global rivalry, Biden is seeking to present US imperialism as a force for ‘democracy’ in the world that is engaged in a noble effort to contain the spread of Russian and Chinese ‘authoritarianism’. As a representative of the Alliance for Democracies Foundation put it in 2020, ‘Joe Biden is right to convene a summit of democracies at a time when autocracies are on the offensive against the free world.’

The path that Israel is following is hard to square with the required image of a champion of democracy. This goes well beyond Ben-Givr’s indiscreet antics or the clumsy murder of a prominent journalist. It is clear that Israel is developing in ways that can’t be reconciled with the pretence that it is a liberal democracy engaged in a good-faith ‘peace process’. It is moving more and more openly to complete its colonial project by imposing a permanent system of apartheid on the Palestinians and, in the process, its political representatives are stampeding to the right. Ben-Givr is an authentic personification of what mainstream politics are becoming in Israel.

This consideration is all the more significant because Israel isn’t simply a US client state like Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Their rulers can be brutal and authoritarian and the Western powers can largely ignore these horrors or, at most, offer mild admonitions and empty talk about ‘human rights’. Though the racism is more coded these days, Herzl’s ‘outpost’ of Western civilisation is supposed to be a showpiece of ‘democratic values’ and the pretence is getting harder to keep up all the time.

As the reality of Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians becomes ever more stark, as waves of Palestinian resistance confound all efforts to crush it and, as movements of international solidarity take to the streets, the legitimacy of Israel sinks lower year by year. Impeccably respectable NGOs have now taken to declaring openly that the Zionist state is an apartheid regime.

Last year, two solidly mainstream US analysts, one a professor at Harvard University, wrote an article in Foreign Policy entitled, ‘It’s Time to End the “Special Relationship” With Israel’. They suggested that ‘decades of brutal Israeli control have demolished the moral case for unconditional U.S. support.’ They stated that: ‘In the past, it was also possible to argue Israel was a valuable strategic asset for the United States, though its value was often overstated.’ Tellingly, they concluded that ‘unconditional support for Israel makes it much harder for the United States to claim the moral high ground on the world stage.’

Obviously, though such opinions may now be emerging from within the US establishment, they are, as yet, far from the dominant view. Support for Israel as a ‘strategic asset’ is still robust but it nonetheless isn’t unlimited. The ‘logic of elimination’ that drives the development of the Zionist project creates a situation where very ugly political specimens like Ben-Givr’s party move from the extremist fringe to seats at the cabinet table, from which they can unleash the most horrific results.

The political road down which Israel is travelling can only exacerbate the tensions that I have described, and the possibility of this reaching levels of crisis is very substantial. For movements of Palestine solidarity in the imperialist countries, this is all the more reason to redouble efforts to isolate the Zionist state and work to sever the economic and military lifeline from the West that makes the oppression of the Palestinians possible.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.