Israel's favoured status in America is put under scrutiny

March 16, 2016

In the aftermath of the 1967 war, the United States emerged as Tel Aviv's primary benefactor and a nefarious "special relationship" between the two countries was born. Last week, a lawsuit was filed in Washington, DC by a group of Palestinians against several US businesses and charities that assist in Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank. The lawsuit is a sign that Palestinians are going after Israel where it hurts at a time when Tel Aviv is keen to extend its reach into the heart of America's political landscape.

US president Barack Obama has given up on securing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in the last year of his administration. The president is searching for a legacy issue that will define his tenure while Israel's leadership is pressuring him to increase military aid to Tel Aviv. In a sign of desperation, the US vice president Joe Biden was dispatched to Israel last week, according to some accounts, as an attempt to placate Israel over the aid issue.

While on the ground, Mr Biden blamed Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority for failing to curb the recent wave of Palestinian attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. He offered the faintest criticism of Israel's heavy-handed response to Palestinian attacks, arguing that Israel cannot stop the violence by force alone. According to a senior Israeli official, quoted in the local media, Washington offered nearly $40 billion (Dh 146bn) in aid over 10 years. But the offer is contingent upon Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreeing to refrain from directly lobbying the US Congress.

At this point in the special relationship, this stipulation is far from surprising, even if it is still shocking. Israel believes that it has the power to manipulate the democratic structures of the most powerful country in the world. Mr Netanyahu feels that he has some inalienable right to set the terms of the relationship, and if those terms are not met he can directly lobby Congress for his cause as if he were a Republican senator and not a foreign head of state. It is clear that the US establishment will not push back, but there are new challenges to Israel's foothold in the US.

While American public opinion on Israel is warm, remarks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination reflect growing discontent. In several nomination debates, Donald Trump said that he wouldn't immediately take Israel's side in negotiations with the Palestinians. He has, of course, underlined his support for Israel, but that does not change Mr Trump's estimation that he can challenge the established position of blind support for its ally.

Given his racist comments about Muslims, Mr Trump is not calling for justice for Palestinians. He believes that as the anti-establishment candidate he can challenge the prevailing orthodoxy on Israel and win votes.

The other challenge to Israel's prominence in the US comes from Palestinians. Last year, an investigation by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz found that private American donors had funded Israeli settlements to the tune of $220 million (Dh808 million) from 2009 to 2013, using a network of tax-exempt US non-profit charities and organisations. Now Palestinians are following up with a $34.5 billion (Dh 126.7bn) lawsuit against the US businesses, charities and companies that are facilitating these transactions.

Opened in the Federal District Court of Washington, DC, the lawsuit was brought by Bassem Tamimi, a resident of the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, large sections of which had been swallowed by Israeli settlements. Mr Tamimi has led non-violent protests against Israel's occupation over the past half decade.

The plaintiffs are seeking damages from the Las Vegas casino magnate and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, American businessman Irving Moskowitz and megachurch pastor John Hagee. These figures have become fixtures of the Israeli and American political landscapes thanks to their enormous contributions and vehement support of Mr Netanyahu.

The lawsuit also names private companies such as UK security firm G4S and the Dead Sea cosmetics manufacturer Ahava. Days after the lawsuit was announced in Washington, G4S said that it would end its operations in Israel due to pressure from the global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Ahava, which has long been a target of boycott pressure, is in the process of being bought by a Chinese company that intends to move its factory out of the West Bank because of boycott pressure.

The defendants have vast legal resources and will ensure protracted legal proceedings. This is, however, a game of perception and public opinion. Coupled with the growing concern about Israel's undue influence over American politics from the likes of Donald Trump, Tel Aviv's favoured status in the US is increasingly under scrutiny by mainstream America.

Israel's political discourse - where left-of-centre parties advocate the transfer of Palestinians and the entrenchment of Israeli apartheid between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea - inspires little hope that Tel Aviv will be able to reform itself. Recent polls by the Pew Research Center confirm that Israel's political culture is intolerant of Palestinians. Pew found that eight in 10 Israelis support preferential treatment of Jews over Palestinians. The use of boycotts and lawfare in US courts will help Palestinians change the direction of this conflict by swaying public opinion. Israel has controlled the terms of this battle for years but it is losing its grip.

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