By Stephen Zunes
An ad on my Facebook page from barackobama.com reads, “Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich say they would start foreign aid to Israel at zero. Reject their extreme plan now!”
This struck me as odd for two reasons:
First, it is disingenuous and misleading. The actual position taken by these Republican presidential candidates is that all foreign aid should initially start at zero as means of reducing the deficit, to be immediately followed by the resumption of aid on a case-by-case basis. As they themselves have acknowledged, they would immediately resume aid to Israel and perhaps even increase it. Ironically, U.S. “aid for Israel” goes almost exclusively to U.S. arms manufacturers, with which the Republican candidates have a close relationship.
Secondly, millions of Americans—particularly younger voters who are the primary users of Facebook—support zeroing out aid to Israel on human rights grounds. The Obama campaign, therefore, is effectively labeling those of us who oppose the use of our tax dollars to arm the right-wing Netanyahu government, which has repeatedly used U.S. weapons against civilians, as “extreme.” Presumably, they feel the same way about those of us who support a cutoff of aid to other governments that violate international humanitarian law as well.
In 2009, Amnesty International, citing war crimes committed by both Israeli forces and the armed wing of Hamas earlier that year, called on nations to suspend arms shipments to both. The Obama administration categorically rejected the proposal. The administration has also rejected calls by human rights groups to condition military aid and arms transfers to other countries that use U.S. weapons against civilians, including Colombia, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Azerbaijan, and Morocco. Recently, the Obama administration requested a waiver on human rights restrictions in the forthcoming foreign appropriations bill in order to resume arming the Karimov dictatorship in Uzbekistan, which has massacred hundreds of pro-democracy protesters and has literally boiled its opponents alive.
One can speculate whether, if Obama were seeking re-election in 1984, his campaign would similarly label those who opposed aid to the murderous Salvadoran junta as “extreme.” Or, if it were 1996, his campaign would have marginalized opponents of U.S. aid to the genocidal Suharto regime in Indonesia. The president’s re-election team for 2012 sure appears to think of us that way.
Republican candidates certainly have taken a number of extreme positions regarding Israel and Palestine. Gingrich, Perry, and Romney, for example, have aligned themselves with the far right of the Israeli political spectrum, opposing Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and opposing a freeze on illegal Israeli settlements. Gingrich has even said the Palestinians are an “invented people” and implied his support for mass population transfers.
I’ve searched barackobama.com and elsewhere, and nowhere does the Obama campaign appear to label such positions or similarly outrageous statements as “extreme.” However, if you oppose sending billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded aid to Israel—whether as a means of cutting the deficit, reducing cuts in social programs, or defending human rights—the Obama campaign considers it an “extreme plan” that should be rejected.
What is so bizarre about the Obama campaign’s hostility toward those who oppose aid to Israel is that Israel doesn’t need U.S. assistance to begin with. Israel, the region’s only nuclear power, has by far the strongest military capability in the greater Middle East, and it possesses the only significant domestic arms industry in the region. Israel also has, by far, the region’s highest standard of living, comparable to that of most European countries. Even putting human rights concerns aside, questioning why American taxpayers should be spending over $3 billion annually in aid to Israel at a time of massive cutbacks at home doesn’t seem unreasonable.
Furthermore, public opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans believe U.S. military aid should be made conditional to human rights.
Most people for whom providing unconditional support for the Netanyahu government is their top priority are going to support the Republican nominee anyway. Meanwhile, there are millions of Democrats, independents, and even Republicans who question spending billions of taxpayer dollars to prop up that rightist Israeli government every year. Why risk alienating these voters by labeling their position “extreme”? Is it simply a headline thrown together by an overzealous young wonk in the campaign? Or is this part of a larger effort to stifle debate on the Obama administration’s policies of aiding governments that violate human rights?
Either way, it sends the message that the Obama campaign does not welcome concerns about human rights. In addition, it serves as a reminder for Americans who do care about human rights that neither party will provide a presidential nominee we can vote for.
Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist and senior analyst, is a professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco. He is the author, along with Jacob Mundy, of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, 2010).