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For Criticism of Israel, Know Where to Look
Tim Francis-Wright

Recent polls in America and Israel show strong support in both countries for recent Israeli military actions in the West Bank. Not unexpectedly, the Israeli public, which faces the direct effects of the intefadeh, more strongly supports Ariel Sharon and the Likud party. But a funny thing happens on the editorial pages: Israeli pundits are much more critical than American pundits. There are at least two lessons here for any American who is paying attention.

The Gallup Organization last week issued the results of a poll about the current conflict between Israel and Palestinians. By a 44% to 34% margin, American respondents supported Israel's actions against Palestininans in the West Bank and Gaza.

A contemporaneous poll in Israel found overwhelming support for a wide-scale war in those territories. By a margin of 72% to 17%, Israelis supprorted the government's actions.

It is not hard to understand the wide support by Israelis for their government's actions. Some Israelis have always supported their government's actions in the West Bank and Gaza. Others, like people in any country, rally around their leaders during wartime. But for many Israelis, the current war is personal: recent Palestinian suicide bombers have brought death and disfigurement to thousands who have no direct involvement in their government, never mind their government's actions against Palestinians.

It is likewise not hard to fathom American support for the Israeli government. Israel runs a fundamentally democratic government within its borders. It has been an important political and economic ally of the United States for years. Moreover, a Jewish state in the Middle East is important for a number of reasons to a large and vocal segment of American voters.

However, a number of factors reduce the overall support of the American public for the Israeli government. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians could create a regional war. Even without a wider war, military actions by Ariel Sharon's government could inflame anti-American feelings in the Middle East.

American pundits, however, generally support Ariel Sharon, no matter what the subject. As Eric Alterman demonstrated in a recent article on MSNBC, the vast majority of American commentators on foreign policy offer unqualified support for the current Israeli government. Some of these commentators support the Likud government in Israel out of shared politics. For some, support for any Israeli government is one of shared religion. For a few right-wing Christians, support for Israel in general is based on a literal reading of the Book of Revelations in the New Testament.

The fundamentally conservative views of many American Zionist organizations surely have a strong impact on American politcal elites, including the commentators in many newspapers. But in Israel, Zionism is not necessarily conservatism. Israel is a country with scores of political parties. It is a country with a powerful and broad-based organization of trade unions. It is a country with a proud history of open and intense political debate. And in a country like that, we should expect to find dissenting and patriotic views about the Israeli government.

Indeed, criticism of the Likud party in Israel comes from a strong and vocal peace movement, as well as from mainstream media traditionally allied with the Labor party. In the United States, by contrast, the most vocal Jewish voices back Ariel Sharon without reservation. The Jewish peace movement, vocal in Israel, is drowned out in the United States.

Most American pundits have issued little in the way of dissent from Ariel Sharon and his Likud party. Plenty of Israeli citizens have reasons of their own, but in America their voices are muted by incessant cries for support of whatever Sharon and his party deem correct. In case the pundits are, like the altricial robins of spring, unable to find nourishment on their own, I offer these sources for their enlightenment.

There are at least two lessons for Americans, their leaders, and their political pundits. First, support for Israel does not mean unqualified support for the current Israeli government. It is perfectly acceptable to offer even harsh criticism of policies and actions without questioning the right of a country to exist. Second, democratic societies do not lose their democratic character in times of war or extreme duress. It is meet and right to criticize a prime minister or president, even one who fights enemies worthy of opprobrium.

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