May 1, 2002


I was on the phone with “C,” a fellow reactionary, and Hamptons hostess of great style and beauty. The previous weekend each of us happened separately to watch CSPAN coverage of the pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Washington. What I saw was mostly tedious or appalling: After one eloquent and rhetorically precise black American speaker, I settled in to endure extremist slogans (such as “Sharon equals Hitler”) ; a Native American who chanted and attempted smoke signals; and the disembodied voice of Mumia Abu Jamal, broadcast to the crowd from a prison telephone.

But what “C” said surprised me: “I wish I had been there.” 

I didn’t. I don’t think comparing the IDF to the Wehrmacht or denying any legitimacy to Israel advances peace in the Middle East or America’s larger interests. For that matter, I doubt Mumia cares very much about America’s interests.

But why is there no place where moderate or conservative Americans can register their outrage at what Ariel Sharon is doing in their name?

The two big guns of right-wing opinion journalism, The Weekly Standard and National Review, while carrying on as de facto mouthpieces for the Sharon government, have been letting slip their worries about the state of American public opinion on the conflict. They put the best spin possible on things, but given that America’s Likudniks control about 99 percent of the right-of-center media, conservative views are not as solidly behind Sharon as they should be.

Gallup’s recent surveys show that about half of America’s voters sympathize with Israel; about one seventh with the Palestinians. Republicans tend to more pro-Israel than Democrats, whites more so than non-whites. 

American sympathies start off tilted in Israel’s favor: Israel is an established state with universities, symphony orchestras, and a vibrant cultural, diplomatic and propaganda presence in the United States; the Palestinians are a stateless people best known here for rioting and suicide bombs. So among Republicans, 67 percent favor the Israelis, eight percent the Palestinians; among conservatives, 59 percent favor the Israelis, 10 percent the Palestinians. 

But as they look more closely, the Likudniks cannot be reassured.  Among self-proclaimed “American conservatives” – their core constituency – 41 percent either favored the Palestinians or see “no difference” between them and the Israelis; among Americans as a whole, 50 percent divided their sympathy evenly. In other words, nearly half the Americans polled did not favor the one-sided policies pursued by virtually every American president in the past 25 years: billions in subsidies and weapons to Israel, the odd clinic to the Palestinians.

This division translates into support for various peace initiatives – though poll analysts are probably correct in describing this support as soft.  Nonetheless, it is revealing that 77 percent of polled respondents supported “a Palestinian state,” and 41 percent felt Israeli military actions on the West Bank were unjustified.  A rather substantial 39 percent labeled Sharon’s recent military actions as “terrorism” rather than “legitimate acts of war.”

Both National Review and The Weekly Standard strive to put a pro-Sharon spin on these figures: The Standard’s David Skinner observes that they give President Bush opportunity to shape opinion in a pro-Israeli direction; in National Review, Byron York opines that the muddled polls give Bush a mandate to leave the issue alone – and just let the well-armed Israelis trample the Palestinians without American attempts to referee or intervene.

But given the single-minded intensity with which pro-Sharon views are pushed in the right-wing media, and the extent to which employees in conservative organizations feel intimidated about expressing alternatives, the relatively shallow support for Sharon and his smash-the-Palestinians stance is rather surprising. It’s not as if conservatives typically divide on key foreign policy issues: how many favored Leonid Brezhnev over Lech Walesa, for instance, or the Sandinistas over the contras?

The one-sidedness of the conservative media is perhaps best told by a counter-example. Recently, William F. Buckley published a syndicated column calling Sharon’s attack on the West Bank a terrible mistake; it quoted at length a New York Times description of the Israeli army’s destruction of Palestinian health and educational records – a transparent effort to render the Palestinians a formless, ungovernable mass, and strangle their infant state.

National Review’s editors somehow saw fit to publish the column in the magazine Buckley founded and owns – but only because it was Buckley’s. In a journal which publishes dozens of pieces each month, in print or online, it is remarkable that not one other piece reflected Buckley’s viewpoint. Thet silence is deafening.

All the more so, since the case on American national interest grounds for a more balanced Mid-East policy is overwhelming. More candid Israeli partisans readily admit it: Hillel Halkin, writing recently in Commentary, acknowledged that “Support for Israel is difficult to justify on cold grounds of national interest.  Such support entails not only large sums of money, but also, more than ever since September 11, large perceived risks.”

There always will be people who argue that American national interest doesn’t count, that looking out for it is immoral; this argument is a staple of the Left. And now this idea is popping up on the American Right, albeit with some twists. For instance, the suggestion that we should back Sharon’s expansionist claims because “God said so” – as Oklahoma Senator James Imhofe told the Senate earlier this month, making an Old Testament argument for a Greater Israel.

But policies that stray too far from national interest are dangerous and unstable, and few people long thank the men who fostered them. (The history books are littered with their failed empires, colonies and crusades…) If the conservative establishment foists on the U.S. a foreign policy which is essentially irrelevant or harmful to America, its power to form opinion will decay. The polls suggest that is already starting to happen.

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