Twenty years ago on March 16, the world got a tragic glimpse into what the state of Israel was going to become. Given the green light in the Oval Office by President George W. Bush, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – “a man of peace," Bush said at the time – started the now-inevitable march to apartheid and the murderous treatment of the Palestinians against whom the main battle would be waged.
That glimpse was the senseless murder of a passionate, 23-year-old woman whose laudable purpose at the time was simply the protection of Palestinian homes being bulldozed by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). On that day, Rachel Corrie, a member of the International Solidarity Movement, was brutally murdered by an IDF armored bulldozer as she tried to interject herself between it and its merciless destruction of yet another Palestinian home in the southern Gaza Strip.
Almost at wit’s end because of the negative response of the government then in Tel Aviv, Rachel’s parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, came to Washington to seek the U.S. Government’s assistance. As Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff at the time, I became involved. But despite all our efforts, official and personal, we could not prevail on the Israeli government to be forthcoming, honest, or at day’s end even polite. Their well-coordinated response was to deny completely any responsibility – just as would be the case more than two decades later, ultimately, with the brutal assassination of another American citizen, journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. It was an utterly depressing and profoundly sad moment for me as I watched a state that claimed a tight alliance with my country, dishonor that alliance markedly yet again.
In the case of Rachel Corrie, as a last resort, I strongly recommended the Corries take their case to the Israeli courts, as I believed they were the final bastion of not only the rule of law but of human decency in that country. Years later, when the Israeli Supreme Court denied the Corries any real justice, I more or less closed the book on my formerly deep affection for that country, and most certainly for its leadership. Since then, that leadership has been corroborating my change of heart in almost every way conceivable. Today, it is even trying to diminish significantly the power of that final outpost of the rule of law, the Israeli supreme court.
Of course, I’ll be branded an anti-Semite for making these brief but accurate remarks, as are almost all Americans today who criticize the state of Israel. So be it. If that brand is the price of truth-telling these days about the deeply-harmful, one-sided relationship my country now has with Jerusalem, and about the Israeli government as well, I will pay it willingly.
I am – just as “of course” – not an anti-Semite; quite the opposite. I am an ardent fan of the concept of the original Israel, almost a state “kibbutz” wherein the Israeli policies and actions of today would have been not merely abhorrent but unimaginable.
I fear for Israel’s future given its present leadership and policies, and I fear for my own country because of its unquestioning acceptance of that leadership and those policies. The very infrequent and light criticisms – emanating, for example, from such august persons as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently – make matters worse not better because they change absolutely nothing on the ground.
Who will be the next innocent casualty like Rachel was 20 years ago? Or like Shireen Abu Akleh was only recently? Or like the Palestinians who are dying now almost daily?
Two parents’ unreconciled grief today marks starkly the beginning; Shireen the continuum; and every innocent death since and forthcoming the ultimate end – perhaps in a Third Intifadah.
And where will that lead? Most certainly not to a return to the oft-described “only real democracy in the Middle East."
Lawrence Wilkerson is former Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93) and Chief of Staff to the Secretary of State (2002-05).”