Why Israel gets an easy ride

<em>Middle East Crisis</em>

I was rung up by a bemused woman from a foreign radio network on Easter Sunday. Why, she wanted to know, is there no US condemnation of Israel's intensifying actions in Ramallah when almost the entire rest of the world is condemning them? Why doesn't the US take immediate action against Israel?

I hardly knew where to begin. Less than four months ago, I mused in these pages about the influence of Jews in the Bush administration, and asked if and when American Muslims - who almost certainly now outnumber American Jews - will have similar political power. For what I thought was a pretty mild obser-vation, I received hate mail. "Andrew Stephen," e-mailed one fan, "should be exterminated with extreme prejudice." If you write anything in America containing the word "Jew", I have long since discovered, you will be accused by someone, somewhere, of being anti-Semitic. If you dare to criticise Israel in any way, you are, by definition, anti-Semitic.

We will come to why in a moment. The basic reason for the lack of US condemnation in past days, I explained to the lady on Easter Day, was to do with domestic American politics. The Jewish lobby is simply too strong for any US politician, Republican or Democrat, to ignore. New York, after all, is the biggest Jewish city in the world; one in eight voters there is Jewish. Nearly half the Jews in the world are American. Probably around 60 per cent of the entire Democratic Party's funding comes from Jews: hence, say cynics, Bill Clinton's last-minute pardoning of Marc Rich, a Jewish fugitive who fled America in 1983 after being accused of swindling more than $142m in US taxes. Before Rich's pardon, his estranged wife Denise donated more than $1m to the Democratic Party, and provided the Clintons directly with a $10,000 contribution to their legal defence fund, with $7,300 worth of free furniture for the Clintons thrown in for good measure.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Aipac, perhaps comes second only to the National Rifle Association as a powerful pressure group in Washington: it fans out into at least 45 separate fundraising "political action committees". In a fortnight, Aipac holds its annual conference here, when major figures from both the Israeli and US governments will participate (Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, and Paul Wolfowitz, the US deputy defence secretary, were among those planned to make appearances). Typical of the topics for discussion are "Europe: ally or agitator of US Middle East policy?" and, perhaps even more provocatively, "After Arafat: the prospects for future Palestinian leadership".

The reason why anybody who questions Israeli policies - like that last assumption, for example, that Israel has the right and ability to banish the leader of the Palestinians - is denounced as anti-Semitic, I suspect, is because of a collective guilt Americans feel about their country's inaction and thus failure to prevent the slaughter of six million Jews in Europe in the Second World War. The very word "holocaust" was invented by an American academic in the Sixties, thus somehow - semantically, at least - making the Nazi mass murder of Jews an American issue, to be recalled, never forgotten, and always acted upon by Americans. With such subconscious reasoning, Jews and Israelis can therefore do no wrong here in whatever they choose to do in order to right the monstrous wrongs of history. When the Wall Street Journal man Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in Pakistan, the US media collectively agreed not to mention that he was an Israeli citizen whose bar mitzvah was held at the wailing wall in Jerusalem; I read that in the Israeli press, but not a word of it (as far as I know) ever appeared here.

Thus Israel may have illegally occupied the West Bank and Gaza for well over three decades, but even in the past 21 years the US has none the less given Israel more than $70bn in aid. Indeed, without its annual subvention of $3bn from the US and its supplying of sophisticated weaponry, Israel's current military aggression would simply not be possible; Americans know all about the pathetic, atrocious suicide bombers who have killed Israelis in the hundreds, and instinctively blame Yasser Arafat for the resulting bloodshed in Jerusalem and elsewhere. The Bush administration - even including Colin Powell - has been neatly coerced into justifying Israel's ever-mounting aggression as part of the worldwide war against terrorism. Most Americans are simply unaware, I suspect, of the innocent Palestinians killed in their thousands by Israeli tanks, F-15s and Patriot missiles supplied by the US.

Yet underground, anti-Semitism really is rife in this country; Jews are not being paranoid about this. In recently released tapes from Richard Nixon's White House, none other than that self-appointed chaplain to the past dozen presidents - "Dr" Billy Graham - is captured fulminating against Jews. "They swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know I am friendly to Israel and so forth," Graham told Nixon. "They don't know how I really feel about what they're doing to this country." And Graham was the man chosen by this administration to deliver the post-11 September sermon in Washington National Cathedral.

The Bush administration has found itself cornered into supporting Israel outright, with Powell (reluctantly, I suspect) toeing the line. The Bush I administration's secretary of state, James Baker, had the courage to express exasperation over Israeli expansionism into Palestinian territory. Will anybody in Bush II now show similar courage? Probably not, I explained on Easter Sunday; and probably, I feared, with yet more dire results.