Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has drawn some criticism from the left for avoiding the topic of Israel-Palestine. It’s actually a wise decision on her part. It was obvious during her campaign that she is not well-versed on the issue. N ew members of Congress ought to avoid this dangerous minefield of an issue unless they are very clear about what they want to say and how they want to say it.
But AOC may be learning. Earlier this week, she was asked if she favored reducing aid to Israel and she replied that it is “…certainly on the table. I think it’s something that can be discussed.”
Reducing aid to Israel is perhaps the highest voltage third rail in Beltway politics. But in a marker of how much things have changed in Washington—as well as how far they still have to go—the reactions to AOC’s statement have been far less animated than usual. The Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA) issued a condescending but relatively mild statement, telling AOC to consult with three mainstream Democratic leaders—all prominent Jewish members with strong pro-Israel records—on the “correct” U.S. policy. “US-Israel ties must supersede politics,” the statement concluded. Surprisingly, the JDCA did not condemn AOC’s statement, despite its tired implication that support for Israel must be unconditional, unquestioned, and independent of any considerations except what is best for Israel. Read more at LobeLog
This week, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held its annual policy meeting, and this one was quite different from many that came before it. For years, AIPAC conferences celebrated strong bipartisan support for Israel and for the unqualified U.S. support of Israel. But in 2019, that unity is very clearly fraying.
Where once there had been a significant number of foreign policy realists in the Republican Party who felt that the U.S. approach needed to be more even-handed, the GOP these days is passionately and overwhelmingly supportive of Israel and displays little if any concern about the lives of Palestinians. Democrats, on the other hand, are displeased with the Trump administration’s approach to the regional issues, feeling it has endangered and possibly doomed a two-state solution to the conflict.
But the Republican-Democrat divide is not the only area of division on Israel and Palestine. Within the Democratic party, a schism is widening between those who insist on supporting the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu—which includes the powerful centrist leadership of the party such as Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Eliot Engel, and Hakeem Jeffries— and the more progressive wing, led proudly by women like Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Betty McCollum, and others, who want to open a debate on U.S. policy in the Middle East and orient it more toward universal human rights.
But AIPAC is not just the venue to display these growing cracks in the bipartisan consensus that have made it even more difficult for the United States to play a productive role in resolving this devastating conflict. It is also a major player in the policy process, especially in Congress, as well as a source of intense debate and controversy over the question of why the United States behaves as it does in the region.
At this year’s conference, Ilhan Omar was attacked by members of Congress from both parties as well as by members of AIPAC and by the vice president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel. The reason for these attacks was that Omar had the temerity to call out and challenge AIPAC’s destructive influence, its role in directing the campaign funds of pro-Israel political actions committees (something AIPAC itself is not, despite its confusing name), and its efforts to establish the boundaries of discourse in Washington. Read more at LobeLog
Attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) are escalating. The big splash over the weekend came when a poster appeared in a display case at the West Virginia state capitol during Republican Party Day. It was an image of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center ablaze after the 9/11 attacks. Superimposed in front of them was a picture of Omar, with the meme “’Never Forget’ – you said…I am the proof…you have forgotten.”
After the wave of outrage rolled through social media, the West Virginia GOP issued a statement disavowing the poster, saying someone had hung it up without their knowledge and calling it hate speech. But the GOP stopped short of condemning it, only saying that the party “do not support it.” Since the poster was in a display case in the capitol, it is difficult to believe that those arranging the event were unaware of the poster until after it became a national controversy.
Either way, this attack from the right followed on the heels of the latest criticism of Omar from largely liberal and centrist quarters. Almost on cue, the West Virginia controversy—with its blatant, indisputably hateful message—gave those centrist and liberal critics the perfect cover, as they could comfortably, if cynically, condemn the Republican attack on Omar while once again spuriously accusing her of anti-Semitism. Read more at LobeLog
On Wednesday, after days of cajoling and political arm-twisting from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Jewish Home party agreed to enter into coalition with an extremist party, Otzma Yehudit, or “Jewish Power.” As the name implies, Otzma Yehudit is an explicitly racist party, comfortably akin to the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. It is led by former members of Kach, the party founded by avowed racist Meir Kahane that the Knesset banned in 1988.
The open embrace of such a blatantly racist party elicited anger and dismay from a wide range of Israelis and their supporters, while critics noted that this was the logical result of Israel’s years of rightward drift and Netanyahu’s open embrace in recent years of authoritarians and authoritarianism. That increasing authoritarianism is certainly a major factor in Israel’s severely diminished standing in the United States among liberals, progressives, younger voters, and, crucially, Democrats.
The growing debate among Democrats has been an increasingly hot topic since the 2016 presidential election. It presents a particular problem for Democratic leaders who identify closely with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and similar groups that work to pressure elected officials to support Israeli policies. The decline in Israel’s appeal to Democrats is directly related to the wider awareness of the country’s increasingly authoritarian nature, its treatment of Palestinians, and its reluctance to take substantive steps toward peace. Pro-Israel liberals face a fundamental paradox trying to reconcile Israel’s illiberalism with their political values.
Republicans have a simpler task. There is much less sympathy for things like human rights, international law, and for Arabs in general among their voters. Lobbying and campaign financing are not as crucial for Republicans to secure lock-step support of Israel, as that support is there based on their faith, their view of security, and their view of race and culture.
On the Democratic side, the effort to secure unconditional support for Israel depends much more on spin, marketing, and money. That is the basis on which a new pro-Israel group, the so-called Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), operates. Read more at LobeLog
I did two radio spots this week which my readers might find interesting. Both were devoted largely, but not entirely, to discussion of Ilhan Omar’s tweets and the outrageous backlash to them. My piece on the matter is at LobeLog, at this link.
Yesterday, I spoke with Ian Masters on KPFK in Los Angeles. You can hear that segment at this page.
Earlier this week, I spoke with Eugene Puryear and Sean Blackmon about Rep. Omar, Israeli elections, and a little on Iran. You can listen to that at this link.
Discussing the role of the pro-Israel lobby in forming US Middle East policy is perilous. I’ve heard hundreds of stories from fellow advocates, colleagues on Capitol Hill, and journalists who have learned that lesson the hard way. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has once again brought that peril on herself.
Responding to journalist Glenn Greenwald’s comments about the amount of energy Congress spends defending Israel, Omar tweeted, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” When the Forward’s opinion editor asked her who she thought was “paying off” members of Congress to support Israel, Omar tweeted “AIPAC.”
The backlash was swift and powerful. Criticism and denunciation of Omar’s tweet as anti-Semitic came from all directions, left and right. It culminated with leading Democrats denouncing the new congresswoman and Omar’s apology. Omar’s initial comments evoked for many the image of Jews nefariously controlling a political agenda with their money, an old and sordidly familiar anti-Semitic trope.
Having been through this sort of thing before when she had to apologize for a tweet evoking the trope of subtle Jewish power by saying that Israel had hypnotized the world, Omar might have known better than to tweet so flippantly on a subject that requires significant nuance.
As midterm elections near, it is becoming clear that there is an opportunity in Washington to take the first few steps toward measurable change in U.S. politics around Israel and Palestine. Increasingly belligerent Israeli actions toward the Palestinians and toward Jews who oppose the occupation, a U.S. administration with unabashedly pro-settler leanings, and the decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to shift away from bipartisan efforts in the U.S. and depend on unflinching Republican support have combined to create a strong groundswell in the Democratic party for a change in policy.
This groundswell has not yet made a significant impact in Washington. Occasional letters of admonishment from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (who is not a Democrat, but caucuses with them in the Senate), or Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) have little impact on the ground. Meanwhile, after New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was photographed at a progressive conference holding a sign that read, “From Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go,” he scrambled to disavow the sign, claiming he didn’t know what it said. Read more at LobeLog