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
Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump wanted to change US policy toward both Israel-Palestine and Iran. When Obama arrived in the Oval Office, he brought an ambitious foreign policy plan with him. He wanted to diminish the heavy U.S. footprint in the Middle East, “pivot toward Asia,” and rebuild the confidence in the United States as a sober actor on the world stage that George W. Bush had undermined with his calamitous invasion of Iraq.
At the beginning of his first term—after he made his initial speech indicating a willingness to improve relations with Iran—Obama devoted his efforts and political capital to trying to bring a Palestinian state into being. He knew there would be political costs, and although he underestimated them, he understood that it would take all the political capital he had to have any chance at productive talks.
By 2012, Obama recognized that he was not going to get the grand bargain between Israel and the Palestinians that he had hoped for. So he turned his attention toward Iran. Working with U.S. allies in Europe and through the United Nations, he pushed for sanctions to bring Iran to the table. The pressure paved the way for the nuclear talks that would eventually lead, in 2015, to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal.
Obama recognized that Israeli-Palestinian peace and the Iran nuclear deal were each very expensive in terms of political capital. He couldn’t afford to pursue both. It’s a lesson Donald Trump still doesn’t understand. Read more at LobeLog
Every year, anyone who works on United States policy toward Israel, Palestine, or the broader Middle East watches the annual policy conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee
US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley
(AIPAC) very closely. At that conference, we expect not only to find out a great deal about where the US and Israeli governments stand at the moment, but also what is likely to occupy the attention of Congress for the coming year regarding Middle East policy.
At last year’s conference, then-candidate Donald Trump’s appearance and warm reception caused one of the deepest divides in the Jewish community in recent memory. AIPAC’s day-after public apology to President Barack Obama for the ovations that Trump’s sharply critical words drew was a landmark event, and was an incident that the powerful lobbying group was hoping to bury this year.
AIPAC wanted their 2017 conference to be one that brought its supporters–who span a considerable political spectrum apart from Middle East policy–back together, and one that also set a clear agenda for the group’s activities for the first year of the Trump Administration. It was not entirely successful in either goal. Read more at LobeLog
Rebecca Vilkomerson has been a member of Jewish Voice for Peace since 2001 and the group’s Executive Director since 2009. She lived with her family in Israel from 2006-2009. In 2010 she was named one of the 50 most influential Jewish American leaders by the Forward, and was named one of “14 Women to Watch” in 2014.
FMEP: Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) has, in some ways, been a lightning rod for the global movement for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel (BDS). Many people can’t reconcile the idea of a Jewish organization advocating a boycott of Israel. Obviously, this is especially true for those who see BDS as unfairly anti-Israel, even anti-Semitic. As the Executive Director of JVP, how do you respond to those charges? And, perhaps a parallel question, what would you say are the major differences between the public perception of the BDS movement and its reality?
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Read more at Facts On The Ground, the Foundation For Middle East Peace’s blog.
Conventional wisdom, like most things in politics, changes very slowly. Politicians usually stay the safe course until evidence mounts that there’s a better one. The pile of evidence for a new direction is starting to become substantial when it comes to the discourse around Israel and Palestine.
This presidential primary season has had its fair share of candidates who insist the United States support Israel unconditionally. Nowhere was that more clearly on display than at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). With the exception of Bernie Sanders, who declined to attend the conference, each candidate for the White House tried to outdo the others in professing their love and commitment to Israel. Continue reading at The New Republic