The leading pro Israel group AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) is meeting this weekend in Washington and ahead of that conference yesterday I went to the annual teach-in against the Israel lobby at the National Press Club. There was an audience of 600 and a lot of excitement. The political atomization of the Trump era had not penetrated this hall. The speakers represented many different points of view, from US nationalist to leftwing/Palestinian to realist to Arab-American. Only at the end did I count the number of Jewish speakers. One out of 12 (Ilan Pappe). But it was an afterthought. There is no soreness around that question, Are Jews here or not? Of course they’re here.
If there was a theme to the day (full video) it was that the Israel lobby is losing ground to Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) in the 100-years-war of Zionism in the United States, and the American people are waking up; but it won’t matter much for the Palestinians. They’re screwed for as long as anyone can see; and this is the Israel lobby’s achievement. It blocked a Palestinian state. No one at the conference said the two-state solution is alive. “There is zero time for the two state solution,” Hanan Ashrawi said. She and almost everyone else described the occupation as “apartheid.”
The conference was sponsored by the Washington Report for Middle East Affairs and the Institute For Research Middle East Policy. I will go through its highlights today, focusing on a few speakers. I’ll start with the hit, Hanan Ashrawi, the longtime Palestinian negotiator, and finish with John Mearsheimer, whose grim realist pronouncement that we are all in for a lot worse is what I will take away from this conference.
Ashrawi was mordant and dignified. She said the peace process has been a neverending sham because the Israel lobby owns it. She mocked Dennis and Martin – Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross – for going from Israel lobby organizations into principal mediation positions in the White House, and then pointed out something I didn’t know: that the latest ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, just left his job to sign on as an expert at the official Israeli thinktank the Institute for National Security Studies (funded by the usual suspects, Haim Saban, Roger Hertog, Michael Steinhardt). That’s a revolving door that should make you dispirited and cynical. Shapiro is of course being replaced by David Friedman. Ashrawi:
Now we have settlers in the White House. They don’t need to lobby, they are decision makers.
The lobby’s control of the narrative goes back to the The Balfour Declaration, Ashrawi said, citing that clause about the establishment of the Jewish home not harming the rights of the “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” So Palestinians lost their identity right there, she said. “And I do hope the Brits don’t celebrate it even though Theresa May invited Netanyahu to celebrate it. This is a colonial legacy par excellence.”
Then there is the claim that all Palestinian prisoners are terrorists. There have been 800,000 Palestinian prisoners, Ashrawi said. “I was one of them.” Are there really 800,000 terrorists in Palestine?
Palestinians had nonetheless made the “painful compromise” of accepting Israel in 78 percent of the original land for a simple reason:
“It was a compromise we made in order to give our children a future.”
The room was still. That didn’t mean the Palestinians had accepted “landswaps.” It didn’t mean they accepted a “Jewish state.” She got the most applause for her defiance of racism.
“We are not a demographic problem for Israel– please do not accept this. We are a nation with our rights, with our history with our culture, and we abide by international law. I don’t believe any other country in the world is allowed to discriminate against a people because it wants to maintain the ethnic or religious purity of its own entity at all. So we cannot be a demographic problem to scare the Israelis into giving us our little state-let or state-minus as they say. They are busily imposing greater Israel on the historical Palestine. They are destroying the two state solution… They wax hysterical when people describe them as being apartheid…. If the situation will continue, then it will run its course as an ongoing perpetual occupation, conflict, extremism. Or are we going to have a qualitative shift? Maybe we need to de-Zionize Israel rather than Zionize the Palestinians.
The most fun was the talk by former Congressmen Nick Rahall and Jim Moran. These guys were congressmen for a reason. They are likeable, funny street-talking guys. They are also principled.
Rahall left Congress two years ago, but he still keeps a close watch; and he said that the numbers are getting better for Palestinians. It used to be they only got a few votes, now they are getting 50 to 80. The new ambassador to Israel David Friedman faced historic opposition in the Senate, 46 votes on Thursday. Eighty congresspeople voted against the condemnation of Obama’s abstention on the settlement resolution at the UN. “Look at those 80 votes, those 46– thank em, email em,” Rahall said, because those politicians are courageous.
Rahall told a war story. He was on a Congressional delegation to Lebanon during the height of the Israeli attack in 1982. Tip O’Neill wanted the Arab-American congressman to go because his own daughter-in-law was Arab-American and he had mixed feelings about Israel’s actions. Rahall and four others (I believe Oakar, Bonior Dymally, McCloskey) met with Arafat in the middle of the night in Beirut. Arafat called the press, and the congressional delegation came out into klieg lights and said, Arafat agreed to recognize Israel. The press said the congressional delegation had been snookered, Rahall said, but we were ten years ahead of Oslo.
Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon then refused to meet with the congressional delegation. Rep. Elliott Levitas of Georgia, a Jewish member on the trip, had refused to meet with Arafat but he said that if the Israeli leaders didn’t meet the whole Co-Del there would be hell to pay. They met. Rahall had seen cluster bombs being used, and he told Ariel Sharon you can’t use cluster bombs in a civilian setting, that’s the agreement with the U.S.
Sharon picked up a piece of paper and said, This is what I think of agreements during a war. And he tore the paper in half. The next day Reagan called Begin and told him to stop the war.
Everyone in the hall applauded Reagan.
Jim Moran told a moving story about his awakening. He was one of a group of young Virginian politicians whom AIPAC sent over to Israel for a “fun” trip back in the 80s. He was then deputy mayor of Alexandria. The other guys were at his level, but he and two others ultimately went to Congress. That’s because AIPAC is engaged and knows who the young bench is. Moran was deeply stirred by the trip. He spent so long at Yad Vashem “I delayed the whole bus, I couldn’t get it out of my mind what I saw there. I became a firm supporter of Israel. That was my paradigm.” In 1991 he voted to give Israel loan guarantees for settlement building. He regrets that now. A Jewish activist told him he was anti-humanitarian, and it got under his skin.
Then S. Daniel (Slim-Fast) Abraham of the Center for Middle East Peace and Sara Ehrman, Hillary Clinton’s guru, sent him over to the West Bank. Moran met Arafat and said he had heard that Arafat had cried when he learned of Yitzhak Rabin’s murder. Why? Arafat said:
“Yitzhak was the only Jew who ever treated me like I was a man.”
Moran couldn’t stop thinking about what Arafat said. “A lot of this is a struggle for dignity and being recognized.” Moran started to consider that the minority who voted against Israel were voting their consciences. He thought life was too short not to join them. After he began voting against Israel he was stunned by how many other congressmen on the private congressional elevator would thank him for voting that way even after they had voted for Israel. They said they had no choice. These people were not just voting against their constituents’ interests, he said, but against their own convictions.
Both Rahall and Moran said young Jews were going to make a difference.
Moran said that when the arc of justice turns it’s going to be because of young Jewish men and women on campuses who are reading and are “of the same ilk” as the Jews who disproportionately turned around the civil rights movement. “They were the ones who came down from the north. Many of them lost their lives.” Moran got emotional. In my seat I started to lose it. When the young Jews wake up, he said, then they will share the information and ultimately the Congress will follow.
Rahall gave an ad for J Street. It’s organized young people and caused a stir in the Democratic party. He gave J Street credit for getting the Israel Palestine issue into the election debates last year. They supported the Iran deal, they opposed Trump on immigration and the Muslim ban, they supported the settlements resolution. He told the people in the room to work with J Street.
“Whatever coalition building you can, do. There may not be 100 percent agreement on a few issues… But there is a ground there for a reachout and an approach that says, let’s do this together, and let’s go to Congress. Members of Congress will respond when they see Jews and Arabs working together. Rather than hurling insults at each other.”
That brings me to Khalil Jahshan. He told the best story of the day. Jahshan is the head of the Arab Center in D.C., and is a Palestinian Christian from Nazareth, born in 1948. He said that the US controls the peace process and keeps Europe out of it so as to keep Israel protected forever. Janet McMahon of WRMEA asked him if the US does that because it’s a superpower or because of the lobby.
Jahshan paused. The room went quiet. Here it comes.
Frankly, the Israel lobby and its influence– Let me tell you something. My first lesson as a lobbyist when I arrived in town, a still somewhat innocent young man, my first meeting with a senator was Senator Hatfield. I was not with any Arab American organization yet. I was basically serving as an academic adviser to a group of church leaders in this country. I participated with them in advocating for peace and justice in the Middle East. And they asked me to accompany them as a resource person to meeting with a series of leaders in Congress. The late Senator [Mark] Hatfield of Oregon listened to us, and then asked me to stay after the group decided to leave. I did. He looked at me and said, “What are you going to do here?” I said, “Well I’m moving to town to work on behalf of Arab causes and particularly my cause, the Palestinian cause.”
He looked at me and established eye contact with me and he said, “Young man this is a very difficult task you’re embarking on.” And he said– and I will never forget these words as long as I live– he said, “In this great distinguished institution of the United States Senate, when the Israel lobby says jump, 90 plus of my colleagues say how high. They never ask why.” So with that type of control particularly in Congress, you can’t tell where the idea came from, Whether it’s volunteered by these people who are more than willing to sell out or by the lobby. Or how the two kind of feed on each other.
I figure that happened in the early ’80s. Hatfield served from 1967-97.
Jahshan praised BDS as a threat to the Israeli control of the narrative. So did Maria LaHood of the Center for Constitutional Rights. She said it was our “moral duty” to support BDS, just like we supported the Montgomery bus boycott.
We need to keep making connections between settler colonialism, state violence and racism in this country and in Israel. The struggle for Palestinian liberation is tied to all struggles against oppression. Martin Luther King… described the pivotal Montgomery bus boycott against segregation in the US as a refusal to cooperate with an evil system. All over the world including in the U.S., people are increasingly refusing to be complicit in Israel’s violations of international law and are demanding the same of our government officials. It is not simply a matter of our right to dissent, it is our moral duty.
Cooperation with the occupation, with apartheid is complicity. BDS helped end apartheid in South Africa and it will eventually do the same in Israel. The wave of anti-BDS legislation just shows the power the movement that Palestinian rights has to expose Israel’s violations of international law and eventually help bring them to an end.
John Mearsheimer also gave a lot of credit to Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, but from a realist perspective. I.e., pessimistic. Here is some of what he said:
I believe dark times are ahead for both Israel and the lobby… Greater Israel is here to stay, and that state is and will remain an apartheid state. That brute fact will become increasingly clear to people all over the world, especially now that it is clear that Palestinians are not going to get a state of their own. Palestinians will continue to resist their oppression. Which will force Israel to escalate the repressive policies that have tarnished its image.
The Palestinians’ most potent weapon in this fight will be BDS… Israel and its supporters in the west view BDS as an existential threat. Because it not only has the potential to delegitimize Israel but it might also lead to Israel’s undoing. After all, the Palestinians, if they were given equal rights, Israel would cease to be a Jewish state.
And there are good reasons that BDS might succeed, at least when it comes to delegitimizing Israel. First it takes dead aim at apartheid which is a morally repugnant political system that is universally condemned. Apartheid South Africa eventually disappeared, why should Israel be any different?
This was the dark realist part of Mearsheimer’s message:
There’s the possibility that BDS will carry the day and greater Israel will become a legitimate, liberal democracy. If that were to come, which is not likely, it would undoubtedly come after much bloodshed, as most Israeli Jews fervently oppose this outcome as it will mean the end of the Zionist dream.
The more likely alternative is that “Israel will simply remain an apartheid state, and with the help of lobby, hunker down and accept the fact that most of the world considers it a pariah state.”
It will take 20 or 30 years for these outcomes to sort themselves out.
I am deeply sad to say that the decades ahead promise abundant troubles for Israel and especially for the Palestinians, and the United States will not be spared either, simply because the lobby will be working overtime to protect Israel and preserve the special relationship, which is likely to harm America’s intellectual life as well as its politics.
Mearsheimer said we’d had victories since he and his co-author Stephen Walt uncorked the festivities when they wrote The Israel Lobby paper in 2006. The lobby is now an open secret, it’s regularly mentioned in the newspapers. The elites continue to hold the line against discussion of the lobby, but it goes on despite them. The lobby can’t get the country into a war, witness its defeat on the Iran Deal, but it came close.
There are a few other moments I need to document for now. One was video of Sam Husseini asking Chuck Schumer if Israel has nukes and Schumer stammering and saying everyone knows it. This was quite delicious. Grant Smith of IRMEP showed it.
Grant Smith presented polling data showing that Americans do not accept the subterfuge about Israel not having nukes, when that is laid out to them. “Israel & its US lobby want Congress to finance Israel’s ‘Qualitative Military Edge’ over rivals without considering Israel is the region’s sole nuclear power,” the poll states. By 52-44, Americans in his survey said that Congress should take the nukes under consideration when giving Israel aid.
Smith said that Americans now know what the Israel lobby is: “It’s not the registration desk at the King David Hotel.” The most nationalist speaker, Smith said that the lobby is also “not American as apple pie, sorry,” because it’s engaged in covert actions with a foreign government. And it’s been the largest single factor in the way of a resolution of the conflict, Smith said near the close of the conference. I share that view, the lobby is the reason partition hasn’t worked for 70 years, it’s my original community’s achievement. The community in the room yesterday was much broader than that.