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The longer arc of US-Palestine relations

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Washington DC, February 18, 2019–The arrival in the US Congress in January of two feisty, younger, female Democratic representatives who are Muslims, people of color, and unabashed supporters of the human rights of Palestinians (and of everyone else) has set many pundits’ tongues wagging about how “divisive” their presence might prove to a Democratic caucus that for decades now has been solidly pro-Israeli. But the election of Reps. Ilhan Omar (MN) and Rashida Tlaib (MI)– and of several other Democrats inclined to hold Israel to the same standards as all other U.S. aid recipients– is also indicative of a broader trend in U.S. politics.

It used to be that, while nearly every layer of the Democratic Party was solidly pro-Israel, the Republican Party in general tended to be more critical of Israel—for a complex mix of reasons. But today, that picture has been upended. One main reason for this shift has been that Israel’s majority-Jewish citizenry and its political leadership have been lurching rightwards. For the past 18 years, rightwing governments have kept and strengthened their grip on power in Israel, and that led to an ever closer tie between those governments and the most hawkish, militaristic parts of the GOP here in the United States—including the influential constituency of Evangelical Christian Republicans. Other factors have been at play, too.

Helena Cobban

I first came to live and work in the United States back in 1982, having grown up in an England that was rapidly decolonizing. Since my mid-teens, I’d always supported the rights of formerly colonized peoples to self-determination. So I was stunned to discover how many people here in the United States—including among my more progressive friends and colleagues—seemed happy to support an Israel that was actively colonizing additional Palestinian lands through the building of settlements and was quick to use massive force to suppress any signs of Palestinian resistance.

That first summer of 1982 was particularly hard for me. Before coming to the United States I had worked as a Middle East correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and the London Sunday Times. I’d been based in West Beirut but had crisscrossed all of Lebanon to cover its brutal civil war and had also reported from many other countries around the region.

But then, in the summer of 1982, I was sitting here at Harvard and Georgetown universities writing my first book while the Israeli military was using its powerful land, sea, and air forces to batter my former stomping grounds of West Beirut into submission. Bad enough that that was happening to my former neighbors there. Worse, that it was being done, in many cases, with US-supplied weapons. And worst of all that, as Israeli tanks sat atop the hills circling Beirut raining their fire down on the city, they got a “morale-boosting” visit from none other than Jane Fonda, icon of the American left.

To be honest, throughout the ten weeks that Israel’s assault continued, I often couldn’t stop crying. But as the single mom of two young children I had to keep myself together. I tied a black ribbon around my arm to explain my puffy red eyes when I took them to their preschool or did the grocery shopping.

But Jane Fonda? Really? How could she—and so many other “progressives” here in the United States– be so obtuse?

Her position was, I soon discovered, a common one adopted by people whom we later identified as “Progressives Except for Palestine” (PEP’s.)

Back then, in 1982, that was a position that perhaps could still be justified? Many of the early pioneers of the Zionist project in what became Israel had, after all, been socialists. They had attractive practices of communal child-rearing and believed in something called “Jewish Labor”. Indeed, the Labour Party had been continuously in power in Israel from the state’s founding in 1948 until 1977; and the fact that the rightwing Likud Party won the 1977 election was still seen as just a blip on the broader political screen.

Back then, too, there was still a broad and powerful “peace movement” in Israel. I vividly remember how, after the grotesque, IDF-supported massacre of Palestinians in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in September 1982, something like one-fifth of Israel’s entire population came out on the streets to protest the killings… and that mass movement led to the resignation of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and shortly thereafter the collapse of the whole Likud government…

So now, let’s fast-forward to the three major assaults the IDF has launched against the captive Palestinian population of Gaza since 2008. How many Israelis came out on the streets to protest those? In each case, just a handful of people—souls brave enough to withstand the mobs of ultra-Zionists waving massive Israeli flags who would surround and mock them on the streets every time they tried to make a small stand for peace.

Israel has changed a lot. I can discuss another time the role of Washington’s unwavering support for Israel’s militaristic, colonialist policies in enabling the country’s lunge to the right. But the lunge is clear. Back in 1992, the pro-peace Meretz Party won 12 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, and Labor had 44. Now, there will be another Knesset election in April. Some Israeli experts say Labor will be lucky to win six seats—and Meretz may not even win any. The biggest contests in Israeli politics are now between various parties on the right and the ultra-right.

One effect of Israel’s lunge to the right has, over the years, been to shift the kinds of argument that its supporters here in the United States use to justify American support for Israel. In times past, they would use range of moral arguments. But over the past 35 years their arguments tipped more and more into the realm of the “strategic”. Israel, they claimed, was uniquely qualified to help the United States in the fight against “terror”, or “Saddam”, or “Iran”, or (back in the day) “the Soviet Union”… whatever Washington’s presumed enemy of the month might be.

It is not surprising that these kinds of argument have more appeal to gung-ho right-wing politicians and leaders of the military-industrial complex here in the United States than they do to the average, middle-of-the-line Democratic Party politician. That’s where the pro-Israel lobby comes in: It uses a lot of campaign-finance heft and a thin veneer of “moral” justification to keep such Democrats in line. Why, in response to the challenge they’ve faced from Reps. Omar, Tlaib, and their allies, the lobby has even created a whole new Astroturf organization called the “Democratic Majority for Israel”.

Let’s see how that goes… One interesting note is that when the Senate recently voted in favor of a bill (strongly pushed by the pro-Israel lobby) that would allow states to criminalize advocacy for a boycott of Israel, all but one of the Democratic senators considering a run for president in 2020 stood aside. Only Sen. Amy Klobuchar supported it. The winds are beginning to shift.

And that book I was writing when I came to the United States in 1982? It was a study of the Palestine Liberation Organization, based on extensive research and interviews I’d done during my years in Beirut. The concluding chapter, which I finished shortly before the book went to press, ended like this: “By 1983… Palestinian nationalism had become an irresistible force, but the results of its encounter with the seemingly immovable object of American policy had still to be ascertained.”

Now, 36 years later, Palestinian nationalism has gone through many twists and turns, but it has certainly survived. As for the support that Washington has given Israel against the Palestinians, that too has certainly survived intact. But today, it looks just a tad less “immovable” than it did back then. Stay tuned.

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I’ve long admired Helena’s work so nice to see her writing here. I do agree with this article but will take the liberty of quibbling on a few points: “Many of the early pioneers of the Zionist project in what became Israel had, after all, been socialists. They had attractive practices of communal child-rearing and believed in something called “Jewish Labor”. ” Exactly. Jewish labour. In a land where the vast majority of people were… Read more »

My illusion was not based on Israeli socialism, socialism not being something in which I’ve ever believed. It was based on the idea that somehow it was only a matter of time before the moderates on both sides came to power and made an agreement. How wilfully imperceptive I was!

“One effect of Israel’s lunge to the right has, over the years, been to shift the kinds of argument that its supporters here in the United States use to justify American support for Israel. In times past, they would use range of moral arguments. But over the past 35 years their arguments tipped more and more into the realm of the ‘strategic.’ Israel, they claimed, was uniquely qualified to help the United States in the… Read more »

I’m old enough to remember Vietnam, and how the rationale for invading and occupying kept changing. When that happens, we should all know that NONE of the reasons given are the real one, and NONE of them is valid. This is true, in spades, for US support of Israel.

And p.s.: I kept getting emails from a nature org in Israel, whose map showed Israel as including occupied Palestine – no border.

And oh yes, I’ve been meaning to ask: Why are there all these commentators who use pseudonyms? I use my name. It has never occurred to me to do otherwise.