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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.

Helena Cobban
About Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is the President of Just World Educational (JWE), a non-profit organization, and the CEO of Just World Books. She has had a lengthy career as a journalist, writer, and researcher on international affairs, including 17 years as a columnist on global issues for The Christian Science Monitor. Of the seven books she’s published on international affairs, four have been on Middle Eastern topics. This new series of commentaries she’s writing, “Story/Backstory”, will have an expanded audio component published in JWE’s podcast series. They represent her own opinion and judgments, not those of any organization.

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19 Responses

  1. Maximus Decimus Meridius
    Maximus Decimus Meridius on February 20, 2019, 1:29 pm

    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 not Jews. Practiced on land stolen from non-Jews, and actively excluding them from participating in these ‘socialist’ activities. Socialism, as I understand it, is about equality of all people, regardless of race or religion. “Socialism” which is for the benefit of one people only, and at the expense of others who have done you no harm, isn’t socialism at all.

    “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”

    But wasn’t this mostly ‘liberal’ Zionist lamenting for the ‘soul of Israel’? After all, one fifth of the population did not come out on the streets to protest the invasion, which killed as many as 19,000 people, the majority of them civilians. As I recall, most Israelis very much supported that war, just as they have supported every single Israeli war before and since – before suddenly turning against it when the latest war doesn’t go according to plan.

    “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.”

    To the best of my knowledge, military types in the US tend to be lukewarm or even hostile to America’s relationship with Israel, at least privately. Ditto with traditional right-wing types, with whom they often overlap. They feel that America should only look out for its own interests, rather than pandering to a minor foreign state which gives little in return. The military types in particular will be quite capable of seeing through the hype and will be well aware of Israel’s dismal military performance in recent decades, despite the billions of $ of ‘aid’ it gets from America.

    The harsh reality is so long as the lobby is there doling out cash who toe the line, and destroying those who do not, nothing will change.

    • echinococcus
      echinococcus on February 20, 2019, 5:55 pm

      Thank you, MDM, for this accurate description of the situation.
      It’s such a pity to see some of the best minds give precedence to totally nonsensical labels (especially in today’s US and Europe) like “left” or “right” over a simple evaluation of one’s position and action with regard to the only things that count: war, imperialism/Zionism, police state. Period. No wonder the liberals cannot and will not reach the general population.

  2. MHughes976
    MHughes976 on February 20, 2019, 5:27 pm

    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!

  3. Misterioso
    Misterioso on February 21, 2019, 10:30 am

    “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.”

    The argument that Israel is a “strategic asset” for the U.S. has long since been debunked by experts. In fact, “Israel” has been the prime cause of Arab and Muslim antagonism and attacks against America.

    To wit:
    In its 2004 report, the U.S. Senate 9/11 Commission declared that “mastermind of the 9/11 attacks,” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s “animus toward the United States stemmed not from his experiences there as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.”

    In its analysis of terrorism, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board of the U.S. Defense Department concluded that “Muslims do not hate our freedom,…they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority object to what they see as one-sided support in favour of Israel and against Palestinian rights….”

    Also, the shocking briefing given to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Admiral Michael Mullen, by senior military officers in 2010: The team was dispatched by Commander General David Petraeus to brief the Pentagon on intelligen­ce that Israeli intransige­nce in the peace process was jeopardizi­ng American troops in Iraq and Afghanista­n and that America was perceived as weak, ineffectua­l, and unable to stand up to Israel.

    Ha’aretz, January 13, 2012:
    “‘Israel is supposed to be working with us, not against us,’” Foreign Policy quoted an [American] intelligence officer as saying. ‘If they want to shed blood, it would help a lot if it was their blood and not ours. You know, they’re supposed to be a strategic asset. Well, guess what? There are a lot of people now, important people, who just don’t think that’s true.’”

    Jeff Steinberg, editor of Executive Intelligence Review, 2012: “In the past five years, the dam has burst in the long-taboo subject of the strategic benefits and liabilities of the U.S. ‘special relationship’ with Israel…. And I can tell you that behind the curtains in national security circles the debate is even more intense.” (“Geopolitical Dynamics: The Palestinian Future” panel discussion, October 25, 2012)

    Haaretz, July 28, 2012
    http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/former-u-s-officials-say-cia-considers-israel-to-be-mideast-s-biggest-spy-threat-1.454189
    “Former U.S. officials say CIA considers Israel to be Mideast’s biggest spy threat”

    EXCERPT:
    “…despite statements from U.S. politicians trumpeting the friendship, U.S. national security officials consider Israel to be, at times, a frustrating ally and a genuine counterintelligence threat.

    “In addition to what the former U.S. officials described to AP as intrusions in homes in the past decade, Israel has been implicated in U.S. criminal espionage cases and disciplinary proceedings against CIA officers and blamed in the presumed death of an important spy in Syria for the CIA during the administration of President George W. Bush.

    “The CIA considers Israel its No. 1 counterintelligence threat in the agency’s Near East Division, the group that oversees spying across the Middle East, according to current and former officials.”

    http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.763443
    “Opinion: Increasingly, Supporting Israel No Longer Serves America’s Interests”

    “Obama’s UN abstention [regarding UN Security Council Resolution 2334, December 23, 2016] was only the most recent manifestation of ongoing strategic changes that Trump too won’t want or be able to reverse.” Professor Brent Sasley, Jan. 7, 2017, Haaretz.

    Nor should we forget that since 1948, the entity known as “Israel” has siphoned off at least $134.7 billion from American taxpayers (Congressional Research Service, U.S. Foreign aid to Israel, Jeremy M. Sharpe, Specialist in Middle East Affairs, April 10, 2018) with no real benefit for the U.S.

  4. Elizabeth Block
    Elizabeth Block on February 21, 2019, 12:45 pm

    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.

    • Jejasalo
      Jejasalo on February 21, 2019, 4:29 pm

      Yeah…. look at our rationales for Iraq kept changing, too. Sobering.

      Have you been following the dispute between Israel, Palestinians and certain travel agencies about putting whole parts of Palestine in “Israel” for tourists to visit? (I thought of that when I read your comment about the park!!)

  5. Elizabeth Block
    Elizabeth Block on February 21, 2019, 12:46 pm

    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.

    • eljay
      eljay on February 21, 2019, 1:10 pm

      || Elizabeth Block: And oh yes, I’ve been meaning to ask: Why are there all these commentators who use pseudonyms? … ||

      To some extent it’s about personal security, if not for myself then for my family. You never know when a Zionist might act on his impulses (or have someone act on his behalf).

      catalan: … I am however interested in doing evil, but not unto all others, but just you. … It’s people like you I truly wish I could do evil unto. That, sadly, would feel good. …

    • Rashers2
      Rashers2 on February 23, 2019, 3:59 am

      @Elizabeth Block, your question’s perfectly reasonable. I haven’t been threatened or seriously abused here for writing any opinion in response to news stories or essays appearing on Mondoweiss. Occasionally, elsewhere, the bottom-feeders among Hasbara Central’s massed trolls have responded to comments by calling me “Abu”, the tar-brush applied to anyone suspected of being an Arab and which I wear as a badge of honour, and wished me dead. These are the sort who refer to “kushi mamzers” and throw bananas onto the pitch at soccer players of colour at Beitar Jerusalem matches.
      I use an avatar name here (it‘s a nickname drawn from fiction, associated by few with me and bestowed by a close friend from undergraduate days) because I work in a regulated occupation and my real name (shared, as far as I can ascertain, by no-one else on the planet as I am the “last of the line”) is searched for on-line for professional reasons. I’m a fairly frequent commenter here and it might prove difficult if on-line searches threw up a welter of comments which some could seize upon as being “anti-Semitic” and use as the basis for malicious complaints concerning my ethical “fitness and propriety” with my sector regulator. This could cause me to become embroiled in a lengthy, costly investigation over “fire-less smoke” and quite possibly involve economic hardship as it’s feasible that, pending the outcome of any such investigation, I might have to suspend the regulated work on which I depend to live. For the same reason, I use a personal e-mail ID for e. g. Mondoweiss subscriptions rather than my corporate or my “private business” account.
      This said, I’m sure a cyber-savvy nine-year-old who took the trouble to do so could readily identify me, if they were sufficiently motivated.

  6. Spring Renouncer
    Spring Renouncer on February 21, 2019, 3:38 pm

    Wow… I always looked up to Jane Fonda for her work on Vietnam. It’s dismaying that she visited the IDF as they pillaged Lebanon. The worst part is that even in the 80s she should have known better. At the 1978 Oscars Vanessa Redgrave won the Best Supporting Actress award for the film Julia, where she acted besides Jane Fonda. As she accepted the award Zionists from JDL rioted outside, protesting her advocacy for Palestinians. During her speech she referred to these rioters as “Zionist thugs” and Fonda was in the audience.

    The fact that someone who worked so closely with Fonda had such strong views on Palestine, that this colleague even made a documentary about the issue, which Fonda possibly watched, suggests that she had access to enlightened opinions on Israel/Palestine. Her visit to the IDF must be viewed in this context. She must have known full well what she was doing, and might have gone anyway to improve her image in some quarters.

  7. Jejasalo
    Jejasalo on February 21, 2019, 4:17 pm

    Helena

    I think your article is correct on the surface but is mistaken in some ways that go more deeply back into Israel’s history. If you look at Labour’s history toward the Palestinians -even going back to the Haganah- it leaves a lot to be desired. Its mainstream policies toward the Palestinians were brutal – though admittedly easier to cover up with “moral” arguments. Ben-Gurion, gen. Dayan, Meir, Peres, Rabin, Barak, and other Israelis said and carried out actions equal to many that the Likkud & other parties are doing today. The main difference is that the latter are more honest. That is not to say there weren’t others trying to work more constructively.

    As for Palestinian nationalism it was dealt a blow after ‘67 when Israel destroyed the core of Arab nationalism by defeating Nasser. It still existed but was later influenced by Arab “socialism” including the Ba’athists of Syria and Iraq, & the Muslim Brotherhood. Still, Palestinian nationalism continues to exist…but is limping along in some pain. Israel has done more to destroy the Palestinian National Movement than one would have thought possible.

    Now, with the geographical separation of Gaza and the West Bank – and, in effect, the north from the south West Bank- Palestinian nationalism has been pushed back in time by a number of decades. This is a shame, but is at least as discouraging as the huge rifts between the PA and Hamas -a long story in itself, which I’m sure you know.

    None of what I write is meant in any way but as positive and constructive debate. I hope that comes through.

    • smithgp
      smithgp on February 23, 2019, 5:14 pm

      We do no favors to the cause of justice in Palestine by waving the banner of Palestinian nationalism–at least as the term “nationalism” has come to be understood. Nationalism is the ideology of Zionists. It is the belief not only that a “people” (the Jewish people in the case of Zionism) belong to their homeland, but also that their homeland belongs exclusively to them. If the resistance to Zionism is its obverse–that Palestinians not only belong to their homeland but also that their homeland belongs exclusively to them–it is a defection from what justice requires, and it is a losing cause. A defection from the requirements of justice because now, generations after the Nakba, Palestine is now the homeland of Israeli Jews as well as Palestinians. People don’t lose their fundamental individual rights because of the crimes of their forebears or their own deplorable choice of governments. A losing cause because Zionists have a near monopoly on the use of physical coercion, which is the battleground of clashing nationalisms. It is on the battleground of moral suasion that resistance to Zionism is the superior force. Justice, not nationalism, is the ideology of the Palestinian BDS call–the only promising resistance to Zionism today.

      • Jejasalo
        Jejasalo on February 23, 2019, 7:26 pm

        I usually just study history. I’m no good at rhetoric.

      • eljay
        eljay on February 23, 2019, 8:17 pm

        || smithgp @ February 23, 2019, 5:14 pm ||

        Assuming I’ve understood you correctly, I agree that the solution to I-P should involve one or two secular and democratic states of and for all people living in or up to n-generations removed from their respective state(s).

        Additionally, I believe that…
        – RoR (or compensation in lieu); and
        – accountability for past and on-going (war) crimes committed,
        …remain necessary parts of the solution.

      • Mooser
        Mooser on February 24, 2019, 5:11 pm

        “People don’t lose their fundamental individual rights because of the crimes of their forebears or their own deplorable choice of governments.”

        Absolutely, and every Jewish person in Israel has a fundamental right to leave if they consider Jewish sovereignty to be of fundamental importance, and don’t wish to live without it.
        Once conditions start to change, or it looks like the jig is up, Israelis have a fundamental right to leave, and the GOI has no right to imprison them there, or force them to fight for the Zionist regime. They are not hostages.

      • amigo
        amigo on February 24, 2019, 6:23 pm

        “Once conditions start to change, or it looks like the jig is up, Israelis have a fundamental right to leave,and the GOI has no right to imprison them there, or force them to fight for the Zionist regime.”Mooser

        They could join with all those other “Israelis” and fight the Zionist Regime.

        Unless those other “Israelis” have already left voluntarily and ain,t coming back

        “As a result of the annexation and the continuing state of war, the Arab refugees who had fled the Israeli slivers did not return.”David Horowitz

        http://www.fightthebias.com/Resources/Rec_Read/mid_east_conflict.htm

        In which case , Jon S is going to have to don an IDF uniform for the first time to defend his Historic Homeland (against who ??), or face time in an Israeli prison as a self hating Jew and a traitor.

        Btw , anyone heard from Jon S lately.Maybe he finally feels guilty about squatting on someone else,s land and decided to make reverse ali oops to his other homeland while the going is still possible.

  8. Steve Macklevore
    Steve Macklevore on February 22, 2019, 2:17 pm

    “Back then, in 1982, that was a position that perhaps could still be justified?”

    No, although I’m ashamed to say it took the Sabra and Shatila massacres to tear off my stupid blinkers.

  9. Helena Cobban
    Helena Cobban on February 23, 2019, 7:24 pm

    Just to note two things quickly.Firstly, what I was saying about Israel’s “socialist” past etc, I was intending at that point to be characterizing the way that many US “progressives” were thinking at that point, not my own thinking.

    And secondly, I actually addressed that point and others raised by my essay here in this podcast, which I released on Friday. Check it out!

    The piece here on Mondo on Wednesday, and the friday podcast, are part of our new “Story/Backstory” project from Just World Educational, which you can read about here.

  10. Blake
    Blake on February 24, 2019, 2:12 pm

    Humanity has certainly failed the Palestinians.

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