By Ali Abunimah
July 18, 2018
I spoke to The Real News about two politicians who in their times have generated excitement over their views on Palestine – Barack Obama a decade ago, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez today.
Obama’s views became topical after a frankly ridiculous recent article in The New Yorker claiming that senior members of the Obama administration, including the president himself, had in 2015 been “shocked” by State Department maps showing the extent of Israeli colonization of the occupied West Bank.
The maps supposedly awoke them – in the seventh year of the president’s administration – to how Israel’s unchecked settlement construction was destroying the possibility of their cherished “two-state solution.”
“Alarmed by Israeli actions depicted in the maps, Obama decided to abstain on a UN Security Council resolution condemning the settlements, clearing the way for its passage,” reporter Adam Entous writes.
I told Aaron Maté of The Real News that the notion Obama and his top officials were not already deeply aware of everything Israel was doing .
I recalled how Obama had spent enough time with Palestinian Americans – including several meetings I attended – before he rose to national prominence, to know exactly what was up.
I wrote that history in a 2007 article sounding the alarm about the future president: “How Barack Obama learned to love Israel.”
Obama was assiduously seeking the support of the Israel lobby and I explained how his “gradual shift into the AIPAC camp had begun as early as 2002 as he planned his move from small-time Illinois politics to the national scene.”
Recall, President Obama’s first Middle East envoy was former senator George Mitchell.
In 2001, Mitchell headed a commission to report on the reasons for the outbreak of the second intifada. A primary focus of that report was the impact of settlements which, the Mitchell committee noted, violate international law.
Whitewashing Obama’s complicity
Even more absurd, The New Yorker’s Entous calls Obama’s decision to allow the passage of the December 2016 UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements a “final act of defiance against Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.”
This whitewashes Obama’s willful complicity. The Obama administration did not even have the courage to vote in favor of the resolution – it simply abstained. But that’s the least of it.
Obama started off by refusing to condemn Israel’s three-week attack on Gaza in the days before he took office in January 2009.
During eight years Obama effectively did nothing about settlements and actively aided, abetted and rewarded all of Israel’s crimes: during Israel’s attack on Gaza four years ago this summer, his administration resupplied Israel with weapons while its army was slaughtering an average of 11 children per day.
And months before he left office, Obama handed Israel the biggest military aid package in history – $38 billion over the next decade. So much for showing “defiance.”
Like Obama once did, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has caused waves of excitement among progressives since she defeated a Democratic Party heavyweight in the primary for a New York City congressional seat last month.
Ocasio-Cortez pulled off this feat while engaging in forthright criticism of Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians during the Great March of Return protests in the Gaza Strip.
She had tweeted that the killings were a “massacre.”
After her victory, I wrote that the win by Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, “blows a hole in the conventional wisdom that you can’t run for Congress and support Palestinian rights.”
In recent days, however, Ocasio-Cortez has generated much criticism and dismay over comments in an interview with the Firing Line on PBS in which she at best stumbles, and at worst, appears to back away from her support for Palestinian rights ).
Interviewer Margaret Hoover calls the “massacre” tweet “controversial” and asks Ocasio-Cortez, “What is your position on Israel?”
Ocasio-Cortez responds defensively: “Well, I believe absolutely in Israel’s right to exist. I am a proponent of the two-state solution.”
“I also think that what people are starting to see in the occupation of Palestine is just an increasing crisis of humanitarian conditions and that to me is just where I tend to come from on this issue,” Ocasio-Cortez adds, before admitting that she is “not the expert on geopolitics on this issue.”
In a tweet directed at Ocasio-Cortez, Palestinian American activist Lamis Deek wrote: “If this were the 1980s and you ran on the same platform, you’d not answer a question regarding South Africa by affirming the Afrikaner government’s ‘right to exist.’”
“Why affirm the ‘rights’ of world’s last actively colonial apartheid entity?” Deek added. “You don’t need Zionists (or any racists) to win.”
Writing in Jacobin, academic and author Corey Robin calls Ocasio-Cortez’s fumbled interview “a bad moment for the Left but it was also a lost opportunity: to speak to people who are not leftists about a major issue in a way that sounds credible, moral and politically wise.”
Mondoweiss writer Philip Weiss notes that since her primary victory, Ocasio-Cortez has received “a lot of pushback from the establishment,” especially for her criticisms of Israel.
“Ocasio-Cortez is just 28 and it shows,” Weiss writes. “Give her a couple years and I am sure she will show more firmness and strength on these answers.”
That is an optimistic view.
As Ocasio-Cortez faces even more establishment pressure to conform, she could retreat even further into bland talking points and lip service to a moribund “two-state solution” that would at best consign Palestinians to permanent apartheid and inferior status.
Pressure to disavow BDS
One lesson Ocasio-Cortez needs to learn quickly is that attempting to appease the Israel lobby is futile. The pressure on her is not going to let up unless she totally surrenders to the most extreme pro-Israel positions.
Already she is facing specific demands to disavow the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement – an issue she remained silent about during the primary campaign.
These calls will only get louder until she submits, or fights back with a political army behind her.
During the primary campaign, Ocasio-Cortez reaffirmed her criticisms of Israel in an interview with The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, who became an enthusiastic supporter.
In the wake of her PBS interview, Greenwald reacted to the unease and criticism Ocasio-Cortez is now facing.
“One of the first things that excited me about [Ocasio-Cortez] was when she called Israeli murder of Gazan protesters a ‘massacre’ and urged Democrats to no longer be silent,” Greenwald tweeted. “But when I interviewed her, I saw her knowledge of the various complex Israel/Palestine issues was rudimentary.”
Greenwald said he finds Ocasio-Cortez “an incredibly exciting new political force.”
“But she’s now a politician, so I won’t shill for her,” he added. “Keep the pressure up. I’m sure she’d agree. But also be a little generous in giving her time to learn.”
Criticize and mobilize
My own view – expressed in the discussion on The Real News – is that what made it possible for Ocasio-Cortez to win while strongly condemning Israel’s killings of Palestinians were not her personal virtues.
And what has enabled her political mentor Bernie Sanders to become increasingly vocal about Palestinian rights – despite his previous staunch support for Israel as it perpetrated massacres in Gaza – is not his political courage or some sudden moral awakening.
These politicians are reacting to demands for clarity and support for Palestinian rights from the grassroots, demands that people on the margins have been pushing for years.
In the PBS interview, Ocasio-Cortez acknowledged that even if “Middle Eastern politics is not exactly at my kitchen table every night,” it is nonetheless “an intensely important issue for people in my district, for Americans across the country.”
Thanks to this grassroots work, support for full Palestinian rights and for the BDS movement that aims to fulfill them has become mainstream in progressive movements.
Candidates like Ocasio-Cortez no longer need to pander to the talking points of AIPAC, or of AIPAC-lite groups like J Street which rebrand anti-Palestinian racism as support for “peace.”
They no longer need to defensively appease out of touch Democratic Party elites. As Ocasio-Cortez showed, you can win without them.
The lesson I tried to get across from my experience with Obama more than a decade ago is to never rely on the word of a politician, no matter how charismatic, or excited they make you.
Criticize and hold them accountable – even if people aren’t ready to hear it.
But recognize too that criticism is not enough. It’s the education and mobilizing work over the long term that makes a difference.
When it comes to Palestine, that work is successfully changing the political landscape and it has to go on.
Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada