Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez must not cower before Israel lobby

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 is insulting to our intelligence.

You can watch the video above.

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.”

Backing down?

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.”

She also opposed the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem.

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 (read the transcript).

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.

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So if she was speaking as an activist when she said that is she going to be giving that up for politics? If massacre was too strong a word I must need a new thesaurus.

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As you climb the ladder, you find yourself welcomed by a new set of friends. It looks as if Ocasio-Cortez is learning the lesson in quick-time. And frankly, it's hard to believe that someone as politically committed as this has not acquired a more than rudimentary knowledge of the Israel-Palestine issue, one so central to American foreign policy and domestic constituency concerns. But then, you don't need a comprehensive knowledge of baking to grasp which side of the slice has the butter.

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If we want to have a Member of Congress who will condemn a massacre by Israel as a massacre, someone who could introduce legislation that can become fulcrums for organizing we will probably have to accept that said MC is going to talk two state and Israel's "right to exist." Or she can join folk like me on twitter a tweeting pure gospel.

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Even more absurd? To call abstaining in the Security Council resolution, condemning Israeli settlements, a “final act of defiance against Benjamin Netanyahu”. Absurd, after exhausting his Secretary of State and much needed political capital, for almost a full term, trying to force the UN mandated two-state solution onto an Israel used to forcing Middle East policy onto US. Our Congress wined and dined Netanyahu, hung on his every word as he addressed both sides of the aisle and were barely critical of him as he openly stumped for the sitting President’s rival, no Russian trolls needed.
“Whitewashes Obama’s willful complicity”? In “slaughtering an average of 11 children per day”? That’s what you’ve said and I have to agree, God help him, he should have put everything else aside and stopped that slaughter. It’s fair to assume though, that he wanted to stop it but was advised he couldn’t anyway and he would be gifting the GOP Congress just as Netanyahu knew he would be when he timed the assault for just before US mid-terms, as he looks poised to do again.
“Resupplied Israel with weapons”? Yes, they were resupplied but as I recall, they resupplied themselves out of a Pentagon cache which was routinely available to the IDF and was probably something Obama was not even aware of and for which he was furious and closed the cache. Its true condemnation of the invasion was muted but right after a phone conversation with Obama Netanyahu told reporters "No international pressure will prevent us from acting with all power”. As for the $38 billion aid package; I’ll say it again.
Israel’s military is ranked right behind the major NATO nations, China, Russia and the US. It’s an order of magnitude more powerful than all of its neighbors combined.

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Perhaps it was ill-advised optically but realistically it was a tactical political maneuver intended to help Obama’s spokespersons and Congressional allies outflank a massive assault portraying Obama as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, just when he was trying to be of some value to Hillary’s ill-fated run. It could be seen as a necessary investment, unfortunately.
If there is no willingness to contextualize a US President’s foreign policy initiatives, then cut to the chase and just proceed to burn his effigy in the streets. That is after all the only place, along with the polls, where those initiatives ultimately can be affected, I hoped however, that reason there would prevail and so contribute to a growth in numbers.
But go ahead; keep them small, angry and disconnected. Personally, I think Ali Abunimah is an impassioned and persuasive journalist, writer and fighter for Palestine. I just wish he could discern better between real enemies and potential allies, like this fine young excuse for Obama bashing.

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What you seem to be saying is that President Obama's decision to supply Israel with $38 billion in new weapons with which to attack its neighbours and crush defenseless Palestinians was a reasonable calculation so as to enhance the electoral prospects of a candidate (Clinton) and a party (Democratic) themselves publicly dedicated to the Zionist cause. It may be important to American Democrats that their party prevail in national elections, but there's no compelling reason why Palestinians or their supporters should be expected to prefer one set of pro-Israel stooges over another. President Obama's strategy for defeating his internal rivals on this issue simply amounted to offering unstinting diplomatic, economic and military backing to Israel. I don't see why he shouldn't be called out for this policy. His desire to get elected, as well as the electoral fortunes of his party, are strictly his own concern. They are of no interest to people languishing in Israeli prisons, ghettos, internment camps, refugee centres or points of dispersal throughout the Middle East and beyond.

And the claim that the President tried to force a two-state solution on Israel is not borne out by his actions, which as I repeat, consisted of real, tangible, material aid of every kind to the Jewish State. The United States at any moment of its choosing could open Gaza and compel the unilateral dismantling of Israel's colonies in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Eisenhower expelled the IDF from Egypt with a single command. Any U.S. President who wishes to do so can actively intervene to rescue the Palestinians, and he doesn't need Congressional approval. Barack Obama supported Israel because he owed his political career to powerful Zionist supporters in Chicago and throughout the nation. And he proved to be a very dependable investment.

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Thank you Tom, I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to respond to my comment and I’m fairly acquainted with the view you’re outlining. I’m afraid though that I have fundamental problems with your reasoning.
You’re not alone with the idea that Palestinians et Al. have no compelling reason to prefer one US party over the other but I think it fair to say that view is relegated to the more radical strata. Most would see a very significant divergence from “Peace Process” pursuit and tacit support for condemnation of Israeli actions, on the basis of international law, from Republican Middle East foreign policy. In fact, given enough relative peacetime, here in the US, we’ve seen some progress there. But, you’re right, not enough and I suppose that entitles you to call them all stooges. Still, I say you and any Palestinian who doesn’t discern a critical difference between a Dem US Pres and a Republican one, especially in its present configuration, is making the same mistake American voters make when they commit to Ralph or Jill or Bernie, do or die.
I think it’s an easy mistake to make for those in social strata that suffers not the consequences of that critical difference, whether it’s a privileged Vermonter or a Hamas official. Anyways, color me a stooge; I make it my business to understand to the best of my abilities, what is the electability of any given Dem candidate. I see it as MY CONCERN and I’m not sure what yours is beyond an absolutist’s view of what every President since DDE should have done and didn’t do. And on that note, isn’t it beneath you to compare the post-WWII Israeli-US relationship with what we have today? I’d be happy to get into that, if need be, including a discussion about how the US left begs authoritarian rule as surely as the loyalist right wingers.

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So Ocasio-Cortez has not spend any thinking on the Israel & Palestine issue and it's backgrounds or history so far, but still stongly concludes that "I am a proponent of the two-state solution." This sounds like someone has concluded that for her, and whispered it in her ear, instead of being genuine political conclusion.

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On the issue of aid; the point I so clumsily tried to make is, what matter $38 billion more? Do you really think it makes the slightest difference in the way “defenseless Palestinians” are dealt with? What difference, if a few extra calories are buttered into the batch? It’s the sugar that’s going to kill them. And the idea that an edict from Barack Obama could have actually led to anything other than absolute chaos is, I’m sorry to say, naïve and irrational. The best course of action, for US, is to maneuver Israel into compliance with international law and we have before us another opportunity to do so with the official proclamation of Israel as an apartheid state. I think Obama would have taken that road, Trump is a dead end.

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This is great, because wise and experienced, journalism. Hats off for pointing out that putting even one toe somewhere to appease the Israel lobby puts you on a slippery slope that ends up in a depressing hole in abject support for Israel, because the lobby won't let up.
But unless a political like Ocasio-Cortez has a strong pro-Palestinian position, and knowledge, with which to resist the lobby, they must necessarily get lost in a lot of confused talking-points - e.g. 'I support the two-state solution', which Ocasio-Cortez fell back on.
The only strong ideological position that could support such basically decent, relatively pro-Palestinian politicians is of course the One Democratic State. The reason is that it goes beyond criticism of Israel. It is positive, not negative. It starts with Palestinians' rights - foremost Right of Return and right to absolute equality for all living between the river and the sea - and takes it from there. Even Bernie Sanders, without this solid position with which to answer the question, 'What then is the solution?', must fail.
Corbyn as well, and from personal experience with him I know Ali Abunimah is right to "never rely on the word of a politician." He promised me to my face about 5 years ago to help us get a Right of Return sculpture - a 3-meter-high, metal-and concrete Awda Key - placed somewhere in his district of Islington, central London. After repeated attempts to hold him to his word - No Reply - we gave up. Another empty politician who is fine with bullshitting, fine with saying what the person in front of him wants to hear. Believe me, he will go the way of Obama when it comes to Palestine.
Without One Democratic State as a positive and just vision, support amongst Western politicians is simply impossible.

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