Beto O’Rourke: progressive except for Palestine

Beto O’Rourke meets with AIPAC representatives in 2017. (via Facebook)

Beto O’Rourke has become Texas’ progressive golden boy in his fight to oust Senator Ted Cruz in the upcoming midterm elections. But when supporters of Palestine asked O’Rourke – a Democratic member of Congress – about his stance on the issue, he sent a response that could just have easily been issued by a Republican.

The email from O’Rourke’s campaign described him as “a proud advocate of Israel.”

“[O’Rourke] believes that Israel is critically important to the United States, because it is the home of the Jewish people, because it is an exemplary democracy that shares our values, and because it is a crucial contributor to our national security measures in the region,” his campaign stated in the email.

O’Rourke met the Israel lobby giant AIPAC in 2017, according to a photo posted on Facebook. The AIPAC representative he met, Stuart Schwartz, was the very man who accused O’Rourke of siding with “the rocket launchers and terror-tunnel builders” a few years earlier.

Schwartz made the allegation after O’Rourke was one of only eight Congress members to oppose rushing a bill authorizing extra military aid to Israel during a major assault on Gaza in 2014.

Ted Cruz has blasted O’Rourke for accepting some $172,000 from the liberal Zionist group J Street. The Democratic candidate, as Cruz pointed out, has promised he will not take money from political action committees.

J Street insists that candidates it backs support a “two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Cruz lambasted the group, which opposes the right of Palestinian refugees to return home, as “anti-Israel,” apparently on account of its support for a Palestinian state.

Israel’s “number one partner”

Although Texas is thousands of miles away from Palestine, pro-Israel support in the state manifests itself legislatively.

Dima Khalidi, director of the civil liberties organization Palestine Legal, said “we’ve seen some of the most egregious enforcements of these laws in Texas,” referring to recent bills that have come out of the state.

In 2017, the Texas legislature passed House Bill 89 which prohibits state agencies in Texas from having business ties to companies that boycott Israel.

There have already been cases of contract workers and freelancers not getting paid for their work because of their support for Palestine and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

After the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, reports detailed that Dickinson, Texas, residents were being required to confirm that they do not boycott Israel in order to be eligible for relief.

According to Texas Governor Greg Abbott, the state is “Israel’s number one trading partner in the United States.”

Texas is a central battleground in fights over school textbooks with longstanding concerns regarding how it teaches about the Civil War and slavery. A part of the curriculum even requires students to explain how “Arab rejection of the state of Israel has led to ongoing conflict” in the Middle East, according to a report from The Dallas Morning News.

And fervent support of Israel from an aspiring senator does not only shape Texas politics. A bill pending in Congress would criminalize Americans who support BDS – the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in support of Palestinian rights.

“[O’Rourke] could have a direct effect on that law if he wins,” said Dima Khalidi of Palestine Legal. “Senators have a great deal of influence over our foreign policy and this type of support for Israel is in line with Trump’s agenda – anti-free speech, anti-immigrant and anti-human rights.”

According to O’Rourke’s email, “he opposes efforts, economically and diplomatically, to boycott or delegitimize Israel.” That indicates he is opposed to free speech for supporters of Palestinian rights.

“Disappointment after disappointment”

Palestinian groups and organizers in Texas are not standing by idly. Texans for Palestine recently launched a petition condemning O’Rourke for his support of Israel’s rights abuses and urging him to meet groups supporting justice for Palestinians.

“Beto, your progressive supporters expect better of you; your positions on Palestine/Israel need to be consistent with the values you profess,” the petition states.

Asad Shalami, an organizer with the Dallas Palestine Coalition, is one of several activists who have been confronting O’Rourke at town hall meetings and other events since his campaign began. O’Rourke is often seen in the North Texas area so Shalami said he makes it a point to show up and ask a question or confront O’Rourke on his stance.

“One time, he asked his assistant to get my information and he promised he would look into it, make a decision and get back to me … and after that, I never heard from his office,” said Shalami. He was referring to a moment when he asked O’Rourke why he didn’t sign onto a resolution that would prohibit US money from being used to jail and torture Palestinian children. “It was just disappointment after disappointment after that.”

O’Rourke isn’t the only politician in recent memory touted for their “progressive” politics only to leave Palestine behind.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez condemned an Israeli massacre of Palestinian civilians in Gaza earlier this year, but after her dramatic win in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th congressional district she backed away, asserting her belief in Israel’s right to exist – apparently as an apartheid state – and her support for a two-state solution.

Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator, also made waves when he ran for president. He promised a non-hawkish approach to foreign policy and argued that Palestinians must be treated with “respect and dignity.”

But Sanders has subsequently denounced the BDS movement and signed on to a letter condemning the “continued targeting of Israel by the UN Human Rights Council.”

In 2015, O’Rourke was part of a six-day Congressional junket to Israel and the occupied West Bank which met Israeli and Palestinian leaders, according to The El Paso Times. This was after he voted against US funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile interceptor in 2014.

Shalami said he’s not sure if O’Rourke will go back to being as critical of Israel as he seemed to be in 2014, but he said he still might vote for him anyways. These days, Shalami said, he is mostly a one-issue voter – that issue being Palestine – but he said he can’t ignore other promises O’Rourke has made like improving healthcare and ending wars abroad.

“I was quite excited [about O’Rourke] in the beginning, but this whole thing has really turned me off, so I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “If I have to choose between him and Cruz he’d be the obvious choice, but I don’t believe we should blindly follow any politician just because they aren’t a Republican.”

Nashwa Bawab is a Palestinian-American journalist based in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.