NOTE: What follows is an expanded version of a piece Middle East Eye published earlier this week. It’s also been updated to reflect news developments which happened after it was published by MEE, towards the end of the Conference. I also did an hour interview on Ray Hanania’s Middle East podcast this week. We’re old hands at this, and have known each other for many years as comrades in arms. So we had a lot of fun doing it. Ray is a Palestinian-American journalist from Chicago.
I want to renew my appeal for you to follow both my main Twitter account @richards1052, which is currently in ‘Twitter Jail‘ for another 24 hours, and my alternate “free speech” account @richards105, which is active when the trolls succeed in getting the account locked.
America’s leading Israel advocacy group, Aipac, opened its national policy conference this week and there is trouble in Paradise. While the event promises to bring nearly 18,000 attendees to bask in pro-Israel rhetoric and intensive Congressional lobbying, there are cracks in the armor of the Lobby megalith.
For decades, Aipac has marched in lockstep with the ascendant right-wing Likud government. Nevertheless, it managed to maintain a bi-partisan veneer because there were enough powerful Democratic donors to ensure attendance by political grandees at the conference and loyalty to the group’s legislative agenda. But during the Obama presidency, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu banished any vestige of bi-partisanship. He even aired a Florida campaign ad on behalf of Mitt Romney, a phenomenon unheard of in Israeli or U.S. politics.
During Obama’s second term, after the U.S. president embraced a nuclear pact with Iran which Netanyahu fiercely opposed, the Israeli leader inveigled an invitation to address the U.S. Congress. The affair was intended for Netanyahu and the GOP to thumb their noses at Obama. His subsequent address was itself a passionate partisan appeal to the American people to reject the president’s policy toward Iran. Such an outright rejection of a U.S. president by an Israeli leader before the Congress has never happened before.
Despite these sleights, Jewish Democrats and elected officials continued to attend and address the national conference. Many progressive Jews excoriated Democrats for continuing to associate with an organization which had clearly chosen to endorse the views and policies of the GOP.
Blue Wave Swamps the Lobby
Then a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum: in the November elections, a Blue wave swept the Republican majority from of Congress and replaced it with one of the most progressive classes ever elected. Scores of new women entered the House as well, including the first two Muslim-American women, Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. For the first time, these two representatives publicly endorsed the BDS movement and stopping U.S. military aid to Israel.
Then earlier this month, the Lobby and its Democratic allies went on the counter-attack after Omar criticized Aipac and elected officials who took money from the Lobby in return for fealty to its pro-Israel agenda. Later, she also intimated that pro-Israel Jews were more loyal to Israel’s interests than America’s. Powerful Jewish legislators like Jerrold Nadler and Nita Loewy denounced Omar and demanded she apologize. They pressured Speaker Nancy Pelosi to consider a resolution denouncing Omar by name as anti-Semitic.
Though progressives feared the worst, many of the young newly elected House members rebelled against the older generation of leaders and rejected the punishment of Omar. As a result, a substitute resolution was adopted which denounced anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and did not call out Omar.
This was a major defeat for the Lobby, which is used to always getting its way. As a result, it has taken a step back from the limelight and advanced several anti-BDS bills which would implicitly target figures like Tlaib, Omar, and the U.S. pro-Palestine movement. Undoubtedly, the delegates who flock to Washington for the conference will be pressuring their elected officials to advance this legislation to the floor for a vote.
It Was the Best of Times…
In some ways, it should be the best of times for Aipac. It has the most nakedly pro-Israel president in the nation’s history. Trump moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and just this week explicitly called for recognition of Israeli territorial rights to the Golan. This is territory Israel conquered in the 1973 War and annexed in violation of international law. Further, Pres. Trump is openly stumping for Netanyahu’s re-election as these presidential decisions show. The police conference will find the Israeli leader making one of his stem-winding speeches, seeking to burnish his credentials back home as a friend of both the U.S. president and powerful American Jewish leaders.
However, there are a number of factors working against Aipac as the annual conference approaches. Israel is in the midst of an election campaign which is the most racist in the country’s history. Netanyahu single-handedly promoted the merger of violent Jewish supremacist parties, promising them two ministerial posts in his next government. The Knesset elections committee, with Netanyahu’s approval, rejected the participation of a Palestinian party in the elections, while endorsing an avowed Kahanist who’s advocated violence and hate against Palestinians (this decision was recently overturned by the Supreme Court).
Aipac itself played into this deepening embrace of Israeli extremism by inviting, for the first time, an Israeli settler leader to address the conference. This development shows the increasingly rightward tilt amongst the organization’s leadership and rank and file.
It Was the Worst of Times
Into this maelström jumped the progressive Democratic group, Moveon.org with a campaign to @skipaipac. Other national organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace joined in amplifying the message to the Jewish community. As a result, last week almost all current Democratic presidential candidates announced that they would not attend or address the conference. The only aspirants who remained on board were Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker, both closely identified with the pro-Israel community. Joe Biden, the most prominent non-candidate also remained silent. Given his decades long romance with the Lobby, it would be difficult for him to stay away.
This rejection of the Lobby by the leading Democratic presidential hopefuls is unprecedented. It is the first major slap in the face suffered by Aipac at the hands of the Party faithful. Many of the Lobby’s critics watch carefully to measure any weakness in the vaunted power of the Lobby in U.S. politics. While a defeat here or there has offered hope that the vise-like grip of groups like Aipac might be weakening, these were but small cracks in the dam.
But to have most of the Democratic presidential field abandon Aipac, and by extension the power of pro-Israel donors who normally would have rubbed shoulders with them this week, is extraordinary. The Lobby is simply never dissed in such an overt fashion.
Another unexpected development has roiled the proceedings. A rocket from Gaza landed on a home near Kfar Saba, north of Tel Aviv. This is the first time such a weapon launched from Gaza has reached that far north into Israel’s heartland, destroying the home and injuring seven people, including two infants. It is a major escalation in the Palestinian military effort to threaten Israel’s major population centers.
In response, Netanyahu has announced that he will cut short his U.S. visit. He cancelled his live Aipac speech scheduled for Tuesday and instead delivered it via video from Israel. But he will meet with Pres. Trump at the White House. For an Israeli politician in a tight election race, such a photo opportunity is of incalculable value.
Also, this is precisely the sort of gambit Netanyahu pounces upon. Whoever fired that rocket may’ve brought Netanyahu an election victory. Israel will certainly retaliate fiercely. And such military chest-thumping makes the hearts of Israeli voters go pit-a-pat.
After Jewish Extremists Assault Palestinian at Aipac Conference, Department of Justice Gives Them Slap on Wrist
In a related matter, during the 2015 Aipac conference Jewish Voice for Peace organized protests against the event and its participants. Jewish Defense League members came to counter-protest. Many of the JDL supporters came from Canada, which has a large radical extremist cadre in the Toronto area. Three of the JDL activists got into a heated exchange with a Palestinian-American information technology manager, Kamal Nayfeh, who happened to be visiting his daughter in the nation’s capital that weekend. They beat Nayfeh with sticks and punched and kicked him. He suffered a concussion and required stitches to mend gashes over his eye.
The attackers were only apprehended when Palestine supporters ran after them as they attempted to flee. Police stepped in and arrested them. The U.S. attorney brought assault and hate crime charges against them. Last December, in a story reported here exclusively by Middle East Eye, the Department of Justice reduced the charges to a suspended sentence with three years of unsupervised probation for Yosef Shteynovitz. The hate crime charge was abandoned. A second Canadian suspect, Brandon Vaughan has refused to attend hearings and been declared a fugitive. The U.S. attorney’s office told me that there have been no attempts to extradite Vaughan. He appears to have escaped the clutches of U.S. justice, with the connivance of justice itself. Clearly, the DOJ under Trump is in no mood to pursue the Jewish equivalent of the Charlottesville white supremacists.