Just World Podcasts Podcast Artwork Image
Just World Podcasts
Story/Backstory, episode 1: The longer arc of U.S.-Palestine relations
February 22, 2019 Helena Cobban

Story/Backstory, episode 1: The longer arc of U.S.-Palestine relations (26:57)

Download the MP3

Date: February 22, 2019

By: Helena Cobban

This is the first episode in our new "Story/Backstory" miniseries, which combines both the reading by JWE president Helena Cobban of her most recent 1,300-word op-ed on U.S. policies in the Middle East, with a slightly longer segment in which she reflects on some of the issues raised by the op-ed. For more details, visit the blog on our website.

Episode Transcript

Helena Cobban:0:01Hi, I'm Helena Cobban, the president of Just World Educational. I'm pleased with this podcast to launch the new mini-series we'll be running here under the general title Story-backstory in some collaboration with the great news website, Mondoweiss. The Story-backstory project will run in the first instance for 13 weeks and we'll look at various aspects of Washington's current policies in the Middle East seeking to understand them in a broader historical perspective. Each week in this project, there'll be an opinion column that I'll write that will be published generally on Mondoweiss on the Wednesday. Then on Friday, I'll follow that up with an expanded audio version that we'll start off with me simply reading the column on air, and then in the second half, I provide yet more backstory or other kinds of rifts on the columns text itself. It's a unique kind of a multimedia experiment, so let's see how it goes.

Helena Cobban:1:06Please note too that all the writing I'll do in these op-ed-type columns and all the pining I do in the expanded audio, will be done in my personal capacity and not in the name of Just World Educational or any other organization. So first, here goes with the text of the first column in this series as published by Mondoweiss on February 20th. The Longer Arc of US-Palestine Relations, Washington DC. February 20th, 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 Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and of several other Democrats inclined to hold Israel to the same standards as all other US aid recipients, is also indicative of a broader trend in US politics.

Helena Cobban:2:26It 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 the shift has been that Israel's majority Jewish citizenry and its political leadership have been lurching right words. For the past 18 years, right-wing governments have kept and strengthen their grip on power in Israel and that has 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. 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.

Helena Cobban:3:35So, 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 Beirut, but had criss-crossed all of Lebanon to cover its brutal civil war and I had also reported for 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.

Helena Cobban:4:42Bad 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, raiding my flat-fire down on the city, they got a morale boosting visit from none other than Jane Fonder, icon of the American left. To be honest, throughout the 10 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 Fonder, really? How could she and so many other progressive's 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 Progressive Except for Palestine (PEPs). Back then in 1982 that was a position that perhaps could still be justified.

Helena Cobban:5:54Many 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 Labor Party had been continuously in power in Israel from the state's founding in 1948 until 1977. And the fact that the right wing Likud party won the 1977 election was still seen as just a blip on the broader Israeli political scene. 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, 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.

Helena Cobban:7:03So then, 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 grave 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 take a small stand for peace. Israel has changed a lot. I can discuss another time the role that Washington's unwavering support for Israel's militaristic, colonialist policies has played in enabling the country's lurch to the right, but the lurch is clear. Back in 1992, the pro-peace Merits 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 Merits may not even win any.

Helena Cobban:8:12The biggest contests in Israeli politics today are those between the various parties on the right and the ultra-right. One effect of Israel's lurch 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 a 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 Suddam or Iran or back in the day, the Soviet Union, whatever Washington's presumed enemy of the month might be. It's not surprising that these kinds of argument have more appeal to gun-holding right wing politicians and leaders of the military industrial complex here in the United States than they do to the average middle of the road Democratic Party politician.

Helena Cobban:9:20That'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 faced from representatives 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 senator 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.

Helena Cobban:10:28The 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, right? That was the written text. So now here come the riffs. First, just as an observation, building on a recent conversation I had with my much esteemed friend and Just World Ed board colleague Richard Falk, we were commenting on the fact that as the grassroots movement in the United States in support of Palestinian rights grows stronger, so too does the ideological fight in this country and especially inside the Democratic Party about the whole issue of Palestinian rights. That is, in my view, the core question of wether Palestinians have the right to have rights at all. That conversation with Richard, which we broadcast in an earlier episode of Just World podcasts really brought to my mind the saying wrongly attributed to Gandhi, but it's still a good saying, namely that first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win. So it's really true that right now, we're in the third of those four stages. That doesn't mean it'll be easy or indeed inevitable to get to stage four, but at least we head to stage three. The ideological battle over whether Palestinians have the right to have rights, and if so, how those rights might be guaranteed has been joined.

Helena Cobban:12:38So now here are a few other reflections on the text of my main column. The first one unpacks the mix of motivations behind the opposition that some US Republicans used to sustain to the blandishments of the pro-Israel lobby. A second riff digs a little deeper into one source of the attraction that Israel and the Zionist project long had for mainstream Democrats. And a third one starts to look at how official Washington's extremely permissive policy toward Israel's numerous violations of international law has itself been a significant factor. It has not only enabled those violations to continue, but has also helped push the Jewish Israeli public ever further toward the militaristic right-wing. So first, the question of past Republican opposition to the blandishments of the pro-Israel lobby. In the column. I said only that that Republican opposition had stemmed from a complex mix of reasons.

Helena Cobban:13:44I want to expand on that a little here based on direct observations I've made since I started to live and work here in the United States back in 1982. Some of the Republican resistance to the pro-Israeli arguments almost certainly stemmed from plain old 1950s country-clubs-style antisemitism, and then some of it seemed driven by the fact that so many leaders in the Republican Party were hand in glove with the big corporations of the military industrial complex, including the oil companies. All those corporations have long done lots of extremely profitable business with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab countries, so those corporate leaders and their Republican Party friends and allies would give a ready ear to whatever the kings and potentates of those countries would say about Palestine and Israel, which until recently was fairly strongly at the rhetorical level anyway, quite supportive of the Palestinians. Finally. Another motivation that lasted until the mid-1980s was that there was still several strong figures in the Republican Party who could be described as liberal Republicans or Rockefeller Republicans.

Helena Cobban:15:04These were people who had in many cases been critical of the Vietnam War and had some concern for human rights including the rights of the Palestinians. These figures included several long-serving members of the Senate and the House of Representatives. People like Illinois Senator Charles Percy, who served 1967 through 1985 and was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the last four of those years, or Maryland Senator Charles "Mac" Mathias, who served 1969 through 1987 or Illinois Congressman Paul Finley who served 1961 through 1983. By 1987, all those liberal Republicans and others were out of office. Paul Finley was the one who was most clearly targeted by AIPAC, the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee and the rest of the pro-Israel lobby. He was beaten in the 1982 election by Democrat Dick Durbin, who had been strongly supported by AIPAC and who later went on to become a senator. In 1984, Senator Charles Percy was beaten in his Senate race by the AIPAC-backed Democrat Paul Simon, and in 1985 Senator "Mac" Matthias announced he would not be standing for reelection in 1986. His seat was then won by the strongly pro-AIPAC Senator Barbara Mikulski, who has held it ever since. The story of the sheer-lacking that that small band of liberal-ish Republicans in Congress received at the hands of AIPAC back in the mid-1980s has some continuing relevance today.

Helena Cobban:16:55It has seemed clear for many years now that the Republican Party no longer has any significant remaining wing of relative liberals, but it's been varying ever further and further to the right. It's probably worth remembering the role that AIPAC played in sparking that process some 30 plus years ago. And it goes without saying the Republican Party's steadfast march to the right over the past two decades has brought it ever closer to what has also been happening in Israeli politics. Okay. Now to the next issue, that of the attractiveness that the Zionist idea and Israel for so long had for so many mainstream Democratic Party politicians. In my column, I identified the early Zionists stress on Jewish labor as having been important for many such Dems. But amongst the early Zionist colonizers in Palestine, that concept of Jewish Labor was always, as I did not spell out in the column, a core part of their attempt to assert and maintain their domination over the land. For early Zionists, the concept of Jewish Labor apparently had some kind of a redemptive aspect.

Helena Cobban:18:17Those old Zionist pioneers, they said, were casting off the sheltered bookish life of the old Jewish shtetls in eastern Europe from which most of them had come and they were building a proud new Jewish man in the Jews-only settlements in Palestine. But a core part of the project of Jewish Labor was always a strong and often very coercive campaign to boycott the labor and the agricultural products of the Arab population that was indigenous to the land. So, there's a fine contradiction for you. Many of the people here in the United States or elsewhere who remain vote most vociferous in their opposition to economic boycott actions, fail to tell us that the Israeli state they worship was itself built on a rock solid foundation of highly politicized economic boycotts. Just saying. Okay and now to the question of the effect that Washington's super permissive attitude towards Israel's many violations has had in helping push Israel's politics ever further to the right.

Helena Cobban:19:29As I had noted in the column, from 1948 through 1977, Israeli politics was dominated by the Labor Party. Then in 1977, they could win the government for the first time. Over the 24 years that followed, the premiership rotated a few times between Likud and Labor and there was even a short period of shared rule. But from 2001 on, Likud and other right-wing parties have totally dominated Jewish Israeli politics. The political history of the ethnic Palestinian minority in Israel is a separate topic, but one that is secondary to this current story. How and why that lurch to the right happened is of course a complex issue, but one significant factor in it is the fact that for any Israeli government, a pursuit of right-wing anti Palestinian policies almost never came with any real measure of accountability being exerted by a Washington that since 1967 has been an absolutely crucial lifeline for the survival of the state of Israel.

Helena Cobban:20:44The only significant occasion in the past 50 years in which Washington did take a significant step to rein in Israel's relentless pursuit of territorial aggrandizement and oppression of the indigenous Palestinians came in June, 1990. At the time, Likud's, extremely brutal Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister in Israel. He was refusing to budge on his nasty policies of territorial expansion in the occupied West Bank. While he was still also asking that Washington underwrite the costs of building tens of thousands of new Jews-only housing units with many of these being in the West Bank. George W. Bush's Secretary of State James Baker held firm on the principle that the aid would only be sent if Shamir promised that none of the new housing units would be built in the West Bank. And he bluntly and publicly told Shamir to 'call me back' when he was ready to be more reasonable. In the meantime, Baker said that chunk of financial aid would be on hold.

Helena Cobban:21:59Newsweek described the stance that Bush and Baker held to that year as the sharpest rebuke any US administration had delivered to Israel since the 1956 Suez Crisis. Bush and Baker hung firm. And less than two years later, Israeli voters replaced Shamir with the slightly-less-brutal Labor government of yet Yitshak Rabin who they presumably hoped would be more likely to help them win the desired American aid package. So in that case, you could see significant signs of how a principled US policy helped pull Israeli voters away from the right. A decade later in 2000, we saw how a precisely opposite kind of US policy led to a precisely opposite effect inside Israel. In 2000, Israel had had its last ever Labour Party-led government, one that was headed by the super arrogant former military chief Ehud Barak. Barak did one good thing, which was to finally put an end to the occupation of south Lebanon that Israel had maintained nonstop for 22 years.

Helena Cobban:23:16But regarding the Palestinians, Barak was as bullheaded and arrogant as any earlier Israeli leader. In summer 2000, he insisted that Bill Clinton convene a special summit at Camp David with PLO head Yasser Arafat in order to finally solve the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Arafat was quite realistically concerned that this summit had not been adequately prepared and he was very wary of Barak's intentions, but since he was totally dependent on US aid at that point, he felt that he had to attend. At that 2000 summit, as for many years previously, the American conveners specifically refused to uphold the essential provision of international law that the acquisition of territory by force such as Israel has steadfastly pursued in the West Bank and in Golan is inadmissible. And numerous other key provisions of international law as well, such as that any person has the right to return to the country of her or his birth.

Helena Cobban:24:25Instead, the Americans gave free-reign to Ehud Barak and his team to try to ram through whatever demands they might please against the captive Palestinian populations of the occupied territories. Arafat understandably demurred, insisting on a clear implementation of the provisions of international law and the summit failed. President Clinton crucially laid no blame at all on Barack for the failure of that summit and a second one that he hastily convened later that year, also. Instead, over the years that followed, Clinton heaped increasingly public dollops of blame on Arafat for the failure. But for the Israeli public in 2000, seeing a democratic US president like Bill Clinton give Israel a free pass on its policies of colonization, territorial aggrandizement, and continuing oppression of the Palestinians, meant they'd probably and pretty realistically now felt they would pay no price at all from anyone for continuing to push their leaders even further to the right. Ehud Barack's domestic coalition was anyway collapsing.

Helena Cobban:25:42And in special elections he was forced to call in February, 2001, he lost to that well known old militarist and colony builder, Ariel Sharon, who had expertly sharp-elbowed his way back into the Israeli mainstream from the brief political purgatory he inhabited after the Sabra and Shatila massacres of 1982. Within Israel, those 2001 elections mark the end of old school labor Zionism as wielding any significant political weight at all. So, American policy-makers who choose to give Israel a completely free-pass for whatever outrages it commits have as we know a lot to answer for. But the good news now is that ever broader sections of the US public finally seem to be waking up to many of these facts. Stay tuned for the next episode of Story-backstory in which I'll be exploring another aspect of US policy in the Middle East. It will be released here on Just World Ed podcasts on Friday, March the1st. Thanks for listening and have a great week.

See All Episodes