Israel, BDS and Congresswomen-elect Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib

A week after the 2018 midterm election, Ilhan Omar, the newly elected U.S. Representative congresswoman for Minnesota 5th Congressional district, broke new political ground by expressing support for “the BDS movement.”  Moreover, Congresswoman-elect Ilhan Omar expressed a readiness to oppose efforts that intend to criminalize people who participate in the movement by stating, “I do not want to be part of a vote that limits the ability of people to fight towards that justice and peace.” The newly elected Congresswoman has managed to burst AIPAC’s congressional bubble and will bring a new challenge to Israel’s lobby that is accustomed to a cheerleading legislative process than a meaningful debate on Israel’s never-ending occupation, Apartheid system and expansion of settlements.

In similar courageous fashion, Rashida Tlaib, the U.S. Representative-elect for Michigan’s 13th Congressional district, took on AIPAC most important strategy, the fully funded congressional delegations to Israel and stating: “I do not think AIPAC provides a real, fair lens into this issue. It is one-sided … [They] have these lavish trips to Israel, but they do not show the side that I know is real, which is what’s happening to my grandmother and what’s happening to my family there.”  AIPAC’s funded junket to Israel is a rite of passage for freshman and senior members of Congress and provides an introduction into viewing the region through a distorted Israeli lens.  The readiness for a newly elected Congress member like Rashida and Ilhan to take on AIPAC head-on is indicative of a shift underway in the Democratic Party and by extension the country.

For a long time, Israel and Zionism operated as the third rail of US politics, which was a sure path toward political suicide for any politician unschooled in the power of AIPAC, the Israel lobby.  The readiness of Congresswoman-elect Ilhan Omar and possibly others shortly to take on the BDS, which up to this point was the taboo topic in the halls of power in America, illustrates the coming of age of a national shift that has been underway since the mid-1980s.  Israel’s standing and influence in US political system were untouchable and covered all parties and ideologies, but Ilhan’s embrace of BDS and Rashida’s challenge to AIPAC’s junket have been in the making for some year.

Congresswoman-elect Ilhan Omar is representing the arrival of a wave that will bring a measurable change on the Israel question and how the unconditional US support for the Zionist state is no longer the case.  Shifts in US public opinion can be traced to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s and the impact of images of death and destruction visited upon the Palestinians and Lebanese populations.  Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and entry into the then ongoing Lebanese civil war culminated with Sharon’s overseeing the Sabara and Shatila Massacres.

Critically, Israel’s invasion and intervention in Lebanon were given the green light by the US which subsequently also oversaw the negotiation for the removal of the PLO from the country and provided Americans guarantees for Palestinian civilian safety.  The Sabara and Shatila massacres took place after US’s guarantees for the Palestinian civilians who were left behind by the departing PLO, which for the first time created a visible crack in domestic public support for Israel.  Subsequently, the US deployed its forces in the country to a most disastrous consequences and the first massive terrorist attack on the Marine barracks at the US embassy in Beirut.

The second crack in Israel’s Teflon shield in US politics came as a result of the 1987 Palestinian intifada, which streamed almost non-stop images of Israeli military brutality directed at a defenseless population.  Rabin’s order to break the bones of Palestinian protestors might sound great for the domestic and international Zionist crowed but it had a far-reaching impact at piercing Israel’s invisible and well-manicured public relations image.  Added to the intifada images and should not be underestimated, is the collapse of the Apartheid system in South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s embrace of the Palestinian cause on the international stage.  The fact that Israel kept supporting and supplying arms to the Apartheid system to its dying days, contributed to a severe and unrecoverable shift among the progressive forces that up to this point shied away from taking on Israel and Zionism directly.

The 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords can be examined from many vantage points, and I have done so in previous writings, but one aspect that must be added is that Israel’s arrival at the negotiations table was a direct outcome of the above shift.  Important to remember that the US’s removal of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait was coupled with a commitment to Arab states that a peaceful solution will be pursued immediately after the Desert Storm campaign.  In 1992, the US sponsored the Madrid Conference, which ushered the Palestinians entry into the negotiations room even though it was under a Jordanian delegation, the process burst Israel’s denial of the existence of Palestinians as a people and the existence of the occupation.  The duplicity, foot-dragging and other disruptive strategies put forth by Israel are not to be ignored, but the mega-narrative that impacted public opinion should not be discounted either.

In 1994, Baruch Kopel Goldstein, the American-Israeli physicians, mass murdered 29 and wounded 129 Palestinian Muslim worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Al-Khalil (Hebron) during the month of Ramadan, an act that brought further shift in American public opinion.  A year later and on November 4, 1995, an Israeli right-winger assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which further contributed to public opinion souring on Israel and its rising tide of right-wing politics.  This period witnessed a real shift in public opinion and the emergence among young college age population a more sympathetic attitudes toward the Palestinians and a negative one toward Israel.  Indeed, the collapse of the Oslo agreement and the emergence of Netanyahu on the seen cemented the view that Israel is an aggressor and not committed to an end to its occupation and dispossession of the Palestinians.

The post 9/11 period witnessed Israel’s machinations in the US and Europe and the effort to become the central actor in fighting the “war on terrorism” by providing its “expertise” and islamophobic worldview as a model to follow.  Here, the “war on terrorism” provided Netanyahu and Israeli leadership clear path to bring about the total collapse of the Oslo peace process through the massive build-up of settlements, the push with the US Neo-Conservative movement for the invasion of Iraq to secure Israel, unleashed a most violent episodes of repression of the Palestinians, undertook a disastrous military attack on Lebanon and four different assaults on Gaza.  All of these amounted to cementing Israel’s image as a bully and a state operating outside the norms of international law.  Yes, the BDS movement registered success but don’t underestimate the damage done by successive Israeli leaders that provided fertile grounds for public discourse on Palestine and the rights of the Palestinians.

The fact that US politicians did not do anything so far to reflect the changing attitude has more to do with AIPAC’s power and its effective electoral strategies that up to this point punished anyone that dared to speak outside the Lobby constructed parameters.  If the NRA prevent open discussion and change on policy relative to the gun industry, AIPAC is far more effective than the NRA when it comes to protecting Israel and keeping the $3-4 billion annual US foreign aid allocation flowing uninterrupted.

However, the wind of change and shift are underway, and AIPAC will face the most severe test since Democratic Party grassroots no longer have the same commitment to Israel.  More importantly, the alliance between Netanyahu, Trump and GOP religious rightwing have made Israel and Zionism a partisan issue.  Critically, the success of a new crop of politicians to win elections without depending on AIPAC or big donors creates a level of independence not seen in US politics in quite a long time.  Rashida, Omar, and others created their fundraising path and garnered support from diverse grassroots communities across the country, which has immediately translated into two crucial positions, the BDS front of Ilhan and Rashida opting to challenge AIPAC’s funded junkets to Israel.  The days and months ahead will illustrate the erosion of AIPAC’s and Israel’s standing among the US public.  I do believe that the recent shifts are irreversible. Israel’s brand in the US has run its course and already is beginning to reverse course after reaching the pinnacle.