White House national security advisor Susan Rice’s recent comments on Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu’s speech before Congress, made on the “Charlie Rose Show,” went viral. And with good reason: They are the most succinct representation of a mass of protests from the whole range of the political spectrum and they come from one of the highest-placed officials in the United States government. Here is part of her statement:
The relationship between Israel as a country and the United States as a country has always been bipartisan and we’ve been fortunate that the politics have not been injected into this relationship. What has happened over the last several weeks by virtue of the invitation that was issued by the speaker and the acceptance of it by Prime Minister Netanyahu two weeks in advance of his election is that on both sides there has now been injected a degree of partisanship. Which is not only unfortunate, I think it’s destructive of the fabric of the relationship.
And that “relationship” has precisely to do with how Netanyahu’s appearance before Congress will harm US dealings with Iran. The invitation to Netanyahu – which Speaker John Boehner and Netanyahu seemed to have cooked up to embarrass Obama and create a surge in Netanyahu’s electoral bid in Israel – has turned into a political cluster-bomb, which extends its destruction to our negotiations with Iran, our internal political debates, and as Rice says, certainly US-Israel relations, which have been increasingly strained since the break-down in the Kerry peace efforts.
However, the surging resistance against this political theater might have a salutatory effect – the presumptions under which people in the US have given Israel unqualified support are being rethought by many. Netanyahu’s speech was boycotted by at least 55 members of Congress; support for Israel has started to break down for the first time in US history, and along party lines. This has huge implications for the Presidential and Congressional elections, no doubt, and when discussions of Palestine come up for now and into the future, it is likely that the damage done to Israel’s image in the US, at least for some, will manifest itself in real ways. While certainly the 55 are still a minority, it was a powerful symbolic gesture against the notion that a leader of a foreign country should be invited to come in and use Congress as a stage to bash our sitting President and enhance their own domestic political agenda. And our understanding of what this agenda is should be extended beyond Iran and ISIS.
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If Netanyahu hoped that by focusing on Iran and ISIS he could shift attention away from the ongoing settlement-building and abuses of human rights and international law in Israel-Palestine, calculating that fear of a nuclear holocaust could distract from the Occupation, then he may have miscalculated. The fact is that the disenchantment of many Democrats and others comes at the very same time that votes for boycotts and divestment are increasingly normal, especially on college and university campuses.
What used to be a taboo subject – criticism of Israel – has been broken, and with each vote for boycott or divestment, what was before a taboo, becomes part of our normal political discourse. One cannot over-emphasize that fact. And that is alarming and disturbing to supporters of Israel’s policies. That is to say, Israel had already lost progressive Americans, and now the liberal wing and an entire generation are showing clear signs of doubt.
Given this weakening situation, it is important to note how Israel has responded by intruding upon American political life in another way, besides elbowing its way into the well of Congress.
Early on, in the face of a shift in American sentiment toward Israel-Palestine, especially among the young, Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, called on Congress to ban all academic boycotts of Israel, and the New York state legislature seemed to fall in step, passing a bill to defund any state college or university that had within it any group that supported the academic boycott of Israel.
Netanyahu himself actually criticized the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) 18 times in a March 2014 speech before AIPAC: “Attempts to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, the most threatened democracy on Earth, are simply the latest chapter in the long and dark history of anti-Semitism. Those who wear the BDS label should be treated exactly as we treat any anti-Semite or bigot. They should be exposed and condemned.”
And just last month, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Posor, appeared together to denounce, at the same moment, Iran, BDS and campus divestment efforts. Boteach asserted: “Campuses, universities – these are supposed to be higher bastions of learning, supposed to be ivory towers of academia. . . . And yet we are seeing such an assault on campus, that it’s shocking.” According to the blog Mondoweiss:
The Israeli ambassador responded to Boteach’s alarming message about campuses by attributing the hostility to Israel to youthful politics. He likened the uptick in global criticism of Israel to Chinese water-torture, where every drip of Israel criticism contributes to the larger goal of harming Israel: “I look at it as maybe the biggest challenge Israel has today, which means that each and every one of the students is on the front line defending Israel,” he said.
Alarm over the increased and regular success of BDS caused StandWithUs to mount a huge anti-BDS event in Los Angeles this month. It will certainly raise a lot of money (VIP tickets go for $800; students are asked to shell out $100).
In fighting boycott and divestment efforts, outside groups, with money and international political connections, are not only trying to influence national and state governments, they are also putting pressure on the most vulnerable protesters, young students at universities. For example, during the debate over divestment at Northwestern, “Outside groups, including the Israeli consulate, are involved. In one e-mail, Michael Simon, the executive director of Northwestern’s Hillel, writes: ‘I want to express how grateful I am to the fantastic student leaders of the NU Coalition for Peace, to the Hillel staff, and to our wonderful community partners (including Emily Briskman at the Israel Education Center, Assaf Grumberg at Stand With Us, Stacy Rudd and Consul General Roey Gilad at the Israeli Consulate, and many others) for coming together to support our efforts to combat NU Divest’s anti-Israel activity.'” And what happened at Northwestern is hardly unique, as students at Stanford report.
There is nothing new or surprising or necessarily illegal about foreign governments trying to buy influence – their politicians and lobbyists are here to represent their government’s interests. But when it has to do with opportunistic manipulations of domestic politics, and threats and intimidation of those in the US who dare to protest a foreign government’s actions in legal and protected manners on university campuses, this is something to be worried about, and called out.
Given what has just occurred, in the defection of some liberals from the ranks of absolute and unconditional supporters of Israel and the growing success of efforts to boycott and divest, we can expect to see increased pressure from the Israeli government on progressive politics in the United States. Yet events like the one held in March in Los Angeles strike one as a bit belated. One should not expect any new arguments against BDS; one can expect incitement to disrupt anti-Israel actions.
Still, two things have set off a wave of anti-Zionist action that will be impossible to tamp down: first, Netanyahu’s laying bare of the arrogance of this Israeli government, its total disregard and even disdain for the US; and second, increasing clarity of the moral and ethical legitimacy of the Palestinian cause.