“We won’t form a government with the Arab parties.” These were the words of the centrist Yair Lapid who, along with Benny Gantz, is the lead challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming Israeli election on April 9, 2019. This is what is billed as the alternative to the even more racist and hardline leadership of Netanyahu, who made headlines this week by rebuffing an Israeli celebrity’s protest against racism by insisting that “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish People – and them alone.” None of this new for Netanyahu, who warned his base in the 2015 election that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.” This is a standard level of racism in contemporary Israeli political discourse, so it only elicits passing commentary.
There are, however, occasions when the line is crossed, even by these skewed standards, as was the case with Netanyahu’s encouragement of Otzma Yehudit (the “Jewish Power” party) to join forces with his rightwing coalition. Otzma Yehudit is the modern incarnation of Kach, the party formed by notorious Rabbi Meir Kahane that was banned from the Israeli Knesset for its endorsement of ethnic cleansing and racist violence against Palestinians. Kahane’s most infamous follower was Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinian worshipers in Hebron and wounded more than a hundred others back in 1994. But here we are, 25 years after that massacre, and Israel’s prime minister is welcoming them back into the fold. The move was so grotesque that even the most prominent pro-Israel organization in the U.S., AIPAC, issued a rebuke of Otzma Yehudit.
But before you give AIPAC credit for discovering the line of minimal decency below which they would not sink, consider that Netanyahu, who is legitimizing this very openly vile and racist group, was still invited to address AIPAC’s upcoming policy conference. What this reveals is that AIPAC’s objections to anti-Palestinian racism and violence are hollow; a rhetorical fig leaf designed to give political cover for the politicians who continue to play ball with this powerful lobby, offering support for Israel’s most racist and destructive policies amid meaningless platitudes about peace, security, and democracy.
By contrast, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s legitimate objections to AIPAC’s activities and the pressure she’s under to toe a more pro-Israel line, are deliberately twisted into attacks on the American Jewish community and painted as bigotry. AIPAC itself joined the smearing of Ilhan Omar, despite the fact that her actual words, for anyone who bothered read them, only mentioned “allegiance” in reference to the pressure she herself was under to support Israel. At no point did she ever question the allegiance of the American Jewish community. But the fact that AIPAC rode the smear wave demonstrates their willingness not just to tolerate real hate when it’s beneficial to their political agenda, but also their willingness to manufacture and weaponize false accusations of hate to serve that agenda.
Whoever wins the upcoming Israeli election, we can almost certainly expect Israel’s efforts to crush the Palestinian people, with the full backing of the Trump administration, to continue. From the suffocating siege and murder of journalists, medical personnel and children in Gaza, to the ever-expanding land-theft, illegal settlement-building, home demolitions, and full-fledged apartheid in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; to say nothing of the discrimination facing Palestinian citizens of Israel, or the misery of refugees in neighboring countries. These are policies that are popular across the political spectrum in Israel, as evident by their continuation under diverse Israeli administrations, including “liberal” Labor party ones. The aggressiveness with which they are pursued may vary, but the fundamental policy of denying justice to Palestinians will continue, so long as the U.S. continues to offer unconditional military aid and diplomatic cover to Israel.
No American of conscience would ever support the racist violence Israel continuously imposes on the Palestinians, let alone the U.S. funding them with their hard-earned tax-dollars. This is precisely why silencing discussion on this topic is a leading priority for Israel’s lobby. This is the context in which the smears targeting Ilhan Omar should be understood: not just in their intended impact on her, but in the example they set for anyone else who may be thinking of discussing this issue more honestly. This is also why the Israel lobby is promoting bills that undermine the First Amendment rights of Americans in an effort to shield Israel from opposition.
But, the extent of the backlash against the smear targeting Ilhan Omar, including the fact that several leading presidential candidates came to her defense, highlights that an opportunity is ahead of us: Defenders of Israel’s malevolent policies are overreaching, and Americans are beginning to see through their disinformation. There is every reason to believe U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is going to be a tough fight in the 2020 election, regardless of the outcome of Israeli elections, and that anti-Palestinian players in the U.S. political context will be more vicious and aggressive. But that itself is the most promising of signs. After all, a famous quote frequently attributed to Gandhi says: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Let’s get ready for this fight for justice.