A Democratic Civil War Will Hurt Both Palestinians and Israelis

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Representative Ilhan Omar attends a House Foreign Relations Committee meeting at the Rayburn Building in Washington. 

Ilhan Omar tweeted. She apologized. Now what? More specifically, now what happens in the Democratic Party?

I'm not asking for a friend. I am asking for myself, a Jerusalemite who can't help watching Washington. Both Israelis and Palestinians in this piece of land live politically downwind from you. You have a dumpster fire, we'll breathe the noxious smoke. 

Regarding what happened, the basics have been well-argued. Representative Omar's tweets alleging that U.S. politicians only support Israel because of $100 bills purportedly supplied by a mostly Jewish lobby indeed called up a classic anti-Semitic stereotype. (Yes, I've criticized AIPAC for years, and still think she got this wrong.) In contrast to much political backtracking, Omar's apology shows thoughtfulness that should be taken seriously. GOP hypocrisy in attacking her while ignoring the much more egregious use of the same anti-Semitic idea by Donald Trump and other prominent Republicans, is as contemptible as—well, all the other GOP hypocrisy about Trump. 

The question is whether this flurry foreshadows a larger tempest about Israel and Palestine in U.S. politics—or rather, in the Democratic Party. There were times in history when Republicans could disagree about Israel, and disagree with Israel. In its current form, Republicans are interested only in turning Israel into a wedge issue to embarrass Democrats and set them against each other.  

Democrats could hand that gift to the GOP—especially if unbending supporters of the Israeli government and equally uncompromising supporters of the Palestinians entrench themselves in their positions. A bushel of media commentaries in the past week have forecast such a split. The only thing this would accomplish is increasing the chances of Donald Trump and the Republicans staying in power—which means a U.S. administration supporting the occupation, ignoring Palestinian rights, and pushing pro-peace Israelis deeper into despair. 

There's another possibility: This moment couldbe the necessary push for the Democratic Party to shift to sensible parameters for its internal debate. For that to happen it needs to avoid three illusions.

The first is the idea that Jews nefariously control the affairs of the world, especially through the use of cash. I half-hesitate to mention this, because in the United States the Republicans have been the ones to bring Protocols of the Elders of Zion paranoia back from the fringes. Trump has been the prime mover—exemplified in his final campaign ad in 2016, which talked of “global special interests” ruling Washington while pictures flashed of three Jews: Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, philanthropist George Soros, and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. 

In Britain, on the other hand, the theme of monied Jews plotting in the shadows has been one element in the Labour Party's anti-Semitism crisis. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn damningly showed his blindness to bigotry against Jews when he defended a mural showing hook-nosed bankers playing Monopoly on the naked backs of the poor, and later excused himself by saying that he hadn't “looked closely” at it. The Tories weaponized this, but Corbyn handed them the weapon. 

The Omar tweets were not the Democrat's Corbyn moment. Nancy Pelosi's firm condemnation and Omar's reversal showed how far the American party is from Labour's rot. But the meltdown of the British left is a warning signal to those who'd defend Omar's original comments. 

The other illusions are a matched set: On one side, there's certainty that Israel is beyond reproach and that, therefore, the status quo must be blamed entirely on Palestinian obstinacy. Senator Chuck Schumer's speech last year to—yes—AIPAC's annual conference shows that the illusion is all too alive in the Democratic Party. Among other points, Schumer dismissed the idea that West Bank settlements are blocking a peace agreement. 

Contrary to commentary in recent days, this way of thinking precedes the rise of AIPAC's influence in the mid-‘70s and of the Christian Right in the late ‘70s. It probably received its most intense adrenalin boost in American public opinion in the weeks preceding the June 1967 war, when Arab countries really did seem ready to and capable of destroying Israel, arousing fear of a second Holocaust. Israel won the war, but its status as righteous victim was sharpened by the 1973 Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack and by Palestinian terrorism. Being a victim, though, doesn't make your righteous. It underlines your right not to be a victim again, but it does not make all your actions defensible. It doesn't make the occupation kosher; it doesn't erase Palestinians' right to self-determination, it doesn't mean Jews have sole right to the land between the river and the sea.

The matching illusion is that Palestinian claims and actions are beyond questioning. In its softer form, this absolves Palestinian actors of any role in the awful stalemate. It ignores—just to cite two recent examples—the Palestinian share of responsibility for failed negotiations, or the role of the Second Intifada in shattering Israelis' trust in the potential for peace. Proponents of itsmore extreme form cango as far as claiming that Hamas isa group "dedicated toward bringing long-term peace in the entire region.” Here the righteous victim fallacy is overtly at work: It moves from the correct assessment that Palestinians are suffering to justification of everything from diplomatic failures to blowing up crowdedbuses.

The quote about Hamas, by the way, is again from Jeremy Corbyn, who has shown so well how a progressive party can fracture itself and help keep an incompetent right-wing government in power. 

The Democrats need an open discussion about Israel and Palestine. If it's going to be a debate and not a civil war, it should be empathetic and critical toward both sides. It should be aimed at best defining the pragmatic progressive policy aimed at a just resolution of the conflict—a more active, less hesitant policy than previous Democratic administrations have taken. It should leave rigid ideology, name-calling and bigotry to the GOP, which is so much better at that awful kind of thing. 

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