Monday, March 5, 2018

AIPAC Has An Obama Problem, Not A Progressive One

In his remarks at the 2018 AIPAC opening plenary, President Mort Fridman appealed to progressives to be "partners" in the project of supporting Israel. Emphasizing the important of bipartisan support for Israel, Fridman noted the forces "trying to pull [progressives] out of this hall" and cautioned "we cannot let that happen." While AIPAC is right to court progressives, its real problem lies in the antagonizing of former President Obama and his supporters.

AIPAC's conservative streak is well-documented. Since 2008 it has courted the Evangelical right, minimized the impacts of settlement expansion, and emphasized the defense aspects of Israel's relationship with the United States over other elements of the relationship. 

Policy streaks are not problematic for AIPAC. Opinions are easily shifted in a city dominated by 24 hour news cycles. For example, in 2009, AIPAC supported the idea that the 1967 lines were "indefensible." A year later it showed a map of Israel with these same lines drawn in as temporary borders. Lobbyist groups change positions all the time, and AIPAC would not be doing anything radically different were it now to tack toward the left. AIPAC could also point out its historical support for progressive values. It has consistently emphasized Israel's democratic government and supports the two-state solution, a point which Executive Director Howard Kohr reiterated yesterday to the chagrin of the settler movement. AIPAC features democrats during its plenaries and in its breakout sessions, hosts young progressive leaders, and historically tries to tack toward the center of US politics. Its ability to capture the center-left in the future based on policy shifts should not be in doubt.

AIPAC's real problem is not its policies per se but lingering progressive resentment over its constant opposition to Barak Obama as a political figure. While AIPAC has not been radically right-wing from a US politics perspective, it stonewalled the Obama administration's major Middle East policy initiatives at almost every opportunity (Iron Dome funding and the 2016 MoU are notable exceptions). Most notable, AIPAC opposed the administration's 2009 call for a temporary settlement freeze, and the Iran nuclear agreement. In both cases AIPAC made a point of directly and publicly attacking these policies. In 2009 it hosted speaker after speaker at its annual conference who called the 1967 lines "indefensible." In 2015 it spent $1.67 million in a bid to kill the Iran nuclear deal while making ridiculous assertions like the deal would "pave a path to war."

While progressives may not remember policy talking points from AIPAC conferences in years past, they will long remember AIPAC's opposition to President Obama. Many resent AIPAC for airing its disagreements with the Obama administration in such a confrontational way. Rather than framing these disagreements as policy discussions, AIPAC called into question whether the Obama administration was pro-Israel at all. It picked open fights with the US administration while aligning consistently with Israel's more conservative government. Now it is asking the same people whom it alienated to join forces without acknowledging its own role in causing cleavages in the first place.

AIPAC took a substantial risk in directly and publicly opposing an administration which consistently had the majority support of the US Jewish community. It is now paying the price for doing so. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

Ahed Tamimi's IDF Arrest Shows Israel's Political Stagnation and Frustration

Ahed Tamimi commited a crime and should be punished for doing so. The extent to which the IDF has punished her and other Palestinian minors, however, raises serious questions about the utility of such punishment and how Israel will reconcile its treatment of Palestinian minors with being a liberal democratic state.

On December 18, Mohammed Tamimi, a 15 year old resident of the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, was shot at close range with a rubber bullet. Later that afternoon, two Israeli soldiers stepped onto the property of the Tamimi family. Tensions were high following that morning's clashes. Mohammed's cousin Ahed, a 16 year old, began yelling at the soldiers. The video shows clearly what happened next. Ms. Tamimi kicked and punched the soldiers multiple times. The soldiers exercised commendable restraint, using only the force absolutely necessary to repel these attacks. The IDF highlighted these actions on a twitter account. Following the attack, Ms. Tamimi is recorded blaming President Trump for Palestinian violence and implying that such violence is a duty for anyone seeking a unified path forward for Palestinians.

There is no justification for Ms. Tamimi's use of violence against soldiers conducting non-violent and lawful operations. Soldiers are agents of the state, but they still have basic rights, including the right not to be physically assaulted. Soldiers should enter a combat zone with the understanding that violence is possible, but doing so does not negate their most basic rights as humans. At the same time, soldiers in the world's most moral army did not and should not ask for a medal for not shooting an unarmed 16 year old girl while wearing full combat gear. The video of Tamimi's attack is significant because there are misperceptions about the IDF's use of restraint, not because that restraint was above and beyond the call of duty.

At this point, the IDF could have issued the Tamimi family a hefty fine as a penalty for this violence, and moved on. Instead it overruled the commendable restraint of its soldiers and escalated the situation. Pro-Israel activists were quick to identify Ahed Tamimi by the name Shirley Temper - a sexist monniker ascribed to her since at least 2014, when she would have been 13 years old. Following its video showing restraint, the IDF threw restraint to the wind. An IDF unit raided the Tamimi residence in the middle of the night and arrested her. Then it put footage of the arrest online. Tamimi was indicted last week and now faces the possibility (though unlikely) of 10 years in prison for kicking and punching 2 soldiers wearing full combat gear and trained in self defense.

Ahed Tamimi and other Palestinian youth have grown up without citizenship in a state of their own. They have faced constant surveillance and control by the IDF and the Palestinian Authority their entire lives. Such an upbringing does not excuse the use of violence, but neither does it excuse their treatment as "future terrorists who got what they deserved," even if their political views are hateful. Such treatment also does not deter violent behavior. In fact, Tamimi's arrest has turned her into an international hero and increased the danger to IDF soldiers of future attacks. Rather than equip the IDF with better resources and practices to properly do its job, Israel's political leadership has encouraged these heavy-handed tactics. It has taken out its frustration at the stagnation of its politics on a 16 year old born after any of that stagnation was set in motion.

Any analyst who believes Israel's status quo administration of the West Bank is sustainable must reconcile how a liberal democratic state like Israel could also treat Ahed Tamimi the way it does. Tamimi is no martyr, but neither is she anywhere close to the security threat she has been treated as. Liberal democracies (including the United States) often act harshly, but they must sooner or later come to terms with this treatment to preserve the fundamental values upon which they were founded.