Congress Shifts, the Middle East Rattles

Rashida Tlaib Ilhan Omar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Richard Silverstein

2018 was a terrible year for the Middle East. Months of massacres in Gaza, tensions between Israel and Hezbollah on its northern border, Qatar under siege from its Sunni neighbours, 85,000 children starved to death in Yemen, and a Sunni alliance rattling sabres against Iran.

Though Bashar al-Assad appears to have secured his rule in Syria, the victory has put Iran and Hezbollah in the ascendancy. This, in turn, has riled Israel and led to hundreds of air assaults and assassinations by Israel against its enemies inside the country.

US President Donald Trump has touted his “deal of the century” without unveiling it. He shut off the tap for US aid to Palestine and US contributions to UNRWA, the United Nations body that supports Palestinian humanitarian aid. He shut down the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington and moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, inciting a massive bout of Palestinian unrest and conflict in the Muslim world. In response, Palestinians declared the US persona non grata and ended peace talks.

When elephants fight

It’s unclear how things can go further downhill from here, but they certainly will not improve in 2019. We may finally see the unveiling of the deal of the century, but Palestinians have already rejected it as dead on arrival. Even the Israelis, whom the deal favours, haven’t been profuse in their support.

The US will continue its sanctions regime against Iran, putting the screws to hard-working Iranians, who will bear the brunt of suffering while their leaders and Trump posture. As the old African proverb declares, “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

The assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, widely believed to have been ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, has brought the Saudis to one of the lowest points in the regime’s history. As a result, the Saudi-led war in Yemen has come under increasing scrutiny. The US Senate has already voted to cut US support for the war.

The new Democratic Congress will likely be even more sceptical in its approach, as three incoming members promise a wave of change on the traditional US approach to Israel. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian American member of Congress, has promised to wear her mother’s traditional Palestinian thobe to her swearing-in ceremony. Ilhan Omar is the first Somali-American to serve, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is another avowed supporter of Palestinian rights.

All three support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Tlaib has shocked the Israel lobby by publicly supporting a one-state solution. She has also vowed to turn the traditional Israel junket sponsored by the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for new House members on its head, instead organising a competing tour of Palestine for progressive House members. Unlike in the past, when the lobby would react to such defiance with threats or warnings, it has remained largely silent.

Massive change in power dynamics

I can’t emphasise enough how revolutionary all of this is in the context of US politics. In the past, any member who whispered “BDS” or “Palestine” got an immediate visit from a local AIPAC supporter, reminding them to stay in line. These are the first representatives who have dared to buck the common political consensus in this way, marking the beginning of a massive change in the power dynamics of the US Congress.

Of course, whenever there is revolution, there is counter-revolution. The Israel lobby is pushing hard for an anti-BDS bill that would criminalise support for BDS by companies and individuals. Though the American Civil Liberties Union and other human rights groups have strongly opposed the legislation, Senate Democrats allied with the lobby have been pushing hard for it for months.

Things will not change overnight. The lobby still retains ironclad control over policy towards Israel. You don’t have an organisation such as AIPAC with a $100m annual budget for nothing. The power of pro-Israel donors to fund political campaigns and take revenge on those perceived as hostile to the lobby’s interests remains potent.

But voters have shown a willingness to elect candidates who buck the common consensus on these and other issues. That’s why Bernie Sanders fared so well in the 2016 Democratic primaries. The likelihood that he will make another run for the presidency in 2020 also signals that relations with Israel are in flux. Though Sanders offered no radical departures from US policy towards Israel during his previous run, he has shown a willingness to question the lobby’s motives and policy approaches.

The run-up to 2020

In many ways, 2019 will be a year of transition: the US will be preparing for the presidential election the following year. Democratic candidates will be scouring the country for primary votes. The Middle East will probably not be a major campaign issue.

But everyone knows that whoever is elected will find the Israel-Palestine issue high on the foreign policy agenda. Candidates will be pressured to express their views on Israel-Palestine. Most will offer the typical, pallid response of conventional Democratic campaigns. But given the upheaval of last November’s congressional election, a few candidates, such as Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, may surprise in their boldness.

The key question remains: who will win in 2020? It seems unlikely that it will be Trump. At this rate, he may even be impeached in the coming year, though that’s by no means assured.

If a progressive Democrat wins the presidency, along with a new Democratic Senate majority, Israel would be in for some rough sledding. Though Democratic presidents and congresses have traditionally offered little resistance to Israel as it pursued its interests here and abroad, we stand on the cusp of major change.

– Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the collection Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield).

This post originally appeared on Middle East Eye.

4 thoughts on “Congress Shifts, the Middle East Rattles

  1. I’m afraid this article perpetuates the widely accepted (by many “left-leaning” types and the “anti-semitic” * right) MYTH that the tail, Israel, wags the dog, the US Imperial colossus. I assert again that members of the US Ruling Class couldn’t care less about the fate of Jews, and many, behind closed doors, are vile Jew-haters. US military aid to Israel would cease in a heartbeat if Israel came to be perceived as no longer useful to US interests in the Middle East. AIPAC has tremendous influence, absolutely, but believe it or not it does NOT control US foreign policy. That is controlled only by the narrow financial interests of the US Ruling Class. Talk in the halls of Congress of concern for the welfare of Palestinians is refreshing, certainly, but don’t look to Speaker Pelosi or to Chuck Schumer for support! The dead weight of the Established Order will soon enough stifle such “heresy.”

    * I have placed “anti-semitic” in quotation marks because it is almost always overlooked that the Jews and the Arabs are both Semitic peoples! Thus I prefer to speak of Jew-haters, not “anti-semites.”

    • Greg..Although I fully agree with your comments on th incipient anti antisemitism amongst the elite I must disagree that the Israelis ( and the Saudis) have little power rover our foreign power. Oir total middle eastern foreign policy is dominated by the Saudi’s and Israel’s hatred of Shia rule in Syria and Iran. What a farce since our intervention in Iraq produced a Shia rule there.Our middle east policy is all about hauling water for the Israelis and Saudis. Our African foreign policy failures are all of our own making.

  2. While I agree in part with greglaxor there is the emotional side of the issue that Isreal has used for clobbering the world–holocaust guilt. Coupled with their huge financial base, they do wield great power. They took down Cynthia McKinney a few years back due to her support and participation in the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza. Just this morning an article detailed the Jewish influence in denying Angela Davis a prestigious award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institite due to her support of BDS. This Black focused institute in the Davis’s hometown was pressured by local Jewish people who also sit on that institutes Board–50% of the Board is white. Thus we see structurally how they control what this country does, especially to keep people of color from recognition for their courageous work.

    It will be interesting to see what happens in Congress this year and whether there will be a growing movement to elect people who commit to taking no corporate money which got people like AOC elected. However, the MSM is controlled by the reactionaries/centrists and Centrist Dems have been hysterical at their power being confronted. And Isreal has been a jumping off point for American hegemony in the ME. That country’s refuseal to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty has been THE center point of power of that country supported by the US. It has allowed Israel carte blanche for military development that the US pays for and allows for the experimentation of chemical weaponry which they employ on the Gazans with impunity. Genocide is fine for others, just not Jews if it serves American interests for control of geopolitical power and natural resources like the huge gas deposits under Gaza and in their waters.

    So we have to view the Israel lobby and Israel from both perspectives to understand and track what is happening. In the meantime, our newly elected independent thinkers will need our support if we are to ever see any real change.

    • Of course the most vigorous supporters of Israel conveniently turn a blind moral eye to, or actively cheer on, that regime’s virtual or actual war crimes. “Never again!” Well, that slogan has been co-opted by other movements than Zionism. I can never be convinced that two enormous wrongs–the Nazi attempt at extermination of Jews, and the Zionist attempt at extermination of the Palestinians–somehow add up to even a tiny “right.” Israel is a true rogue state, supported by our tax dollars: good buddies with the Apartheid regime while it survived in South Africa, and now occupier of Arab land for over 50 years, in defiance of the United Nations. And to underline just a little more irony, Netanyahu’s bromance with Trump is not hindered in the least by the presence of flagrant Nazis in the Trump base. Can things get much more absurd??

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