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Michael Ratner: President Obama and New York mayor de Blasio’s statements in blanket support of Israel enables it’s violations of Palestinians’ rights

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this week’s edition of The Ratner Report with Michael Ratner.

But before we go to Michael, let me just give a little bit of background. Last week, Bill De Blasio, the new mayor of New York City, spoke at a AIPAC meeting where he explained his philosophical approach to American-Israeli relations. Here’s what he said, according to the website Capital New York, which obtained a copy or a tape of the speech, because journalists were killed kept out of this speech, in spite of Mayor De Blasio’s promise to be open and transparent. But here’s what he said.

“There is a philosophical grounding to my belief in Israel and my belief it is our obligation to defend Israel. But it’s also something that is elemental to being an American, because there’s no greater ally on earth.”

Now joining us to give us his opinion on Mayor De Blasio’s speech is Michael Ratner, who now joins us from New York City. Michael is the chairman emeritus–I should say president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City. He’s also Julian Assange’s American lawyer. And he is also on the board of The Real News Network.

Thanks very much, Michael, for joining us.


JAY: So he’s your mayor. What you make of it?

RATNER: He’s my mayor, alright. And, you know, we have the highest expectations for Bill De Blasio. He came in on a roughly progressive agenda. We expected good things on many issues, from homelessness to–something he’s done already is sick leave for city employees and actually of businesses over a certain number. Today, as we speak, or actually yesterday, he settled the stop-and-frisk case which was brought by my office, the Center for Constitutional Rights. So we have the highest expectations for Bill De Blasio.

Of course, with any politician [incompr.] keep their feet to the fire. There’s lots of forces, particularly financial forces and others, pushing them in a direction away from progress. And, of course, in this case there’s the forces that support the Jewish state of Israel pushing him in a certain direction.

And, of course, we know we all have the expression PEP–progressive except for Palestine. And, sadly, that’s Bill De Blasio. I have to say I was utterly shocked when I read what he said today to AIPAC, which is, of course, a right-wing, hardline lobbying group for Israel that controls, unfortunately, the fortunes of the Palestinians, at least how they’re perceived in this country. They have a lot of political clout.

The quote you read was bad enough. The quote that I really focused on at the time went as follows: “City Hall will always be open to AIPAC … [W]hen you need me to stand by you”–that’s Bill De Blasio–“in Washington or anywhere, I will answer the call, and I’ll answer it happily, ’cause that’s my job.” So there you have Bill De Blasio saying that his job is not just the mayor of the City of New York and not just the mayor for all of us, but his job is to defend Israel and to defend and to be open to AIPAC, because his job is to answer the call of AIPAC.

The only good thing I can say is he thought he was giving the talk in secret to AIPAC and didn’t want any reporters there, so he was almost–you would have to say he was essentially embarrassed by it, although we haven’t had any regrets from him that I know yet with regard to this talk.

So here we are, a lot of progressives in this city, a lot of us with a variety of views about Palestine, but none of them, at least in my cohort, you know, as hardline on Israel in favor of Israel as AIPAC.

And so what was their response? The first response I got was a number of the Jewish leaders and others in New York decided to write a letter, an open letter to Bill De Blasio. And I was one of the people who signed that letter. And I want to talk about that response and then go to what I think is even a further danger of what Bill De Blasio did. The letter was signed by 58 Jewish people from a variety of political opinions–my opinions, which are closer, really, to one state as the solution, a supporter of boycott, divestment, and sanction against Israel for what it’s doing to the Palestinians, and then people all the way over to J Street, you know, two-staters, much more moderate. But the letter encompassed all of us.

And here’s what it said. I’ll just read a key paragraph:

“[w]e … know that the needs and concerns of many of your constituents–U.S. Jews like us among them–are not aligned with those of AIPAC, and that no, your job is not to do AIPAC’s bidding when they call you to do so. AIPAC speaks for Israel’s hardline government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone; it does not speak for us.”

So that was the letter that at least 58 (you know, at least arguably) Jewish citizens of New York sent to Bill De Blasio: you don’t just defend AIPAC here.

My view about this is we should have gone or we could go much further than that.

And the debate that we’ve been having–of course, some people say that, well, Bill De Blasio was just really doing the genuflect that every politician has to do to AIPAC and the Israel lobby. And yes, that’s true, but we would also–he didn’t have to go as hardline as AIPAC. He could have at least come out for a two-state solution [incompr.]

I go farther than that. I think that statements like Bill De Blasio’s (and there’s another one I want to talk about, which was President Obama’s) actually are facilitating the war crimes that Israel is engaged in.

Before I get to that, I just want to mention what our president said in his State of the Union. The president gave his State of the Union a few days ago, and here is what he says in his State of Union (and I was shocked when I heard it): “As we speak, American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in difficult but necessary talks …” etcetera, for “dignity”, for “an independent state for Palestinians”. Then he goes on to say, “and lasting peace and security for the State of Israel–a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side.” So you have Obama now calling Israel a Jewish state, which is very contentious, and secondly, again, reflecting De Blasio, that America will always be at their side, the side of Israel.

Now, my a big objection to this–you know, we always get–said, as I said, no, they have to say this, the Jewish lobby is too strong, the financial contributions to the Democrats are too strong. But the problem for me–and no one really goes there. And really what I would title this section is those are–De Blasio and Obama are really facilitating war crimes. And I say that because it’s not just a political decision. What they’re doing is, by saying defend Israel right or wrong, defend Israel in what it’s doing, is they’re giving Israel impunity for the commission of war crimes.

And we all know there’s war crimes going on, first, obviously, in the occupied territories. You’re prohibited from moving populations of your own people into an occupied or conquered country. There are some 500,000 Israelis now living in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. That’s a huge transfer of population. It’s a war crime, violation of the Geneva Conventions. We’re all aware that there’s an apartheid system in Israel. We’re all aware what happened in Gaza, which people have called collective punishment, targeting of civilians, disproportionate military response.

And what people like Bill De Blasio are doing, and President Obama and everybody else who genuflects to the Israeli lobby, saying, we will defend you, we will defend you, are really facilitating and giving Israel a cover for war crimes. So that’s all very negative.

On the other hand, what we’ve seen now, at this current time, is actually a fair number of positive things going on with the reaction that we’re getting. First, we saw the American Studies Association come out with a resolution saying it supports the boycott of Israeli academic institutions as part of trying to figure out how to stop Israeli discrimination against Palestinians. Very, very important. It’s a small organization. It’s only 5,000 professors.

But the reaction to it demonstrates that Israel is really beginning to feel the heat. There’s been two reactions.

One is there’s been a threat to sue the American Studies Association. My office and a group that I work with called the Palestine Solidarity Legal Support committee is representing them, saying, this has nothing to do with discrimination on the basis of nationality or religion or anything; this is about leaders basically committing discrimination, etc., against Palestinian people. So we’re fighting back on the lawsuit.

But, of course, it’s growing. You know, universities around the country are saying, we’re not going to allow or pay for our professors to go to American Studies Association meetings. And the New York State legislature’s on the verge of passing a law that’s going to cut off any universities that pay any kind of funding to professors who want to go to the ASA.

So the ASA’s statement is very important, very good, but you’re seeing the incredible reaction.

And then you also saw one of the Hillels–Hillels are the local–are the entities on college campuses throughout the country where Jewish life occurs in these special houses, and they’ve had bars against having anybody speak or argue about what Israel’s doing to Palestinians. One of the Hillels has actually said they wanted to have people come like that, and that’s a big break. We’ll see what happens.

And the third thing that’s happened, of course, is the controversy over Scarlett Johansson and her endorsement (which we’ll see at the Super Bowl) of SodaStream, SodaStream, the company that makes that fizzy water machine that’s made in the occupied territories, made in the West Bank, made actually, just outside one of the biggest settlement blocks in the West Bank. She was–at the time she did this endorsement, she was working as the goodwill ambassador for Oxfam. Oxfam actually said this is incompatible with your job as working for Oxfam. And rather than quit her, I think, very lucrative job with SodaStream, she quit her job with Oxfam. Huge stink about it. She comes off as a real dummy in this thing.

So while these statements of both De Blasio and Obama have been terrible, there has been and remains a major fight back. And I think the issue now in this country is shifting and changing for the first time. We’re seeing some real discussion happening out there.

JAY: Michael, let’s just back up to De Blasio a little bit. I mean, one can say he’s kissing the AIPAC ring. And he is. But isn’t there more to it? There is this tradition in the Democratic Party and in that type of politics, this sort of, you know, left-of-center (within American terms) of mainstream politics, you know, progressive on domestic issues but this wholehearted support for Israel. And I don’t know. It seems to me it’s not just about–you know, it’s not just a cynical thing about trying to get money. There’s something in this whole outlook towards foreign policy and the globe. And maybe it’s an extension of, like–you know, as Obama sees projecting American power abroad as somehow bringing democracy, I mean, it’s within the tradition of American foreign policy that America’s bringing light to the world. Well, Israel’s like this outpost of–originally, I guess, of European–and now it’s the outpost of America in the Middle East. I mean, there’s something deeper in the way they look at the world, where they–it’s an extension of humanitarian imperialism. It’s not just about the money, no?

RATNER: No, I agree with that, Paul. I mean, you know, as you know, you and I both know, Noam Chomsky called Israel, because of its shape and because it’s the biggest recipient of U.S. aid, particularly for arms, he called it the U.S. aircraft carrier in the Middle East. So it does represent that. And I think these guys really do believe that on some level.

But what this–by them keeping that belief, what it allows them to do is essentially ignore and facilitate the war crimes that Israel’s committed. So they won’t have their eyes open, because in some way I think two things. One is they’re committed to what you just laid out, that this is somehow this civilizing influence in the Middle East, but secondly, at the same time, that it is–it is that they can’t–there’s no room at all, because–not because–only because of their belief that this is this civilizing outpost, but because it’s such a part of the American state, and particularly the Democratic Party, but others as well, that they don’t feel they have any room to even criticize Israel, so that any criticism of Israel, you know, for Gaza, for the settlements, etc., is labeled by AIPAC and others often as anti-Semitism. They equate criticisms of Israel’s human rights policy, of its crimes, as anti-Semitism. So I think it’s both. It’s part that it’s part and parcel of what I would call humanitarian imperialism, and it’s part and parcel also of the strength of the lobby around Israel.

JAY: Yeah, you could see that with the standing ovation after standing ovation when Netanyahu was in Congress. It was rather despicable. And it’s part of this fear that you look around and see everyone standing–oh, if you don’t stand, then you’re the anti-Semites, so you’ve got to stand too. There’s a real fear of this.

RATNER: You know, Paul, I always used to believe–and there are some people, like Peter Beinart and others, writing, well, if they only knew, if people only knew what Israel’s doing to the Palestinians, they would shift their opinion. But, in fact, of course, a lot of people know, and they don’t shift their opinion. They know what happened to 700 villages after ’48. They know what happened in ’67. They know what’s happening in the occupied territories now. But it doesn’t make any difference, because for them it’s partly–as you said, it’s U.S. hegemonic power in the Middle East. But it’s also for them, you know, it’s Israel and it’s Israel first. And their belief is because of the Holocaust–that’s their claim–that Israel has to exist, and therefore they are willing to close their eyes to the incredible atrocities Israel has inflicted on the Palestinians.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Michael.

RATNER: Thanks for having me, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Michael Ratner is President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York and Chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He is currently a legal adviser to Wikileaks and Julian Assange. He and CCR brought the first case challenging the Guantanamo detentions and continue in their efforts to close Guantanamo. He taught at Yale Law School, and Columbia Law School, and was President of the National Lawyers Guild. His current books include Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in the Twenty-First Century America, and Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away With Murder.

NOTE: Mr. Ratner speaks on his own behalf and not for any organization with which he is affiliated.