Democrats Divided Over Netanyahu, United Over Support for Israel

Rania Khalek says many members of Congress that boycotted Netanyahu’s speech gave him a standing ovation during his last trip, in spite of Israel’s attack on Gaza

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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

During Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, as most people have heard by now, 60 members of the Democratic Party stayed away.

Joining us now to talk about the significance of all of this is Rania Khalek to speak about this. She’s an independent journalist. She writes for electronic intifada. And she now joins us from somewhere in Phoenix for some reason.

Why are you in Phoenix?

RANIA KHALEK, INDEPENDENT JOURNALIST, @RANIAKHALEK: I’m going to visit the border in a few days, and I’m giving a talk here first.

JAY: Okay. So what did you make of the 60 Democrats stayed away? It’s kind of unprecedented. Does that have significance, do you think?

KHALEK: I think it certainly has significance. You know, this is the first time that there’s been this much of a public showing by American lawmakers that’s been against something Israel has done. So that in and of itself is a pretty big deal.

But at the same time, there were still plenty of Democratic congresspeople who attended the speech. Netanyahu received standing ovations. And there’s really–I mean, there’s been no change in overall bipartisan support for Israel other than some rhetoric about some Democrats being upset with Netanyahu disrespecting Obama’s policy on Iran and just disrespecting Obama in general.

But I think the broader issue here is that this does reflect this very slow process of erosion and bipartisan support for Israel that I think is more–is sharper at the grassroots level, where polls are increasingly showing that liberals and Democrats, people identifying as Democrats, especially younger people and women and people of color, are increasingly less pro-Israel then older people, and specifically Republicans. And I think that that is starting to reflect a little bit in the leadership.

But at the same time, like I said, I think that bipartisan support for Israel’s still very, very strong. I mean, this is–right now it’s just rhetoric. And you have to remember, I mean, the reason people boycotted this speech is just because of a break in protocol, like, a disrespecting of Obama, who’s the Democratic leader. Killing 500 children last summer in Gaza did nothing to erode bipartisan support for Israel, and if anything, every single Democratic lawmaker in the Senate voted, as far as I remember, to stand by Israel. And Obama, the Democratic President, rearmed Israel, replenished Israel’s stockpiles last summer in Gaza.

So I think it’s also very, very interesting that it takes something like this, something very, very shallow, which is really just one big spectacle, to force Democratic lawmakers to say anything critical of Israel, rather than–you know, ’cause they can’t do it over apartheid, right, or they can’t do it over the slaughter of children in Gaza.

JAY: Right. It doesn’t really seem to be an erosion of bipartisan support for Israel. It seems to be finally the fractures with the Likud party and the Likud Republican Party alliance, those fractures are showing themselves. And it’s much more about partisan politics, really, than it is about policy.

KHALEK: Absolutely. And the Likud party, Netanyahu in particular, I mean, Netanyahu is a card-carrying neoconservative. And the Likud Party and Netanyahu, I mean, he occupies the center of Israeli politics right now, where there really isn’t a left. I mean, everybody else is very, very right-wing, and they’re pulling Netanyahu further to the right. And so, in the U.S. context that makes him an increasingly divisive figure, and it makes Israel increasingly divisive in the U.S. because of its very far-right-wing turn with people who far-right Republicans in this country identify with more than anybody else. And it’s kind of made Israel a part of the culture wars in some respects.

And, again, this is not necessarily at the official level, like in Congress. It’s not quite there yet. But we’re seeing it on the ground and at the grassroots level where there was these anti-Islam rallies that are kind of popping up in places like Texas. And I think there was one recently in Oklahoma. And one thing that’s really striking about them–I mean, it’s mostly right-wingers who are bashing Islam and protesting Muslims–they’re usually carrying not just American flags, but Israeli flags. So I think that’s really significant. It’s almost as if Israel has become a symbol of that sort of bigotry and hatred. And that sort of goes along with the culture wars, which Islamophobia is a big part of in this country.

JAY: Well, Netanyahu really played into that in his speech, where where he talks about some ancient Persian who went after, tried to destroy the Jewish nation, and what’s going on now is supposed to be some continuation of this mythic kind of conflict.

KHALEK: Yeah. It’s funny, because Netanyahu says that ISIS and Iran are so backwards and, like, they’re living in, like, the past or something, when he’s the one who’s citing biblical scripture to justify his arguments. But, yeah, it is incredible. And that’s sort of an appeal, too. I mean, he wasn’t just–you know, there’s an Israeli election coming up, so a part of this speech was to appeal for domestic consumption back in Israel, but a part of it also appeals to a certain segment of people here. And so people who identify with that kind of rhetoric are generally people, I would think, on the Christian right more than anything else.

JAY: I wonder if it might not hurt him in terms of U.S. public opinion.

There is a kind of underlying feeling here that Israel gets to determine too much about U.S. foreign policy. I think some of that is even anti-Semitic. But that being said, a lot of the popular base for the Republican Party have such beliefs. The Republicans are kind of vulnerable to being sort of too much cheerleaders for Israel, and especially this allowing a foreign leader to speak in Congress and to directly contradict the President.

If you remember, when Hugo Chávez was at the United Nations and said he smelled sulfur, referring to the fact George Bush had just spoken there, there’s a great uproar about imagine critiquing an American president while you’re in the United States.

Now, Netanyahu didn’t come out by name and attack Obama, but it’s rather clear he was denouncing Obama’s policy towards Iran.

KHALEK: Yeah. No. I mean, this was a collusion between Netanyahu and the Republican Party in this country. And it is. It is. It is utterly shocking. I mean, I don’t think that anything like this has ever happened as far as I can think of, where a sitting U.S. president is being undermined by a foreign leader with the help of the opposing party in the U.S. I mean, that’s very, very shocking. And I think that because it was just so shocking and just–and this is not, like, some enemy country; this is supposedly our greatest ally. And so I think that’s why for the first time we’re seeing, you know, there’s all this critique in the media, you know, that you don’t usually see critique of Israel in the media, but you see this critique Netanyahu and the way he’s behaving in the media, and you see Israeli lobbying organizations like AIPAC not necessarily distancing themselves from him, but coming out against the speech, because it is–I mean, it is very disrespectful and strange.

And on the part of the Republicans, I mean, you know, it’s very underhanded to be behaving that way. But, again, like, I think Republicans in this country are the natural allies of Israel’s leaders. I think Democratic support for Israel has a lot more to do with the lobbying than anything else. I think with Republicans it’s–the worldview that Israeli leaders put forth is Israel is on the front lines of this clash of civilizations and has to kill Palestinians and be aggressive towards its neighbors to save Europe and the U.S. from–.

JAY: Well, it’s–chosen people to chosen people seems to be the ideology.

KHALEK: Right.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us Rania.

KHALEK: Oh. Thank you so much for having me on.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.

End

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