Jim Zogby and Phyllis Bennis discuss the Trump-Netanyahu dynamic, the diminishing power of AIPAC, and the political battle against Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.
Some might say Netanyahu was equivocating, waiting for his handler’s signal. Then his handler popped out this tweet, “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Representative Omar and Representative Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel and all Jewish people. And there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!” says Mr. Trump. And lo and behold, Netanyahu said that the congressional representatives, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, were banned from coming to Israel.
Earlier this week, another group of congressional representatives went to Israel, 41 Democrats and 31 Republicans went on an AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel. As a sidebar, what’s fascinating is that the 31 Republicans kept tweeting back, but the Democrats were not tweeting back. They were tweeting about everything but their trip to Israel. And getting back to the news of the day, it does appear that Netanyahu capitulated to the erratic, mean-spirited tweets of Donald Trump and his desires. What’s fascinating as well is that AIPAC and many Jewish Senators and Representatives have spoken out against Israel’s banning the visit of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, most mentioning the two congresswomen’s stand for the BDS, to clearly say they were defending them despite that.
So what are the larger issues and implications here for Israeli-American relations, for the coming US elections, and the growing criticism of Israel in our country? We’re joined by Phyllis Bennis, who is a Fellow and Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, author of numerous books— her most recent book, Understanding ISIS and the Global War on Terror: A Primer. Good to have you back with us, Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Great to be with you.
MARC STEINER: And James Zogby. Jim Zogby is the Founder and President of the Arab-American Institute. And Jim, good to have you back with us.
JIM ZOGBY: Thank you.
MARC STEINER: So this has been an interesting turn of events. So let’s talk a bit about what really happened here. So you have Netanyahu for weeks and the Israeli Ambassador saying, “We’re not going to stop them from coming.” All of a sudden, Trump tweets and everything changes. So let’s talk about what you both think the analysis is of what really happened here and what was under this. What really happened? It had to be beyond just a tweet, Phyllis?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I don’t think anything is beyond just a tweet when we’re talking about this administration. This is how this administration makes its policies. It’s by tweet. And world leaders know that, particularly the world leaders of this rising new right-wing, ethno-populist axis of authoritarians, of which Bibi Netanyahu is certainly a founding member. They look to Trump for approval. They get approval for various actions. And on occasion, as you said, they wait for that approval.
In this case, the Israeli Ambassador had said very clearly that, “We honor the institution of Congress and we would never prohibit members of Congress from coming to Israel, no matter who they are.” And then suddenly, as you say, there is a tweet from Trump saying unequivocally that in his view, allowing the two congresswomen in would make Israel look weak. And within hours, we have a reversal and an announcement from the government of Netanyahu saying they will not be allowed in because they support the boycott movement that tries to use economic non-violent pressure to force Israel to end its violations of international law and human rights. That’s not something new. The two congresswomen didn’t suddenly embrace BDS or anything else. They’ve had the same position for many years, during their election, as members of Congress. This is not something new.
What was new was the reversal. And then we had another reversal when AIPAC broke from the Netanyahu position and said it thought that the two congresswomen should be allowed. Of course for AIPAC, the concern is maintaining the very weak current position of Israel as a bipartisan issue. That is diminishing. I think Jim probably is more of an expert on that than I am about the shifts within the two parties, but what we do know is that support for Israel, the uncritical support for the $3.8 billion a year in our tax money that goes directly to the Israeli military, all of that is becoming increasingly a Republican issue. In that case, it’s not surprising that the Democrats on the AIPAC tour, all 41 of them, were not spending their time bragging about how they were in Israel with AIPAC. They were, if anything, hoping that no one would notice.
MARC STEINER: And that was interesting, people did notice they weren’t tweeting. And I’m curious, Jim, why don’t you pick up where Phyllis left off and talk about what this might mean. It was interesting, also in Israel there’s critique. There was Ravid Barak’s tweet in which he said, “I want to tell you a secret. A month ago, when Netanyahu decided to allow Omar and Tlaib into the country, they already supported BDS and he knew it back then. There was only one reason for Netanyahu’s backtracking today: the pressure from Donald Trump.” So Jim-
JIM ZOGBY: Yeah, let me tell you-
MARC STEINER: What does this mean for politics now?
JIM ZOGBY: I’m not convinced that Benjamin Netanyahu is Trump’s poodle. I don’t think it works the other way around either. I think that Netanyahu had pressure to let them in because of the perception of what it would mean for Israel if it denied them entry. At the same time, he was facing a nightmare scenario of a trip of 41 Democrats and 31 Republicans getting almost no press coverage, and these two women accompanied by three other members literally getting the lion’s share of press coverage. It was going to be a huge event. Everything that they saw would be seen by the world because the press coverage was going to be enormous. He needed a way out and Donald Trump gave him a way out. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we find a Netanyahu plea to Donald Trump, “Help me the hell out of this thing. I got to get out of it.” And then he can say, “I had to do it. Donald Trump tweeted at me.”
The score is out on how this actually happened, but my sense is that he was facing a no-win situation. He actually is now in the worst of all possible worlds. Even AIPAC has to scramble, the Israeli ambassador has to scramble, and Donald Trump’s the heavy. But I actually don’t want to take the heat off Benjamin Netanyahu because he’s equally a heavy and I think he found himself in a situation he needed help getting out of.
MARC STEINER: Well, it seems in some ways here between a rock and a hard place though, Jim, because what you’re saying, it would take over, the press would take over if they had gone, but it took over anyway.
JIM ZOGBY: Yeah.
MARC STEINER: I mean, nobody’s paying attention to the AIPAC trip at all.
JIM ZOGBY: But now what’s not going to happen is the story isn’t going to be, “Look at the God awful situation around the wall. Look at the land theft. Look at the home demolitions. Look at the checkpoints. Look at the human rights violations that are taking place daily.” The story is now going to be, “Israel denies entry to these members of Congress.” That is probably a story I think he thinks he can live with.
And I don’t think that there’s going to be immediate change in Congress, but there’s this drip, drip, drip. And Phyllis is right. I mean, we now have, almost like gay marriage. When we look at the polling numbers, the gay marriage numbers of 20, 30 years ago are replicated in the polling numbers on Israel and Palestine among Democrats and Republicans, almost mirror images of each other. And, frankly, it’s something that Netanyahu is responsible for, and Donald Trump and the religious right are responsible for it. But it’s something that I think that they feel that they can live with for a while. They don’t give a damn about the mass base of African Americans or millennials. They’ve got the religious right. They’ve got AIPAC and the Jewish community that, yes, okay, I’ll say it, uses Benjamins to create pressure. And they’ve been able to withstand—Even members of Congress who will say that, “Israel makes me uncomfortable,” aren’t going to vote their discomfort because they’re nervous about it.
How sustainable that is for the long-haul? I don’t think it is sustainable for the long haul. But in the short-term, Israel’s doing okay and feels that they can get away with it. And, frankly, look at what they’ve done in the West Bank. They’ve dug a hole so deep for themselves, there’s no two-state solution available anymore to anyone. But they’re willing to live with that situation because they feel that in the long-term, they’re going to be able to be the conquerors, they’re going to be able to win this out. I don’t think that they will. I think that the resistance of the West Bank is going to continue. I think that growing world pressure is going to continue. Israel is becoming a pariah state. But, frankly, that’s something Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t believe. And it’s something that the religious right here and Donald Trump don’t believe.
MARC STEINER: Well, let’s just bring it back home for a minute here and talk what the consequences might be. I mean, all the polling shows now the majority of Democrats are becoming more and more critical of Israel, even perhaps the majority of Americans are becoming more and more critical of our policies towards Israel and Palestine. And so that’s becoming very clear. So the question becomes, what does this mean for this 2020 election, and what this maneuvering is going on now, how this will affect things, before we talk about the two congresswomen themselves. I mean, would you like to start off, Phyllis?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Sure. I think that when the 2020 election comes around, Israel-Palestine is not going to determine that election. But I think it is going to be a bigger issue than it has been in the past when even the divides that were beginning to show were sort of put aside when the election happened. I think that we’re going to see more discussion about it. I think that what we’re looking at here is, on the one hand, there’s, the splits that Jim was talking about a minute ago are very, very important, and they’re also generational. We have a divide between young Democrats and older Democrats, between young Jews and others. So that’s where you see the long-term danger for the current level of uncritical support for Israel, particularly the question of military aid, which has been untouchable. It’s somehow becoming less untouchable because you have a new younger generation, particularly young Jews.
That’s perhaps where you see the most dramatic shift, organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace that are emerging, that are recruiting more and more young Jews on college campuses, smaller organizations like If Not Now, Open Hillel. There’s a ton of them, activist Jews who are saying that, “Identifying with Israel is not how I identify as a progressive person in this country.” And that is changing the electorate. As those people, the millennials and even younger, as they grow up, they’re changing the Jewish community. They’re changing the organized Jewish community. They’re changing Jewish identity. When I was a kid growing up, we didn’t have options. If you were a kid growing up and identified as Jewish, that meant Israel. God was really not in the equation. It was all about Israel. That’s not true anymore. And that’s huge.
But it’s also true what Jim said. This is a medium to long-term shift, the generational part. We can’t pretend that it’s there. What is there is a massive shift in public discourse, a significant shift in media discourse. It’s not quite caught up to the public yet, but it is certainly there. And the question of the shift that’s just starting to take place, what we’re seeing now in Congress. We can look back to 2015 when 60 members of Congress decided to skip the speech of Netanyahu when he came to lobby Congress against Obama’s efforts to create the Iran Nuclear Deal, 60 members. Now, for most of them, that wasn’t about Palestine. It wasn’t about Israel’s human rights violations. It was about Netanyahu’s racism towards Obama, which was blatant and horrifying. And a number of members of the Black Caucus and others said, “This is not acceptable. We’re not going to go listen to this guy.”
But in the context of today, you also see, we now have members of Congress, a few who support the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement to pressure Israel, and a ton of others who are saying—For example, the bill that’s on the floor now brought by Representative Betty McCollum, which doesn’t call for cutting military aid, but does say that no military aid can be used for Israel’s much-vaunted juvenile military detention system, the only country in the world that has such a thing. And our money, because money is always fungible, is accountable for that. That’s now getting new attention from a whole lot of other people. So the issue is changing.
And on the other end of Capitol Hill, when you look at what’s going on with the White House, you do see this global movement that Trump is orchestrating, the cozying up to dictators and ethno-populists, authoritarians all over the world, and in Brazil with Bolsonaro, in the Philippines with Duterte, and Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, and Turkey, all of that. And what you see in the Israeli version of it is that Trump is now giving, whether it’s orders or not, I agree, I don’t think Netanyahu is – Netanyahu is not Trump’s poodle. But for those who think that Israel is calling the shots and is telling the US administration what to do, this gives the lie to that. That’s certainly not happening.
And I think we are looking at a situation where Israel is now reclaiming its longstanding bans of Palestinians going back to Israel. The denial of the right of return is something that people in Rashida Tlaib’s family knows very well, who are not allowed to return to their homes inside Israel. The whole question of who gets excluded, people who support BDS are excluded from entering Israel. This is not the first time. It may be the most high-profile example, but it’s hardly the first time.
MARC STEINER: And bringing it back, Jim, there was this interesting tweet, I’ve not seen anything from Rashida Tlaib yet, but the tweet that came out from Ilhan Omar today I found was really fascinating. Let me just look at a part of her tweet here: “It’s an affront that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, under pressure from President Trump, would deny entry to representatives of the United States government. Trump’s Muslim ban is what Israel is implementing, this time against two duly elected members of Congress. Denying entry into Israel not only limits our ability to learn from the Israelis, but also to enter the Palestinian territories. Sadly, this is not a surprise given the public position of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has consistently resisted peace efforts, restricted the freedom of movement of Palestinians, limited public knowledge of the brutal realities of the occupation, and aligned himself with the Islamophobes like Donald Trump.”
So the question—Jim, let’s talk a bit about how this plays out here in this election. Both these women are facing—Well, let’s get to that in a minute because they’re both facing re-election. But in the election of 2020, this may not be the front burner issue that Americans decide how they’re going to vote, but clearly it’s becoming an issue, as Phyllis also mentioned. So talk about how you think this plays out and what tweets like Ilhan Omar’s plays out in this coming election.
JIM ZOGBY: Look, I was on the Platform Drafting Committee in 2016. And clearly, many of the rifts we’re seeing now, were here then.
MARC STEINER: Right, right, right.
JIM ZOGBY: We had Bernie Sanders who had taken stronger positions on this issue than anybody since Jesse Jackson, who – I was his senior advisor on these issues back in 1988. And so I was just thrilled that we got another bite at the apple many decades later. We went into that feeling a bit of optimism that we would be able to get a stronger platform. I never dreamt that the Clinton people would put their foot down on the words “occupation” and “settlements” being in the platform. I remember my arguments with Madeline Albright in ’88 when she represented Dukakis, not wanting the P word, Palestinians, in the platform. We’ve certainly come a long way since then, but they didn’t want the word occupation and settlement in the platform. And this same Congress, the 41 Democrats just traveled—One-sixth of Congress just went to Israel-
MARC STEINER: Right, right.
JIM ZOGBY: Remember that. And just passed a resolution against BDS, which they claimed was a moderate resolution because it contained no penalty. But it still opens the door for penalties and certainly ratifies an earlier decision of Congress, which is to support states that have penalties on BDS. So I am still not convinced that, in terms of congressional action, we’re going to get anywhere right now. These people, frankly, are political cowards. And I don’t think they have anything to be afraid of. I mean, the myth of AIPAC is the myth more than it is the reality. They don’t beat people and they don’t save people. But they threaten and they actually get away with their threats because there’s enough belief that they have the capacity to do that.
They do the same thing with presidential campaigns, but here they have the added advantage of huge donors. And then when Haim Saban says, “I will not tolerate Keith Ellison being the Chair of the Democratic Party,” and they run Tom Perez because they got to have somebody— who had no experience in the party at all— to run against him and win, and send out vicious letters to members of the DNC against Keith. And they won it. They won it because they used the pressure that they had of establishment Democrats to squash Ellison’s candidacy. I’m with Bernie right now, but I can tell you that, as I’m watching the other candidates reacting, as our activists and If Not Now’s activists are raising Palestinian issues, Bernie’s good. Buttigieg has come a little bit along the way, but is not there at all. Neither is Elizabeth Warren. We’re a long way before this becomes a mainstream political issue, on the right side of the issue, that presidential candidates will embrace in a serious way.
They know where the base is. They’re trying to manage the base and keep the donors happy. They’re not interested in right now challenging the donors and moving with the base on this issue. Frankly, I’m just not sure where it comes up. It’ll be an issue in 2020. How it’s going to be an issue, what will be the red line that AIPAC and the party donors and the establishment of the party decide to use as their litmus test? I just don’t know. I didn’t think it would be occupation and settlements. I don’t know what it’ll be in 2020, but I know it’ll be there.
And, frankly, I believe that some of the opposition to Bernie right now is focused on that. Looking at, I don’t know if you saw, there’s been a whole lot of hoopla about who the billionaires are giving money to. And they’ve been giving it to Warren. They’re not concerned about Warren’s socialism. They’ve been giving it to Buttigieg. They’ve been giving it to almost all of them, and they have like 10, 13, to each campaign. Bernie has gotten nothing from anybody. And it has to do with his positions on Israel and Palestine. And they’re not going to give up. This fight’s going to be a long one. It’s not going to be 2020 fight. It’s going to be a 2028, maybe 2032 fight. We’re in this for the long haul.
MARC STEINER: So, as we conclude, we only have a few minutes left here that we can take, but there are a couple of things here. One is that, I mean, I understand. I mean, AIPAC does have some power. And one of the things that you can look at in this election, they would have a hard time going after Ilhan Omar. I think her seat is fairly safe given her district.
JIM ZOGBY: Yeah.
MARC STEINER: But Rashida Tlaib, we were talking about this before we went on air together, could be facing a very serious election. And that money could be focused in on her and her district to make sure she doesn’t win.
JIM ZOGBY: I think Rashida is – many times she’s run for office and been discounted. I think she’s a very strong candidate. She becomes everybody’s daughter, everybody’s sister, everybody’s friend. She has an amazing ability to win. She is going to be running in a largely black district. And the Black Caucus has frankly been very clear that she stole a seat from them. They want it back, and they’re going to be running. They’re going to try to find a single candidate to run against her, as opposed to the multiple candidates who did last time. And we’ve just seen this article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency with Jewish leaders in Michigan getting together— Ron Kampeas wrote the story— saying, “We’re going to take her out.” They’re pooling their money trying to convince a single candidate to run against her. She’s going to face some tough odds. But I think that Rashida’s campaigning ability, her service to her district, and her principles are going to win out over their money and their pressure.
MARC STEINER: So Phyllis, I mean, one of the things they’re going to attack her on, and the attack already is starting about her service to her district and that she’s more focused on Palestine than she is her own home is what they’re going to be saying.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: And that’s simply not true. The press is focused much more on that. What Rashida Tlaib has been focusing on is student loan debt, Medicare For All, the problem caused in pensions in her district, which is a very impoverished district, by private equity funds. She’s spending her time in her district.
JIM ZOGBY: And [crosstalk]
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Let me just finish for a minute, Jim, because I think this is very important. There are threats, of course. But I think that we have to keep the focus for people on where the public discourse is. At the end of the day, money can be used to try and buy votes, but money doesn’t buy votes directly. You still have to persuade people with all those ads you’re going to pay for, with all the television ads, with all the people you’re going to pay to go door to door. At the end of the day, people still get up and vote.
And I would contest a bit this notion about the Black Caucus being so convinced they’re going to go after Rashida. I think that the Black Caucus has a wide range of political opinions. I think that there was an effort to get more people from the Black Caucus, a number of whom were among those who voted against the anti-BDS bill a week ago. There were members of the Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, the Asian-American Caucus, and the Progressive Caucus. And many of the people who were among the 16 Democrats who opposed that anti-BDS bill were members of more than one caucus. So the Black Caucus is not unified against Rashida Tlaib. I think that’s a real mistake.
And I think that we need to keep the focus on where public opinion is, where the media is. There have been enormous changes in the media coverage. There’s enormous changes in universities. Certainly AIPAC continues to have some power. They use that power against the most vulnerable. That means a lot of times against students who can’t fight back. They’re not using it for example against the mainstream churches, many of which have come out for boycott campaigns— the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the UCC. You don’t see AIPAC going up against them because they know that they can’t. They go up against vulnerable students and threaten them with, “We’re going to tell your potential employers that you’re a troublemaker,” that sort of thing, with projects like the so-called Canary Mission that’s designed to do just that. That’s who they’re targeting. They’re targeting the weak.
Rashida Tlaib is not a weak candidate precisely because she’s spending time in her district focusing on the issues that people there care about, whether it’s Medicare For All, whether it’s the Green New Deal, whether it’s private equity funds, whatever it is. That’s where she’s spending the majority of her time.
MARC STEINER: And of course she’s a tough campaigner and she’s a very focused person, but still, it seems like she could have a really tough time if they go after her in that district. And we’ll see how that plays out, but that’s going to be a touchstone in this election I think, to see what happens. Clearly it’s not going to go Republican, but it could go to the President of the City Council. That’s the woman who was running against her, correct?
JIM ZOGBY: Yeah. That’s the person people are talking about running.
MARC STEINER: So-
JIM ZOGBY: But I [inaudible 00:25:24] ultimately be. Let me tell you, that article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency sent shock waves through my community. The Arab community in Michigan is three times the size of the Jewish community. This is a fight that nobody needs and nobody should want. People love Rashida in our community. People love her in the district. I think Jewish leadership made a huge mistake when they talked to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about their intention to take her out.
MARC STEINER: At least some Jewish leadership, not all of them.
JIM ZOGBY: We don’t know who they were. Most of the names were anonymous, but they did give us—It was Ron Kampeas, who incidentally, unlike Barak David, who you quoted earlier, he is—Ron Kampeas is a great reporter. He’s a very honest and straightforward guy. And I think he was shocked as well by the stuff they were telling him.
MARC STEINER: So very quickly before you have to go, do you think that Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar will make this trip anyway? Some people would argue they should make this trip symbolically, even though they’re not going to be let in. Others saying it could be a disaster to do that. How do you-
JIM ZOGBY: I hope they don’t. I hope they don’t. I think right now the onus is on Netanyahu, and on Trump for being both authoritarian, intolerant of debate, being … something to hide, they don’t want to show. I think right now it was a stupid decision by Netanyahu, and going there does not help. I think anybody at this point—Yeah, I mean, I think we need to find strategy number two, not go in there and being detained in the airport for a couple of days.
MARC STEINER: Phyllis? Very quickly.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think the person that gets helped by all this is Donald Trump. He does this for his base. This isn’t about building up his influence in Congress or anything like that. This is about his relationship with his right-wing evangelical base here in the US, and it’s about building up his relationship with his other authoritarian allies around the world, including Netanyahu. I think that the irony is that the congresswomen that were going to go are not even the real issue here for Trump. Trump is looking at his base and he’s making a judgment, which I think is wrong. I think he’s just made the wrong decision. I agree with Jim that it was a stupid call on Netanyahu’s part. I don’t know whether the two congresswomen are going to try to go anyway, but we will see how that plays out.
The key thing I think for people here who are concerned about Palestinian rights, who are concerned about the coming election, is to keep our eyes on what it’s going to take to change the electoral system, but also to continue the work that has been so successful over the last 20 years or more in changing the public discourse, which is never enough to, by itself, change policy. But without changing the discourse, more than we have so far, and we need to do more for that reason, we will never be able to change policy. That’s the moment where we are right now. And I think that’s the key point that we have to keep the focus on.
MARC STEINER: Well, for this debate anyway, you’ve had the last word, Phyllis Bennis. It’s good to have you with us. And Jim Zogby, great to have you with us as well.
JIM ZOGBY: Thank you.
MARC STEINER: Great conversation. I appreciate you all taking your time today.
JIM ZOGBY: Thanks, Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Thank you, Jim.
MARC STEINER: And take care. Good to have you both with us. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you for joining us. Let us know what you think. Take care.