The temptation of political expediency and help from powerful special-interest lobbies often prove too much for many candidates turned members of Congress.
WASHINGTON – As a result of the midterm election, four recently elected women affiliated with the democratic-socialist PAC Justice Democrats will soon be striding through Capitol Hill as full-fledged members of Congress. These four women – Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley – have all been touted as “progressive” game-changers for having avoided corporate money during their primaries and for supporting policies like Medicare-for-all and abolishing ICE, among others.
Yet, while these soon-to-be congresswomen support many of the same policies, they exhibit considerable differences when it comes to Palestine, ranging from deepening their pro-Palestine stances, to flip-flopping on it, to remaining largely silent on an issue of great importance to many Americans and others the world over.
Before their primary elections, Tlaib, Omar, and Ocasio-Cortez all criticized Israel in some way, with some commentators suggesting that Tlaib – who is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants – went the farthest by promoting a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, Tlaib later pulled away from those comments and was accused of “flip-flopping” after subsequently stating that she would support a two-state solution “if it was something of possibility.” Pressley, the outlier on this issue among Justice Democrat-supported candidates, stayed largely silent about both Israel and Palestine despite the fact that the Justice Democrats openly promote an arms embargo on Israel.
However, across the board, following their primaries, the rhetoric from these “progressives” began to soften, sparking concern that statements of pro-Palestinian solidarity were soon to become a thing of the past as these candidates transitioned from progressive primary challengers to candidates for the establishment Democratic Party. Indeed, Omar, Tlaib, and Ocasio-Cortez all seemed to distance themselves from their past comments by backing a two-state solution and distancing themselves from the non-violent Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
While the post-primary changes sparked concern that pro-Palestine comments would ultimately disappear from these “status quo-challenging” candidates, two of these women – the first Muslim women ever elected to Congress — have come out in even stronger support of Palestine since winning the general election in November.
Omar: choosing the moral imperative over political expediency
After the November midterm election, Ilhan Omar – an American-Somali Muslim who will represent Minnesota’s 5th district – came out in full support of Palestinian rights, moving well beyond her past condemnations of the Israeli government’s abuse of Palestinians and her characterization of the state of Israel as an “apartheid” regime.
Drawing attention to the apartheid Israeli regime is far from hating Jews. You are a hateful sad man, I pray to Allah you get the help you need and find happiness. https://t.co/SvEXjlxlEN
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) May 31, 2018
Despite the fact that her comments were used to smear her by Islamophobes and pro-Israel stalwarts, Omar chose to publicly elaborate on those controversial views, not shy away from them, despite pressure from the Democratic Party establishment.
In a post-election November interview with Muslim Girl, Ilhan stated:
For me, that particular issue [Israel-Palestine] really is about making sure that we are people who understand that there is oppression happening, and speak to that as you would for issues that are safe. I believe that it doesn’t really matter who you are, and where you live, and who has empowered you; no one has a right ever to transgress on other’s rights.”
When I see the kind of weapons that are being used to fight kids who are throwing rocks, I think that’s injustice, and so that has propelled me to feel like I needed to say something … It is a region that has power extremely lopsided. When we are given an opportunity to look at the world, and dream of a place where people are treated equally, and people are allowed the opportunity for self-determination, we cannot dream of that world without having this particular region in mind.”
Omar also noted that expressions of Palestinian solidarity were important to many in her district, while also stating that her support was not based on political convenience but moral definites:
The people in my district and the folks that I represent who have ties to that region understand how necessary it is for us to advocate, and not abdicate because it is politically expedient; but advocate because we know right from wrong.”
Perhaps most significantly, Omar also confirmed to Muslim Girl that she “believes and supports the BDS movement and has fought to make sure people’s right to support it isn’t criminalized.” She then clarified her past criticisms of BDS by stating that she still has “reservations on the effectiveness of the movement in accomplishing a lasting solution.”
Tlaib: supporting BDS and planning a West Bank congressional visit
Less than a month after Omar’s unapologetic statements in support of the Palestinian people, Rashida Tlaib – who will serve among the first Muslim congresswomen along with Omar – also expressed her support for Palestinian rights movements like BDS, as well as presenting her plan to challenge the Israel lobby’s trip to Israel for new congressmen — which critics have called one-sided, if not outright indoctrination — with a parallel delegation to the West Bank.
During the primary, Tlaib spoke out against Israeli apartheid while also vocally supporting the Palestinian right of return. However, as previously mentioned, she was accused of “flip-flopping” on her support for a one-state solution by stating, during a pre-election interview on Democracy Now!, that she would consider supporting a two-state solution. However, during that interview, Tlaib actually stated only that she would hypothetically support a two-state solution “if it was something of possibility.”
Yet, as MintPress and other outlets have long noted, Israeli settlements and military rule over the West Bank have rendered a two-state solution all but impossible. Thus, Tlaib’s comments on Democracy Now! reflect the fact that the two-state solution is not likely.
On December 3, Tlaib’s interview with The Intercept helped make her positions on Israel and Palestine more clear and ultimately put to rest concerns that she would place political expediency over her past advocacy for Palestine and her roots, as her grandparents still live in the West Bank. Tlaib has cited both her personal connection to the region as well as her commitment to social justice as her reasons for supporting Palestinian rights.
In speaking to The Intercept, Tlaib confirmed that “I personally support the BDS movement” and added that BDS and other economic boycotts are a way to bring attention to “issues like the racism and the international human rights violations by Israel right now.” Tlaib’s statements on BDS make her and Ilhan Omar the only two members of Congress to publicly voice support for the BDS movement. Tlaib also likened Israeli apartheid to the Jim Crow system once imposed on African-Americans in the United States.
However, Tlaib’s interview with The Intercept received more attention, not for her formal support for BDS, but for her plan to host a congressional delegation to occupied Palestine. In elaborating on this point, Tlaib stated that the trip would focus on Israel’s detention of Palestinian children, education, access to clean water and poverty. Tlaib noted, however, that the details of her planned delegation have not yet crystallized as it is still unclear who will join her on the trip and who will help fund it.
Yet, ultimately, Tlaib made it clear that she wanted her delegation to “humanize” Palestinians and to provide an “alternative perspective” to the Israel lobby-funded trip for new members of Congress that, according to Tlaib, does not provide “a real, fair lens into this issue.”
Over the last decade, the powerful and well-funded Israel lobby – particularly the American Israel Education Foundation, a branch of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – has spent $12.9 million on sending members of Congress and congressional staffers to Israel. On these trips, which are held separately for Democrats and Republicans, members of Congress meet with Israeli government leaders and business executives but make no visits to the Gaza Strip or the occupied West Bank. Last year’s trip for Democratic members of Congress included a single visit with a Palestinian leader, Shukri Bishara of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which lasted one hour and 15 minutes.
Tlaib’s plans for a delegation aimed at directly challenging AIPAC comes at a time when AIPAC is desperately trying to court American progressives and prevent a radical shift on Democratic policy when it comes to Israel. As journalist Alison Weir recently reported, AIPAC has been offering lavish, all-expense-paid trips to Israel to west coast progressive groups.
However, given that extreme pro-Israel policies are losing support among Americans and even American Jews, it seems unlikely that AIPAC-funded trips will succeed in preventing a change in American political discourse when it comes to Palestine.
Ocasio-Cortez: Retreating to the party fold?
While Omar and Tlaib have maintained their pre-primary positions on Palestine since being elected to Congress, other newly elected “progressive” members of Congress have instead tried to distance themselves from their past statements on Palestine or have largely tried to avoid the issue altogether.
Indeed, none other than the most well-known new “progressive” to become a member of next year’s Congress – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York – quickly walked back her past comments in solidarity with Palestine following her primary win this past July, even though she faced only token opposition in her general election campaign.
Prior to the primary, comments made by Ocasio-Cortez on the Israeli military’s brutal suppression of protests in the Gaza Strip received widespread media attention in the U.S., particularly her tweet calling the shooting of Gazan protestors a “massacre.”
This is a massacre.
I hope my peers have the moral courage to call it such.
No state or entity is absolved of mass shootings of protesters. There is no justification. Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else.
Democrats can’t be silent about this anymore. https://t.co/wJGATOtDsR
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Ocasio2018) May 14, 2018
Ocasio-Cortez was subsequently promoted as a “pro-Palestine socialist” and was praised by influential leftist pundits like Glenn Greenwald for her “moral courage” in taking a stand for the “human dignity” of the Palestinian people.
However, despite the positive attention her comments received from many progressives, it was not to last. Indeed, just a few weeks after her primary win against incumbent Joe Crowley, Ocasio-Cortez backed away from her pro-Palestine comments in an interview on PBS’ Firing Line. During the interview, the then-Democratic Party candidate toned down her statements, claiming that her past comments supporting Palestine were made while she was an “activist,” not a congressional candidate for the Democratic Party.
During the interview, Ocasio-Cortez went on to distance herself from other past statements she made regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, including having used the term “occupation” when referring to Israel’s military rule over Palestine’s West Bank. For instance, when asked to expand on what she meant by “the occupation of Palestine,” Ocasio-Cortez referred only to the fact that “[Israeli] settlements … are increasing in some of these areas.”
When prodded further, she stated that she was “not the expert on geopolitics on this issue” and that she may not always “use the right words” when discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict. She also stated that she believes “absolutely in Israel’s right to exist” and called herself a “proponent of the two-state solution.”
As MintPress has noted in the past, Israel’s aggressive policies aimed towards annexation of the West Bank and the U.S. government’s ongoing support for such measures have rendered the so-called “two-state solution” largely impossible. Thus, Ocasio-Cortez’s support for the two-state solution reflects either a lack of knowledge on the subject or a conscious decision to adopt positions actively promoted by the Democratic Party, which is strongly influenced by the pro-Israel lobby.
Notably, Ocasio-Cortez has been silent on Justice Democrats’ position on an arms embargo to Israel, despite her close ties to the progressive PAC, her ostensible support for its platform and the amount of media coverage her comments on the conflict have received.
Some experts like Asad Abukhalil — a professor in political science at California State University, Stanislaus — took it to be the latter when he told the Times of Israel that Ocasio-Cortez’s comments during the PBS interview about a two-state solution as well as her support for Israel’s right to exist are “a sign that [she has] become an already mainstream Democratic candidate.”
Others – particularly Israel supporters — have since accused Ocasio-Cortez of pandering to Israeli and American Jews following her recent claim of Jewish heritage, which she chose not to discuss in public until this past Monday.
Great. So now look for @Ocasio2018 to make 'as a Jew' statements against everything the Jewish people hold dear, including Israel. She's Jewish like Elizabeth Warren is Indian. Pure political expediency https://t.co/cf6EOLyNjD
— (((IsraelMatzav))) (@IsraelMatzav) December 10, 2018
Notably, an associate of Ocasio-Cortez stated earlier this month that the new congresswoman would not attend the AIPAC-funded tour of Israel for new members of Congress, though Ocasio-Cortez herself did not comment on the tour and her reasons for allegedly not attending.
Furthermore, following Tlaib and Omar’s open support for BDS since the election, a spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez and one of the leaders of the Justice Democrats PAC, Corbin Trent, declined to state whether or not Ocasio-Cortez backed the movement.
Pressley: Domestic progressive but foreign policy mystic
Whereas Ocasio-Cortez’s positions on Palestine have “evolved” ever since her primary win earlier this year, another self-styled progressive who was newly elected to Congress this year – Ayanna Pressley – has remained consistent in her position on Israel and Palestine, though it is hardly as “progressive” as those adopted by Omar or Tlaib.
Though Pressley has voiced support for a bill that aims to prevent U.S. aid to Israel from being used in the detention or mistreatment of Palestinian children, she opposed the BDS movement prior to November and has supported a “two-state solution that will safeguard Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and establish a sovereign and independent Palestinian [state].” However, Pressley’s opposition to BDS is not strong enough for her to back anti-BDS legislation, which she opposes on free-speech grounds.
Pressley has also remained tight-lipped on other issues of interest regarding U.S. foreign policy. For instance, The Intercept reported in September that Pressley declined to answer whether she would support ending military intervention in Afghanistan – now in its 17th year – or whether she would support prohibiting the stationing of U.S. military forces in Syria. Rep. Mike Capuano (D-MA), whom Pressley defeated in this year’s election, had answered yes to both queries.
Walking the walk on Capitol Hill
While all four “progressive” congresswomen-elect have been celebrated as progressives poised to “upend” the status quo, what has taken place both since the primaries and in the wake of the general election shows that a given candidate’s “progressive” positions during the primary do not always make the cut once candidate becomes officeholder. Indeed, the temptation of political expediency, as well as help from powerful special-interest lobbies, often prove too much for many candidates turned members of Congress.
However, despite the fact that some of these new “progressives” destined for Capitol Hill have left their past support for Palestine behind, it is notable that two of them — Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — have resisted extreme pressure from social media, the Israel lobby and the Democratic Party itself in order to stand up for their beliefs in regard to Palestinian rights.
While they are only two people in a sea of corporate-influenced congressmen, the moral courage of Omar and Tlaib in standing by the Palestinian people against powerful interests and massive pressure offers hope that the “Palestinian taboo” in the U.S. political landscape is finally coming to an end.
Top Photo | This composite image shows left to right Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley, four newly minted member of Congress. Mintpress News Image | AP
Whitney Webb is a staff writer for MintPress News and a contributor to Ben Swann’s Truth in Media. Her work has appeared on Global Research, the Ron Paul Institute and 21st Century Wire, among others. She has also made radio and TV appearances on RT and Sputnik. She currently lives with her family in southern Chile.