How Israel and its lobby dissed Obama…


JVL Introduction

An extraordinary and unmissable discussion between Peter Beinart and Ben Rhodes, former foreign policy aide to President Obama, giving unprecedented insight into how the lobby system in American politics works – and particularly into the Israel lobby.

In this article Philip Weiss transcribes large parts of what Rhodes said in discussion. They’re just a taster. The whole contribution is essential viewing and there is a link to it on YouTube in the article.

This article was originally published by Mondoweiss on Tue 23 Feb 2021. Read the original here.

Biden team forgets ‘history:’ Israel and its lobby dissed Obama in ‘borderline offensive’ racial terms–Ben Rhodes

Ben Rhodes, the former foreign policy aide to President Obama, spoke to Peter Beinart on February 10 about the Israel/Palestine issue in the Obama administration and made some stunning assertions:

–Israel and its lobby routinely forced Obama to go over “hurdles” because he was black and they felt he identified with Palestinians. The treatment was “borderline offensive.” Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador, treated Obama with “tokenism” by seeking a photo-op with the president and Ethiopian Jews in Israel, which Rhodes repeatedly shot down with annoyance.

— The Obama administration went along with Netanyahu’s lie that he believed in a Palestinian state. “We pretended to my shame at times in the Obama administration that he was interested in that. When I don’t think he was, ever.”

— Obama never gave the Palestinians a real opportunity to create a state. But then the U.S. has never provided such opportunities, Rhodes said, possibly with the exception of Camp David.

— Obama was repeatedly “undermined” and disrespected by Israel and its lobby. “Netanyahu made our lives hell every day that he could.”

— But the Biden administration is forgetting this history and taking a “defensive crouch” on Israel, and Secretary of State Tony Blinken is actually retreating on matters such as a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, for which former Secretary John Kerry established markers.

— There is a “theology” of the two-state solution in the Democratic establishment, but the two-state solution has expired, and the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party is actually going to be providing the new policy answers on the matter.

Let me provide some long excerpts of Rhodes’s conversation with Beinart, because here you have a leading policymaker who seemingly does not aspire to office explaining how the sausage is made, and there has been scant coverage of the discussion so far. (I am going to sidestep Rhodes’s explanations of Why this is happening, and will do a second post on Rhodes’s views of how the Israel lobby, or pro-Israel organizations, as he puts it, wield influence.)

Beinart asked, How did race play into Israel policy. Did this field represent “special challenges” to a black policymaker? Rhodes said:

One million percent. Obama has said this many times. Basically he was expected to somehow prove something that a white politician would not have to prove. Look some of this is — he was friends at the University of Chicago with Rashid Khalidi. But like, he also came out of the Chicago Jewish community. He was a pretty conventional mainstream Democrat on Israel. And yet the expectation was he always had to go the extra mile. . . He had to go to synagogues in a way that I think went beyond what a white politician would have to do. Because he had to go to the synagogue and convince them that he understood Israel in a way that I don’t think is commonplace.

The phrase we heard over and over and over again, from AIPAC [Israel lobby group] types, was, ‘Well, we have to know that he feels in his kishkes.’ [guts] . . . They thought they were giving us good advice. It was borderline offensive. Three years into the administration after he’d done all these things for Israel, we were still being told that. . . Susan [Rice] had a similar hurdle.

You couldn’t escape the awkward fact that. . . part of what was threatening was, Obama is a black man, lived in an oppressed community in this country, a marginalized community in the United States, and so therefore the assumption underlying that skepticism from the Jewish community is, well then therefore he is clearly going to empathize with the Palestinians because they are treated in a marginalized way. . . because they are oppressed.

So what was so awkward about it is that the thing they were assuming which by the way might be true. . . they might be on to something there. . . that Obama understands the Palestinian experience in a way that a white person couldn’t, kind of exposes their vulnerabilty. So this was a constant subtext, and he also really would resent accusations of anti-Semitism that occasionally came his way, as if he doesn’t understand prejudice.

Rhodes told the story of Michael Oren’s “tokenism,” and Obama’s 2013 visit to Israel and Palestine (itinerary here).

The thing that kind of bugged me too was there was a kind of — well, the example I give is this when I planned the trip to Israel that Obama took. Michael Oren was the ambassador at the time. I subsequently learned, not a huge fan of mine, and he kind of planned the schedule. He would come in, and we would go through what Obama would do when he came to Israel. We wanted it to be a resonant trip that spoke to different pieces of Israeli society. The Israel museum for history. We’re going to do an enterepreneurship thing to get at the startup nation stuff.

And Oren was adamant that Obama visit this Ethiopian Jewish community. I kept saying, No, it’s fine, we love the Ethiopian Jewish community, but it was out of the way. . .

After a time. . . there was a kind of tokenism to it. Why would you want the black president to go get pictures of the black Jews? . . . There is a tokenism that creeps into the way in which they try to address this issue that also was at times present.

Rhodes told of Obama meeting privately in Ramallah with Palestinian youth, with two staffers present, as they described Israeli atrocities. “It was gutwrenching to hear. I wish people would just sit in a room and listen to that for an hour. It’s impossible to walk into that room and come out not thinking, what’s going on here.”

One student got to Obama.

The last kid in the room looked angry all the time. Just pissed. Not at all flattered that Obama was meeting with them. When it got to him, he had some horrible story. Detention. IDF soldiers cornered him in his home . . . He couldn’t take exams. [Rhodes says he can’t recall the details.]

And then he looked at Obama and said, “We are treated the same way in this country that the black people used to be treated in your country.” And he paused and he said, “Financed by your government, Mr. President.” And it was just like, the direct shot to the solar plexus.

And I remember Obama was just silent. So he got it, right?

Rhodes related the history of the disrespect for Obama by Israel in the context of the Biden administration’s collapse on the issue.

Beinart listed the pro-Israel tacks the Biden administration is taking: BDS verges on anti-Semitic. There must be no conditioning of military aid to Israel. The ICC has no jurisdiction over the occupied territories. The Biden team is adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism that includes criticisms of Israel. “You know these folks,” Beinart said. “How much do they believe this stuff?” Rhodes said:

“I share your concern that this is a pretty unsubtle collection of things that are being done to completely delegitimize criticism of Israel and the occupation at a time when de facto annexation is happening, and to make BDS the new front, the new culture war issue on this stuff.

On any one of these issues, the Biden people would be able to intellectually occupy the position: Yes, Israel should not be singled out for criticism, Yes BDS is bad and dangerous. So there’s a rationalization going on issue by issue without a stepping back to see what is happening here.

Rhodes pivoted from the Biden staff’s rationalizations to Netanyahu making life hell for these same officials under Obama.

[But on] The Israeli government? Come on! These guys were in with me. Netanyahu made our lives hell every day that he could. And every one of those people in the Biden administration know that. That we were treated with no respect, that Netanyahu undermined Obama, that he made an agreement behind Obama’s back to come address a joint session of Congress to try to blow up Obama’s foreign policy, that he was completely disingenuous in his approach to the Palestinians for years. It disappoints me why that — that history should matter!

He faulted some moves by the Biden administration.

Because some of the positions they’re taking depend on the idea that the U.S. should stay out of things that should be dealt with through negotiations. So I saw Tony Blinken — wonderful man, rooting for his success — say we would keep the embassy in Jerusalem but we couldn’t say whether we thought East Jerusalem would be part of a capital for a Palestinian state. Well number one there are no negotiations happening . . . there’s no reason we can’t address soemthing because it hasn’t been negotaited at this time . . .

Secondly, John Kerry gave a speech saying . . . that East Jerusalem would be the capital of the Palestinian state at the end of the Obama administration.

The right wing gets to frame the issue, and Biden has adopted a “defensive crouch.”

It feels like we’re in the defensive crouch. That these issues are shaped and framed and defined by the right. If you’re a mainstream Democrat, not only are you expected to take a set of positions, you’re expected to apologize for the people to your left. So, instead of saying, You know what, I’m not going to tell some 19-year-old kid who is getting politically engaged in college and is really upset by what he’s learned about how Palestinians are treated . . . who could even be . . . some liberal Jew and he joins some group that wants the university to divest from whatever, that’s made in the settlements . . . I’m not going to call that guy an anti-Semite just so that I can have a talking point at AIPAC and some congressional hearing. That’s not fair.

Not only is it wrong, but it it also allows this whole debate around Israel to be framed by Bibi Netanyahu and Mike Pompeo and Tom Cotton. Like we should have our own positions!

What would be concerning over time is if this defensive crouch bleeds into how they approach the Iran negotiations and what they say about the Palestinians, and thus far with the campaign and to date they have definitely tacked in that direction at a time when the Democratic caucus in Congress is becoming more progressive. Other Democratic candidates were willing to be more vocal [than Biden] in their criticism of certain Israeli government policies.

Rhodes said he understands the view that Biden needs to spend his political capital at the start of his administration on Covid relief. But that’s always the rationalization.

“The last thing we need is any static on Israel.” I totally get that mentality. At the same time there’s always going to be reasons to have that mentality. I guarantee it will apply a year from now because there’s going to be a midterm election, and then a year after that it will apply because there’s another election. There is always a reason to feel like it’s just not worth the headache of deviating at all from a set of positions.

Beinart then asked about the two-state solution, as the “elephant in the room.” The two-state solution bears no relationship to the situation on the ground, and the natural thing for Americans to support is equality under the law for everybody. How far is the Democratic Party from that position? Rhodes:

I think we’re pretty far away because even behind closed doors there’s a set of talking points about a two-state solution that are talking points. What was striking to me about them is they could have been written right after Oslo. They’re so out of date.

I think people believe them . . . thoughtful people. And yet if you press on it — You know we had a presentation that we would give people with the maps and showing basically how this was becoming impossible — a contiguous viable Palestinian state. And people kind of digest that and don’t really know what to say then. (ironical laughter) They didn’t know what was going to replace the talking points.

Rhodes then launched into his most savage analysis. That there has actually been a consensus against a Palestinian state in Israeli and U.S. politics and yet politicians undertake a charade.

Here’s what interesting to me, Peter, just to unpack this. I always wished and maybe it’s clarifiying given the direction Israeli politics has taken in the last few years, that the other side of this debate would just be honest. I always wished the right . . . [and this] probably encompasses some Democrats . . . would just say, We don’t believe there should be a Palestinian state. We believe in the concept of a greater Israel. We feel sorry for the Palestinians, but they’re just going to have to deal with it, because step by step, ultimately we believe that all of this land should be Israel . . . And Palestinians over time are going to have to move into Jordan or be absorbed in Lebanon and Jordan and some of them can live in Israel . . .

That’s the position of the Israeli government. Frankly that’s the position of the Republican Party. They’re more honest about it . . . and I think that’s the position of some conservative Democrats who don’t say that but I think they know what’s been happening, but they . . . [have] been playing these talking points around the two-state solution, and then blame the Palestinians for it never happening.

Rhodes became angry at the disrespect for Palestinians and the failure of the peace process. Including the Obama administration.

I got so sick of hearing, “Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” But like, when did we give them one? Well, maybe — maybe Arafat had one at Camp David . . .

I can tell you we didn’t really give them one when I was there. Not a real one. Or the Israelis didn’t.

And Israeli intransigence set the terms for U.S. politicians. Bush just said it to make war.

There’s not a broad consensus around the two-state solution. Bush said that when he wanted Tony Blair’s support for the Iraq war.

But “most Israelis,” the Republicans, and even some Democrats are all one staters. And then the U.S. has a charade:

We don’t act like that. We act like somehow Bibi Netanyahu believed in the two-state solution. We pretended to my shame at times in the Obama administration that he was interested in that. When I don’t think he was, ever.

The theology of the two-state solution will crumble in the Democratic Party and progressives will set the terms, a push for one democratic state.

In the Democratic Party in the foreign policy establishment there’s still this theology of the two-state solution, ‘that there’s some formula at some point . . .’ John Kerry believes very deeply in the two-state solution. And he really believes that there’s a formula, and I respect him for believing it by the way, I’m not being negative. He believes there are formulas of international support and negotiation and step by step processes and assurances to Israel. I think it’s harder and harder to see that and that at a minimum . . . I long favored the U.S. just putting out our positions on final status issue . . . lay down a marker. Here’s what we think should be the case. So there’s a record.

The goalposts have moved so much that this is actually what we think would have been fair, could be fair if we ever got back to it.

I think that because the Biden administration is unlikely to do much in this space, unlikely in the next four years really to try to deal with this because, what’s the point, that the Democratic Party’s views are probably going to evolve from within the caucus and the progressives– and there’s nowhere else for them to go intellectually probably than some kind of one state self determination with democratic rights set of ideas . . .

So I myself have to wrestle with this the next few years. I still believe that it would be preferable to have two states, but I have to wrestle with reality that it’s hard to see how that’s going to happen any time soon, if ever.

Finally, Rhodes got inside Netanyahu’s mind a little, and it’s not a pretty picture.

Maybe the view is, Jews have been screwed throughout history by a corrupt, cruel world, and so you know what, we have to be corrupt and cruel ourselves, that’s the only way to survive in this world . . . Look, meanwhile I’m delivering for the Jewish people. I got the capital of Jerusalem recognized in the United States. I pushed the Palestinians out, it’s working.

Not much to say after that! Though Ben Rhodes reinforces my view that Democratic officials secretly can’t stand the Israeli government, resent its power, and have real sympathy for Palestinians, and resent the fact that they are forced to undertake a humiliating charade of good faith in Israeli leaders. Why do they do that? Rhodes explained those politics too. Watch this space.


Comments (1)

  • Moshé Machover says:

    For years I have been saying that the 2-state ‘solution’ is a delusion, a deception. And that Israel – with the support of the US establishment – is planning a new Nakba, a major ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. It is waiting for an opportunity – she’at kosher – to perpetrate this genocidal crime. And now we have it confirmed from a source who was at the centre of US power.

Comments are now closed.