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Mahmoud Ahmed, 34, gives a tour of his apartment, which was severely damaged by an Israeli airstrike on a neighboring building, May 24, 2021, in Magazzi, the Gaza Strip. John Minchillo | AP

Why the Overton window has suddenly shifted on Israel-Palestine

Originally published: MintPress News (May 24, 2021)   | 

The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin once said of history that there are decades that go by where nothing happens, and there are weeks where entire decades happen. In the past week, it seems as if the U.S. attitude towards Israel and Palestine has changed more than in the previous 50 years. Everybody seems to be acknowledging it, from progressive media to pillars of the establishment like The New York Times and The Washington Post. “The dam is cracking,” wrote Abier Khatib of the Open Society Foundation.

Objectively, the violence during Operation Protective Edge–the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza–was far worse. Even as Israeli forces broke the newly adopted ceasefire just hours after they signed it, storming the Al-Aqsa Mosque again on Friday, the casualties are nothing like those of seven years ago, when well over two thousand Palestinians were killed. Yet in 2014, the reaction from the American political elite was one of total support for Israel.

As Ryan Grim from The Intercept noted, at the peak of the 2014 onslaught, Jessica Ramos, a progressive Democratic Party district leader in Queens, New York, took to Facebook simply to post the message “Palestine <3,” a statement that elicited a storm of condemnation and near hysteria from the political and media classes.

But seven years later, Ramos’ innocuous statement is nothing to the strong denunciations of Israel seen in the highest halls of power. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, straightforwardly labeled Israel as the “oppressor,” condemning it for the “forced removal of people in their homes,” subjecting Palestinian children to military trials, and the “dehumanization of the lives of the Palestinians by having roads and entrances that are separate for some people which, all too often, looks like former South Africa.” This is not a both-sides issue, he concluded, insisting that “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), herself no radical, described Israel as an “apartheid” state. Ilhan Omar (DFL-MN), one of the first Muslim women to serve in Congress, denounced the violence. “The United States should not stand idly by while crimes against humanity are being committed with our backing,” she said.

A number of other prominent Democrats even offered a structural critique of U.S. empire, directly linking oppression abroad with oppression at home, in the style of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he said that the United States is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) stood up in Congress to condemn the Biden administration’s pro-Israel vetoes at the U.N. Security Council and suggested that “we are scared to stand up to the incarceration of children in Palestine because maybe it will force us to confront the incarceration of children here on our border. By standing up to the injustices there, it will prompt us to stand up to the injustices here.”

“The ethnic cleansing continues now,” said Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib at a protest outside the State Department.

What they are doing to the Palestinian people is what they continue to do to our black brothers and sisters here; …it is all interconnected.

“I rise today in solidarity with the Palestinian people,” began Rep. Cori Bush’s (D-MO) speech in Congress, a statement utterly unthinkable just a few years ago. Bush linked the systematic state oppression of people of color in the U.S. with that of the U.S. empire abroad. “The equipment that they used to brutalize us [at Ferguson] is the same equipment that we send to the Israeli military and police to terrorize Palestinians,” she said.

Centrists quiet

Perhaps more significant than the full-throated solidarity for Palestine from progressives, the New York Times suggested, was the conspicuous silence of the establishment wing of the party. Famously pro-Israel senator Chuck Schumer, it noted, has been “largely silent” since the assault began on May 7. The Times, generally strongly pro-Israeli government, even gave Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) an article to state categorically that “Palestinian Lives Matter.”

Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, went further than most of her colleagues, very publicly accosting Joe Biden on his trip to Michigan, forcing a response from the president and showing the efficacy of inconveniencing those in positions of power.

Democrats nationwide are paying close attention to the mayoral race in New York City. Andrew Yang, who drew a great deal of his support from the left and those who wanted to see an anti-establishment figure win, has seen his numbers crash spectacularly after endorsing Israeli actions in Gaza this month. “I’m standing with the people of Israel who are coming under bombardment attacks, and condemn the Hamas terrorists. The people of NYC will always stand with our brothers and sisters in Israel who face down terrorism and persevere,” he said. As a consequence, Yang has faced a rebellion from his own supporters, and has been consistently heckled by New Yorkers to the point of canceling publicity events. In March, he was polling at 32%–the runaway favorite for mayor. Today, his support has dropped to 15% and he has fallen into third place, per findings from Polling USA.

The Taiwanese-American entrepreneur should have seen this coming. In March, he was strongly challenged by podcast hosts Krystal Ball and Kyle Kulinski–two progressives very supportive of his candidacy–on his opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Yang dodged the question then but had time to see the writing on the wall.

Media moves off its square

Likewise, three years ago, CNN fired its contributor Professor Marc Lamont Hill over his speech at the United Nations, where he compared Israel to apartheid South Africa and hoped for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.” That phrase, critics claimed, is a Hamas dog whistle calling for the destruction of Israel.

Yet last week MSNBC host Ali Velshi felt comfortable going on a long monologue lambasting Israel and calling for a complete rethink of U.S. foreign policy with respect to the Jewish state.

“The idea that it is even remotely controversial to call what Israel has imposed on Palestinians a form of apartheid is laughable. One look at a current map of Israel, Gaza, and the Occupied Territories conjures up only one other example: apartheid-era South Africa,” Velshi told his huge audience, as he highlighted how Israel systematically restricts Gazans use of electricity and free movement.

Other MSNBC contributors were equally scathing. “The latest Israel-Palestine crisis isn’t a ‘real estate dispute.’ It’s ethnic cleansing,” read one headline.

Meanwhile, political comedian John Oliver took aim at the “both sides” rhetoric of much of the media, noting that “there is a massive imbalance when it comes to the two sides’ weaponry and capabilities,” and joking that bombing an international press office building “sure seems like a war crime regardless of whether you send a courtesy heads-up text.”

A headline like this was once unthinkable for the Times

A headline like this was once unthinkable for the Times

Astonishingly, one could even hear accurate condemnation of the Israeli government on Fox News. Contributor Geraldo Rivera sounded almost like an anti-war activist as he told viewers that the United States had helped Israel turn Gaza into “one of the world’s largest prison camps.” “It’s outrageous that we gave Israel these hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons without insisting on a ceasefire now,” he said, judging that the people of the U.S. are “complicit in an ongoing crime against humanity,” and even praising Congresswoman Tlaib for her stance.

“The ‘Unshakable’ Bonds of Friendship With Israel Are Shaking” wrote senior New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who started his column by stating “If you oppose war crimes only by your enemies, it’s not clear that you actually oppose war crimes.” Kristof condemned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for bringing down a “rain of destruction that has killed scores of children, damaged 17 hospitals and clinics and forced 72,000 people to flee their homes,” and rejected the notion that criticism of Israel was anti-Semitic. In recent days, the Times has been full of articles about the changing attitude to Israel/Palestine, seemingly priming readers for a sudden shift in perspective.

Opening the Overton window

A key concept in sociology and political science is the Overton window: the range of ideas politically acceptable in mainstream life at any given time. Ideas inside the window are considered sensible and rational while those outside are brushed off as too radical or unthinkable. It appears that all of a sudden the Overton window on Israel/Palestine is rapidly shifting. But why is this? To understand better, MintPress spoke to a number of academics, experts and rights groups familiar with the subject.

“There’s no question that discourse about Israel and Palestine has shifted significantly since our book ‘The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy’ was published [in 2007], although U.S. policy still lags behind this shift,” said Stephen Walt of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. When the book was published in 2007, it elicited a “furious backlash” from Jewish groups, academics and politicians that threatened to end Walt and his co-author John Mearshimer’s careers. Former CIA director James Woolsey condemned it as “stunningly deceptive,” while the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League wrote an entire book-length rebuttal attempting to prove Mearshimer and Walt were anti-Semites.

Walt maintains that much of the blame for the shift must be laid at the feet of the Israeli government itself, explaining to MintPress that:

Firstly, it became increasingly difficult to overlook the Netanyahu government’s opposition to a viable Palestinian state and its continued efforts to expand settlements and create a ‘Greater Israel.’ This problem was all-too-clear during the Obama administration, which tried very hard to promote a two-state solution, offered Israel lots of additional support, and got stiffed at every turn. Netanyahu’s open alignment with U.S. Republicans probably reinforced a growing split with many Democrats.

In 2015, Netanyahu accepted an invitation from the GOP to speak at a Joint Session of Congress, where he harangued President Obama and attempted to scuttle the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal–thus openly interfering in American politics. His closeness to Obama successor Donald Trump only deepened this rift. Before, support for Israel was considered a bipartisan no-brainer. But today, senior Republican figures consistently paint the Democrats as Palestinian sympathizers and the GOP as Israel’s only true friend, breaking that framework. Today, polls show that Republicans are overwhelmingly pro-Israeli, but more Democrats’ sympathies lie with Palestinians.

The fact that Netanyahu himself is now tweeting out videos from far-right pseudo-university PragerU as his military offensive sputters suggests that he is aware that maintaining bipartisan support is untenable and that his administration has decided to throw their lot in with the GOP and hope for the best.

Netanyahu and the Israeli government still maintain unwavering support from the extremely large Evangelical Christian movement. Chris Hedges–an ordained minister and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who spent years as the New York Times’ Bureau Chief in Jerusalem–explained that the root of their support lies in right-wing prophecies about the end times. For their fulfillment, these prophecies require Israel to be under Jewish control and for the al-Aqsa Mosque to be destroyed. Only when this happens will the righteous ascend to heaven and the damned (including the Jewish people) be cast into hell. Hedges told MintPress on Thursday:

There is this bizarre alliance between the ultra right in Israel and the Christian right [in the U.S.] even though at their core the Christian right is deeply anti-Semitic because it does not recognize the legitimacy of Judaism. And that political alliance has strengthened as a new generation of American Jews no longer have the emotional ties to Israel as the older generation has and many of them have begun to question the murderous repression of the apartheid state.

Globally, Israel has aligned itself with a new cadre of right-wing authoritarian governments, such as Narendra Modi’s India and Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Many far-right anti-Semitic hate groups also ironically hold the state of Israel in high regard, as they see the Jewish supremacist state as a model for their own dreams of a white nationalist nation. For example, Norwegian fascist terrorist Anders Brevik, whose manifesto is full of anti-Semitic allegations about Jews, professes to “love” the idea and implementation of Zionist Israel for precisely this reason.

For all the pinkwashing and vegan washing, it is clear Israeli society has lurched to the right, so much so that even former Prime Minister Ehud Barak has warned that the country has been infected with fascism. A 2016 poll found that 48% of Jewish Israelis wanted to see the Arab population ethnically cleansed.

MintPress also spoke to esteemed Jewish American academic Noam Chomsky, author of the classic 1983 book “Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel and the Palestinians.” “In the 1970s, the Israeli government made a fateful decision to choose expansion over security,” Chomsky said, explaining:

There were clear options for a political settlement on the international border, a two-state settlement in which both Israel and a new Palestinian state would have ‘the right to exist in peace and security’ within secure and recognized borders–to quote the words of a UN Security Resolution supported by the main Arab states, bitterly opposed by Israel, vetoed by Washington, one of many such opportunities. It was predictable then–and predicted–that the result would be Israel’s greater resort to violence and repression, moral degeneration, and drift to the racist right.

Israel is, therefore, playing a very dangerous game, aligning itself with far-right regimes and embracing groups that hate Jews the most, even as it attacks anti-racist movements like the British Labour Party under Jeremy Cobyn.

Jumping the shark with American Jews

The fact that it has moved steadily rightward presents serious problems for Israel, which needs the constant diplomatic, economic and military support of the world’s sole superpower to maintain itself in its current form. As a whole, Jewish Americans are distinctly liberal: 71% identify as Democrats. And while 58% still feel emotionally attached to Israel, a majority of the younger generation report no connection to the state. Today, more Jewish Americans say the U.S. is too supportive of Israel than not supportive enough, and more than twice as many rate Netanyahu as a poor leader than a good one.

Professor Walt suggested that much of the reason for this internal shift has been the tireless activism of young Jewish people themselves. “The creation of pro-peace groups such as J Street and the courageous writings of Peter Beinart and others have opened eyes even more. The work of Israeli groups such as Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem was very important too, along with international groups such as Human Rights Watch,” Walt told MintPress adding:

Generational change here in the U.S. (both within the American Jewish community and more broadly in society) has undermined the old narratives about Israel and focused attention on minority rights. And the old claim that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East” rings hollow when it treats its own Arab citizens as second-class and continues to repress the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Both B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch came out with reports this year formally designating Israel an apartheid regime, providing many more with the framework and structure to repeat the allegation. “It was inevitable that Human Rights Watch would have to declare Israel an apartheid state and, from what I hear, Amnesty International is going to be next to say it,” Asa Winstanley of the Electronic Intifada told MintPress. “It puts Israel’s backers in a difficult spot because Human Rights Watch is really part of the establishment, so they cannot just dismiss it and it makes it impossible to ignore… It is harder for them to say Human Rights Watch is anti-Semitic, but they’re trying it anyway,” he added.

Credit | Jewish Voice for Peace

Credit | Jewish Voice for Peace

Others emphasized the work of Palestinian activists worldwide for helping shift the Overton window. “There has been positive movement in terms of how people in the U.S. talk about Palestine, and I think we can attribute this change to the work Palestinians are doing on the ground in Palestine and here in the United States,” Danaka Katovich, Middle East and Peace Collective coordinator for CODEPINK, a female-led anti war group, told MintPress:

Still, Palestinians risk a lot when they speak out against the occupation. They risk losing their jobs, educational opportunities, and more. It’s their bravery, determination, and stories that I think have caused the shift that we are seeing today. However, there is still much to be done to change the discourse.

Another difference from the days of Operation Protective Edge in 2014 is the composition of Congress. Since 2016, a new wave of far more progressive Democrats has been elected and challenged the party hierarchy from the left on a number of issues, forcing many to, at least rhetorically, support policies like a Green New Deal, Medicare for All and higher minimum wages. Israel/Palestine is a foreign policy issue on which they have stood firm as well. Some in this new wave, such as Ilhan Omar or Rashida Tlaib, are Muslim, but other Democrats taking a new line towards Israel, such as Jon Ossoff, are Jewish. Together, there are now simply too many elected officials speaking out to effectively attack them all at once.

“After our book was published, it became easier for people to talk about the elephant in the room (i.e., the power of AIPAC and other groups in the lobby). Everybody knew that what we had said was true, but now it was easier to speak of it. What had been a taboo subject was now out in the open,” Walt concluded.

Chomsky has also noticed a difference. In the past, he said he needed police protection to speak about Israel, lest his lectures were broken up by demonstrations. But this has not been the case for some time. “Palestinian solidarity is one of the biggest issues on campus,” he stated in an interview with Democracy Now! “[There has been an] enormous change.”

The online battlefield

The rise of the internet and social media has played a big part in reshaping how the public sees the conflict. Previously, virtually all images of the Middle East Americans saw came mediated through the enormous corporate news giants. Today, however, most people have a high quality video camera in their pocket and the ability to share images with millions of people online. This has helped break the grip over communication previously held by just a few companies.

Raw images have undermined carefully crafted narrative from the Israeli government. Walt brought up the example of the 2010 Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara aid ship as an example of social media “tarnishing” Israel’s image, stating that “it has become impossible to see Israel as a weak and vulnerable David surrounded by a menacing Arab Goliath; instead, we all see a powerful Israel using its superior military capabilities to oppress millions of innocent people and deny them political rights.”

Chomsky was of a similar opinion, that as Israeli crimes have become more egregious they have been more difficult to suppress. “By now Israel’s internal racism has come under more scrutiny as well. With the veil of intense propaganda being lifted slowly, crucial U.S. participation in Israeli crimes is also coming more clearly into view. With committed activism, that could have salutary effects,” he said.

Israel is uniquely preoccupied with trying to control its image online. The government employs professional trolls to promote their country online and defame critics. The Israeli state also has many deep connections with the social media giants. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked boasted that she worked closely with Facebook to censor Palestinian voices, with the Silicon Valley corporation agreeing to take down around 95% of the content she asked them to. Today, former Director General of the Ministry of Justice Emi Palmor sits on Facebook’s advisory council, the board ultimately responsible for content moderation on the world’s largest news and social media platform. In her previous role in the Israeli government, Palmor directly oversaw the systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the stripping of the Palestinians’ legal rights.

Palestinian advocates are constantly harrassed, and many have their accounts flagged and reported spuriously. This reached a fever pitch last week, as hundreds reported being locked out of their accounts. When asked for comment by MintPress, Facebook insisted that it was merely a “technical bug.” MintPress CEO Mnar Muhawesh Adley was locked out of both her private and public accounts.

Israel certainly has not helped itself in the way it has treated foreign journalists over the past two weeks. On May 15, Israeli airstrikes targeted the 11-story building that housed the headquarters of both Al-Jazeera and the Associated Press, levelling it to the ground. Rather than apologize, the IDF insinuated that those organizations were in league with Hamas terrorists. The IDF also roughed up veteran CNN correspondent Ben Wedeman and his team. In total Israel has destroyed the offices of at least 23 media outlets in the space of just a few days, according to Reporters Without Borders. Foreign media have also been blocked from entering Gaza for weeks.

This ould yet prove to be an own goal, seeing as Israel relies upon Western media to launder its image. But brazenly attacking your partners is simply not a good long-term strategy, and could end up being a “big mistake,” as MSNBC wrote.

A chance like no other

With the United States changing its focus from the Middle East to China and the Pacific, the signs are there that the taboo around criticizing the Israeli occupation can be broken and that the Overton window is rapidly shifting. Although Joe Biden is nothing if not a committed Zionist, he has also proven to be willing to change his views to suit the prevailing current. There has been no serious change yet; the U.S. government is still supporting Israel, but there appears to be a serious rebellion both from inside the Democratic Party and among many in the corporate media. The task for those who support the end to the occupation is to expand the Overton window and put radical change on the agenda. The times are a-changin’.

Monthly Review does not necessarily adhere to all of the views conveyed in articles republished at MR Online. Our goal is to share a variety of left perspectives that we think our readers will find interesting or useful. —Eds.
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