Israel's real friends must criticise it

To defend the new settlement plans along partisan lines is an affront to international justice.

Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, was recently quoted in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper as saying that the two countries' bilateral relationship is suffering its "worst crisis since 1975. Thirty-five years ago, Israel deployed troops in the Egyptian Sinai. The move -- of dubious legality -- quite rightly drew pressure from the US.

The recent furore, which Oren hyperbolically described as one "of historic proportions", was triggered by the ill-timed announcement that Israel plans to build 1,600 housing units in the Ramat Shlomo district of East Jerusalem. The EU foreign policy chief, Lady Ashton, has condemned the plans in no uncertain terms: "The EU position on settlements is clear. Settlements are illegal, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two state-solution impossible."

The start of 2010 has brought a marked escalation of tensions in the region. It was in this heated context that the US vice-president, Joe Biden, announced the welcome resumption of indirect peace talks, to be brokered by the US. But the announcement about settlements (which triggered Palestine's withdrawal from negotiations), coming as it did during Biden's visit, had the character of a direct affront to the Obama administration -- not to mention the long-suffering Palestinians.

According to the Guardian, President Obama has "let it be known that he now demands [that the Israelis] reverse the approval for the construction of Ramat Shlomo, make 'a substantial gesture' towards the Palestinians and declare that the status of Jerusalem is itself up for negotiation".

East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel during the 1967 war. To this day, the international community has refused to recognise the appropriation of the region from Jordan. The Israeli neighbourhoods there (housing almost 200,000 settlers) are in breach of international law, despite the misleading and divisive arguments of commentators such as the Wall Street Journal's Ruth R Wisse.

In a comment piece published today, she wonders: "Why does the White House take issue with the construction of housing for Jewish citizens within the boundaries of their own country?" The answer, Ms Wisse, is that the land in question isn't theirs to build on.

Who's "anti-Semitic"?

Netanyahu's conduct is hard to justify, but his brother-in-law Hagai Ben-Artzi's inflammatory attack against Obama -- launched in an interview with Israel Army Radio -- was beyond belief.

"For 20 years, Obama sat with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who is anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish," he said, inferring from this circumstantial detail that the president "dislikes the people of Israel". On Fox News yesterday, Obama responded by reaffirming the "special bond" between Israel and the US: "Friends are going to disagree sometimes."

Obama is unlikely to act decisively against Israel, which remains a vital ally in the Middle East. But true friends of Israel must criticise it when it's wrong.

A few years ago, a study by Steven Zunes of San Francisco University found that the country held the record for ignoring the most UN Security Council resolutions. The creditable UN Watch website complains of "a campaign to demonise and delegitimise Israel in every UN and international forum". But its reasoning is untenable and paranoid: it brands the organisation as the "Ground Zero for today's new anti-Semitism, which is the irrational scapegoating of Israel with the true intended target being Jews".

Judith Butler's 2003 essay "No, It's not anti-Semitic", published in the London Review of Books in response to the former Harvard president Lawrence Summers's alleged conflation of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic arguments, best sums up the case for "a space for dissent for Jews, and non-Jews, who have criticisms of Israel to articulate".

"If we think that to criticise Israeli violence, or to call for economic pressure to be put on the Israeli state to change its policies, is to be 'effectively anti-Semitic'," she wrote, "we will fail to voice our opposition for fear of being named as part of an anti-Semitic enterprise."

International law remains the best set of rules to judge the moral conduct of nations, as Richard Falk and Howard Friel assert in Israel-Palestine on Record. Its selective use defeats its purpose, and opens doors for abuse.

When any country errs, it should be held to account. This is not a religious or racial issue; it's a legal one.

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Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders no longer sounds so outlandish

Both men have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack.

Unlike many of us, Bernie Sanders never doubted Jeremy Corbyn. The week before the general election, the independent US senator from Vermont was addressing a crowd of progressive voters in Brighton during a whirlwind tour of the UK. An audience member asked him what advice he might have for the leader of the Labour Party. “I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn needs my advice,” Sanders replied. “I think he’s doing quite well.”

The week after the election, a delighted Sanders invoked Corbyn’s election performance in a New York Times op-ed. “The British elections should be a lesson for the Democratic Party,” he wrote, urging the Democrats to stop holding on to an “overly cautious, centrist ideology” and explaining how “momentum shifted to Labour after it released a very progressive manifesto that generated much enthusiasm among young people and workers”.

Sanders and his growing movement in the United States offered more than mere rhetorical support for Corbyn.

With the help of former members of the senator’s presidential campaign team, Momentum – the grass-roots organisation set up to support and defend Corbyn in 2015 – ran 33 training sessions across the UK, preparing thousands of Labour activists.

Momentum’s national organiser Emma Rees says that the Sanders people made a “significant contribution” to the Labour campaign with their emphasis “on having empathetic conversations that focused on the issues the voter cared about, and actually trying to persuade voters on the doorstep rather than just collecting data”.

“In the final stage, I recruited a bunch of former Bernie volunteers from around [the United States] to . . . help get out a last [get out the vote] texting assignment,” recalls Claire Sandberg, who was the digital organising director for Sanders and spent the 2017 election campaign working with Momentum in the UK. “It was an amazing thing to see them volunteering . . . while we were all asleep the night before election day.”

Is it really surprising that Sanders supporters, thousands of miles away, would want to volunteer for Corbyn? Both men are mavericks; both have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack; both, in the words of Emma Rees, “have inspired tens of thousands of people to participate in the political process and to realise their collective power” and they want “to transform society in the interests of ordinary people”. Perhaps above all else, both men have proved that left populism can win millions of votes.

According to the latest polls, if another election were held in the UK tomorrow, Corbyn would be the winner. Sanders, however, has a much higher mountain to climb in the US and faces at least three obstacles that the “British Bernie” does not.

First, Sanders leads a growing grass-roots movement but does not have the support of a party machine and infrastructure.

Corbyn may have been a backbench rebel who voted against his party whip more than 500 times before becoming party leader, but he is a lifelong Labour member.

Sanders, on the other hand, is the longest-serving independent politician in US congressional history. He declared himself a Democrat in 2015 only in order to seek the party’s presidential nomination and promptly declared himself an independent again after he was defeated by Hillary Clinton last summer.

Such behaviour has allowed establishment Democrats to portray him (wrongly) as an opportunist, an interloper who is using the Democratic Party as a vehicle for his own benefit in a country where third-party candidacies cannot succeed.

Second, Sanders has to confront an even more hostile and sceptical media than Corbyn must. Under US law, Fox News is under no obligation to be “fair and balanced” towards Sanders – nor is CNN, for that matter.

Thanks to the UK rules on broadcaster impartiality, however, Corbyn was “able to speak directly to the voters who still get their news from TV instead of the internet”, Sandberg notes. “In contrast, Bernie was completely and totally shut out by broadcast media in the US, which considered his campaign totally irrelevant.”

Third, Sanders failed to connect with minority groups, and especially with African Americans, whereas black and Asian British voters flocked to Corbyn – a veteran campaigner for the anti-racism movement.

Two out of every three ethnic-minority voters voted Labour on 8 June. “Bernie would’ve won [the Democratic nomination] if he’d had a message that resonated with 50 per cent – just 50 per cent – of black voters, because Hillary got upwards of 90 per cent in many states,” the activist and journalist Naomi Klein, who is a supporter of both Sanders and Corbyn, told me in a recent interview for my al-Jazeera English show, UpFront, which will air later this month.

Nevertheless, she is confident that Sanders can learn lessons from his own campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination, and “build a winning coalition” next time which ties together the narratives of financial, racial and gender inequality.

Just as it was a mistake to write off Jeremy Corbyn, it would be wrong to dismiss Bernie Sanders.

Despite media bias, and even though he doesn’t have a party machine behind him, Sanders today is still the most popular politician in the United States. And so this may be only the beginning of a new, transatlantic partnership between the two self-declared socialists. Those of us on the left who grew up watching Reagan and Thatcher, then Clinton and Blair, then Bush and Blair, may wish to pinch ourselves to check we’re not dreaming.

“I think by 2021,” Sandberg says, “we may see Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders.”

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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