Longtime Israel advocate Wittes says Biden must address ‘collective punishment’ of Palestinians

The Israel lobby is under huge pressure these days as the Democratic Party base becomes more sympathetic to Palestinians in the wake of the latest Israeli onslaught. A pro-Israel group, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, held an event on the Gaza conflict last week, and there were two surprising responses to the progressive shift.

David Makovsky was crudely dismissive. He expressed exasperation at progressives who link racial justice in the U.S. with the Palestinian issue — saying, “George Floyd never fired a rocket at Minneapolis, he never questioned Minnesotans’ right to exist.”

While Tamara Cofman Wittes was respectful. She said that it is now urgent for the Biden administration to address “human rights” issues in Palestine, including house demolitions and “collective punishment,” a clear reference to the Gaza blockade. Wittes said American Jews have grown “uncomfortable” with these violations of human rights.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard an Israel advocate acknowledge that Israel practices collective punishment against Palestinians, a war crime.

Here’s Makovsky, who is a center-right Zionist at the Washington Institute (AIPAC spinoff):

This was the first [Gaza] conflict since Black Lives Matter. And it’s a different lens in America. Israelis were not aware of it. And my point is George Floyd never fired a rocket at Minneapolis, he never questioned Minnesotans’ right to exist, it’s a very misleading, disingenuous  kind of analogy. I feel the critics are not being fair, just like they’re not being fair, some of them calling Israel all sorts of names. I don’t see the United States having an Arab cabinet minister, 8 Arabs in the government. I think Israel is potentially off on a new direction, a new hope.  It’s not going to be easy. This is an exciting time. 

Makovsky is saying “apartheid” is a bad name, when leading human rights groups B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch used just that name to describe the Israeli system.

Wittes, who works at the Brookings Institution, differed with Makovsky. She said that Israelis and Palestinians are now in a state of crisis and urgent action is required in the U.S., including by the Israel lobby itself, to address longtime concerns on the left.

Yes this was a very different political environment and political conversation in the United States than in previous rounds of Israel Hamas conflicts… I don’t think it is just because of BLM and the discussions of the last year. I think it is the culmination of political trends that have been building for a number of years.

Wittes cited Shibley Telhami’s polling showing that in the Democratic base– Latinx and African-Americans– and among young people including young evangelicals– there is “increased sensitivity to the human rights dimensions of the Israeli Palestinian conflict.”

Including collective punishment:

That means increased sensitivity to precisely the things that triggered this crisis, evictions, housing demolitions, collective punishment, things like that. This is something that Shibley has been pointing out for years, arguing that the Israeli government needed to take more account of it. I think Netanyahu exacerbated it in many ways by politicizing the US Israel relationship with the help of Donald Trump. But we are where we are. That doesn’t mean that I think there’s an erosion of support for Israel. The polling shows very strong support for Israel as a partner and an ally across the spectrum… But there is concern about the human rights consequences of this unresolved conflict. And that is something that I know the Jewish community cares about as well. So I think there are ways forward on this. I just think that there’s no longer any way to avoid finding ways forward on this.

Wittes is talking here to the lobby itself. We have to wake up to the human rights abuses. She knows that many liberal Jews were appalled by the Gaza onslaught:

I know that many in the Jewish community watching the events of the last few weeks have felt deeply uncomfortable. I think we need to stay uncomfortable…. We need to replace this crisis with a new political horizon. We need to feel urgency about this.

Wittes said that without action by Biden, the conflict may well take over “the entire presidential agenda” again in years to come. Without doing any grand summits, Biden has to quietly try to reengage the center, she said: the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Right now the discourse is controlled by “extremists,” from Netanyahu and the annexationists to Kahanists to Hamas.

On the same call, Ghaith al-Omari, a Palestinian conservative, said Hamas has “emerged as the winner” from the conflict. Fatah is weakened. And the official U.S. ally, the Palestinian Authority, has a “legitimacy problem.” Mahmoud Abbas was completely absent throughout the conflict.

Back to the Democratic Party changing, Peter Beinart credits Black Lives Matter for giving Palestinians a voice in U.S. politics, though he says Washington doesn’t care, yet.

When Israel went to war in Gaza in 2008-9 and 2014, the US media spoke about Palestinians far more than it spoke to them. During the most recent round of fighting, that changed. From cable TV to the nation’s op-ed pages, Palestinian voices were more prominent. One reason is that the Black Lives Matter movement has made journalists more sensitive to questions of representation…

Hansi Lo Wang made similar points today in a very good NPR report on the long support for Palestinians by black radicals in the United States, going back to Malcolm X. The piece was marred by Wang allowing Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor of Jewish history, to say that Black Lives Matter references to Israeli “apartheid” and “genocide” are “offensive.”

That type of rhetoric tends to ring the fight or flight bells of most– not all, but most of Jewish Americans. They’ll either run away from the conversation because they find that type of oratory so over the top or so offensive, or they want to contest it.

Wang should have pointed out that two human rights groups headed by Jews, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem, have lately characterized Israeli rule as apartheid.

And while it’s true that most American Jews support Israeli apartheid, and have done for many years, a shift is occurring. Just ask Tamara Cofman Wittes. She appears to be tired of holding the bag for human rights abuses.

h/t Robert Herbst, Michael Arria and Adam Horowitz.

So where are the Palestinian voices in mainstream media?

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