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An Angry White House Vows to Confront Netanyahu, But Will It End Key U.S. Support for Occupation?

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The White House says it is re-evaluating its policy toward Israel following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of a two-state solution. Administration officials have openly criticized Netanyahu for vowing no Palestinian state during his tenure and warning supporters about a high turnout of Arab voters. Netanyahu has tried to walk back his comments, but U.S. officials have suggested they might take steps including no longer vetoing U.N. Security Council resolutions critical of Israel. The dispute over Netanyahu’s comments comes amidst existing tensions over his effort to derail nuclear talks with Iran. According to The Wall Street Journal, Netanyahu’s obstructionism now includes Israeli spying on the U.S.-Iran talks and then turning over sensitive information to Republican members of Congress. Despite the frayed ties and talk of punitive U.S. action, whether the White House is prepared to end longstanding U.S. support for the occupation is the question that lies ahead. Administration officials have already vowed the billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Israel will continue unimpeded. We are joined by three guests: Lisa Goldman, a contributing editor at +972 Magazine and a fellow at the New America Foundation; Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh, a physician, author and Palestinian citizen of Israel; Yousef Munayyer, executive director of U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: A new report accuses Israel of spying on nuclear talks between Iran, the U.S. and other world powers. According to The Wall Street Journal, Israel fed the obtained intelligence to congressional Republicans as part of its effort to block a nuclear deal. The news comes as the White House is already reassessing its policy toward Israel following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of a two-state solution. In recent days, administration officials, from President Obama on down, have openly criticized Netanyahu for vowing no Palestinian state and warning supporters about a high turnout of Arab voters. The comments helped Netanyahu win re-election last week, but they’ve also worsened U.S.-Israeli ties already threatened by the standoff over talks with Iran.

On Monday, White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough became the latest administration official to criticize Netanyahu’s comments. Speaking to the group J Street, McDonough said the U.S. cannot ignore Netanyahu’s disavowal of a two-state solution.

CHIEF OF STAFF DENIS McDONOUGH: After the election, the prime minister said that he had not changed his position. But for many in Israel and in the international community, such contradictory comments call into question his commitment to a two-state solution, as did his suggestion that the construction of settlements has a strategic purpose of dividing Palestinian community, and his claim that conditions in the larger Middle East must be more stable before a Palestinian state can be established. We cannot simply pretend that these comments were never made.

AARON MATÉ: Denis McDonough went on to say Israel’s nearly 50-year occupation of Palestinians must end. But whether the White House is prepared to drop longstanding U.S. support for the occupation is the question that lies ahead. The Obama administration has said it’s now considering not blocking, or maybe even backing, a U.N. Security Council resolution that would call for a two-state solution based on an Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories.

AMY GOODMAN: That would be a major change. The Obama administration has previously vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions advancing Palestinian statehood and criticizing Israeli settlement activity, even when those measures affirm official U.S. policy.

Amidst U.S. criticism and talk of a new approach, Netanyahu has tried to walk back his comments. Just three days after vowing no Palestinian state on the eve of the vote, Netanyahu backtracked in an interview with MSNBC. Then, on Monday, Netanyahu expressed regret for his comments about Arab voters.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [translated] I know that the things I said a few days ago offended Israel’s Arabs. I had no intention for this to happen. I regret this. My actions as prime minister, including the great investments in the minority sectors, prove the total opposite. Equally, I think it’s forbidden that any foreign body will intervene in the processes of our democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Despite talk that his comments could trigger a change in U.S. policy, there are other signs the status quo will prevail. White House officials have vowed the billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Israel will continue unimpeded. And so far there’s been no change in policy at the U.N. On Monday, the U.S. joined Israel in boycotting a U.N. Human Rights Council session on alleged violations during last year’s assault on Gaza.

For more, we’re joined by three guests. Lisa Goldman is with us, contributing editor at +972 Magazine and a fellow at the New America Foundation. Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh is a physician, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and the author of the recently released short story collection, Chief Complaint: A Country Doctor’s Tales of Life in Galilee. And Yousef Munayyer joins us. He’s executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. He recently wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times headlined “Netanyahu’s Win is Good for Palestine.”

Yousef, let’s begin with you. Why?

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Well, I think it’s very good precisely because of what we’ve seen transpiring in the last several days. Look, the mask has fallen off of the face of Benjamin Netanyahu. He has, for many years, pretended to play along with the rhetoric of the peace process, while acting in a way that is very much opposed to that outcome. But now, because of the statement that he’s made and because of the mandate that he’s gotten from a Israeli electorate, it’s very clear that the process of the past, no one can pretend that that can still go on. So we need to have a significant period of reassessment in policy now. And, you know, the United States and its allies around the world, which have been talking about this peace process for a two-state framework, have just been served a very significant reality check. And they have to be honest with themselves, and they have to be honest with everybody else in the international community who seeks a just outcome here, and re-evaluate their position on this, because it’s clear that the peace process has really not brought Palestinians closer to statehood, it’s only brought them further away, because it’s served as a cover for continued Israeli settlement expansion. So, what’s good about this election is that, as I said, the mask has fallen, and we cannot pretend anymore. It’s time to take a seriously different position on these issues.

AARON MATÉ: Yousef, what do you make of the proposed steps that the administration has suggested it might take in response to Netanyahu—no longer standing in the way of its own policy at the U.N., so not blocking a measure that might condemn the illegal settlements, or possibly even advancing a resolution that affirms a Palestinian state based on an Israeli withdrawal from the territories, also potentially not blocking a Palestinian attempt at the International Criminal Court? Is that significant, and do you actually think any of it will happen?

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Well, you know, in the introduction to this section, you mentioned the comments made yesterday at a gala by an Obama administration official saying that the occupation that has lasted for 50 years must end. The reality is, the United States had that position on November 22nd of 1967, when they voted in support of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242. At that point, the occupation had only been around for six months. So, you know, when we hear things like that, and we hear about the prospect of perhaps the United States changing their voting behavior at the United Nations, that’s great to see, but it really has to translate into action, not just in terms of abstentions, even though that would be a good thing, but we also need to see the United States addressing its complicity in the Israeli occupation, ending U.S. military aid to Israel, ending support for the settlements through all sorts of exemptions on taxes that U.S. taxpayers are taking advantage of to funnel money into settlements, enforcing laws on the books in the United States that would make military units within the Israeli military ineligible for any sort of aid from the United States or training precisely because they have engaged in the human rights abuses and violations of international law that are featured in this military occupation. So there’s a lot of steps that the United States can take to actually put its actions in line with its words and its stated goals. But I think that, you know, until we see those changes really happen, I’m not going to believe that the United States is actually committed to a different outcome than the outcome that it has brought into the situation through its support for Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh, you are here in the United States, so you weren’t able to vote in the Israeli elections.

DR. HATIM KANAANEH: That’s true.

AMY GOODMAN: You were not one of those Israeli Arabs who went out in, quote, “droves” that Prime Minister Netanyahu warned his supporters about to—he said, to get them out to vote. Can you talk about Netanyahu’s election? You live in Galilee.

DR. HATIM KANAANEH: Yes, I’m a citizen of Israel since day one. And our community, actually, for the first time, the various factions that ran for the Knesset, usually, and spent their force by arguing internally—for the first time, they were able to constitute a single list and to address some—

AMY GOODMAN: That was the Joint List that came in third in the elections.

DR. HATIM KANAANEH: That’s the Joint List that came in as the third largest party in Israel. And they were able to address some of the more relevant community issues vis-à-vis the central authority of the state. And with that, I mean, for me, that does give me some hope in the future, because, in fact, in the last week, the leader of that list, Ayman Odeh, became for a little while sort of the sweetheart of the media in Israel. And so, there is potential for us to place sometime in the future, despite the fact that so far no prime minister in Israel ever negotiated with the Palestinian political parties to form a coalition. So there is some hope, from my point of view, despite the rightward shift in the result of the elections.

AARON MATÉ: Lisa Goldman of the New America Foundation, do you also take some hope from the results of the election?

LISA GOLDMAN: In a way, yes, I do. I agree with Dr. Kanaaneh that the really good showing of the Joint List, which got 13 seats, making it the third largest party in the Knesset, is a very interesting development. A couple of my Arab friends said to me that Ayman Odeh is the most inspiring leader in the Middle East, and he’s an Israeli citizen, or the most inspiring Arab leader. He’s a very mature guy. In a couple of—in one particular television debate, he was confronted with members of Knesset or party leaders who are just—you know, made nakedly racist, Jim Crow-like remarks to him. And he just responded with very inclusive, bridge-building, intelligent, sort of charismatic statements that really caught the attention and the imagination of the Jewish population.

AMY GOODMAN: Denis McDonough, the chief of staff of President Obama, his comments, calling Netanyahu’s comments very troubling—


AMY GOODMAN: —were made at the J Street conference. You were there.

LISA GOLDMAN: Yes, I was there.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what J Street is? And your being there, what are the debates that are going on there?

LISA GOLDMAN: So, actually, J Street this year was very, very interesting, for a couple of reasons. I think the main reason was, one of my friends, actually, an Arab friend of mine who was there, said it sounds like the liberal Zionists are sitting shiva for their ideology. I wouldn’t go quite that far; he was joking, of course. But there was a sense, like J Street is an organization—it’s an NGO. It’s a liberal Jewish NGO—well, not just Jewish, but their slogan is pro-Israel and pro-peace, and they advocate for a two-state solution. They sort of are—by many, are regarded as a liberal-left version of AIPAC. And they’ve had some interesting successes. I think that they’re—you know, they’re a very interesting organization in the sense that they try very hard to bring disparate voices under a single umbrella to talk about alternative solutions.

But there are a lot of people who were at J Street who said, “Look, you know, with all due respect, the two-state solution is a wonderful idea, but it’s a bit late.” And I’m actually one of those people. And I don’t advocate ideologically one state. I don’t think it’s, you know, going to be the best outcome, just for pragmatic reasons. But I just think that at this point, talking about a two-state solution, negotiating it—you know, we’re 20 years after the Oslo agreement, we have 500,000 Jewish settlers—I think it’s just a bit too late.

AARON MATÉ: That’s a point many people make, but it’s one that I don’t get. The two-state solution is what the law is. And Oslo was designed, from the beginning, to destroy the two-state solution. Israel never intended to give Palestinian statehood, and they intended to increase their control over the parts of the West Bank that they wanted—the settlements and the key water reserves. So why declare Palestinian statehood dead just because of the illegality of an expanding occupation?

LISA GOLDMAN: Well, I mean, that’s an interpretation, right? But no one’s actually said Oslo—nobody who was involved in negotiating the Oslo agreement said, “Actually, we were just joking. The point was to take over the Palestinian resources.”

AARON MATÉ: Israeli leaders were explicit on this point. Rabin, Yitzhak Rabin, who founded the peace process, he was opposed to a Palestinian state. Shlomo Ben-Ami, who’s been on our show, the former foreign minister, was explicit that it was founded on a neocolonialist basis. That’s a quote from him. So I—anyway, yeah, your response?

LISA GOLDMAN: I mean, it’s—I think it’s a subject for debate. It’s not one that I personally like to engage in. I tend to look more at the reality. And I think that Oslo has been an absolute disaster for the Palestinians. I absolutely agree with that. But officially, on the face of it, that’s not the way it was originally presented. It was presented as a means of negotiating two states for two peoples. That was the official line.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to the J Street conference in Washington. On Monday, the Israeli writer, Noam Sheizaf, a co-founder of the online magazine +972, criticized J Street and the Obama administration for backing Israel’s most recent assault on Gaza, and said that should be discussed.

NOAM SHEIZAF: The one word that wasn’t mentioned in here was Gaza. And the problem is Gaza. And what the Israeli public chose is another Gaza. And I think people should understand that. And I think stepping out of the comfort zone is not talking about Netanyahu. I think attacking Netanyahu is easy for everyone on this panel and for everyone in this room. I think that we should discuss the position we took about Gaza, the position Labor took, the position this organization took. And I feel from the responses they get that the public is ready, our public is ready for this debate. America has opened its bunkers for Israel when Israel ran out of shells in the middle of the war. And I think this is what we need to be discussing in this room. And to be honest, in this day, I didn’t hear a lot of talk about that.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Israeli writer Noam Sheizaf addressing J Street, criticizing J Street. Yousef Munayyer, your response?

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Oh, I think his criticism is very warranted, and I think he’s on point. And I think it’s important that he made that criticism, and it was heartening to hear that he got the applause that he did in the face of that criticism at that convention.

Look, I think the big problem with J Street is that it advocates for an outcome, but does not advocate for any concrete steps towards actually realizing that outcome. You know, you cannot say you support a two-state solution and the emergence of a Palestinian state, and also fail to advocate for any changes in policy that would bring that about. And what we’ve seen from J Street is advocacy for continued negotiations, which have only acted as a cover for the very settlement expansion that they deplore. So, because of the sort of the precarious position that they’re in, in trying to be both pro-Israel and pro-peace, even though the Israeli state has its entrenched interests focused on maintaining the occupation, put it in such a place so that it can’t effectively do what it says it wants to do. And so it’s become something of a transitory state for people who are overcoming their previous affinity with the state of Israel and Zionism as they progress along a spectrum that is increasingly critical. And to the extent that it plays that role as a transitory step, I think it’s fine. Beyond that, though, I don’t think it’s doing much of anything effective.

AARON MATÉ: And, Yousef, we have 30 seconds. You’re the director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. At this moment when U.S.-Israeli ties are so low, what happens next for activism here in the U.S.?

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: I think there’s really only one answer to that question. And that is, in every way possible, the costs of occupation to the Israeli state have to increase. For many years they have decreased, and it’s become very easy for Israel to consider a future where perpetual occupation—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Yousef. We thank you so much for being with us, Yousef Munayyer, Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh and Lisa Goldman.

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