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Marc Lamont Hill & Mitchell Plitnick on ICC Probe & the “Palestine Exception” in Progressive Politics

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Israel and the United States blasted the International Criminal Court’s decision to open a probe into Israeli war crimes in the Palestinian territories, as well as crimes committed by Palestinian militant groups. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that the Biden administration “firmly opposes” an investigation. Mitchell Plitnick and Marc Lamont Hill, co-authors of “Except for Palestine,” say it’s an illustration of the “Palestine exception” that makes even supposedly progressive people unwilling to criticize Israel’s human rights abuses and its ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories. “We are attempting to show that the American left — those who identify as progressive, radical, liberal, what have you — have not held up the bargain in terms of matching their own ideals and values on this question of Israel and Palestine,” says Hill.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

The International Criminal Court has officially opened a probe into Israeli war crimes in the Palestinian territories, as well as crimes committed by Palestinian militant groups. Israel and the United States blasted the decision. Israel is not a member of the ICC, but the Palestinians joined the court in 2015. Israel has argued the court has no jurisdiction over the Occupied Territories because Palestine is not an independent state. On Wednesday, Wasel Abu Yousef of the Palestinian Liberation Organization welcomed the ICC decision.

WASEL ABU YOUSEF: [translated] This decision is so important because it shows that justice will be imposed on those who carry out crimes against the Palestinian people or any crime in the world. The Israeli occupation thought that they were exempt from the crimes that they committed and that they won’t be questioned for these crimes. Today, this decision will cut off the ways for occupation to continue committing these crimes. I think the occupation will think deeply about how to defend itself in front of the court.

AMY GOODMAN: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by claiming the ICC decision is anti-Semitic.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: The decision of the International Court to open investigation against Israel today for war crimes is absurd. It’s undiluted anti-Semitism and the height of hypocrisy. … This court, that was established to prevent the repetition of the Nazi horrific crimes committed against the Jewish people, is now turning its guns against the one and only state of the Jewish people. It’s targeting Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East. But, of course, it turns a blind eye to Iran, Syria and the other dictatorships that are committing real war crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: The Biden administration also criticized the ICC. Secretary of State Tony Blinken said, quote, “The United States firmly opposes and is deeply disappointed by this decision. The ICC has no jurisdiction over this matter. … We will continue to uphold our strong commitment to Israel and its security, including by opposing actions that seek to target Israel unfairly,” Blinken said.

Still with us, the co-authors of the new book, Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics, Marc Lamont Hill, Temple University professor of media studies and urban education, and Mitchell Plitnick, president of ReThinking Foreign Policy, also the former director of the U.S. office of B’Tselem and former co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace.

Marc Lamont Hill, let’s begin with your response to the ICC decision to investigate Israel for war crimes.

MARC LAMONT HILL: I am always skeptical of the ability to adjudicate these matters in international criminal courts, not because I don’t believe in them, but because I’m often skeptical that they’ll actually produce a fair and just outcome. But this is a moment of promise. This is a moment of possibility. The fact that the ICC last month acknowledged that it had jurisdiction and this month says that it’s going to actually open up an investigation, I think, is extraordinary.

It’s important, though, to respond to what Prime Minister Netanyahu said. First, this is not a probe exclusively targeted toward Israel. Obviously, Hamas will also be investigated — and, ostensibly, the PA could be, although this is largely about Operation Protective Edge, and so it won’t focus on them — meaning that any war crimes in the territories and in the area could be investigated.

Second, the idea that the ICC is somehow targeting Israel, to me, is a bit curious, when, quite frankly, the African countries are the only people who seem to get any kind of rebuke or censure or criticism from the international courts, whether it’s Muammar Gaddafi, whether we’re looking at the LRA in Uganda. I mean, we could look — we could look at Sudan. I mean, the critiques of the — or, the actions of the ICC are largely directed toward African nations, not the West, not Europe and not Israel. And it would be anti-Semitic — it would absolutely be anti-Semitic to only investigate Israel, to only focus on Israel. But the ICC is not attempting to do that.

And then, finally, the argument, somehow, that Palestine is not a state, and therefore is not able to appeal to the ICC, simply is contradicted by international law. It’s contradicted by the U.N.’s decision a few years ago. They absolutely have the jurisdiction. And this is an opportunity for not just Israel, but for the United States, to actually reset relations with the ICC and actually move toward an investigation that could produce justice.

And the fact that the Biden administration has resisted that, and that this is one of those areas where Biden has not reversed course from Trump — right? He reversed Trump — he reverses from Trump on Muslim bans, on the Paris accords, on all these issues. But on the ICC, he’s making a different choice, and that different choice is very disappointing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Mitchell, your response to the ICC decision to investigate both Palestinians and Israelis for war crimes? And if you could respond — I mean, Marc said about Netanyahu saying that Israel is being singled out and that it’s principally African nations that have been investigated by the ICC. But what about war crimes being committed elsewhere, from Syria to Yemen? Those have not been referred to the ICC. Could you respond to that?

MITCHELL PLITNICK: So, yeah. I mean, first of all, I share with Marc a skepticism about the outcome of the ICC investigation. First of all, the current prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, will be stepping down in June, and her replacement, Karim Khan, is someone — we don’t know what he thinks specifically about this issue, but we do know that both the United States and Israel are optimistic about his appointment, so that kind of makes me nervous about where this is going to go.

On top of that, Hamas, because of the nature of the two sides and the weaponry that Israel has versus the weaponry Hamas has, Hamas uses weaponry that is, by definition, indiscriminate. It cannot distinguish between its targets. It’s very difficult to aim properly. So it’s going to be — it does not meet the standards of international law. Almost by definition, Hamas will be found guilty of war crimes, whereas, with Israel, it’s much more — it’s more difficult, and there are more questions of international law involved. So I’m skeptical about a positive outcome here, as Marc is, which is not to say that war crimes were not committed. I think that’s clear. The question is not, you know, what we know happened, but what we can prove happened. And that’s always a problem because of the way international law is constructed. So, starting with that.

As far as what Netanyahu said, first, let me say, as a Jewish person, that using anti-Semitism — and even worse, using the Holocaust — to shield Israel from being investigated for potential war crimes is remarkably contemptible and deeply offensive to me personally, and, I think, to many Jews around the world. The issue is very simple. If you committed war crimes, you should be investigated. If you didn’t commit war crimes, what are you worried about? So, I think there is that point.

And there’s also — look, you know, the fact is that a major complaint against the ICC has been that it’s almost solely focused on Africa, with Yugoslavia having been the only real exception here up until now. And we’ll see, again, where this goes. But it’s a fair criticism to say that the ICC has not applied standards of justice globally. Part of that is because we see the kind of backlash that it faces when, for example, it goes up against the United States and tries to investigate U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan. It is a lot of this — a lot of this backlash is tied to that, as well. It’s not just defense of Israel. It’s also the U.S. looking at its own war crimes and not wanting those to be investigated by an international body. So, all of that is kind of coming together here.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And I’d like to turn now, Marc, to the book that the two of you have just brought out, called Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics. Marc, can you lay out the argument there?

MARC LAMONT HILL: You know, Mitchell and I were very excited to write this book, particularly at this moment. We didn’t know who would be president. We didn’t know that there’d be an ICC investigation. But all the issues that are coming up right now really speak to the various ways that Palestinians have been made the exception to many of our progressive values and politics and actions, if you think about — or, rather, in activist circles. I’ll start there, in activist circles. You know, we have this person we call the ”PEP” — right? — the person who’s progressive except for Palestine. This is the person that’s outraged at Trump for his actions at the border, who’s disgusted by children in cages, who can’t stand to think about the erosion of civil liberties. But when it comes to Palestine, somehow, they don’t engage those same ideas in the same way.

And so, in our book, what we attempt to do is lay out the kind of policy groundwork. We lay out the frontier on which these battles are fought. We want people to understand not just the contradictions of the so-called left, but also to understand how those contradictions emerged. So, whether it’s questions about the right to exist, whether it’s questions about BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or whether it’s the attempt to make Trump the exception rather than part of a more aggressive articulation of the American rule, we are attempting to show that the American left — those who identify as progressive, radical, liberal, what have you — have not held up the bargain in terms of matching their own ideals and values on this question of Israel and Palestine. And that’s something that we want to raise.

I’ll give one quick example. Donald Trump, who we’ve made the bogeyman — and for good reason — moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And that was seen as outrageous. Of course, him acknowledging Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel goes against international law. It goes against the idea that we’ll allow Jerusalem to be a final status issue. But Donald Trump didn’t create that rule. Donald Trump actually was acting on decades of American policy. The Jerusalem Embassy Act was actually signed by Congress in 1995 under the times of Clinton. And every U.S. president has simply signed a waiver not to move the embassy, but no one has fought to actually get rid of the legislation. So, this is bipartisan American policy. Again, Trump was an ugly — he was American policy on steroids. But he was part of a bipartisan movement to neglect the values, the needs, the self-determination of the Palestinian people. And in our book, we try to lay that out in what we think is a compelling way.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Mitchell, if you can talk about — more about the weaponization of anti-Semitism, silencing those who might otherwise be critics?

MITCHELL PLITNICK: Yeah. I mean, that is reaching a fever pitch right now. And I think it’s actually reflective of where Israel itself has gone. I think Israel has abandoned a lot of the veneer of idealism that it once had and any legitimate idealism it once held for itself, and is now simply — you know, we hear the arguments in Washington about why we support this or that Israeli policy, and it’s all about an unbreakable bond and an undying friendship. It’s not about geostrategic thinking anymore. It’s not about Israel is actually right anymore. It is simply about the idea that this is our ally, and we’re going to stand by her. And I think this is part of it.

So, when you’re trying to actually engage in the debate, you’re not — you don’t want to debate the issues. You want to simply say anyone who criticizes Israel is anti-Semitic. And Jews are certainly — as I know your audience is very well aware, we are certainly not immune from that accusation. I’m certainly not. I get called anti-Semitic all the time.

So, we’re seeing a lot of arenas. Right now with Facebook trying to collapse the phrase “Zionism” as a proxy, so that you cannot criticize Zionism or Zionist thinking or the Zionist movement without being called anti-Semitic. I mean, that’s part of that battle. Of course, the IHRA, International Holocaust Remembrance Association, definition brings in the same problematic language.

And the idea is to shut down all criticism of Israel. And the reason is because Israel can no longer defend itself against that criticism. Supporters of Israel can no longer argue that there’s any legitimacy to dispossessing an entire people and holding them without rights for decades, for generations. There’s no argument that’s going to stand up to that. So, instead, you simply call the person who’s making the criticism anti-Semitic.

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