Ali Abunimah: Israel Versus Russian Media Influence

Delivered to The Israel Lobby and American Policy 2018 conference March 2, 2018 at the National Press Club

The Israel Lobby and American Policy conference was solely sponsored by the American Educational Trust, publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy (IRmep). This is a rush transcript.

Grant Smith: Our next speaker is Ali Abunimah. He’s been an active part of the movement for justice in Palestine for 20 years. He’s a journalist and the co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, which is a widely acclaimed publication. It’s a non-profit independent online publication focusing on Palestine.

A graduate of Princeton University and the University of Chicago, he is a frequent speaker on the Middle East, contributing regularly to numerous publications. He is the recipient of the 2013 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship.

If you’re a reader of The Electronic Intifada or get the digest via e-mail, it quickly becomes quite obvious that covering censorship, debunking disinformation, and providing insights that are available nowhere else is really what it’s all about.

He’s the author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and The Battle for Justice in Palestine. He will be available to sign both during the reception.

Before he comes up, I just want to remind you again, please send up the question cards. We’ll categorize them and get through them efficiently. And that reception is going to be a very, very big deal this year, so make sure you don’t just jump in the car and run away at 5 o’clock. You need to stay for the reception. So please welcome Ali Abunimah.

Ali Abunimah: Thank you. All right. Are you going to run that timer with 18 minutes on it? I received a letter several weeks ago from Grant informing me that I had 18 minutes to speak. I had never seen such a precise organization. Now it’s running. It’s very intimidating. Right. 

Well, I’m delighted to be here and among so many people who have been working hundreds of years, collectively – maybe thousands of years – on this issue, and a real depth of knowledge and commitment. I’m very glad to be among you.

The title of the talk is really just to let me kind of have a starting point to say whatever I want. But of course it’s a good starting point, because here in Washington, a city I very rarely travel to, Russiagate is all the rage. If you turn on the television or look at The New York Times or MSNBC or CNN, that’s all they talk about. Of course, now, more than a year into the Russiagate hysteria, there’s nothing to the central narrative that there was collusion between Donald Trump and his team and Russia to steal the election from Hillary Clinton. I think Hillary Clinton was very capable – in fact, I don’t want to take credit away from her – she was entirely capable of losing that election on her own.

As I was thinking about what to talk about, I came across this quote from Hillary Clinton from 2006, two days after the Palestinian election that Hamas won. She was speaking in a closed meeting with The Jewish Press. That’s capital Jewish Press, not the Jewish press in some kind of conspiratorial way. It’s the name of the publication. And she said: “I do not think we should have pushed for an election in the Palestinian territories. I think that was a big mistake. And if we were going to push for an election, we should have done something to determine who was going to win.”

And that’s what Russia stands accused off. But, unfortunately for the faithful, the Russiagate faithful, there’s nothing there. There is no there there. For this, I’m not going to go into a long exposition on Russiagate. But I really want to credit the journalists who have stuck to this and really shown that there’s nothing to it. There’s a few of them, but I’ll mention the two that I’ve learned from the most on this – Max Blumenthal and Aaron Maté – Aaron Maté at The Real News, who’s here. It’s a great, great independent source of information. They’ve really shown, they’ve just gone after this and shown that there’s nothing there.

But the big story that the mainstream media and the Democratic so-called resistance – that’s big D, Democratic so-called resistance – doesn’t want to talk about is what we can call Israelgate. Here there’s lots of evidence of collusion, lots and lots. Just take, for example, the indictment of Michael Flynn, the plea deal of Michael Flynn back in December that was hyped up in the media that, aha, finally some evidence of Russian collusion!

Well, it was nothing of the sort. What the Michael Flynn indictment showed, or the plea deal or the proffer – whatever it’s called in legal terms – was that Michael Flynn had talked to the Russian ambassador on behalf of Israel. What all the papers and the reporting show is that he had done this on behalf of Israel at the behest of Jared Kushner, who was doing it at the request of Binyamin Netanyahu. This Israeli interference was to try to undermine the policy of the sitting administration at the time, which was still the Obama administration – this was during the transition – in order to undermine the Obama policy of allowing – of course, Obama never had the courage to stand up to Israel, really, certainly not to vote for a resolution on Palestinian rights. But the Obama policy was to not veto it and to let it pass, and so to kind of give it a wink.

What Netanyahu wanted to do through Jared Kushner was to undermine the Obama administration policy. The evidence of the collusion is right there for all to see. What was so interesting, what came out in the Michael Wolff book Fire and Fury as well, which again was filling the airwaves for a couple of minutes or days or weeks, or however long a news cycle is now, was that Steve Bannon said right there in Fire and Fury that the entire Trump administration policy on Jerusalem, on Palestine, on Israel was from the very beginning dictated by Sheldon Adelson, the pro-Israel billionaire, the casino billionaire, who now wants to pay for the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. Basically a total privatization, outsourcing, of U.S. foreign policy to a pro-Israel oligarch.

Nobody has found any Russian oligarch or billionaire who’s exerted anything close to that kind of influence on the Trump administration or any other U.S. politician. Sheldon Adelson is doing it to the point where he’s going to actually buy the U.S. Embassy. This is treated as something completely normal and unremarkable practically. Instead, we’ve got MSNBC going crazy about indictments of a few people at the troll farm in St. Petersburg – I still call it Leningrad – and who had zero impact on the U.S. election.

There are some serious implications to all of this Russiagate hysteria. I want to focus on one of them, because time is short. Actually the part that’s been relatively unexamined is that the Russiagate hysteria, which is being pushed by the so-called resistance and also by many on the left – unfortunately people go along with it because it’s kind of this easy no-cost way to oppose Trump – but it’s helping the Israel lobby in some very material ways. It’s reinforcing the Israel lobby. [Audience member asks “how?”] I’m going to just – give me a minute, I’ll get there.

Part of this Russiagate hysteria was to go after RT. It used to be called Russia Today, now it’s called RT. They’re just down the street. I was there at lunchtime, I gave them an interview. And as part of the Russiagate hysteria, they were forced to register under FARA – the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which, mysteriously, AIPAC has not done. This was generally applauded by a lot of liberals, a lot of Democrats. And, lo and behold, Grant mentioned this morning the Al Jazeera documentary.

The one that was done by Al Jazeera last year on the British/Israel lobby was very important. It showed the underhanded tactics. There was undercover film of an Israeli Embassy agent plotting to bring down a British government minister who was perceived as too critical of Israel. That he had criticized the settlements, so they wanted to bring him down. That plot, I don’t know how far they got, but Al Jazeera busted it with this undercover investigation. And the British establishment swept it under the carpet. But it’s very important for the public to know.

Then, back in October, Al Jazeera revealed that they had done a similar long-term investigation in the United States, an undercover investigation. We can glean some of the organizations that they have focused on because some of the names floated around. But the point is, they got into some of the key Israel lobby organizations. As Grant said, they’ve gone all-out to suppress this. Qatar reportedly promised top Israel lobby officials that they would suppress this film. Qatar has denied it. Who knows?

What we do know is that four months after Al Jazeera announced that the film would be broadcast very soon, it still hasn’t been aired. And what we know is that the Israel lobby and the pro-Israel members of Congress are now circulating a letter to the Justice Department demanding that Al Jazeera be forced to register as a foreign agent, and citing the registration of RT as the precedent.

So Russiagate created the precedent to suppress the Israel lobby documentary. We need to see that connection. We also need to see the connection that some of the top Russiagate pushers in Congress, like Sen. Ben Cardin – who is the main sponsor of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, who claims to be against Russian interference – is one of the main proponents of Israeli interference in American politics in this way.

We also need to understand the bigger picture around the Israel lobby documentary, which is that Qatar and the Gulf states see the Israel lobby as the way to Washington’s heart. So when you want to show yourself to be the best pupil in Donald Trump’s heavily armed classroom, you suck up to the Israel lobby. Qatar is doing that in spades, with inviting – They just had the head of the Zionist organization of America, how do you like that, on an all-expenses paid trip to meet with the emir of Qatar. Alan Dershowitz, who came back singing Qatar’s praises and comparing Qatar to poor little Israel boycotted and besieged.

Another thing about Russiagate came out a few days ago in The Washington Post: that Jared Kushner, that four countries discussed how to use his business interests and business problems as leverage to pressure him. Four countries. Guess what? One of them was Israel, and none of them was Russia. So there’s quite a toxic mix going on there. But this morning Grant said that he thinks this is going to work, that we’re not going to see the Israel lobby documentary. Grant, I’m going to say I bet you’re wrong. One way or another, we’re going to see it. We have to keep up the pressure. We have to keep demanding sunshine on this Israel lobby interference – Israelgate, let’s call it.

Now I think that as one of the speakers, Barry, mentioned this morning, we were asked to come with good news, I think there is good news. I think that we can beat the Israel lobby, in short, and I think we already have. I think we already have an important sense that the Israel lobby itself is admitting that it is incapable of stopping the momentum for Palestinian rights.

Last April our publication, The Electronic Intifada, published a leaked report from two important Israel lobby groups, the Anti-Defamation League and the Reut Institute, which is an Israeli think tank. In this report which was circulated – they were very careful, by the way. They didn’t want you to read any of this, so they circulated it only in hard copy to top Israel lobby leaders. There were no copies floating around on e-mail. Well, that doesn’t stop The Electronic Intifada. And this report said that – these are their words – that despite increasing their spending 20-fold in the past six or seven years to try to suppress the BDS movement, they’ve been unable to stem its “impressive growth and significant successes.” They go in the report into great detail about that.

The key point is where they are hemorrhaging support is among decent people, all decent people, and particularly people who support human rights, progressive people. Where is the support being concentrated now for Israel? It is becoming more and more an extreme right, a white supremacist course, so that – as was mentioned this morning – Richard Spencer calls himself a white Zionist and says he looks to Israel for guidance as to how to model the Aryan ethno-state he wants in the United States. And we see that love being reciprocated from Israel to the far right in the United States and in Europe.

We also see the opinion polls others have mentioned, which show the crash of support for Israel among young American Jews. Really, it’s a generational shift that’s happening across different demographic groups, including American Jews; including, according to another recent survey, among young evangelicals. That’s important to know, because that may be a constituency we think there’s no point talking to. They’re too far gone, let’s not waste our time. The message is that we should be talking to everyone.

The good news is that, you know, I used to be – just a couple of years ago I thought, let’s not waste our time with Congress, because it’s such a hostile territory for Palestinian rights that we’re better off doing something else. I have to say, I’ve changed my mind because of the efforts of the No Way to Treat a Child campaign, which is a campaign that many people across the country have taken part in, but spearheaded by the American Friends Service Committee and Defense for Children International-Palestine. Because of their grassroots work over several years, over several years, what we saw is Betty McCollum of Minnesota introduced the – I have to look up the name. I wish they’d come up with one of these names, like the PATRIOT Act where it’s a word, but not the PATRIOT Act. It’s called the Promoting Human Rights by Ending Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act.

What this bill does is it prohibits U.S. aid to Israel being used for the military torture, abuse and the detention of Palestinian children. Of course, like Ahed Tamimi, like Mohammed Tamimi, and like the 300 other Palestinian children who are now – right now as we’re here – in Israel’s military dungeons being tortured and being brutally deprived of their childhood by the so-called only democracy in the Middle East.

So this is a good news story, because we can all go back. This bill now has 21 co-sponsors, which is not nothing. So this is not nothing, 21 co-sponsors in this Congress, in this country. And there are some surprising names. But this is a good news story because all of us who want to go back and do something can go back to our members of Congress. Organize people to write to them, to go to them and say we want you to join those other 21 members in supporting this bill. So we are not powerless against this Israel lobby. We are capable of defeating it, and I am certain we’ll be able to do so.

Mr. Speaker, I yield back the balance of my time.

Questions and Answers

Grant Smith: Thank you. We have a number of questions here. I guess one of the first to come in – okay, this came in from one of our many students, I believe, who are attending today. Do you believe we will see significant gains for Palestinian rights in our lifetime? And he says, I’m 21.

Ali Abunimah: Yes, I absolutely do believe that. That’s what keeps me going. I believe it’s in our power. I think we live in a paradoxical situation that we have for many years, that we are winning the argument but we are losing on the ground, in many ways. I think that’s perhaps what explains the pessimism of someone like Gideon Levy, who is there chronicling what’s happening on the ground. It’s very hard to be optimistic in that situation. But in my lifetime I’ve seen enough examples in this world of sudden and dramatic change. Nobody knows the exact moment it will come, but it’s because the ground has been laid for it for so many years. So I believe that our work will bear fruit, and I believe it will happen in our lifetimes. And I think it could come sooner than many of us think.

Grant Smith: This question is kind of about the lack of balance in terms of giant philanthropists. It says here, Ali, would I be wasting my time – you mentioned Sheldon Adelson in the news – would I be wasting my time to send books by you and Miko Peled, et cetera, to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett? Who do we send these to?

Ali Abunimah: Well, I definitely encourage you to send my book and the many other good books that are available at the bookstore to whoever you like. They make great gifts! 

Let me say something about the issue of philanthropy, because I know that sometimes it’s like, oh, wouldn’t it be great if there was a Palestinian Sheldon Adelson not doing evil but doing good? But that’s not really the answer. What I think I have learned, speaking personally, with The Electronic Intifada and with my colleagues there, is what makes us rock solid against the thuggery and bullying and intimidation and censorship of The Electronic Intifada is that we are independent.

What that means in practice is we have a very broad base. We’re not reliant on one big donor or one big funder. We have a broad base made up of people across the country and around the world, and that’s the strong base of what we do. So when you’re reliant on just a small number of people – and now, if there are any billionaires out there, I’m not saying you shouldn’t give your money. But I’m saying that it’s very important for people to understand that our efforts are cumulative and they do add up.

Your efforts in support of local groups, in support of local campaigns, in support of work that you see independent media – whether it’s, you know, The Real News Network, or whether it’s The Electronic Intifada, whether it’s IRmep or some of the other groups that have brought us together today – that is the bedrock of what we do. It’s what makes us impervious to their bullying, because they can’t go after thousands of people. But if it’s one or two institutional funders, they can and do go after them. That’s how they get the universities. That’s how they do the kind of harassment, and censorship, and silencing that Professor Abdulhadi was talking about. Hence, the importance of everyone doing what they can, whether it’s in terms of time or whether it’s in terms of money, supporting the efforts in this movement.

Grant Smith: Well, I think we have just a quick question here. I think it’s pretty easy for you. It says local newspapers have a lock on the op-ed pages and never reiterate these issues. They always seem to go to the same pro-Israel views. How can we overcome being locked out of the op-ed pages and become regular contributors which would give the public an opposing view?

Ali Abunimah: Well, I would say that we are more locked out of the so-called mainstream media now than ever before. In my estimation, I think back to the second intifada, which was 15, 20 years ago, I used to get invited on MSNBC. I used to get invited on CNN. I used to get invited on other mainstream networks. On Fox, I was on “Hannity & Colmes” once or twice, believe it or not. Yeah. Now that would never happen. Now it’s Al Jazeera. It’s RT. It’s The Real News Network. It’s not even “Democracy Now!” anymore. You have to go overseas to be able to talk to other people in this country about what’s going on. That’s one element.

The other element, I think, is that the so-called mainstream media is less relevant. Yes, it’s still powerful. Let’s not delude ourselves, there’s still a lot of influence and reach that they have. But we have more influence and reach than ever before through our independent media. That’s why The Electronic Intifada exists, to bypass the op-ed pages, to reach people directly, to put information in the hands of activists and journalists and educators directly. So we have broken their monopoly. They’re still strong, but we have broken their monopoly. I believe that when we reach people directly, it works.

I mean, with all the concentration of media power that still exists, the opinion polls are terrible for Israel and getting worse – and that’s when we’re just working from the edges. So the message is, it’s very easy to be pessimistic about the situation, but I would not get up every day and do this work if I didn’t see it having an impact and believe that it’s within our capability to fundamentally change the situation.

Grant Smith: Thank you very much.

Ali Abunimah: Thank you. 

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