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On speaking truth and voting: Free expression and Palestine

April 21, 2016 at 1:44 pm

New Yorkers went to the ballot box this week in what is likely to be the most important vote in the US presidential primaries so far. As opinion polls had suggested, there were big wins for the front-runners in each party, making it even more likely that the presidential election in November will be between Donald Trump (Republican) and Hillary Clinton (Democrat), in spite of the fact that both candidates have the ignominious achievement of record unfavourable ratings nationally.

Given the size of New York, and both the international significance and diverse demography of America’s greatest city, it is perhaps not surprising that the focus of some media attention has been on the candidates’ approaches to foreign policy. While the main Republican candidates have generally adopted an approach which is, apparently, based on the idea that they can win support by outdoing each other’s racism and xenophobia, the Democratic race has been more enlightening.

In particular, one moment that has made headlines across the world occurred during the debate between Clinton – a former US Secretary of State — and her rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. In response to a question about the Middle East, Sanders appeared to depart from the usual script followed by generations of presidential candidates. While he remains “100 per cent pro-Israel” he said that he also believes that Palestinians living in utterly dire conditions under a protracted military occupation should not be ignored entirely.

Moreover, with regard to the last round of horrific slaughter wrought on the Gaza Strip by Israel, Sanders explained that he thought this was a “disproportionate” response to the rocket fire emanating from the besieged territory: “Israel… has every right in the world to destroy terrorism. But we had in the Gaza area – not a very large area – some 10,000 civilians who were wounded and some 2,200 who were killed… was that a disproportionate attack? Yes I believe it was.”

When asked directly what she thought about these issues, Clinton demurred.

Hardly revolutionary

Sanders’ comments were hardly revolutionary. Moreover, on previous occasions he has set out his own hawkish stall on Israel, showing just how deeply he feels about his “100 per cent pro-Israel” stance. This was particularly evident when, in an explosive town hall meeting in 2014, Sanders reiterated numerous right wing, pro-Israel statements (much to the anger of protestors in the audience).

Yet the fact that he has caused so much of a stir by edging only slightly away from the mainstream American narrative on Israel – something once mocked by Jon Stewart as the “Mobius strip of issues” (because it only has one side) – to stake out a position squarely on the turf of liberal Zionism, speaks volumes about just how restricted political speech on this issue has been in America.

Another good example of this is that Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was – prior to Sanders’ rise – the most forthright spokesperson of the American left (and someone who has been identified as a potential running-mate for both Sanders and Clinton), has stuck staunchly to a pro-Israel line throughout her career. As she said in 2014, “Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, and a part of the world where there aren’t many liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by the rule of law. And we very much need an ally in that part of the world.”

Talking Israel-Palestine in Israel-Palestine

A common refrain uttered by numerous liberal Zionists is that political discourse within the Israeli political system is actually much less restrictive than in America. However, while there is clearly some truth to the idea that some Israelis are capable of speaking more honestly about the nature of the occupation than many Americans, it does not follow that there is greater freedom of speech overall.

As a 2011 report by the Colombia Journalism Review explains: “Multiple laws, policies, and court rulings in Israel violate nearly every freedom enumerated in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, including freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of peaceable assembly. If Israeli politicians wish to brag that their nation resembles western democracies, they must defend the freedoms those countries hold dear. Israel does not.”

Moreover, as I have argued for MEMO previously – for broader socio-political reasons – the predominant trend in Israel’s political culture is movement even further to the right. US Vice President Joe Biden highlighted this on Monday when he expressed the Obama administration’s “overwhelming frustration” with Netanyahu to an audience in Jerusalem: “I firmly believe that the actions that Israel’s government has taken over the past several years — the steady and systematic expansion of settlements, the legalisation of outposts, land seizures — they’re moving us and more importantly they’re moving Israel in the wrong direction.”

All of this makes even cosmetic change to the status quo extremely difficult. As a former Israeli Foreign Minister, Shlomo ben Ami, suggested when the government of Ehud Barak pursued negotiations at Taba in 1990, “We were a government committing suicide, practically.”

It gets worse

Perhaps the worst place to speak truth about the real nature of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is in the occupied Palestinian territories themselves. It is clear that the Palestinian Authority is a major factor in this.

Ever since the coup and counter-coup in 2007, the very idea of democracy in the West Bank has become even more of a joke. The Western-backed PA security forces have kept a tight lid on all forms of free expression, cracking down particularly harshly on anyone affiliated with their political opposition and journalists. These methods are often mirrored by Hamas’s own actions in Gaza.

However the greatest threats to freedom of expression in Palestine are the heavy-handed tactics of the Israeli-occupation and the intolerance and unpredictability of settlers. As MADA, the Palestinian Centre for Development and Media Freedoms, explained, the month of March, 2016, witnessed “a remarkable escalation in the total number of violations against media freedoms in Palestine” including “the murder of Iyad Omar Sajdieh, a media student, and the closure of Palestine Today TV’s office and Trans-media Company by the Israeli Occupation Forces.” According to MADA, this can be rooted back to a decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to close down media outlets “under the pretext of ‘exercising incitement’.”

The conditions noted by the Colombia Journalism Review as set out above are self-evidently intolerable and make a mockery of the pretence of democracy in Israel-Palestine. Yet the fact that Bernie Sanders managed to break with the mainstream consensus on Israel – even if it was only to a small degree – should serve as a timely reminder of the essential value of free expression. Palestinians deserve the right to express their opinions freely and engage in rigorous debate as much as New Yorkers or anybody else.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.