"They don’t have the courage": How the two-party system aided Israel disaster

To get principled responses to humanitarian crises, break up DC's pro-Israel status quo, leading socialist explains

Published August 9, 2014 1:45PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Earlier this week, Socialist Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant (one of Salon's five political heroes of 2013) did something an American politician is never supposed to do: She openly and unapologetically criticized the State of Israel.

In a draft version of an open letter to President Obama and the U.S. Congress that she put before her fellow councilmembers, Sawant called on leaders in Washington to denounce the violence being waged by Hamas and Israel and urged the stewards of U.S. foreign policy to stop tacitly supporting Israel's blockage of Gaza and occupation of the West Bank. Most daringly, Sawant's letter recommended "an immediate end to all U.S. government military aid for Israel" — something politicians in America, no matter their station, simply do not do.

Earlier this summer, however, the members of the U.S. Senate did something that, in today's political environment, they most certainly are supposed to do: They unanimously passed a symbolic resolution of support for Israel and its war on Hamas militants in Gaza. South Carolina Republican senator and über-hawk Lindsey Graham co-authored the resolution alongside New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, ensuring that, from conception to completion, the government's endorsement of a military campaign that has resulted in nearly 2,000 mostly-civilian Palestinian deaths was a bipartisan affair.

What explains the disparity between Sawant and D.C.? How is it that, even today, with the neoconservative consensus of the early- to mid-aughts supposedly vanquished, America's most powerful politicians still back endless war in the Middle East, regardless of party, ideology or any other interest? Why does it still so often feel like the bad old days of 2004, when Joe Lieberman and John McCain roamed the halls of the Senate, quashing any effort, however meager, to rein in U.S. foreign policy and challenge the belligerence of the Israeli state? And where is Sen. Elizabeth Warren when you need her?

Sawant's unabashed radicalism is surely a key part of the equation; but more than any amount of personal courage (or lack thereof), the answer can be found by looking at the restrictions and demands of the American two-party system. At least that's what the councilmember herself said when Salon spoke with her earlier this week. In addition to discussing her draft letter, we also talked about the reception she's gotten from her fellow city politicians and Seattle residents, and whether the leaders of the Democratic Party will ever listen to their base when it comes to the Middle East.

Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

Since putting forward the letter, what kind of response have you received, both from your colleagues and the people of Seattle?

The city council has, as anticipated, remained silent, and the most that people have said on the council is that this is not city council business and so we should not be wasting the council's time on this — which, let's be honest, is a red herring excuse because the collected time that was spent in drafting the open letter to Obama and Congress is a minute fraction of the time I have spent as a city council member on local issues of economic and social relevance.

But the response by the community — there have been a lot of accusations of anti-Semitism, which were again quite anticipated; but there is a growing protest movement of people who are quite stunned and outraged by the scale of the violence and bloodshed inflicted by the Israeli military on Gaza. And I think what people are most struck by is the fact that over 250 children have died. The average age of those in the Gaza strip is 17. So I know people feel a weariness about war ... and it's very clear that ordinary working people, when they’re questioned about these things, they may not know the details of the particular conflict, but they’re saying, “We need the bloodshed to stop first."

Could you tell me a bit more about why you think complaints about Israel/Palestine not being the city council's business are a red herring?

It’s a red herring on two levels. One ... the portion of time spent on this is absolutely tiny compared to the time that is spent on city business.

But it’s also a red herring on another level. You know, a councilmember [said], “Well, I would much rather focus on issues that affect Seattle people, which is housing, or homelessness, or sidewalks.“ But the reality is that that the status quo of the city government in Seattle, as in most major cities in the United States which are headed by the Democratic Party establishments, is conflict-averse politicians who aren’t actually working on the issues in the way they need to be.

I mean, look at the skyrocketing costs of housing in Seattle. Nothing has been done to address that and it’s an absolute crisis — affordable housing is in a crisis situation. And it’s my office and the activist, lefty people like me who are challenging the corporate leadership and saying, “We need rent control, we need a solution for the housing crisis." The reality is not that [other councilmembers] don’t want to get involved in international issues because they’re fighting hard for low-income people in Seattle — that’s not true. ... Paul Allen’s development corporation has gotten many, many, many more favors than ordinary people have and the rent is going up in an unprecedented way.

And as far as local relevance is concerned, I think it should also be pointed out that with all the billions of dollars that the U.S. federal government spends on military aid to war crimes like these that are being engaged in by Israel, that means that much less money that is being contributed towards local development issues, like public education, like funding for affordable housing.

Do you think those on the city council who have been critical are motivated by a principled belief that what the Israeli government is doing in Gaza is righteous; or do you think it has more to do with an aversion to conflict and a worry that if they criticize Israel they'll receive the kind of venomous accusations of anti-Semitism that you have?

I couldn’t tell you accurately what’s going on in the minds of individual councilmembers, but I would say that, overall, if you look at the political landscape, the vast majority of politicians in the United States at this moment are representing either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party — and I think, overall, you can say fairly that [they're motivated by] a combination of both the things that you’re saying. It’s either an actual ideological position that is very pro-Israeli state, pro-military, pro-imperialist invasions; or it may be some place in their heart where they on a humane level oppose it, but they don’t have the courage to stand against it because of the blowback that they’re afraid of. In the case of some people, it may be a combination of both.

At the end of the day, what matters, the take-home lesson of all of this, is that what we need, what working people — not only in Seattle but everywhere — need are genuine left representatives that are working outside the Democratic and Republican Party structures, who are not beholden to their party establishments and directives, who are genuinely independent — who are not "independent" ... but genuinely independent.

If you run in the Democratic Party, you are beholden to their party line, and that’s why at Socialist Alternative, my organization, we think the first step to create a genuine left-force in the U.S. is for activists and political people to understand that you can't do it from within the Democratic Party. If you’re going to take principled positions in favor of humanitarian questions, in favor of social justice, in favor of needs of ordinary people, then the first step is to break from the two-party system.

Have you been disappointed to see Sen. Elizabeth Warren avoid this issue so assiduously? She's been so outspoken and unfiltered on a lot of economic issues, but hasn't said much about the Gaza campaign beyond the usual clichés.

I think that’s a very good question you’re asking: What should our position be on Elizabeth Warren?

I can say that, just speaking for myself personally as an economist, I really give her due credit for having been quite, in many ways, fearless and quite a dogged advocate for the "little" people. After the recession broke out — and there was a furious economic devastation that has been rained on ordinary people in the form of massive joblessness, foreclosure crisis and so on — she was one of the voices that was advocating in favor of credit card fraud victims and to represent them and explain what it is what the banks did, how did they really defraud people of tens of billions of dollars. And I think her reputation on that advocacy is completely just.

I was disappointed that she chose to run in the Democratic Party, but once she chose that, I was not surprised at all at either her silence or her, as you said, clichéd statements in favor of Israel. Because that’s what happens when you run from within the Democratic Party. If you are to be considered as any sort of viable candidate by the party establishment, then you have to toe the line. And that’s why it's very important for us to point out that it's not only about the integrity of individual people, it's about what strategies we use to in order to actually, successfully represent the interests of ordinary people.

It's not so much a question of how much integrity she has, it’s a question of what she chose to do with her name-recognition. If she had announced that both the Democratic and Republican Party establishments are squarely responsible for the fact that all of the burden of the recession was put on the shoulders of ordinary people while the big banks who caused the collapse went scot-free ... that would have immediately propelled her to the front page and it would have raised the confidence of a lot of people who would become part of energetic movements but at this moment feel demoralized and disenfranchised by the political process. And the only way we can activate the new political layer and politicize them and bring young people into action is by providing an inspiring example of a challenge to the system that is not working for them.

I doubt you were surprised to see Seattle's Democratic mayor, Ed Murray, distance himself from your open letter. But more than simply saying he disagreed with it, he described it — indirectly; he didn't mention you by name — as an attempt to "demonize" Israel. Were you at all surprised or disappointed that Murray chose to use such strong language in his disavowal?

Well, as you said, because he is a part of the establishment, and he takes his role of representing the ruling class seriously, I am neither surprised nor disappointed. We never had any illusions about people like him; and we are being very honest about that. And as far as the choice of his word, it’s straight out of the book of AIPAC. Again, its not surprising because this is the false language that has been used by the pro-Israel lobby, by the imperialist lobby, by that whole stretch of several blocks in Washington, D.C., that promotes this kind of foreign policy. So, I guess it was his attempt to show his loyalty to Obama's establishment, to the real powerhouse of the Democratic Party establishment.

Regarding that establishment, some pundits have noticed how there's a significant gap between how elite Democrats (politicians, party bureaucrats, fundraisers, etc.) think and talk about Israel and how the Democratic rank-and-file — especially its young voters — view the country. This has led some to conclude that it's only a matter of time until Democrats move away from lockstep support of Israel. Do you think that could happen or do you think the reality of the two-party system will keep a shift from happening?

I think we can have a nuanced viewpoint on this, just going by recent events. When the Israeli military bombarded schools in Rafah, which was a UN refugee location, the UN, of course, condemned it. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called it “a moral outrage.“ But the U.S. government also condemned it; and previously, around April or so, when the Israeli government was clearly engaging in a campaign to remove Hamas from the coalition that was being formed by the Palestinians and was trying to prevent Hamas participating in elections, the Israeli state did find itself quite isolated internationally in those efforts, and it also eroded some of the support from its patrons in Washington.

All of that, the objective reality on the ground combined with what you said — young people in the U.S. questioning Israel in a more critical way — is bound to have some impact on the Democratic Party. But again, let's be honest: Whatever impact that might be will be so minimal that it's not going to be able to compete with the overwhelming position of the ruling class, which the Democratic Party represents, which is going to be a position of imperialism. And that’s inevitable because it’s very intertwined with the global system of capitalism and corporate domination and the quest for endless profit. It's such a complex, layered system that the only way we will be able to challenge this in any effective manner will be for young people to not only break from the Democratic Party, but also break from illusions in the existing global system itself.

Are you considering introducing any BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) proposals for Seattle?

We're looking into it. In fact, we’ve already heard from several activists — either informally when they talk to me personally at the protests, or through a couple emails we’ve received, or phone calls, or tweets — saying we need to look at whether the city has any funds in Israeli corporations and should we look into boycott and divestment options.

I think the whole BDS idea is a really effective tool to raise people's awareness on international social justice, and to explain that if the people in Palestine are suffering from this kind of bloodbath, it is not disconnected from us. It is not only a modern imperative to stand against it, but raising the BDS question shows you that capitalism and imperialism are international phenomena, an international system; and you can’t really disassociate yourself from it. It's only willful ignorance if you think that this is not connected to our lives.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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