More Bad Faith Attacks On Ilhan Omar

Omar asked an important question of Tony Blinken. Congress, activist hawks, and the media scrambled to bury it under a manufactured scandal

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the State Department’s budget for 2022. Predictably, when Ilhan Omar asked him a question it stirred controversy. When Omar’s question turned out to be sensible, her congressional colleagues, pro-Israel hawks and the mainstream media went the extra mile to stir up a tempest in a teapot.

Omar asked Blinken where Palestinians and Afghans could turn for accountability and justice if the United States was opposed to the International Criminal Court. Blinken responded that “absent a Security Council referral or absent a request by the state itself, that (turning to the ICC) is not appropriate.” Blinken went on to say that, “…whether it is the United States or Israel, both of us have the mechanism to make sure that there is accountability in any situations where there are concerns about the use of force and human rights, etc. I believe both of our democracies have that capacity and we’ve demonstrated it and will need to continue to demonstrate it going forward.”

There is a lot to unpack there, and none of it reflects well on Blinken or the Joe Biden administration more broadly. But before I get to that, I think it’s important to look at the response Omar has gotten.

In a subsequent tweet, Omar wrote, “We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban. I asked @SecBlinken where people are supposed to go for justice.”

The faux outrage and attacks that followed were predictable. Oh, they said, how dare she compare the United States and Israel to the Taliban and Israel? How, they wailed, could she draw an equivalence between our beloved, if flawed, democracies and those horrible, vicious, Muslim terrorists?

Let’s start with the fact that Omar did no such thing. She didn’t randomly choose to name Hamas and the Taliban in this context, arbitrarily omitting other groups. She chose them because the ICC is investigating their involvement in war crimes in Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan along with the United States and Israel. She was making no comment on the relative merits of the groups, the countries, or the cases against either. She was pointing out that the ICC was applying the law across the board to all actors. Had she omitted them, she would surely have come under fire for singling out Israel and the US and ignoring Hamas and the Taliban, who, after all, it would be argued, are also the subject of war crimes investigations.

Of course, the Republicans immediately accused Omar of “equating the United States with terrorist organizations like Hamas and the Taliban." That was to be expected, and would be in many circumstances, with many Democrats.

But Omar has repeatedly distinguished herself by being attacked by fellow Democrats, usually with charges of antisemitism as trumped up as this one is. And it is happening again.

On Wednesday, a dozen Jewish House Democrats, led by Brad Schneider (D-IL) pointedly asked for a “clarification” from Omar, saying, “Ignoring the differences between democracies governed by the rule of law and contemptible organizations that engage in terrorism at best discredits one’s intended argument and at worst reflects deep-seated prejudice.”

In political speak, that’s not a request for clarification, it’s a demand for a retraction, apology, and admission of guilt. It is an accusation of bigotry, ironic since the accusation only comes about because of the bigotry of the accusers, not the accused.

As journalist Mehdi Hasan put it, “Muslim Americans are fed up of constantly being accused of supporting terrorism - including by liberals and Democrats! - when they/we simply make factual points about international law or foreign policies or war crimes. It’s cynical, dehumanizing, and, yes bigoted.”

It’s typical of how Omar gets treated, and it’s reinforced by the media. The New York Times article reporting on all of this is headlined, “Ilhan Omar Again Sets Off a Fight Among Democrats.” There is no criticism of the Democrats who immediately sought to score political points by attacking a Black, Muslim, hijab-wearing, immigrant woman, despite the fact that it is HIGHLY irregular for members to attack one of their own party colleagues without at least taking some time to have a conversation out of the public spotlight first. In this case, they made sure not to have that conversation by ducking Omar’s calls.

And, lest anyone think this is an example of a bad headline not reflective of the substance of the article, I give you this line, which comes right after the reporter describes the statement attacking Omar: “Rather than apologize, Ms. Omar fired off a defiant response on Thursday morning.” The framing of blame going entirely to Omar is unmistakable.

None of this is new to Omar. I have written about it numeroustimes over the years. But in this case, the disingenuous nature of the argument is particularly blatant and reprehensible. The willful twisting of her words is shameless, and simply would not happen if Omar’s personal identity didn’t make her an easy target.

We should also not gloss over the fact that it is undeniable that Israel and certainly the United States have done far more harm to civilians than Hamas and the Taliban. To be sure, it is fair to argue that this is due to the US and Israel being states with the apparatus of huge wealth, technological, engineering, and arms corporations and extensive and well-funded research and intelligence capabilities at their militaries’ disposal.

It’s equally fair to say that, because of those same factors they should be held to far higher standards of accountability for harm to civilian persons and property. In any case, while the faux outrage is obviously manufactured, it’s worthwhile to look closely at the underlying assumptions, particularly because the victims of American and Israeli aggression surely do not see our governments and militaries as being in any way morally superior to the Taliban or Hamas, whatever their view of those groups.

The controversy—which Omar seemed by Thursday willing to defuse with a statement of clarification that, at last, seemed to satisfy her Democratic “colleagues”—overshadowed the far more important issue of Blinken’s response to Omar’s question.

The sheer fecklessness and shamefulness of the response was apparent. Having the capacity to act decently and in accord with laws and human rights norms is not the issue. The question is whether we use that capacity, and it is abundantly clear that the US and Israel do not.

Neither country pursues charges of war crimes committed by their own soldiers as a matter of course. Though, in some cases, such charges have been pursued, this is usually the result of a long period of public pressure and usually results in exoneration or disproportionately light sentences. In the rare occasion where such acts are firmly prosecuted, the result is intended to prove that such criminality is the result of “a few bad apples” rather than any systemic failing. The leadership is never found liable.

The idea of powerful countries policing their own is objectively absurd. It is no different than asking one sports team to also take the job of officiating the match between it and another team. No one would conceive of such a thing, because of the obvious incentive for dishonesty.

But beyond that obvious point is a much deeper flaw with the international judicial system, one that Blinken actually highlights. The International Criminal Court only last year agreed to take up the case of Palestine and Israel. One reason it took so long to do so was because a state party to the ICC must request an investigation, unless the UN Security Council refers a case to the Court. The ICC prosecutor can also initiate a preliminary investigation which could lead to a formal one with the agreement of the Court’s “Pre-Trial Chamber” of judges, but this is complicated by the unusual circumstances of Palestine and the strong pressure by the United States.

After many years, Palestine became a state party to the Court in 2015 and, as the process with the U.S. and Israel had not improved after two decades, they requested an investigation into the actions of all parties involved in the 2014 fighting in Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank.

Israel and the U.S. have fought against this investigation, despite the fact that previous international findings against Israel such as the Goldstone Report or the International Court of Justice ruling that Israel’s wall in the West Bank was illegal have had no material impact on the ground. As the ICC prosecutor Fatima Bensouda is leaving, it is not even certain that this investigation will commence, and it will likely take years to complete. Even when it is complete, it is possible the result will not be to the Palestinians’ liking.

In other words, as much as the U.S. and Israel are kicking and screaming about this attempt to hold them accountable, it is unlikely that the ICC investigation will mean very much in the end, even if it is completed.

Nonetheless, it’s important that Palestine has pressed forward on this, as it is a step toward internationalizing their case, which is the only possible way any of their grievances can ever be addressed. But we have a long way to go before our international institutions can actually hold powerful countries like Israel, much less a superpower like the United States, accountable.

I think the shortcomings of international law are apparent to many supporters of Palestinian rights, even if they haven’t thought of it in those terms. I saw many people arguing, during the recent confrontation—if so one-sided affair can be called that—in Gaza that Hamas’ firing of rockets into Israel was justified by international law because an occupied people have the right to resist, including by means of armed combat.

That’s wishful and erroneous thinking. The law certainly does allow the oppressed group to use violent means to resist its oppressor, but the same body of law dictates that every effort must be made to spare civilian targets (the principle of distinction) and that inevitable collateral damage must be minimized and, in planning, weighed against the potential tactical gain (the principle of proportionality). These principles apply to all combatants, no matter which side is oppressor and which is oppressed.

As a result, any investigation is virtually certain to find that Hamas committed war crimes, even though the damage caused was far less than what Israel was responsible for and Hamas had far less ability to be selective in its targeting. Meanwhile, it will be harder to prove that Israel was guilty.

Ultimately, the only real accountability is in our hands, the citizens of these powerful states. International law is not constructed to hold the powerful accountable, at least not yet. Nor do international agencies have the enforcement capacity to deter crimes unless the most powerful countries—especially the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, the other permanent UNSC members—take action themselves.

It’s up to us to show Tony Blinken that we know he’s lying about how realistic it is to expect the US, much less Israel, to police itself. We do that by standing up in defense of Ilhan Omar when she makes these statements and continue raising our voices, ever louder for the rights of every human in the world, whether it is the Black person in our own town or the Palestinian in Gaza. We do it by holding our leaders, and those elsewhere who are supported by our tax dollars and our government, accountable to us.

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Without counting any unhatched chickens, it does seem more and more likely that Benjamin Netanyahu will soon be out of the prime minister’s office. Over at The New Arab, I took a look at his time in office. As a polarizing demagogue, Netanyahu certainly cast a long shadow over Israeli politics, but much of the effect he had was simply a product of the length of time he was in office and his personal corruption rather than ideology. I examine all of this, in Netanyahu and the long shadow of an Israeli demagogue.

I was happy to join with over 300 Jewish leaders who came together to make it absolutely clear that we stand strong against antisemitism, and that we will not allow it to distract us from our work supporting Palestinians rights. You can see the letter we sent at 300 Jewish Leaders say: “We won’t be distracted or divided”

Netanyahu’s departure is virtually certain to have little or no effect on Israel’s policies and actions toward the Palestinians. Siege, occupation, and apartheid are going to roll merrily along and de facto annexation will continue as it has for so many years. But the US-Israeli relationship could be affected, and we can bet that both Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid will work hard to repair Israel’s image among Democrats and American Jews. I look at the likely incoming government for Responsible Statecraft in this piece, What the new government in Jerusalem means for US-Israel relations.

I also looked at how the last Israeli assault on Gaza might affect the US-Israeli relationship for Responsible Statecraft, in this piece, After latest round of violence, Biden faces a new Israel-Palestine conflict.

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