Last Friday, liberal Zionists received an unwelcome and unpleasant surprise with the announcement that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was reconsidering, eventually to officially withdraw, her participation in an Americans for Peace Now event commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The about-face was initiated on Twitter when Ocasio-Cortez responded to a tweet from Jewish Currents writer and former Mondoweiss editor Alex Kane describing Rabin’s reputation among Palestinians as one of “brutal rule suppressing Palestinian protest during the First Intifada, as someone who reportedly ordered the breaking of Palestinian bones” by saying that the event and her involvement were misrepresented to her team and that she was looking into it. Ocasio-Cortez’s withdrawal from an event commemorating the life of Israel’s most celebrated peacemaker held by an unimpeachably Zionist pro-peace organization at the forefront of documenting the harmful impacts of settlement expansion is worthy of commentary in its own right, but the commentary should not end there. There is a larger set of points to be made about the nature of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and whether it involves understanding and empathy for both sides or only for one.
Starting with the obvious, what makes Ocasio-Cortez’s decision so disconcerting is that participating in this event should have been a no-brainer. While I am not generally in the business of either defending or criticizing other organizations, APN and its Israeli counterpart Peace Now are the patient zero of the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement and as critical to the fight to end Israeli occupation of the West Bank as any group that exists. Furthermore, Rabin is revered by liberal American Jews and Democratic lawmakers, many of whom view his assassination as the event from which the peace camp never recovered. To denigrate APN by leaving the impression that it is covering for alleged Israeli war crimes and to treat Rabin as an insincere Trojan Horse who was only feinting toward peace and concessions in order to perpetuate injustice is as hard a turn to radicalism as exists in the context of Democratic politics and American Jewish discourse. It is out of step with the overwhelming majority of American Jews, who view Rabin as a positive example, and it is redolent of when outsiders make lists of good and bad representatives of an ethnic or racial minority. Many Palestinians have cause to dislike Rabin, but for Ocasio-Cortez to treat him as beyond the pale puts her well beyond the boundaries of traditional liberal politics.
There is another issue here that goes beyond the politics of how one views Rabin, which is what is involved in making peace. The fact that Rabin was a hardline defense minister during the First Intifada is precisely what made his later turn so effective and impactful. Rabin was no saint; he did not hold a deep commitment to recognizing the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism, he was responsible in ways direct and indirect for violence against Palestinian fighters and civilians, and he was in many ways dragged – nearly literally in the case of shaking Yasser Arafat’s hand – into recognizing the PLO and signing the Oslo Accords. This makes Rabin a terrible candidate for religious beatification but a perfect candidate for making peace with his enemies. If Ocasio-Cortez or anyone else wants to apply an ideological or moral purity test to Rabin, and insist that only those who have been the most shining examples of pure light their entire lives are worthy of praise, it is a naïve commentary on what ending conflict entails.
Peace necessarily involves being preceded by war, and what makes leaders who work for peace with their enemies laudable is that they are able to overcome the status quo of struggle and conflict, which inevitably involves bloodshed and difficult ethical choices. Rabin is responsible for some condemnable behavior at different stages of his career as a military leader, first in uniform and later as defense minister. He also repudiated much of that approach by example when he shepherded his country and his people into recognizing Palestinian nationalism for the first time, negotiating and signing an agreement with the Palestinians’ self-defined official representatives for the first time, and ceding direct control of parts of the West Bank for the first time. And after all that had taken place, he was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish extremist precisely for doing so, literally giving his life to the cause of peaceful conflict resolution. If you want to judge Rabin solely by the first part of his life and completely ignore the last part, you take a depressing and cynical view of humans’ capacity for change, improvement, learning, and correcting past errors. You also evince no understanding of what it means to work toward compromise in the service of ending a conflict, rather than keep the fight going endlessly so that you can claim to always be in the right.
The consequences of Ocasio-Cortez’s approach are not limited to historical debates about Rabin and theorizing on peacemaking and conflict. Rabin’s memory in Israel is under constant assault, but not for the reasons that Ocasio-Cortez appears to espouse. For many Israelis, the problem with Rabin is not the earlier part of his legacy but the later one. Oslo is a dirty word, concessions to the Palestinians are viewed as naïve and opening Israel up to terrorism, and treating Palestinians as having legitimate national aspirations is seen as a nefarious step toward encouraging the rest of the world to view Israel as illegitimate. There is an ideological battle being waged over Rabin’s legacy, with one side holding him up as the person who set Israel on a dangerous trajectory, and the other side holding him up as the leader who was poised to bring true peace had he been able to complete his work. Into this steps Ocasio-Cortez – one of the most prominent figureheads of American progressive politics – with the message to Israelis that their icon of peace is actually irredeemable, and that those who supported Rabin and his Oslo approach are actually no different than the Israelis who opposed it. It effectively takes those in Israel who are still working toward peace in a way that respects both Israeli and Palestinian nationalism and throws them under the bus.
This message is not a criticism of Israeli behavior; it is a criticism of Israeli legitimacy. It says that nothing Israel can do is good enough, that compromise is not sufficient, that Palestinian concerns and grievances and aspirations are valid – and they are! – but that Israeli ones are not. There are many criticisms of Oslo, and those have only multiplied in recent years as they center around the critique that it ultimately hardened and normalized Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and turned the Palestinian Authority into an Israeli subcontractor in this process. The manner in which things have unfolded over more than a quarter century does not alter the fact that Rabin did things that no Israeli prime minister did before him, compromised with the Palestinians in an unprecedented and still unsurpassed fashion, granted Israeli recognition to the Palestinians in a clear way, and everything we know about Rabin’s trajectory and concerns over Israel’s future leads to the reasonable supposition that he would have gone even further had he not been murdered for the steps he had already taken. If Rabin, who did what he did despite deep reservations and what turned out to be fatal opposition from his domestic political opponents, is worthy only of being shunned, then no Israeli leader will ever meet Ocasio-Cortez’s standard.
This week marks the twentieth anniversary of the start of the Second Intifada, which is the single most important event to understanding today’s Israeli politics and the mindset of the majority of Israelis. The advent of suicide terrorism and its eventual culmination in the Second Intifada came after Israel had made the most far-reaching concessions it ever made on the Palestinian front, and it not only convinced Israelis that Rabin’s approach was wrong, it convinced them that the threats arrayed against them were not about Israeli policy but Israel’s very existence. It eventually led to a demand that Palestinians recognize Israel specifically as a Jewish state because Israelis viewed their legitimacy and acceptance, and not only their physical security, as under assault. Ocasio-Cortez’s very public shunning of Rabin and the resulting progressive celebration only convince Israelis and their leaders that this post-Second Intifada narrative is correct, that Palestinians and their supporters are not looking for compromise but for capitulation, and that there is no point to even trying – in the way that Rabin did – because their country’s legitimacy will continue to be questioned anyway.
So thoroughly disrespecting one side to entirely adopt the narrative and claims of the other side is wrong when it happens to Palestinians, but trying to balance it out by doing it to Israelis does not help Palestinians. It does not bring the conflict any closer to being resolved. It does not convince Israelis to take any further uncomfortable risks, or to try to understand or empathize with the Palestinian side. Call Ocasio-Cortez whatever you like – heroic, principled, a totem for justice, or any other over the top plaudits that you can dream up. Just don’t call her a peacemaker, where she stands in direct and stark contrast to the man that she could not bring herself to praise or emulate.