As AOC cancels Rabin event, Palestine movement finds new clout in Washington

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's withdrawal from a memorial for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin demonstrates the Palestinian rights movement's growing influence on the progressive left.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, March 10, 2019. (nrkbeta(CC BY-SA 2.0)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, March 10, 2019. (nrkbeta/CC BY-SA 2.0)

In a sign of the Palestinian rights movement’s growing political clout in Washington, Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez withdrew on Friday from her planned participation in an event commemorating Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated 25 years ago. The event, scheduled for October 20, was organized by liberal Zionist group Americans for Peace Now (APN).

APN trumpeted the progressive icon’s plan to speak at their memorial for Rabin, writing on Twitter that she was going to “reflect on fulfilling the courageous Israeli leader’s mission for peace and justice today in the US and Israel.”

But Ocasio-Cortez’s initial participation in the celebration of Rabin, a former Israeli army commander who oversaw the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian cities during the 1948 war, raised the ire of Palestinian rights activists. The event attracted further attention after the Congresswoman responded to my own Twitter message regarding her participation, which pointed out that Rabin, during his time as Defense Minister, had reportedly ordered Israeli soldiers to “break the bones” of Palestinian protesters during the First Intifada.

Ocasio-Cortez wrote in response: “this event and my involvement was presented to my team differently from how it’s now being promoted.”

A source with knowledge of the discussions between APN and Ocasio-Cortez told me that APN framed the event as focusing on Oslo and Rabin, and that APN wanted her to speak on her congressional work on Israel-Palestine, including her recent letter warning Israel against annexing West Bank settlements. The source said that the event was not framed to her as a memorial that would celebrate Rabin’s legacy, as APN had said.

APN did not immediately respond to +972’s request for comment. Ocasio-Cortez’s office would not comment on the source’s account.

Ocasio-Cortez’s withdrawal from the event showcases the growing influence the Palestinian rights movement has on both the American progressive left and Congress. Five years ago, it would have been inconceivable for a U.S. politician to bow to pressure from the left, let alone Palestinian activists, to pull out of an event celebrating an Israeli leader. Today, however, the Palestinian rights movement can count on a small bloc of progressive lawmakers who are backing their cause and authoring legislation to condition U.S. military aid to Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin meets with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Casablanca, Morocco, October 30, 1994. (Saar Yaacov/GPO)
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin meets with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Casablanca, Morocco, October 30, 1994. (Saar Yaacov/GPO)

In recent years, the Palestinian rights movement has invested time and resources into building a Washington infrastructure with the ability to respond and shape the debate over U.S.-Israel relations. While the movement does not yet have the money or relationships to rival pro-Israel lobby groups, it has been able to effectively tap into Democratic misgivings about the U.S.-Israel relationship — misgivings that have been fueled by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s embrace of President Donald Trump, together with an Israeli occupation that has only grown more entrenched.

Ocasio-Cortez has been a prominent ally to that movement; so when she seemingly signed on to an event with a liberal Zionist group celebrating Rabin, it raised many eyebrows. After a day of engagement and pressure on the Congresswoman, she pulled out of the event.

Palestinians in the United States thanked Ocasio-Cortez for listening to them — a rarity in U.S. politics.

“Palestinians spoke & @AOC listened,” wrote Nooran Hamdan, a Palestinian-American writer who contributes to +972, on Twitter. “In a country where Palestinians are not only actively sidelined, but are smeared when we hold politicians accountable; the tide is shifting.”

“Palestinians have shared their lived experiences of [the pain] and violence [Rabin caused] and more of us need to listen,” said Beth Miller, Government Affairs Manager at Jewish Voice for Peace Action. “Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s ability to pause and to listen when people share their lived experiences is one of her greatest strengths as a leader and something all members of Congress should strive for.” 

Rabin is often remembered as a peacemaker for his recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization as the political representative of the Palestinian people, and for his role in signing the Oslo Accords alongside the PLO’s chairman Yasser Arafat. He was also the first and only Israeli prime minister to rely on Palestinian members of Knesset to attain power in government. Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by Yigal Amir, a Jewish extremist opposed to the Oslo Accords, during a peace rally in Tel Aviv.

It is that record that liberal Zionists in the United States and Israel celebrate and mourn. And as such, Ocasio-Cortez’s decision to pull out of an event celebrating their icon confounded many in their ranks.

IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin speaks at the Mount Scopus amphitheater after receiving an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University at the end of the 1967 war, June 28, 1967. (Ilan Bruner/GPO)
IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin speaks at the Mount Scopus amphitheater after receiving an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University at the end of the 1967 war, June 28, 1967. (Ilan Bruner/GPO)

But for many Palestinians, Rabin’s legacy is not one to be celebrated. The Oslo Accords failed to pave the path toward a Palestinian state, and during the 1990s, Israel continued building illegal settlements in the West Bank. Rabin’s past as a brutal military commander, for which he never apologized or faced accountability, also looms large in Palestinian views on the former prime minister.

“For Palestinians, Yitzhak Rabin is a reminder of the Nakba, when as a military general he oversaw the mass expulsions in the villages of Lydda and Ramla,” said Sumaya Awad, Director of Strategy and Communications for Adalah Justice Project. 

“Rabin’s legacy of indiscriminate violence against Palestinian protesters during the First Intifada must not be whitewashed,” Awad added, “especially as Americans bear witness to their country’s own violent crackdowns against protests demanding an end to racism. Rabin’s historical record includes building alliances with apartheid South Africa. This is a figure who should not be valorized and celebrated, no matter what he came to symbolize later on. AOC’s decision to pull out of the event is a decision to stand on the right side of history.”