Will Russiagate Help the Israel Lobby Censor Al Jazeera?

As Qatar faces pressure to suppress an Al Jazeera report on the Israel lobby, Max Blumenthal and Ali Abunimah discuss how the climate of censorship and fear around Russiagate has empowered those long attacking Palestinian rights


AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté, here at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., at the Israel Lobby and American Policy Conference. I’m here with two guests. Max Blumenthal, the Senior Editor of the Grayzone Project here at The Real News and Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada. We’re talking today about a convergence of sorts, of two issues that both of you are very well versed in, Russiagate and the Israel lobby. Ali, you gave a speech today at this conference where you pointed out that the same forces who have been pushing this Russiagate narrative are also very active in trying to criminalize, for example, the BDS Movement here in the US Can you explain?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Yeah. You know, one of the big pushes of Russiagate is Senator Ben Cardin, who is the sponsor of the so-called Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which wants to basically criminalize certain types of speech about Israel. The other element, all these liberal Democrats are applauding the registration of RT as a so-called foreign agent. That is the template now to pressure other media who threaten to expose the activities of the Israel lobby and specifically, Al Jazeera.

You have a Congressional Letter now circulating, asking the Justice Department to investigate whether Al Jazeera should be registered as a foreign agent, because it filmed this undercover documentary on the Israel lobby, which the Israel lobby groups do not want Americans to see. And so far, so far, Al Jazeera has not aired it and there have been reports that Qatari officials promised Israel lobby leaders it would not be aired, although Qatar itself has denied that, the fact remains we haven’t seen it yet and this pressure is going on.

AARON MATÉ: And this follows the release of an Al Jazeera documentary that exposed an Israeli official in England, trying to manipulate politics there. The premise of this documentary here, about the Israel lobby in the US, is that it’s a similar kind of expose.

ALI ABUNIMAH: That’s exactly right. What happened is last year, Al Jazeera broadcast, it’s investigative unit broadcast an undercover documentary, which exposed activities of Israel lobby groups and the Israeli Embassy in the UK, including undercover filming of an Israel Embassy agent plotting with a British civil servant to, “Take down a British minister who was deemed too critical of Israel.”

And what happened is after that was aired, pro-Israel groups complained to the British broadcasting authority that this documentary was biased, that it violated people’s rights and so on. Last October, that British authority, it’s called Ofcom, cleared Al Jazeera totally. It threw out all the complaints and when that happened, Al Jazeera announced that actually, “We have done a similar documentary in the US, gone undercover in several Israel lobby groups, and we were waiting for the result of the Ofcom investigation to broadcast it.” And they said back in October or November, “We’re gonna broadcast this very soon.” But then, the Israel lobby pressure campaign kicked in and four months later it still has yet to air.

AARON MATÉ: Max, the trajectory here is something you’ve been warning about for a while, in terms of the dangers of Russiagate. So, you have RT being forced to register as a foreign agent a few months ago. Then you have this news picking up of the Israeli concerns over this Al Jazeera documentary about the Israel lobby in the US, and then, lo and behold, as Ali said, you have US lawmakers coming out, calling for Al Jazeera to register as a foreign agent, and even citing this documentary as the reason. And you’ve been saying for a while that Russiagate is going to enable the worst tendencies in the American power structure and used to the stigmatizing of anyone who challenges the establishment line.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: That was the whole point of Russiagate, but let me step back a little bit and just address the Al Jazeera situation. I mean, we also have to take into account the geopolitics of the Saudi-UAE embargo or attempted embargo of Qatar. Qatar kind of saw, they looked at the lay of the land. They saw Trump in Washington, Trump cosying up to the Saudis and the Emirates through Jared Kushner, through the conference in Riyadh and they said, “How do we bring Washington back into our fold?”

The best way to do that is through the pro-Israel lobby. And so, they went and hired a pro-Israel PR firm at the same time that they were preparing the second edition of this really important investigation on the Israel lobby. And that PR firm is responsible for sending Alan Dershowitz, Israel’s lawyer, to Doha, along with Morton Klein, the head of the Zionist Organization of America. Both Dershowitz and Klein are clients of Sheldon Adelson, who’s very close to Donald Trump. So, it’s really notable that they would pick these figures. They’re doing it to keep in Trump’s good graces and they’re doing it through the pro-Israel lobby, it also helps connect to Jared Kushner.

So, now you have the sacrificial lamb of this Israel lobby investigation, which possibly exposed, it could have possibly exposed, for all I know, who is behind Canary Mission, the group that’s been blacklisting college students and trying to prevent them from getting employment because they participated in Palestine Solidarity activity. I mean, who knows what it could have, but clearly, something’s there that the pro-Israel lobby is afraid of, and you have this battle going on within Doha, and I think we need an explanation from Al Jazeera’s higher-ups.

I know that Phil Rees, who’s the head of the investigative unit at Al Jazeera, sent letters to the different figures who are in the documentary. And, you know, the Israel lobby has this writer, they’ve already hired like a hatchet man, to go after it at Tablet Magazine. So, all of this is in the works but we need a clear explanation from Al Jazeera management of when this will air and confirmation that it will air. Otherwise, what we will have witnessed is the most colossal and pathetic and lamentable cave in, to one of the most odious, toxic forces not only in Washington, but in the world. And it will represent a betrayal by Qatar of the Palestinian people, who they claim to be supporting.

So, that’s kind of the other part of this story. Then you have Russiagate, just as a general weapon of mass suppression. It was introduced out of the Clinton campaign. The Clinton campaign sort of understood that they had been discredited, that all the policies they stood for, which are NAFTA, getting rid of Glass-Steagall, breaking up Yugoslavia and R2P, destroying Libya, have been discredited. The American public has no interest in supporting any of this stuff and they’re feeling the consequences in the way that the hovercraft elites like John Podesta don’t feel. They’ve lost their jobs. In Europe, they’re experiencing a refugee crisis as a result of Libya and Syria.

People are not on board with it anymore. How do you retrench your position? Russiagate was the perfect opportunity to do so. You know, it not only gets at Trump, you accuse Trump of colluding with Russia. It criminalizes diplomacy with Russia. It makes it harder to de-escalate in Syria, all these sorts of things. But it also enables a war on alternative media and narratives outside of the establishment, particularly on social media. And so, we saw the return, in 2017, of the blacklist, in the form of things like PropOrNot, which was a blacklist promoted by the Washington Post and a who’s who of former Obama and Clinton operatives that blacklisted alternative media organizations, and we probably would have been on it, if they had known about us at the time.

But you saw Counterpunch and TruthDig, Bob Scheer’s operation on it. Then there’s the Hamilton 68 Russian Bots dashboard, which we’ve been saying was a fraud all along. And basically, it identifies, without explaining what its criteria is, it identifies media organizations that generally are alternative media as Kremlin disinformation vehicles. So, there is an attempt at suppressing everything that’s outside the establishment narrative and it has led actual measures on Facebook being taken to ,for example, de-prioritize news that’s seen as echoing Kremlin narratives, Twitter has offloaded all RT advertising.

And so, how does this connect to Palestine? Why am I talking about it here? Because these are the outlets that have actually given me the opportunity to write about Palestine. That includes Al Jazeera, although maybe a little bit less so, but Al Jazeera is open to those critiques, and RT. RT has never had any problem with me saying whatever I want about Israel. It also presents the other side. But these are just the open platforms that the establishment, whether it’s the Jeb Bush establishment or the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama establishment, seek to destroy because it did so much damage to them in 2016, and they can’t allow that to happen again. That’s why they’re putting pressure on Silicon Valley. That’s why the blacklist has come back. And that’s how Russiagate connects to Palestine because anyone in Palestine Solidarity depends on alternative media for oxygen.

AARON MATÉ: Ali, we have one minute but if you could pick up on that. Your concerns about the impact of the culture of Russiagate, the silencing of critical voices. How that could specifically impact the Palestine Solidarity Movement in the US.

ALI ABUNIMAH: I think one of the biggest threats, you know, for me as someone who’s been writing about working on Palestine for 20 years, the Internet was our outlet and our way around the gatekeepers and the mainstream monolith that shut out Palestine. And I feel like we are, you know, it was a brief golden age that is going away with the Silicon Valley, the control. Already, every independent publication has seen traffic from Facebook plummet. I don’t know one that hasn’t. We’ve seen Twitter succumb to trying to justify itself. I don’t know if its taken measures the same way as Facebook yet. Google search is a problem.

The problem is that these companies are so opaque and so much of our public’s sphere is really controlled by totally unaccountable private companies. And so, for me, it’s very worrying that that ability to reach around and to talk to people directly without relying on the mainstream media gatekeepers is gonna go away. And then who knows what the end of net neutrality will bring on top of all that? And I feel like Russiagate is absolutely amplifying that hysteria and justifying censorship in the name of fighting so-called foreign influence or fake news.

AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there. Ali Abunimah and Max Blumenthal, thank you. And thank you for joining us on The Real News.