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AOC should honor Rabin. She should honor Arafat, too.

Recently, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, star of the American left, announced that she would participate in an Americans for Peace Now event honoring Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister assassinated 25 years ago for his role trying to make peace with the Palestinians through the Oslo Accords. But the congresswoman was soon called out by activists critical of Rabin’s record and Oslo’s impact on the lives of Palestinians. In response, AOC claimed the event had been misrepresented, and that she was “taking a look into this now.”

This waffling on the part of the congresswoman is problematic. Having already accepted the invitation, turning her back now on a pro-peace organization that tirelessly advocates the two-state solution and consequently casting shade on Rabin’s record as a peacemaker would send the wrong signal to — and alienate — peace advocates on the other side.

This is not because Rabin was without fault. Rabin is quoted as having told soldiers to break the bones of Palestinians at the beginning of the First Intifada. He participated in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that rid Israel of the majority of its Arab inhabitants in 1948, and it’s doubtful whether the Oslo process, even if he had lived, would have produced a viable and independent Palestinian state.

And yet, his legacy remains in the Israeli imagination as one who tried to make peace. Rather than his years in the military, for Israelis and many others, Rabin’s name evokes the image of his own blood covering the paper on which he had printed the words to “Shir LaShalom” — A Song for Peace — the night he was murdered.

Conjuring his legacy of peace at this critical juncture matters greatly to efforts to revive the idea of peace and coexistence. Just compare Rabin to current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Despite all of his mistakes, bloody though they were, Rabin should be credited with taking a bold, courageous and unprecedented step when engaged with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Instead of uncritically accepting the event or now withdrawing from it, AOC and the hosting organization should honor a Palestinian peacemaker’s legacy at the same event.

This would be a major coup. From a Palestinian perspective, what’s irritating about the annual celebrations of Rabin’s legacy is how they ignore the Palestinian leaders who also made a historic compromise, to recognize Israel and accept less than 22% of historic Palestine in return. These celebrations tend to show how heroic, bold and unmatched Rabin was. But where are the Palestinian counterparts?

It always takes two to tango. Without Yassir Arafat and the PLO, the peace process wouldn’t have even started. And there was a lot of initiation on the Palestinian side. Back in 1973, Mahmoud Abbas, then a senior PLO leader, secretly assigned — with Arafat’s approval — PLO members Said Hammami, Issam al-Sartawi and Naim Khadir, to open channels for dialogue, peace-talks and co-existence with Israel. These were known as the “Paris Meetings.” All three men were later assassinated. And in 1982, Arafat spoke directly to Israeli media in an interview with Uri Avnery to voice Palestinian grievances to the Israeli public.

Arafat wept when Rabin was killed. He risked his life to secretly visit Rabin’s widow, Leah, to express his condolences. “We lost one of our cousins,” he is quoted as having said. “He’s the real partner the peace process, who had lost his life for the peace in this area. This loss is not only a loss for the Israelis and the Palestinians, but the whole world.”

Imagine the boldness and courage it took for a Palestinian leader to glorify a man who once was an infamous tormentor of his people? And yet, how is Arafat – or any of his pro-peace PLO colleagues – remembered compared to Rabin? Does any pro-peace organization in the U.S. dare to commemorate or even mention Arafat in passing without risking fierce and nonstop backlash?

Instead, Arafat is still widely recalled as a terrorist whose memory is associated with the likes of Bin Ladin or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Meanwhile, Rabin is generously credited for having talked to the “terrorist” Arafat, while Arafat gets no credit for talking to the “bone-breaker” Rabin.

And it’s not just Arafat. For most of us Palestinians who embrace the idea of peace or the two-state solution, there’s always a way to question our intentions, to doubt our genuineness, to dehumanize and portray us as hostile and malevolent.

Most prominently, Abbas, now president of the Palestinian Authority and head of the PLO, has for decades been enraging Palestinians with his dedication to maintain Israel’s security, renounce violence, thwart Palestinian armed actions and engage in a futile peace process. He’s been consistently defamed in many Palestinian circles as a traitor who is serving Israel’s interests rather than Palestinians.

And yet, he’s still seen as a terror supporter in many pro-Israel circles.

That’s what’s deeply infuriating about the celebrations of Israeli peace heroes: they overlook Palestinians who put their lives on the line every day to renounce violence and advocate for the two-state solution, for non-violence, for peace and co-existence.

What is needed instead of shunning one another is to bridge the gap and transcend the us vs. them mentality. AOC should start there.

Muhammad Shehada is a contributing columnist for the Forward. He is originally from Gaza. His work has also appeared in Haaretz and Vice. Find him on Twitter @muhammadshehad2.


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