Supporters of a ceasefire in Gaza condemned comments made by the former House speaker Nancy Pelosi as “downright authoritarian” after the California Democrat suggested, without offering evidence, that pro-Palestinian activists may have ties to Russia and president Vladimir Putin.
In an interview on Sunday, Pelosi called on the FBI to investigate protesters involved in the progressive movement pressuring the Biden administration to support a ceasefire in Gaza.
“For them to call for a ceasefire is Mr Putin’s message,” Pelosi said during an interview on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. “Make no mistake, this is directly connected to what he would like to see. Same thing with Ukraine. It’s about Putin’s message. I think some of these protesters are spontaneous and organic and sincere. Some, I think, are connected to Russia.”
Pressed for clarity on whether she believed the activists were “Russian plants”, Pelosi replied: “Seeds or plants. I think some financing should be investigated. And I want to ask the FBI to investigate that.”
The interview sparked a furious backlash among activists and anti-war protesters, who pointed to polling that shows strong shares of Democrats support calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and agree with the claim that Israel is committing a “genocide” against the Palestinian people.
Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called the remarks an “unsubstantiated smear” that “echo a time in our nation when opponents of the Vietnam war were accused of being communist sympathizers and subjected to FBI harassment”.
“Her comments once again show the negative impact of decades of dehumanization of the Palestinian people by those supporting Israeli apartheid,” Awad said in a statement. “Instead of baselessly smearing those Americans as Russian collaborators, former House Speaker Pelosi and other political leaders should respect the will of the American people by calling for an end to the Netanyahu government’s genocidal war on the people of Gaza.”
Since the outbreak of war in October, Joe Biden has faced a groundswell of opposition to his policy in Gaza. Prominent Jewish, progressive and anti-war groups are among the many organizations involved in the ceasefire movement. In recent weeks, activists have interrupted major campaign events, including a speech on reproductive rights in Virginia where he was interrupted at least a dozen times.
Biden has resisted calls to back an immediate ceasefire, even as his administration works to secure a temporary pause to the bloodshed in exchange for the release of nearly 100 hostages taken in the 7 October attack on Israel. The mounting Palestinian death toll, now estimated to have surpassed 26,000, and widespread suffering in Gaza, have infuriated key parts of his Democratic base.
Democratic strategist Waleed Shahid, who supports a ceasefire and has been closely monitoring the US response to the war in Gaza, said Pelosi’s remarks amounted to an “unacceptable disinformation being spread by the most powerful Democratic party leaders”.
“Democrats are most successful when they represent a broad coalition, but the party leadership has sabotaged itself by vigorously attacking the majority of their own Democratic voters who oppose the war,” he said.
Pelosi, who led House Democrats for 20 years and served twice as House speaker, is apparently the first and most high profile US official to publicly accuse Russia of supporting pro-Palestinian activists in an effort to exacerbate divisions among Democrats over Israel’s war in Gaza.
Pelosi made the comments in response to a question about whether opposition to Biden’s handling of the conflict could hurt the president’s re-election prospects in November.
In a statement following Pelosi’s appearance on CNN, a spokesperson emphasized that the former speaker believes the “focus” should remain on strategies to end the suffering of the people in Gaza and secure release of the hostages held by Hamas.
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The spokesperson continued: “Speaker Pelosi has always supported and defended the right of all Americans to make their views known through peaceful protest. Informed by three decades on the House Intelligence Committee, Speaker Pelosi is acutely aware of how foreign adversaries meddle in American politics to sow division and impact our elections, and she wants to see further investigation ahead of the 2024 election.”
Brianna Wu, who created a pac to support progressive candidates called Rebellion, wrote on social media that Pelosi’s comments were inartful, but tracked with recent efforts by Russia to interfere in a US election.
“Information warfare doesn’t invent new divisions. It finds existing divisions and exacerbates them,” Wu wrote. “Since Putin wants Trump to win, he will obviously be funding efforts to split the Democratic Party. Israel/Palestine is proving to be very effective at this.”
Democrats in Michigan have warned the White House that dissatisfaction with Biden’s approach to the Israel-Gaza war may jeopardize his support among Arab Americans in a swing state that could determine the outcome of the 2024 presidential election.
Abdullah Hammoud, the Democratic mayor of Dearborn, Michigan, a city with a sizable Arab American population that helped seal Biden’s 2020 victory in the state, shared the results of a November poll that showed broad support for a permanent ceasefire and de-escalation of violence in Gaza.
“So, based on Nancy Pelosi’s remarks, 76% of Democrats / 49% of Republicans / 61% of Americans are potentially paid operatives of Russia who are pushing Putin’s message of calling for a ceasefire??” he wrote.
Hammoud, who last week joined a group of Arab and Muslim leaders in refusing to meet with Biden’s reelection campaign manager to discuss the administration’s approach to the war, concluded: “The Democratic party leadership is in disarray.”