Have Democrats Reached a Turning Point on Israel?

Thursday, Israel and Hamas reached a ceasefire, putting a tentative end to 11
days of fighting that began with protests over the eviction of Palestinian
families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem and a subsequent
Israeli raid at the Al Aqsa mosque on the last Friday of Ramadan. In a statement
praising the agreement Thursday night, President Joe Biden described talks
between the United States and Israel over the past week. “In my conversation
with [Prime Minister] Netanyahu, I commended him for the decision to bring the
current hostilities to a close within less than 11 days,” he
said. “I also emphasized
what I have said throughout this conflict: The United States fully supports
Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks from
Hamas and other Gaza-based terrorist groups that have taken the lives of
innocent civilians in Israel.” Statements
like this have been pro forma for American presidents for years. But this one
came after days of protest and criticism that underscored how dramatically the
discourse on Israel and Palestine has changed since Biden was last in the White
House. Six days after hostilities began, New York Congresswoman Alexandria
Ocasio-Cortez called Israel an apartheid state, capping off a week of bold
statements from progressives including Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Cori Bush,
and Betty McCollum, who reintroduced a bill restricting Israel’s use of
military aid in April. House progressives and Senator Bernie Sanders also
offered resolutions
opposing the sale of $735 million in American weapons to Israel. All of this
amounted to the most significant rift yet between the Biden administration and
the Democratic left, and an indication of how broader changes within the party
and the American political scene might shake up the relative stasis of Israel
policy further in the years ahead.“I
think what we’re seeing now is a few things combining to create the situation
we’re in,” says Beth Miller, senior government affairs manager at Jewish Voice
for Peace. “One is all of the hard work that the Palestinian-led Palestinian
rights movement in this country has been doing for decades. The other is the
broader political moment in the United States right now. We are in a post-Trump
era. We’re living in a global pandemic. We’re in a time where Black Lives
Matter is a rallying cry for progressives across this entire country, where
we’ve seen incredible Black-led organizing has made real, tangible change. And
we’re at a time where, more broadly speaking, the progressive left in America is
starting to understand in new ways that all of our struggles are interconnected
and that everything we work on has to be in solidarity with one another.”In
her speech before the House last week, Rashida Tlaib, the representative of a
majority-Black Detroit district and the first Palestinian-American woman
elected to Congress, made that argument explicitly and encouraged her
constituents to draw parallels between racist policies at home and the
treatment of Palestinians in Israel. “As Palestinians talk about our history,
many of my Black neighbors and Indigenous communities may not know what we mean
by nakba,” she said,
referring to the exodus of Palestinians from Israel during its creation in
1948. “But they do understand what it means to be killed, expelled from your
home, land, made homeless, and stripped of your human rights.”Obviously,
most Democrats and the party’s leaders still resist these comparisons and other
efforts to bring attention to the realities of day-to-day life under the
occupation. But the disparate impact of the current Gaza crisis on the Israeli
and Palestinian populations proved difficult even for moderates to ignore.
Hamas’s rocket attacks killed at
least 12 in Israel, a figure Israelis credit to the efficacy of their Iron
Dome defense system. In Gaza, Israel’s strikes killed at
least 230 Palestinians—roughly six
times the number of Israelis killed by Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza
between 2000 and 2020—and displaced an estimated 72,000
more, owing to the damage or destruction of over
1,000 buildings and civilian infrastructure. Those buildings included 17
hospitals and clinics, Gaza’s lone coronavirus testing facility, and a
high-rise that housed offices for the Associated Press and Al Jazeera.The
destruction of the latter and overall casualty count in Gaza drew a rare rebuke
from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, typically a
reliable defender of Israeli policy. “I am deeply troubled by reports of
Israeli military actions that resulted in the death of innocent civilians in
Gaza, as well as Israeli targeting of buildings housing international media
outlets,” he said
in a statement. “In response to thousands of rocket attacks fired by Hamas
aimed at civilians, Israel has every right to self-defense from terrorists
committed to wipe her off the face of the map. But no matter how dangerous and real that threat may be, I have always
believed the strength of the U.S.-Israeli relationship flourishes when it is
based on the shared values of democracy, freedom, pluralism, and respect for
human rights and the rule of law.”The voices working now to
reconceptualize that relationship include not only figures like Tlaib, who
comfortably place themselves on the Democratic Party’s left wing, but
organizations like J Street, whose advocates are angling to replace Israel
hawks in the political mainstream. While J Street remains at odds with Jewish
Voice for Peace and other organizations that support the Boycott, Divest, and
Sanctions movement, the group sharply criticized
Biden in the early days of fighting for not urging a ceasefire more strongly
and is pushing the administration to fully close the Trump era of Israel policy
by, among other actions, declaring Israel’s settlements in Palestinian
territory illegal and reopening the American consulate in East Jerusalem.  “Those
are small steps that could be taken,” Logan Bayroff, J Street’s vice president for communications, says. “But we’ve also said it’s not enough to just reset to an
Obama-era status quo. And I think part of that involves, frankly, centering much
more of the concept of the rights of both peoples on a day-to-day basis and the
reality of the occupation—the fact that this is not just a conflict between
two armed groups but that there’s a systemic, ongoing injustice that’s part of
the root cause of the overall conflict.”Of
the candidates who ran in last year’s Democratic presidential primary, Biden
was among the least likely to adopt that understanding of the conflict. In a
1986 Senate floor speech
defending aid to Israel, Biden condensed the views that have defined his career
on the subject into a few sentences. “I think it’s about time we stop—those
of us who support, as most of us do, Israel in this body—apologizing for our
support for Israel,” he said. “There’s no apology to be made. None. It is the
best $3 billion investment we make. Were there not an Israel, the United States
of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the
region.” As Peter Beinart, a former editor of this magazine, wrote
for Jewish Currents last year, Biden carried that sensibility with him
into the Obama administration, as he repeatedly undermined modest efforts to
pressure Netanyahu on settlements.But
despite his history and handling of the Gaza crisis, activists like Miller are
nevertheless hoping that public pressure might pull Biden in a new direction as
his term continues.“I
don’t think that Joe Biden can be drawn to a more ethical position on
Palestine, but I think he can be forced to one,” she says. “I think he’s shown, over the course of his decades in public service, that he is ideologically a
staunch supporter of Israeli government violence toward Palestinians. However,
he’s also the president of the United States and subject to the pressure of
segment of the public favoring real change in America’s Israel policy is
growing, but still small. According to Gallup, the proportion of Americans who
believe pressuring Israel will be key to achieving peace has increased
by seven points, from 27 to 34 percent, since 2018. But a 44 percent plurality still
emphasizes pressure on the Palestinians, although that figure is down six
points from 50 in 2018. And 56 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s handling
of the latest crisis, according
to a Hill/Harris poll.That’s
not to say, though, that louder criticisms of Israel now aren’t being shaped by
public sentiment. Gallup’s numbers show a 53 percent majority of Democrats
favor pressuring Israel—a 10-point jump since 2018—and progressive figures
are clearly betting that the broader electorate is more willing to hear critics
out than ever before. They’re probably right: Even pro-Israel Democrats can
understand revulsion at a government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu and the special
relationship Netanyahu forged with Donald Trump. And invocations of “America’s
interests” in the region don’t land quite as easily for the public as they did
before the “war on terror”—those words no longer have the power to sweep
concerns about what the U.S. does and endorses abroad aside. A wholesale
shift in Israel policy probably isn’t around the corner. But those advocating
for one are clearly operating within a changed political landscape. 

2021-05-24 | Politics, The Soapbox, Joe Biden | English |