Progressive Futures

US Democratic Party consensus on Israel

17 June 2021

Biden’s Progressive Agenda Blown off Course?

Mark Roden

The Biden Administration came to power on January 20, 2021, with huge challenges not least of which were tackling the Covid-19 crisis and its related economic impact.  From a progressive perspective, Biden has been enormously successful in pursuing a raft of policies many of his more reluctant supporters on the left thought unlikely given his inveterate centrism as a Senator and as Vice President to President Barack Obama (2008-2016). During its first 100 days in office the administration was responsible for the roll out of some 230 million vaccines while simultaneously issuing some 41 Executive Orders (EOs) which included revoking the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and initiating action on climate change. Of Biden’s 41 EOs 19 were deployed in order to reverse some of President Donald Trump’s most egregious policies and included a recommitment to the Paris Climate Agreement and the halting of the construction of the US-Mexico border wall. Moreover, by the end of his first 100 days in office, Biden had signed 11 major Bills, none more significant than the seismic $1.9 trillion American Recue Plan that is designed to alleviate hardship induced by the pandemic by targeting investment and by putting money directly into American people’s pockets. In a positive appraisal of Biden’s early record in government one of the highest profile progressive members of Congress, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, said the administration had “definitely exceeded expectations.”  In the realm of foreign policy in the Middle East the administration had sought to prioritise revivifying the Iran Nuclear Deal, which had been dismantled by Trump, rather than expending political capital on the seemingly intractable Israeli – Palestinian conflict. However, the Biden Administration’s progressive credentials on human rights would be severely challenged when Israel and Hamas went to war on May 10 this year.

The Biden Response to the Israel-Palestinian Conflict

President Biden has been a staunch supporter of Israel for the last fifty years but his response to the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be regarded as having been acutely tone deaf to the injustices and humiliations being visited upon the Palestinians. The recent crisis emanated from events in early May when Israelis attempted to evict Palestinians from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem and then fired teargas on worshippers inside the Muslim Holy Site of Al-Aqsa Mosque in the city. President Biden singularly failed to condemn these pernicious violations of international law and human rights norms despite the fact that the UN described the evictions as constituting a war crime. These specific events triggered Hamas to fire rockets from Gaza into Israel on 10 May.  Israel retaliated in a hugely disproportionate manner over the next 11 days killing 248 Palestinians (including 66 children) and wounding some 1,498 people – mainly civilians.  Biden’s Secretary of State repeatedly gave statements emphasising Hamas rocket fire into Israel while severely downplaying the Sheikh Jarrah evictions, the Al-Aqsa Mosque attack and the massive civilian death toll in Gaza. In calls with then Israel’s far-right Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden stressed that Israel has a “ right to defend itself” while making the facile observation that “this will be closing down sooner than later.” Most significantly, during the first week of Israeli bombing in Gaza, Biden instructed his Ambassador to the UN to block a Security Council Resolution calling for a ceasefire thus allowing the bloodshed to continue with impunity. Notably, since the creation of the UN in 1945, of the 82 times that the US has exercised its veto on the Security Council, 44 of those times have been to prevent Israel from being held accountable for alleged human rights violations and war crimes.

It is crucial to note at this juncture that, far from being an honest broker in this conflict, the US has continually facilitated and endorsed Israeli aggression with staggering levels of military aid. Indeed since the creation of the Israeli sate in 1948 the US has provided $146 billion in foreign aid (mostly military) to the country and currently provides $3.8 billion per year, making Israel by far the largest cumulative recipient of US assistance since World War Two.  The US is also the biggest seller of weapons to Israel which comprises a military arsenal that includes 362 US built F-16 warplanes and another 100 military aircraft including new F-35s; 45 Apache Helicopters; 600 M-109 Howitzers and 64 M270 rocket launchers. It is depressing to note that these weapons were likely used against civilians in Gaza and thus contributed materially to the unconscionable death toll in the recent flare-up in tensions.

The Shifting Sands of Support for Israel in the US Congress and Democratic Party

Congressional support for Israel should not be underestimated despite oscillating opinion among Democrats on the conflict. On 22 April 330 out of 435 members of Congress signed a letter to the Chair and Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee opposing any reductions in funding to Israel or to the introductions of any conditions relating to human rights issues.  This was to stave off moves by a progressive vanguard on the left of the Democratic Party which had attempted to link Israeli aid to the plight of the Palestinians.  This new grouping, which is vociferous about humanitarian causes, had its roots in the Presidential bid of prominent Jewish Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in 2016. Sanders broke the taboo on Israel-Palestine among high profile Democrats by stressing that Israel had used “disproportionate force” during its invasion of Gaza in July 2014 when 1400 people were killed including 16 civilians in a UN school. Sanders used the April 2016 presidential primary debate to call the US role in the conflict “one-sided.”  During the recent conflict Sanders has given rhetorical flourish to criticism of US policy claiming very powerfully that “Palestinian Lives Matter.”  This push to link racial justice in the US with the Palestinian cause was outlined by one of Sanders’ progressive colleagues, Representative Cori Bush of St Louis, who declared on the House Floor that: “we oppose our money going to fund militarised policing, occupation and systems of violent oppression and trauma. We are anti-war, we are anti-occupation and we are anti-apartheid. Period.”  This trend towards highlighting the plight of the Palestinians must be seen within the context of an increasingly diverse Congress which, in 2021, has 23% of its members deriving from a black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander or Native American heritage, compared to just 11% two decades ago.

In terms of taking concrete steps to make Israeli military aid conditional upon human rights Representative Betty McCollum of Minnesota set the progressive ball rolling when she introduced a bill in the House on 15 April 2021 which insisted that US funds to Israel should not be used “to support the military detention of Palestinian children, the unlawful seizure, appropriation and destruction of Palestinian property and forcible transfer of civilians in the West Bank, or further annexation of Palestinian land in violation of international law.” During the recent crisis, Senator Bernie Sanders followed up on McCollum’s lead by introducing a resolution in the Senate on 20 May seeking to block an imminent $735 million sale of weapons to the Israelis that had already been fully endorsed by the Biden Administration

In a further sign of just how out of step the Biden Administration has been on the recent conflict, it is instructive to note that even more centrist figures with strong pro-Israeli records began to take a more critical stance towards Netanyahu’s government and its nefarious treatment of the Palestinians.  Representative Greg Meeks of New York, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, initially called for a pause on arms sales during the recent conflict while Senator Robert Menendez, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested that Israel hadn’t taken care to avoid civilian casualties. Biden’s decision on 17 May to call for a ceasefire, after a week of bloody conflict followed the cranking up of pressure within the wider Democratic Party. Just prior to Biden’s calls for a ceasefire, 29 Democratic and independent Senators, led by Senator Jon Ossoff of Georgia, issued a statement calling for a cessation of hostilities in the conflict. On 14 May nearly 150 high profile liberal advocacy organisations issued a joint statement calling for “solidarity with the Palestinian residents” and condemning “state violence” and racial “supremacy” in Jerusalem.

Wider opinion within the Democratic Party also appeared to be shifting particularly following a Human Right Watch report in April 2021 which described the status quo in the occupied territories as “apartheid” – a description used on the House Floor by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and on MSNBC News by presenter Ali Velshi.  Moreover a recent Gallup poll found that 53% of Democrats generally supported putting more pressure on Israel to advance peace while polls by the University of Maryland found that most Democrats support applying sanctions on Israel over its settlement policy in the West Bank. The University of Maryland polls also found that some 78% of Democrats favour a democratic Israel over a Jewish state that fails to provide equality for all its citizens. This growing sympathy for a balanced policy has now filtered into the mainstream of Democratic Party politics and, perhaps more pertinently, has permeated the new outlook of many secular Jews who form an important part of the Democratic voter base.

The close relationship between former President Trump and now former Prime Minister Netanyahu had a polarising effect on the US Jewish community particularly given the domestic policy preferences of the vast majority of the secular Jews on issues including: abortion, gay rights, the Affordable Care Act, voter suppression and especially the attempt to seize power on January 6 by inciting insurrection. The latter event had a particularly dark resonance for America’s Jewish population the parents of whom had often fled totalitarian tyranny in Europe.  Netanyahu’s tacit endorsement of Trump’s authoritarianism has engendered a growing number of progressive Jewish groups to voice their concerns for Palestinian rights and to assert their own liberal values.  As Beth Miller, of the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) poignantly puts it: “there is no such thing as ‘progressive’ except for Palestine.” Rabbi Sharon Brous, the leader of IKAR, a large progressive synagogue in Los Angeles, further elucidated a growing concern with Palestinian human rights among US Jews saying: “What most American Jews desire is to see Israelis and Palestinians living in dignity, in a just and equitable society.” These  transfigurations in Jewish opinion within the mainstream of Democratic party support was also evidenced in a powerful manifestation of solidarity with Palestinians from Jewish Google employees who publically urged their company to sever links with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) during the bombing of Gaza in May.

Some Conclusions

Growing opposition to current US policy on Israel-Palestine should not diminish the huge structural power of the traditional right-wing Israel lobby within the US represented most potently by the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The group recently indicated that they feel confident of their support from the White House and Capitol Hill, underlining the insuperable reality of the huge levels of military aid to Israel each year. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Biden Administration has taken some tentative steps towards reifying  US commitment to a peace process by reiterating that “a two state solution is the only answer” while pledging “a major aid package for the Palestinian Authority.” Unlike the historically illiterate and chauvinistic policies of the Trump Administration on the issue, such as advocating a peace plan that would annex 30% of the West Bank, the Biden Administration is at least speaking to Palestinians – though categorically not to Hamas.  In the week following the recent ceasefire, brokered by Egypt, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, visited the region and met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pledging $75 million in aid, including $5.5 million provided immediately for the unenviable task of rebuilding Gaza following the destruction of recent weeks.  Significantly, Blinken also announced the reopening of the Palestinian Diplomatic Mission in Jerusalem (which had been closed at the direction of Donald Trump) and also criticised Israeli settlements in a rare public admonishment of Netanyahu’s policies in the West Bank.  The task facing US progressives in the future is clearly that of inexorably tying military aid for Israel to the fulfilment of its duties on human rights under international law.  The Leahy Laws in the US explicitly prohibit providing military aid to countries contravening US human rights law. Only such explicit conditionality is likely to ameliorate the growing rift in the wider Democratic Party between those who espouse humanitarianism and social justice and those content to prop up a morally shameful and deleterious status quo whereby Palestinians are subjected to ever augmented levels of oppression by the Israeli state.