A diverse array of over 100 groups that support Palestinian rights announced today that they had sent a letter to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, urging him to adopt policies toward Israel and the Palestinians “based on the principles of equality and justice for all.”
The letter, which was initiated by the activist group CODEPINK, advocates a policy approach based on “respecting human rights and international law, promoting the peaceful resolution of conflicts, supporting diplomacy over military intervention, and utilizing multilateralism and multilateral institutions for dispute resolution,” and calls on Biden not only to adopt these principles in Israel and Palestine, but as the basis of U.S. foreign policy in general.
The effort faces an uphill battle. Biden is a staunch and long-time supporter of Israel. As vice president under Barack Obama, Biden was frequently tasked with smoothing out the often-rocky relationship between the administration and the pro-Israel community, due to his well-earned reputation for supporting the Israeli government’s views.
He was once described by Senator Chuck Schumer as “the best friend of Israel in the (Obama) administration,” and has repeatedly touted his pro-Israel credentials on the campaign trail. “I am a Zionist,” Biden famously told an interviewer on Shalom TV in 2007. “You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.”
Even when other Democrats were pledging or at least considering the idea of leveraging the United States annual allotment of $3.8 billion in military aid to pressure Israel into cooperating with the goal of a two-state solution, Biden categorically rejected any threat to that annual aid. He has even indicated that, contrary to his former boss, President Obama, he would keep any disagreements between his administration and Israel away from public view.
But in his quest to win the White House, Biden has also pledged to be open to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and in return has received a lot of support not only from former progressive rivals like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren but also from their staffs and volunteers as well. He hopes to win the support of progressive voters who have been lukewarm to him in 2020 and whose distaste for Hillary Clinton in 2016 is seen by some as a factor in her defeat.
Those voters are considerably more supportive of Palestinian rights than more centrist Democrats. A 2019 Gallup poll found that, while 58 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats held favorable views of Israel, among those more liberal Democrats, only 3 percent more favored Israel than favored the Palestinians.
That’s an ongoing trend and it is responsible for the increasingly negative view of Israel’s occupation among Democrats. It’s a nuanced view that separates opinion about Israel from the view of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. That nuance led most of the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination to forego appearing at the 2020 convention of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group.
The letter to Biden includes a long list of demands describing what a more positive U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians would look like. The demands cover a wide array of issues supporting Palestinian rights, ranging from goals that are within the current political spectrum — such as support for a House bill that would prohibit U.S. funds from supporting the ill-treatment of Palestinian children by Israeli security forces — to items that would require a significant shift in U.S. policy, such as recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees.
The variety of groups represented in the CODEPINK letter is striking, including Win Without War, If Not Now, the Council on American-Islamic Coordination, American Friends Service Committee, Jewish Voice for Peace, Demand Progress, Peace Action, and many more. Secular and religious; Jewish, Christian, and Muslim; wonkish policy organizations and grassroots action groups, all coming together to call for a new and different U.S. policy. That diverse coalition could represent the Democrats’ future. But these voices supporting Palestinian rights have precious little representation.
As far back as January 2012 the Republicans were taking official steps to move away from a two-state solution in favor of permanent Israeli dominance over the West Bank. Yet, while the Democratic base has moved toward greater criticism of Israeli actions, their representatives have remained mired in the same positions, even the same talking points, as they held as far back as the Clinton administration. While Republicans have moved in more harmonious lock-step with the far right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, Democrats have been content to decry “Republican attempts to turn Israel into a political football.”
That may not be a comfortable position for Democrats for much longer. As the protests against racism and police brutality continue and increase their impact on American attitudes toward state violence, it throws American foreign policy into sharper relief and highlights the dissonance between that policy and the values the United States claims to be promoting in the world.
“As Americans, we cannot talk about ending the institutional and systemic racism in this country while we enable a system of apartheid in the occupied Palestinian territories,” said Dr. Osama Abuirshaid, National Executive Director of American Muslims for Palestine, one of the groups who signed the letter to Biden. “We cannot demand an end to police brutality in our streets without demanding that our government stop financing Israeli brutality with our tax dollars.”
Israeli and American police forces have developed a keen partnership in the increasing militarization of their officers and equipment. In Israel this is rarely questioned, but in the United States, the violent response to demonstrations recently has rekindled questions about militarized police forces that had faded from the spotlight since the Black Lives Matter protests of 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.
If Joe Biden intends to make good on his promise to be open to progressive Democrats, he will likely hear from Dr. Cornel West, a surrogate for Bernie Sanders in the recent primary and a long-time advocate of Black-Palestinian solidarity. “What we have to do is recognize that the funeral of George Floyd, where tears are flowing… they have [similar] funerals in the West Bank because of US policy [and] US bombs mediated through [the] Israel Defense Forces,” West recently told the Middle East Eye.
While the full list of demands in the coalition letter is not going to be met by a Biden administration, the politics around Israel-Palestine are likely to continue to shift under Biden’s feet, particularly as a bipartisan and cross-ideological chorus grows for the United States to disengage militarily from the Middle East. Although he is sure to get progressive support in November despite his conservative pro-Israel policies, he is going to find much of that progressive support quickly turning into internal opposition if he defeats Trump.
The letter to Biden represents millions of voters that Biden will need this November, and Democrats will even more desperately need to keep in their camp going forward. The cynical political excuses of Israel’s powerful lobby, its “tough neighborhood,” or its need to protect its “Jewish character” by denying rights to millions of Palestinians are not going to resonate with these voters. This is a coalition that values the rights of Israeli Jews but demands that the rights of Palestinian Arabs be treated with the same respect and reverence. If the Democratic Party is to have sustained success, they can no longer take them for granted.