After Trump, restoring ‘normal’ US policy on Palestine isn’t enough

Biden may be a pro-Israel stalwart, but progressive activists and representatives can push for a foreign policy that respects Palestinian rights.

A pro-Trump billboard seen by Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, just days ahead of the U.S. elections, October 21, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A pro-Trump billboard seen by Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, just days ahead of the U.S. elections, October 21, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Donald Trump’s defeat in the U.S. presidential election last week brought a collective sigh of relief for progressives and vulnerable communities, both in the United States and across the globe, including Palestinians and those fighting for Palestinian rights. The reason is obvious: Trump’s policy on Palestine/Israel was driven by his affinity for authoritarianism and a desire to pander to his far-right evangelical base. Accordingly, it was handed over to incompetent ideologues like Jared Kushner and David Friedman, who fumbled their way into a failed effort to liquidate the Palestinian struggle for freedom once and for all.

That failure, however, did not spare Palestinians entirely, as they suffered devastating and unprecedented harms over the past four years, including the shuttering of the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the endorsement of annexation plans, and the ending of U.S. funding to UNRWA and Palestinian hospitals. But beyond the undeniable harm reduction we will see in this change of U.S. administrations, what are the prospects for Palestinian freedom in the Biden era?

President-elect Joe Biden belongs to a troubling strain of U.S. policy on Palestine/Israel, one that paid lip service to Palestinian independence while backing Israel’s denial of that freedom through unrestrained military funding and diplomatic protection. Even in this last election season, when the Democratic Party’s progressive wing was clearly demanding accountability for Israel, Biden stood out as the candidate who most vociferously rejected any talk of conditioning military aid to Israel on respect for Palestinian human rights.

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In short, Biden’s policy will likely be to once again promote a meaningless charade of “peace negotiations” that merely ask Israel to respect Palestinian rights, knowing full well that it will not, only to then hand over the weapons with which Israeli forces brutalize Palestinians. If Biden sticks to this grievous and self-defeating approach, then the Trump-to-Biden transition for Palestinians will have been like escaping the guillotine only to land on the waterboarding table.

For decades, the trouble with U.S. policy on Palestine has been the discord — or hypocrisy, to put it more bluntly — between positions and actions. If the declared policy is to support independence for Palestinians, why is the United States effectively supporting their occupation and oppression instead?

Donald Trump ended this hypocrisy, but in the wrong direction: his policy was to endorse oppression. Now that the United States’s approach is about to revert back to “normal,” what we need is to resolve the hypocrisy in the right direction and fundamentally change our policy actions. So, how do we do that with Biden?

The primary challenge with Biden is that, as the saying goes, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Like Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Biden has spent his political career cozying up to AIPAC and pandering to pro-Israel groups, reinforcing the notion that Israel is above accountability.

It will therefore take significant effort to get Biden to examine his deep biases on this issue, and to have him recognize how much public opinion among the Democratic Party’s base has shifted on Palestine/Israel. After all, 64 percent of Democrats support reducing military aid to Israel based on its human rights violations. It is true that Israel lobby groups continue to wield significant financial power to pressure candidates and politicians, but it is no longer unpopular to say that Israel should be accountable for how it uses the staggering $38 billion it receives from the United States each decade.

Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a dinner at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a dinner at the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Fortunately, the progressive narrative on Palestine, which sees the injustices of Israel’s occupation and apartheid for what they are and demands a more conscientious approach to U.S. policy, is gaining unprecedented momentum in the United States. Things are changing in Washington, from the introduction of bills by Congresswomen Betty McCollum and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to restrict U.S. complicity in Israel’s assault on Palestinians, to the defeat of pro-Israel stalwarts like Eliot Engel at the hands of progressive newcomers like Jamaal Bowman. The 117th Congress will also have the largest number of sitting members who are outspoken on Palestinian rights.

This wave of progressive representatives can push the Biden administration to change U.S. policy on Palestine/Israel. But they can only do it if we keep building a diverse grassroots movement that allies itself with other progressive struggles in the country, and that makes the “progressive except on Palestine” (PEP) phenomenon socially and politically unacceptable.

It is worth also reflecting on the role of the Palestinian leadership in the occupied West Bank, which has bent over backwards to accommodate U.S. demands over the past 30 years in the hopes of inching closer toward Palestinian sovereignty. After decades of failure, this approach is untenable. The Palestinian leadership must evolve; it must become more democratic and stop repressing and stifling dissent. Critically, it must stop sitting on its hands waiting for the United States to deliver freedom for Palestinians. As leaders, it is their job to seek justice through every possible avenue, including international institutions and the International Criminal Court — regardless of U.S. objections.

Ultimately, however, the job of ending U.S. complicity in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians rests on the shoulders of those who live in the United States, and we must remain relentlessly committed to this task. By amping up a multifaceted campaign of progressive grassroots pressure, which in turn influences the political conversation, media coverage, and behavior of policymakers, the consensus around blind U.S. support for Israel can indeed crack. That crack will create the possibility for a more just and conscientious foreign policy that supports — or at least stops impeding — Palestinians’ quest for freedom.