July 2020 was a pivotal month for the conversation on Israel-Palestine in the United States.
For years, the partisan divide in American public opinion has grown increasingly clear. The Republican Party, which has openly embraced the ethnonationalist worldview promoted by Trump and his political circles, are prepared to go to any lengths to back Israel. Democrats, meanwhile, are moving in the opposite direction, recognizing that Israel’s policies against the Palestinians conflict with their purported values of liberalism, democracy, and justice.
Despite this critical shift, Democrats — who are holding their party’s national convention this week — are facing a major internal clash between the principles they claim to aspire to and the interests that lead them to support the current reality. Until recently, the only thing preventing that stewing tension from boiling over was the party’s consensus around the two-state paradigm. So long as there was some hope or horizon for Israel to end its military rule of millions of Palestinians, Democrats could try, albeit with increasing difficulty, to keep a lid on that tension.
Last month, however, that dynamic changed a great deal. Israel was expected to announce it was moving forward with annexation of further Palestinian territory in the occupied West Bank, a move that would make the pretending around two states look all the more foolish. While the announcement seems to be on hold for now, the political foundations for the Israeli government to pursue annexation remain firmly in place.
In a sign of an ongoing tectonic shift, progressive insurgent Jamaal Bowman defeated longtime pro-Israel stalwart and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel in a well-contested New York Democratic primary by a margin of nearly two to one. Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota Congresswoman and unabashed critic of Israel, also trounced her primary challenger Antone Melton-Meaux, whose campaign received large financial contributions from Israel lobby groups in an attempt to unseat her. There’s no mistaking it: the Democratic Party is changing.
No dollars for annexation
While everyone was anticipating an annexation announcement, Democratic candidates felt compelled to stake out positions on the matter.
Although Senator Bernie Sanders had been the standard bearer when it came to speaking about accountability for Israeli rights violations, the prospect of annexation in fact created a space for politicians like Pete Buttegieg, Elizabeth Warren, and others to argue during the campaign that U.S. taxpayer money should not go toward implementing annexation. This summer, Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland even introduced an amendment to put that position into law, with a number of senators signing on to it.
This growing space is also evident in the Foreign Affairs Committee. Once it became clear that Engel’s chairmanship would be up for grabs, the contestants vying to replace him began making unprecedented statements on Israel.
The three-way competition for the position currently features Brad Sherman of California, who has been on the committee for years and is most likely to receive the backing of pro-Israel interest groups; Gregory Meeks of New York, who is a key member of the Congressional Black Caucus and would be the first African-American chair of the committee; and Joaquin Castro of Texas, the youngest contender viewed as a more progresive ideological challenger to Engel’s views.
Castro specifically names the failure to include Palestinian voices as a problem in the Committee’s foreign policy discussions. Meeks has stated his opposition to annexation and his willingness to support leveraging U.S. aid to Israel to stop it. Even Sherman, a long-time AIPAC ally, said he would “oppose any use of American taxpayer dollars to implement the Annexation Plan or to build any permanent Israeli installation in the West Bank or Gaza.”
Staving off accountability
All three congressmen have joined a growing chorus of Democrats who are drawing a line at annexation. But this is not necessarily a good thing; in fact, it could even be counterproductive. These politicians are largely interpreting the problem of annexation through a liberal Zionist framework: that Israel is the victim of annexation because the move could kill the two-state fantasy that ensures a “Jewish state,” and therefore, it is “pro-Israel” to save the country from itself.
What Sherman, Meeks, and Castro also have in common is that none of them have co-sponsored Rep. Betty McCollum’s landmark bill, HR 2407, which would withhold military financing to compel Israel to end its abuse of Palestinian children in military prisons. The liberal Zionist lobby group J Street, which has ostensibly welcomed the conversation around leveraging aid against annexation, similarly refuses to support HR 2407.
This is where the talk of conditionality goes off track. Leveraging U.S. aid to “save Israel from itself” reinforces the notion that it is Israel that must be protected, while blunting the growing momentum behind the demand for safety and security for Israel’s Palestinian victims — those whose rights are directly being denied by U.S.-financed policy.
Wittingly or unwittingly, J Street is essentially doing AIPAC’s dirty work in spaces where AIPAC has lost credibility. Mechanisms already exist for holding Israel to account for rights violations, including the Leahy Law, which McCollum’s bill infers. But instead of backing these efforts, J Street is pushing away the goalposts to stave off real accountability. In other words, rather than taking Israel to task for its day-to-day crimes, the line for triggering U.S. conditionality is being centered around a hypothetical situation in which annexation would be formally announced.
And what if that announcement never happens? Then Democrats are effectively giving Israel the green light to proceed with all other war crimes — just not annexation.
Few things highlight this more than the “accord” announced last week between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, in which the UAE supposedly conceded to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for a pause on annexation.
Previously, under the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, normalization was conditioned on an end to the occupation and a just peace with the Palestinians. The UAE threw that policy out the window, and in doing so, effectively allowed Netanyahu to elevate annexation as a threshold with which to extract concessions. The UAE was foolish to play this game, just as people were foolish to cheer on the accord; it simply tells Israel that the status quo is acceptable.
Paradigm over people
This is nothing short of a step backward from the direction Democrats should be going. Polls in recent years have shown that Democrats support “sanctions or greater measures” in response to continued Israeli settlement construction. One would think that Democrats opposed to settlements would also oppose child detention, extrajudicial killings, and home demolitions too.
But instead of building on that momentum, tying conditionality to a hypothetical announcement that may never come to pass puts the United States’ political priority on saving a paradigm over saving people. It gives politicians who have yet to discover the fortitude to join their progressive colleagues in supporting a fig leaf of accountability, while never having to put their money where their mouth is.
While these politicians were debating about annexation, U.S. dollars continued to flow to a military that was shooting journalists, killing unarmed Palestinians, and demolishing Palestinian homes. These crimes are happening now, as they have been for decades. Unlike an annexation announcement, the Palestinian blood spilled and lives lost is not hypothetical.
It is very encouraging that the idea of conditionality as a policy instrument is gaining steam among Democrats. But it is also important to remember that this is made possible because progressive members and groups have made it so by centering Palestinian victims. For the policy to be useful and morally sound, they must continue to do so.