Democratic Candidates Must Pledge to End US Aid for the Israeli Occupation

Something has happened in the Democratic primary campaigns that activists fighting the Israeli occupation might not have expected. In response to the Jewish anti-occupation movement IfNotNow’s bird-dogging efforts, many of the leading candidates have already named and shamed the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

On July 12, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said that Israel’s “occupation has to end.” It’s not just Buttigieg either. Asked by a pair of young Jewish women if she would fight the occupation like she has fought Wall Street corruption, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren responded, “Yes, yes. So I’m there.” Likewise, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont posed with a group of young Jews holding a sign that read, “Jews Against the Occupation.” Even former Vice President Joe Biden begrudgingly admitted that “the occupation is a real problem.” In just a matter of weeks, the majority of the front-runners have publicly stated that they oppose occupation, setting a baseline for the discussion moving forward.

However, no one should pretend that this emerging Democratic consensus is actually groundbreaking. As journalist Robert Mackey pointed out in his recent piece for The Intercept, Senator Warren’s apparent recognition of the occupation as a problem is not a particularly progressive position when placed in historical context. Even former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, one of the leading war criminals of the latter half of the 20th century, was willing to tell the Israeli public in 2003 that “to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is, in my opinion, a very bad thing for us and for them.”

As Mackey noted, the fact that some people consider naming and shaming the occupation today to be “progressive” reflects a victory of the expansionist branch of the Israel lobby. This faction believes that the Israeli military should remain in control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip forever, and therefore they reject even using the term “occupation.” Having regained ground previously lost to the pro-occupation camp, we in the anti-occupation must build upon this now-established common sense among the Democratic candidates.

Supporting a Two-State Solution Is Not Enough

Confronted with the crisis of occupation, Democrats generally redirect the discussion away from criticism of Israeli human rights abuses and war crimes by deploying banal talking points about a two-state solution. Indeed, a new “pro-Israel” lobbying group, Democratic Majority for Israel, has recently been coaching Democrats on this rhetorical move.

This tactic allows candidates to maintain their verbal opposition to the occupation, thereby superficially agreeing with anti-occupation activists without actually challenging Israel in any serious way. In this vein, we will often hear politicians affirm that any peace settlement must be achieved bilaterally between Israel and Palestine, and pledge not to impose a solution from the outside. The answer, we hear, is more negotiations that the United States will facilitate.

I do not wish to question the maxim that the ultimate settlement between Israelis and Palestinians must be negotiated bilaterally. However, any honest observer has to recognize that the U.S. diplomatic approach of pushing bilateral negotiations without pressuring Israel has not worked — or, more precisely, it did work by not working.

The truth is that the United States has never been an impartial broker of peace. During the Oslo Accords and in the decades afterward, the United States postured as the objective, third-party mediator bringing together two recalcitrant sides, when in fact the United States all along was materially enabling the system of military dictatorship that Israel imposes on the West Bank and Gaza. The warplanes, weapons and ammunition never stopped flowing from Washington D.C. to Jerusalem, while the United States went out of its way to protect Israel from any accountability in international fora. Without a doubt, the United States was applying strong pressure on one party to the negotiations, the stateless Palestinians, who have always been in a far weaker negotiating position vis-à-vis Israel.

The Necessity of Outside Pressure on Israel

There has never been an Israeli government willing to accept a Palestinian state. Even during the Oslo Accords, which many still see as the closest Israel ever came to accepting Palestinian statehood, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin did not recognize the state of Palestine’s right to exist. Then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized Israel’s statehood, but neither the Rabin government nor any government since has reciprocated.

Today, pro-occupation liberals, along with many anti-occupation activists, often act as if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition government constitute the main obstacles to peace and reconciliation. Netanyahu is a problem, to be sure. He is now the longest-serving premier in the country’s history, and he is overseeing a steady annexation of the West Bank, eroding whatever basis there might have once been for the two-state solution.

Still, Netanyahu’s ideology and praxis is not actually a deviation in principle from the doctrine of the “Iron Wall” that has defined Israel’s entire existence as a state. The Iron Wall is a creed of violent territorial expansion and military chauvinism. Coined by Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky and embraced by the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, this dogma, through its human actors, spawned the ethnic cleansing and herrenvolk ethnocracy that remain the core of the modern Jewish state. These central tenets of existing Zionism are unlikely to disappear if Israel were to elect a new prime minister.

In all likelihood, Netanyahu will head the next Israeli government after the elections in September. This near certainty should be sufficient cause for us to recognize that the next U.S. president will need to compel Israel to make concessions. However, even if Benny Gantz of Israel’s so-called center-left Blue and White coalition prevails, it is highly unlikely that the Israeli public will give him a mandate that includes ending the occupation.

In fact, peace with the Palestinians was not even discussed during the last election season in Israel. Quite the opposite: As researcher and activist Hanna Alshaikh has pointed out, the public debate was over who could dominate the Palestinians more harshly and efficiently, with the “center-left” candidate, Gantz, boasting about the number of Palestinians he killed in Gaza and of sending the coastal enclave back “to the Stone Age.”

The poverty of the mainstream political debate in Israel today supports the basic thesis of Israeli columnist Larry Derfner’s new book, No Country for Jewish Liberals. Israel simply is not a liberal country anymore, if it ever was. The right wing dominates, and the left is in shambles. Israelis who dare to stick their necks out for Palestinians — like the brave solidarity activists of Ta’ayush and the army veterans of Breaking the Silence and Combatants for Peace — are maligned as traitors and anarchists. Sometimes they are physically attacked on the street.

Obviously, there are still liberals and leftists in Israel today, but as we see in Gantz and what remains of the old Labor party, the “left” that remains in Israel today resembles the right-wing Likud of 40 years ago. Just as former Prime Minister Menachem Begin did not relent without considerable U.S. pressure during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in the early 1980s, the next Israeli prime minister will not either.

No Aid for Occupation

Contrary to popular opinion, the United States has actually withheld, and threatened to withhold, military aid from Israel on several occasions. In 1953, Israeli commando forces led by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon committed a horrific massacre in the West Bank village of Qibya, razing buildings and murdering some 69 Palestinians before occupying the town. When President Dwight Eisenhower threatened to suspend aid, the Israeli military quickly withdrew from the village.

As it turns out, when you bankroll another country’s military, you can ask for things in return.

Anti-occupation activists are currently debating the method by which the United States should pressure Israel. In his piece arguing for conditional aid to Israel, Peter Beinart lays out several possible frameworks for strategically and selectively cutting off U.S. aid in a way that targets the military occupation as such. He preaches agnosticism about which is the best approach, but through his analysis of the structure of U.S. aid to Israel, Beinart appears to ultimately favor a policy which goes after something called “offshore procurement” — the unique arrangement by which Israel is allowed to use U.S. tax dollars to buy Israeli, not U.S., weapons.

While I do not disagree with the thrust of Beinart’s approach, I do see a few problems with how he formulates it. First, no one ever galvanized a political movement around such a technical demand. If Senator Sanders is elected president, Beinart and Sanders’s advisers can flesh out the minute details of the conditional aid plan, but I challenge any activist to start a “no off-shore procurements” chant at the next pro-Palestine rally. Second, this proposal on the surface lacks moral force. It sounds too technical and thereby loses a sense of urgency.

Indeed, “conditional aid” or “leveraging aid” is not even the proper framing. Sanders deserves credit for publicly stating that he would “absolutely” leverage aid to change the Israeli government’s behavior, but this policy and rhetoric is missing the moral clarity that his democratic socialism embodies so well. The incentive structures may appeal to the economists in the audience, but these formulations lack the fire that we need.

The best path forward is to simply demand no more aid for occupation. U.S. citizens must refuse to aid and abet these horrific human rights abuses and outright war crimes any longer. There is a moral imperative that we not let our government make us accomplices to Israel’s atrocities. For decades, Palestinians have been chanting that iconic phrase, “No taxation without representation.” Now we in the United States must all say together, “No taxation for occupation.”

This policy also has its technical side without even getting into off-shore procurements. Congress should immediately pass legislation that codifies the Israeli military units enforcing the occupation of the West Bank and the 12-year siege of Gaza as gross violators of human rights. The unit that razed those Palestinian buildings in East Jerusalem this summer will be on the list, as will air force units that bomb flour mills, water sanitation facilities and farmland in Gaza.

Officially labeling these units as gross violators of human rights would trigger the Leahy Law, a piece of legislation that prohibits U.S. funding from going to any armed force engaged in such flagrant and chronic abuses. This approach would not threaten the overall aid to Israel, thereby winning broader support in Congress. Indeed, Israel has real security concerns — even if they are often wildly overstated — and so this bill would specifically only target those military units that perpetuate the system of military dictatorship in the West Bank and the strangulation of the Gaza Strip. Call it the “No Aid For Occupation Act.”

This legislation will eventually complement a diplomatic initiative by the executive branch. As Congress works to pass this bill, a willing presidential administration would privately inform Israel that aid will be restricted if it does not dismantle the settlements, withdraw its military from the West Bank and end the blockade of Gaza. Because it depends so heavily on U.S. military and diplomatic backing, Israel would comply or make a significant compromise very quickly.

Israel could take some good-faith steps right away — e.g., freezing settlement expansion, offering to relocate its citizens living in the settlements to residences on the Israeli side of the Green Line, dismantling military bases and settler outposts — and thereby ensure continued U.S. support overall.

The Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

It goes without saying that none of these moves would be accomplished easily. For one, the U.S. public would have to force the political establishment to recognize that U.S. aid to Israel is not sacrosanct, but is in fact a tool with which we can advance democracy and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians in an even-handed way.

Second, we would have to prevail over the so-called pro-Israel lobby. Groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Democratic Majority for Israel refuse to recognize that the onus for making concessions is on the infinitely more powerful party to the conflict: Israel. It is on us to liberate members of Congress from this stupefying ignorance.

Thirdly, we would have to figure out how the No Aid For Occupation initiative relates to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Whereas BDS has almost entirely focused on boycott and divestment campaigns, the No Aid For Occupation bill focuses more on sanctions (or what amounts to sanctions on specific army units), and so it is, in my view, complementary to BDS.

However, this legislation would not in itself advance all of the BDS campaign’s demands, which includes, in effect, the disintegration of the state of Israel in all parts of the territory. While I personally uphold the inalienable right of Palestinians to return to the places that they call home, including places located in the modern state of Israel, the members of Congress who support the Palestinian right of return can be counted on one hand.

Much more broad-based support could be galvanized in Congress for the short term around strong measures that end the military occupation and siege, which do in fact represent the most pressing humanitarian and human rights crises. No Aid For Occupation would explicitly target those unilateral Israeli land grabs that have caused so many people to reject the two-state solution as unworkable — that is, by freezing and then dismantling settlements, including those bifurcating the West Bank in the area east of Jerusalem.

To be clear, the No Aid For Occupation initiative cannot be an endorsement of any particular configuration of states or a referendum on Zionism per se. The ultimate solution has to be negotiated between the two sides, and Israelis and Palestinians will determine whether it will be a one-state, two-state or no-state solution.

Trump, incredibly, claimed that by officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he would be taking Jerusalem “off the table” for negotiations and thereby advance a peaceful settlement more quickly. By first ending the occupation and taking the U.S./Israeli boot off the Palestinian neck, No Aid For Occupation can advance to a discussion of one- or two-state solutions more quickly.

The moment is ripe for this escalation. The occupation is now widely recognized as the central issue, even as Israeli leaders refuse to give up their maximalist territorial ambitions and double down on military chauvinism. The Democratic presidential candidates who speak most clearly for the real political movements in this country already have made taking on power and political revolution the heart of their campaigns.

Let us push them to go one step further on Israel/Palestine by getting them to commit to taking on the injustice of the occupation and the political power structures in this country which perpetuate it.