“Democratic candidates used to be proud to stand alongside Israel, and AIPAC,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the recent gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). “Now some are jockeying to see who can get the farthest away.”
McConnell was referring to Sen. Bernie Sanders, who denounced the pro-Israel lobby for providing a platform “for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights” when he announced on February 23 that he would not be attending the annual conference.
Sanders’s move was very significant, but he was not alone. Former Democratic candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren had first announced she would skip the conference earlier in February. After Sanders’s announcement, something remarkable happened — fellow Democratic candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who are far more moderate and typically pro-Israel in their politics, announced they would also skip the conference (before ending their presidential bids before Super Tuesday, at any rate).
The announcements represent a stark departure from the path that presidential candidates have followed year after year in pursuit of the Democratic Party nomination, and they came after years of activist pressure. To a significant extent, the recent turn of events highlights how the erosion of Washington’s bipartisan consensus is accelerating under the Trump administration — ultimately opening space for a more progressive politics on Israel-Palestine.
The “Deal of the Century”
Standing alongside President Trump as he unveiled his so-called “deal of the century” for Israel-Palestine, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned to Trump and said, “You have been the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House,” to thunderous applause.
It is easy to see why Netanyahu felt sentimental. When asked during a CNN interview to respond to the notion that Trump’s plan skews toward Israel, Palestinian legal scholar Noura Erakat said, “I think that that’s an understatement. It doesn’t tilt toward Israel. It’s an Israeli plan.”
The plan — which was negotiated by Americans and Israelis, with some participation from Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman, but no Palestinians — offers Israel complete control of Jerusalem. It allows for illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank to remain. It presents the Jordan Valley, in the West Bank, as Israeli territory.
As Yousef Munayyer of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights has pointed out, the plan offers Palestinians only “a truncated and dismembered archipelago of Bantustans connected by bridges and tunnels and subservient to the Israeli state.” In fact, many have compared the vision for Palestinians laid out in Trump’s plan to the Black homelands of Apartheid-era South Africa.
It is no wonder, then, why Palestinians have decried the plan. Munayyer called it not a peace plan but a “war plan” that declares “war on Palestinian existence.”
But there is also reason to believe that Trump’s plan may do some long-term damage to his “friend” in the state of Israel. Rather than the Trump years being remembered as the “Golden Age” of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, they may very well be seen as the turning point that began its decline.
Polarizing a Bipartisan Issue
This may be surprising, given the dizzying array of gifts that Trump has handed to Israel in a short time.
Trump has declared that Israel’s illegal settlements in the Palestinian West Bank and the Syrian Golan Heights are actually not illegal. He moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, embracing Israel’s claim of the entire city as its capital. The U.S. cut aid to Palestinians and to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, and summarily expelled Palestinian diplomats and their families from Washington, D.C. He issued an executive order targeting activists that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israeli occupation, while relentlessly slandering the progressive Muslim Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib as “anti-Semitic” for supporting Palestinian rights.
Then came his apartheid “peace plan.”
The affection has been mutual. The recently indicted Netanyahu has honored the recently impeached Trump with a planned Israeli settlement in the Golan Heights called “Trump Heights.” Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz announced in 2017 that a new train station at the Western Wall, a Jewish holy site, would be named after Trump.
Yet Trump has coupled his gifts to the Israeli right with declarations that he is Israel’s greatest champion — often in ways that may make more traditional supporters of Israel uncomfortable. Not least, Trump approvingly tweeted a supporter’s declaration that Trump is like the “King of Israel.” When questioned about that comment, Trump accused Jews who vote Democratic of being “disloyal.”
While that may appear at first glance to be typical (if wildly offensive) Trump bombast, there is a deeper significance.
The U.S. government’s support for Israel has long been a solidly bipartisan affair.
Indeed, last year’s AIPAC delegation — an annual trip in which members of Congress visit Israeli politicians and pose for photos in front of U.S.-financed Israeli weapons systems — had the largest number of officials ever participate. Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer led the trip, and dozens of Democrats participated.
In fact, Democrats have brokered some of the most landmark moments in the history of U.S. support for Israel. Former President Bill Clinton, for example, famously signed the 1993 Oslo Accords — which led to, among other things, an explosion of Israeli settlement construction. Former President Barack Obama secured the largest U.S. aid package to Israel in a history of extraordinary aid packages, even as Israel supporters thought that his administration’s tepid questioning of some of Israel’s heavy-handed approach to Palestinians was too critical.
The relationship also enjoyed the support, of course, of the George W. Bush administration, along with plenty of other Republicans. Indeed, the central strategy for those officials and lobby groups that promote the U.S.-Israel relationship has been cultivating this bipartisan embrace.
Trump breaks with this approach, arguing that supporting Israel requires supporting him and his whole program.
While right-wing Americans may celebrate with Israelis as Trump largely dispenses with even the perfunctory gestures toward Palestinian rights that other pro-Israel presidents have made, others may be more uneasy.
Liberal Israel supporters in the United States may not welcome the issue’s association with an administration known for caging migrant children and separating families, banning Muslims and Africans from the country, targeting LGBTQ people and women with an embrace of the Christian right, and so on.
For decades, there have been supporters of Israel who have argued that one can be progressive on other questions while backing an Israeli regime that critics have charged with instituting apartheid. Supporters of Palestinian rights on the left have countered that consistent progressive politics requires solidarity with Palestinians.
Trump is proving the point by making the case for the opposite: Trumpian bigotry — according to Trump himself — is consistent with supporting Israel.
The similarities between Trump’s actions and those of the Israeli state are glaring. As both Trump and Netanyahu have pointed out, the president takes great inspiration for the wall he is building on the U.S.-Mexico border from Israel’s various separation barriers. In Israel too, the building of such walls and fences, and similar measures, are justified both in the name of security and in the pursuit of national purity.
Last year, Israel passed its “Nation-State Law,” which declares that only Jewish people have the right to self-determination in the state of Israel. Netanyahu attempted a failed plan to deport 40,000 Africans from Israel, and as in the U.S., police forces continue to carry out raids and deportations against migrants. In short, Trump’s vision for the U.S. aligns with the society being created by Israel.
If progressive Israel supporters are unsettled by sharing a political position with their otherwise enemy in the White House, that is a good thing. Those of us who know that “Black lives matter,” that “families belong together” and that “love is love” should extend our affinities to Palestinians as they, too, struggle for justice.
A Matter of Time
In fact, recent years have seen that solidarity grow, along with the questioning of support for Israel.
Israel’s own violence — its periodic, catastrophic attacks on Gaza, for example — have helped fuel this sentiment. Crucially, it has also been driven by the ongoing dissent of Palestinians themselves, whether through activism in North America, as with the campus-based Students for Justice in Palestine, or mass popular protest in Palestine, as seen in Gaza’s Great March of Return.
Among supporters of Palestinian rights are growing numbers of vocal North American Jews, many of whom are involved in groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now. With Representatives Omar and Tlaib — the latter a Palestinian-American — taking office, 2019 was the year when outspoken solidarity with Palestine entered what was previously a bastion of near-monolithic support for Israel.
The outspokenness of the two congresswomen is the most visible of cracks in the Democratic Party’s pro-Israel orthodoxy. Add to that Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum’s sponsoring of a bill to protect the rights of Palestinian children in Israeli custody and Senator Sanders criticizing Israel as he campaigns for president, and you have the beginnings of a reckoning among the Democrats for policies that have consistently supported Israel at the expense of Palestinians’ rights.
Trump’s making Israel into a polarizing “wedge issue,” rather than an uncontroversial unifier, will accelerate the questioning of U.S. support for the state — which receives more American aid than any other country and enjoys consistent defense by the United States in the United Nations and elsewhere on the world stage.
More and more of those moved to assert the humanity of the many people on the receiving end of Trump’s attacks are defending the rights of Palestinians too, and standing with them. In the coming years, we can only expect more people to join their cause.