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Will Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders Stand With J Street Against Illegal Israeli Settlements?

Here is a pointy question right now for members of Congress: Where do you stand on illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank?

J Street's National Summit urging the United States government to undertake a thorough review of its policy toward Israeli settlements, June 8, 2014. (Photo: J Street)

Progressive champions Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have gotten grief lately from progressives for their apparent status quo-embracing actions and statements on Israel/Palestine in the context of the recent war in Gaza.

In broad terms, this is certainly a positive development. People are getting politically engaged, putting questions on the table that were not put on the table before. But the state of the conversation so far has left a lot to be desired from the point of view of pragmatic progressive reformers who would like to see effective political pressure on Democratic politicians to take better stands on Palestinian rights.

It’s a basic fact of politics that some people on the left sometimes seem to have a great deal of difficulty owning that campaigning on the basis of “reasonable asks” generates more political pressure than “radical demands” which are unlikely to be perceived as “reasonable” by people in the political environment of the target. But if you look at progressive issues where people have made progress in Washington (or anywhere else), you’ll generally find that it was a core assumption of the people who organized the winning campaign that one should campaign on the basis of “reasonable asks” and “winnable fights.”

Regardless of how one views the issue on the merits, from the perspective of pragmatic progressive insiders, demanding that members of Congress vote to cut off US aid to Israel is like demanding that they support open borders with Mexico or abortion on demand or banning all guns. It’s not likely to make members of Congress feel very uncomfortable saying no, because it’s too far away from a reasonable ask. So, if you are a pragmatist who supports Palestinian rights, you are likely to feel some ambivalence if you see Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders being slammed for supporting US aid to Israel. You want to be happy to see the enthusiasm, but you feel sad knowing that the enthusiasm is being directed into a black hole of political irrelevance.

Campaigning on the basis of reasonable asks and winnable fights is no guarantee of victory. As mathematicians and philosophers might say, it’s a necessary but not a sufficient condition. It’s an entry ticket to the arena where the battles are won and lost. The boundary between reasonable asks and politically irrelevant asks is not a fixed thing that is completely knowable at any given point in time without testing, without trial and error. But that doesn’t mean that there is no boundary, or that it is impossible to classify some things as being obviously outside the boundary.

Assuming that we can agree on these basic points that pragmatic progressive insiders would see as no-brainers, how can we find a “reasonable ask” and “winnable fight” in Washington right now on Israel/Palestine? Here is a question that pragmatic progressive insiders ask when they consider this issue: Where is J Street on this?

As a practical matter, whether we personally like J Street or not is irrelevant. “Where is J Street on this?” is a key indicator right now among progressive Democrats for the boundary between “reasonable asks” and “quixotic demands that will lead nowhere, causing me pain with AIPAC with no noticeable gain to humanity if I were to adopt them.” We may have the most brilliant idea in the world for something Congress could do to promote labor rights. If we don’t have the support of the AFL-CIO, progressive Democrats are unlikely to be very interested. Whether we like it or not, J Street is playing a role like that now.

So suppose that we really wanted to hold the feet of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to the fire right now on effective support for Palestinian rights. What is a question that we could ask them right now that stands a reasonable chance of making them squirm?

“Why aren’t you standing with J Street now against illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank?”

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that the Israeli government is seizing nearly 1,000 acres of West Bank land for another massive settlement project. Peace Now has called it the largest land grab in 30 years.

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the United States is “deeply concerned” about the announcement and called on Israel to reverse the decision. But when asked what consequences Israel would face if it didn’t reverse the decision, Psaki had no answer.

This fits an established pattern. When Israel announces new settlement expansion in the West Bank, the US government issues statements of mild rebuke backed by little if any apparent action, which the Israeli government then ignores. While it is the consensus of the international community that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law, the United States refers to them with wimpy weasel words such as “unhelpful” and “an obstacle to peace.”

On Wednesday, J Street issued a statement calling on the Obama Administration to toughen its stance:

It is time for the Administration to make clear to Israel that it means what it says and that US opposition to settlements is not just symbolic but real.

J Street urges the United States government to undertake a thorough review of its policy toward Israeli settlements and to announce the steps it will take if Israel goes forward with this decision. As a first step, it should declare now that it is the view of the United States that settlements are not merely “unhelpful” or “illegitimate,” but illegal under international law as laid out in the Fourth Geneva Convention.

So here is a pointy question right now for members of Congress: Where do you stand on illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank? Do you #StandWithJStreet, or do you stand with Netanyahu?

You can ask your Representative and Senators here.

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