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How Israel/Palestine played out in US politics this week

Feb 24,2020 - Last updated at Feb 24,2020

Earlier this week, a comment by Senator Bernie Sanders about Israeli policy and Palestinian rights and the resulting condemnation of his remarks by a pro-Israel group of Jewish Republicans opened a window into this issue’s state of play in both American and Israeli politics.

Appearing on a televised CNN Town Hall, Sanders was asked by an audience member to comment on “How do US-Israel relations look in your administration?” Sanders, making his strongest remarks to date, said, “To be for the Israeli people and to be for peace in the Middle East does not mean that we have to support right-wing, racist governments that currently exist in Israel.” He went on to speak about Palestinian suffering, noting the severe restrictions placed on civilians in Gaza and Gaza’s 70 per cent youth unemployment. He concluded that US policy “cannot be ... just pro-Israel and ... ignore the needs of the Palestinian people”. The CNN audience vigorously applauded Sanders’ strong comments.

The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), a group funded by Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire who is closely linked to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump, immediately denounced Sanders issuing a statement calling it outrageous that “a mainstream US political party candidate for president would call the Israeli government racist”. The RJC statement went further, saying:

“Sanders says he supports the Israeli people, just not their democratic government. As it happens, the policies that Sanders calls racist are supported by all the major contenders to be the next Israeli prime minister and by the vast majority of Israeli voters, because they defend the basic national security needs of the Jewish state.”

What I found intriguing about this exchange was the fact that the RJC’s effort to rebuke Sanders ended up shining a light on the nature of what has become Israel’s dominant political culture. Instead of contesting the charge that the policies of the Israeli government are racist, the RJC justified them by saying that these policies are supported by the vast majority of the Israeli people and all of the major candidates to become Israel’s Prime Minister.

As if to establish the validity of Sanders’ criticism, in recent weeks Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued Israel’s suffocating choke-hold on the people of Gaza, denied West Bank Palestinians the right to export produce to the outside world, announced over 4,000 Jewish housing units that, when built, will close Jerusalem off from the rest of the West Bank, imposed new restrictions of Palestinian residents in Jerusalem and declared his intention to annex “the Jordan Valley, the northern Dead Sea and all the...Jewish communities large and small, in Judea and Samaria”. And to put icing on the cake, Netanyahu continued to Arab-bait his political opponents in the Blue and White bloc by telling Israeli voters that “a vote for Benny Gantz (of Blue and White) is a vote for the Arabs”.

Instead of distancing himself from Netanyahu’s commitments to annex Palestinian lands and expand settlements, Gantz’s response has been to embrace these very same positions. He went further by taking a harder line on Gaza, and then made it clear that Arabs “won’t be a part of my government”.

So, the RJC is right. While there may be some differences between Netanyahu, Gantz and other Israeli leaders in contention for the premiership, in their racist disregard for Palestinian rights, they largely agree. And because the “vast majority of Israeli voters” keep supporting these parties and, according to polls, support their policies that demonstrate contempt for Palestinian rights, it appears that the other RJC indictment of Israel’s political culture is also on target.

What this exchange also brought home is the extent to which a deep partisan divide has developed on issues related to Israel/Palestine here in the US. Among Democrats and independents, Sanders not only can call the Israeli government racist, press for greater recognition of Palestinian suffering, and propose that aid to Israel be conditioned on Israel’s human rights policies, he can get loud audience approval for these critical comments.

Sanders, once alone, among Democratic candidates willing to take a tough position on Israel, has this year, been joined by a few other leading Democratic candidates, including Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. They know that there is strong voter support for this position and very little support for a hardline pro-Israel view.

There is interesting evidence for the lack of Democratic voter tolerance for strident pro-Israel (DMI) policies, in the strange behaviour of a pro-Israel “dark money” group, Democratic Majority for Israel, a group funded by a collection of AIPAC donors and board members. DMI recently spent about $1.5 million in negative ads in Iowa and Nevada urging Democratic voters to reject Sanders bid for the presidency. What was intriguing was that despite the name of the group sponsoring the ads and source of their money, the DMI strategists knew that they wouldn’t accomplish anything by challenging Sanders on the “Israel issue”. Instead their attack ads focused on his age, his heart attack and his support for democratic socialism.

There is no such problem in being an outspoken advocate for Israel’s hardline views on the Republican side. In very real sense, the GOP and Likud are like twins separated at birth. These parties even share some of the same donors. A few Israeli Ambassadors were originally US citizens and Republican stalwarts. And the leading architects of Trump’s Israel policy, including his attorneys and his son-in-law are financial supporters of Israeli settlements.

Bottom line: As the RJC inadvertently points out, Israelis have, in fact, become increasingly unified around hardline policies that can only be described as racist and contemptuous of Palestinian rights. In this, they are supported by today’s Trump-led Republican Party. Paralleling this development, and to some extent in reaction to both the Israeli policies and the virtual Likud/GOP marriage, Democrats have become far more critical of Israel. The result is the deep partisan divide we witnessed playing out this past week.

 

The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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