The Nation / June 30, 2020
The early moves from Biden have been disappointing.
Tomorrow, July 1, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to move forward with his campaign promise to annex significant sections of West Bank territory. As of this writing, the full extent of Netanyahu’s plan is not known, but he is expected to annex the fertile Jordan Valley as well as several large settlement blocs. Annexation also comprises parts of Donald Trump’s so-called Deal of the Century, which calls for Israel annexing over 30 percent of the West Bank.
Netanyahu’s motives are opaque. As Israeli analyst Akiva Eldar observes, previous Israeli prime ministers have adopted policies of “quiet, creeping annexation,” while Netanyahu’s is already loud and imperious. The Israeli prime minister is also looking for Trump’s approval, which may explain the rush. Gains must be consolidated now before there is a change in American administrations and, possibly, American policy.
So where are the Democrats on this issue? The question is important not only because unilateral annexation will cement “a vision of a 21st century apartheid,” as a UN council of human rights experts stated recently, but also because the Democratic response, particularly from presumptive presidential candidate Joe Biden, could offer a sense of what the party’s foreign policy platform will be.
The early moves from Biden are—you guessed it—disappointing. While he is on record opposing annexation, his stance was revealed not through, say, a broadly distributed statement upholding the international law principle that the acquisition of territory by war or force is inadmissible. Instead, he made his views known on Zoom, or some such platform. During a virtual fundraiser with the American Jewish Committee, Biden told his audience: “I do not support annexation. The fact is, I will reverse Trump’s undercutting of peace.”
Who cares about how he said it, as long as he said it, you might say. And you’d of course be right. Substance is more important than style. But the other problem is that there’s evidence that Biden won’t actually reverse all that Trump has done regarding Israel and the Palestinians—and won’t provide new directions for American diplomacy either.
Biden called Trump’s provocative move of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem “short sighted and frivolous,” but then said he would leave the embassy in Jerusalem. I’m not sure what to call this: no-change you can believe in?
Biden, who has never been a friend to the Palestinians, has also rejected a proposal that was first made by Senator Bernie Sanders and that is popular among progressive Democrats: that the United States condition its billions of dollars of aid to Israel on Israel’s actions and commitments to a negotiated settlement. Biden called Sanders’s idea “bizarre.”
Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, put Biden’s position in perspective at a recent panel hosted by Jewish Currents magazine. “I’d love to see more constructive, more courageous, more visionary thoughts, particularly at a time when Israel is getting set to do something like annexation,” Friedman said. “But essentially what [the Biden camp has] articulated is as close to a status quo [as you get].”
The situation is worse than that because, when it comes to Israel’s actions, the status quo has never been static. The settler population keeps growing and is now over 600,000. New facts on the ground create a new status quo each and every time.
Such will be the case for de jure annexation. Despite what Biden says, it may not be so easy to undo. But it’s also important to point out that de facto annexation is already here. As Palestinian human rights lawyer Noura Erakat explains, “Palestinians can tell you that the worst-case scenario already exists: As non-sovereigns of their own state and non-citizens of Israel, they are subjected to perpetual Israeli domination.” Even with all the complications illegal, unilateral annexation brings, it is not the real threat. The status quo is.
By believing he can return the region to some version of a previous status quo, Biden is not just missing the point. He’s missing an opportunity. A recent University of Maryland poll finds that 67 percent of respondents agreed that it is “acceptable” for members of Congress to question the Israeli-American relationship, or that it’s their “duty” of to do so. Among Democrats, that number was a whopping 81 percent.
The time for new thinking that guarantees equal rights for everyone—Jewish and Palestinian, in Israel and in the Occupied Territories—is long overdue. But slavish devotion to a failed status quo, one that has only ever enabled Israel’s continuing subjugation of the Palestinians, will do nothing but deliver more misery and violence.
In an interview with Ha’aretz Magazine in 2000, Edward Said described the complex intertwining of Palestinian and Israeli history as a “symphony” that is “magnificently imposing.” He continued:
[W]hat you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom. But the people dealing with this gigantic paining are “quick-fix” Clinton, Arafat, and Barak, who are like a group of single-minded janitors who can only sweep around it, who can only say let’s move it a bit—let’s put in in the corner.
Said was wrong about one thing: Janitor is an honourable profession. But there’s nothing honourable—or noble—about politicians, Biden included, who for their own limited political advantage tinker with the promise of Palestinian freedom in order to deny it. In fact, it’s a disgrace.
Moustafa Bayoumi, a professor at Brooklyn College, is a co-editor of The Edward Said Reader (Vintage) and the author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America (Penguin Press)