Brad Sherman models the perfect pro-Israel Democrat

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  January 28, 2023

Rep. Brad Sherman, like other mainstream Democrats, only opposes Israel’s new far-right government because it will make it more difficult to defend Israel, not because he supports Palestinians.

When we talk about U.S. politicians who support Israel unconditionally, no one is more iconic than California Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman. As he puts it, he supports Israel “even when the government makes mistakes.” You can’t get much more “Israel right or wrong” than that.

Sherman spoke with Haaretz reporter Ben Samuels this week, and his remarks were telling. What Sherman had to say is a perfect model not just for his myopic and amoral support for Israel but that of the pro-Israel Democrats who make up the core of the party’s decision-making on U.S. policy in Palestine. 

In his discussion with Haaretz, Sherman makes it clear, albeit unintentionally, that he has no ethical or even pragmatic policy issues with the policies of the new radical government in Israel. The things he objects to is that practices that Israel has been engaging in all along will be done more openly now and that will make it more difficult for him and his colleagues to cover for Israel in the American political arena. Indeed, the specific policies he complains about were not introduced by the Religious Zionism or Jewish Power parties, but have been policies of the Likud party for years. And even there, they are, as we will see, practices Israel has engaged in since its independence and since it began its occupation in 1967. 

Abandoning the two-state solution

Sherman is worried, as most pro-Israel Democrats are these days. The “mistake” he, like his colleagues, sees Israel making is the overt shift rightward that embraces the Kahanist movement that Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, among others in the current government, openly embrace. 

But what, precisely, is the problem that Sherman sees here? Interestingly, it is not the issue that got Rabbi Meir Kahane’s party, Kach, banned from running for the Knesset in 1988. That decision was based on a law that forbade parties that “incited racism” from running. Later, the party, which had by then split in two, was declared entirely illegal under Israel’s anti-terrorism laws after they supported the actions of the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein, who was a member of Kach. The United States also listed Kach and its offshoot, Kahane Chai (Kahane Lives) as terrorist groups until the Joe Biden administration removed them from the list last year, incorrectly claiming that the group had become inactive. Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party is Kach under a different name.

But none of that troubles Sherman. He never utters a word of concern over the threat that the new Israeli government poses to Palestinians, or even to anti-occupation Jews. He’s not even worried about the deep ties between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Republican Party. Indeed, he is still proud of working with Netanyahu to try to undermine Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, even after the abrogation of it has conclusively proven its value, as many Israeli military leaders have pointed out. 

No, Sherman is worried about how this might affect Israel’s image in the United States. “As #Israel heads towards another election in November, I urge Israeli political leaders from all sides of the political spectrum to ostracize extremists like Itamar Ben-Gvir whose outrageous views run contrary to Israel’s core principles of a democratic and Jewish state,” Sherman tweeted just before November’s election and the formation of the farthest right wing government ever in Israel. “These extremists undermine #Israel’s interests and the U.S.-Israel relationship, which I and my colleagues have worked to strengthen.”

Explaining his view to Samuels, Sherman says, “Israel has one friend in the world, plus Guatemala. It cannot afford to only have half of one friend. The fact is they need the United States. They need us in international forums, they need us for so many reasons. Those who risk U.S. support should know what they’re doing.”

For Sherman, the problem is not the increasing violations of Palestinian human rights that this new Netanyahu government promises. The problem is that increased anti-Palestinian violence, and the loud support given to it by the likes of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir will increase the negative impression more and more Democrats are developing about Israel. No doubt, Sherman would say that the reason Israel only has two friends among the world’s 195 countries is antisemitism. It doesn’t occur to him that the reason Israel doesn’t have more “friends” (by which he really means those who support Israel’s policies with no or nearly no conditions like the U.S.) is its own behavior. 

Sherman’s concern, like that of most American officials, is directed at Smotrich and Ben-Gvir because they are even more blunt and straightforward about their truly fascistic views than Netanyahu, making them low-hanging fruit and giving pro-Israel Democrats a way to seem to oppose Israeli apartheid while still maintaining a business as usual approach in all policy matters. 

This behavior was recently modeled by Democratic Senator Jacky Rosen of Nevada, who is right there with Sherman in her pro-Israel politics. Rosen recently declared that she would not meet with Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, although she subsequently downplayed that declaration somewhat, saying that the controversial ministers were not “high-level” officials. The Biden administration implies a similar position, as it has repeatedly stated it will work with Netanyahu, implying it will try to steer clear of the more controversial members of the government. 

Denying basic rights to Palestinians

Sherman mirrors the approach of the Biden administration, unlike some of his more progressive colleagues and even some more center-left like Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland who has been leading the charge in the Senate for accountability for Shireen Abu Akleh’s murder by Israeli soldiers. But Sherman also reflects a broader approach to the entire issue of Palestine, one that is coming under increasing scrutiny from several parts of the Democratic party. Sherman describes this approach very well in Haaretz, where he lays out why he objects to annexation. “Disenfranchising, if it’s temporary, is entirely legal,” he says. “If it’s occupied territory, you’re working toward a negotiated two-state solution, then people who aren’t going to be under your sovereignty and aren’t going to be your citizens don’t vote in your elections. Once you say out loud that the West Bank is a permanent part of your territory, how do you deprive the people who live there?”

There’s a lot to unpack there. Let’s start with the idea that disenfranchising is legal if it’s temporary. Sherman is suggesting that under occupation, the occupying power does not have to respect the laws of the territory that is occupied and depriving people of their rights and even due process is legal. That’s simply untrue. One of the obligations of an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Conventions is that “The occupying power must respect the laws in force in the occupied territory, unless they constitute a threat to its security or an obstacle to the application of the international law of occupation.” The occupied people cannot, therefore be “disenfranchised” at will. Still, Sherman is right that under occupation, the occupying power is not required to hold elections, which is probably what he meant. 

The problem is where his distinction comes in, as he is trying to draw a line between a legal and an illegal occupation. While the question of what exactly constitutes a legal occupation is not well developed in international law, even if there was an argument that Israel had a legal right to occupy the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 because it was captured in a defensive war (there isn’t because the 1967 war was not defensive. Israel struck first and claimed, falsely, that they pre-empted an imminent Arab attack), occupation applies only to a temporary state of affairs. Even Sherman grants that much. But there is no logic to calling a military dictatorship that has been in power in the West Bank and Gaza for over 55 years “temporary.” The fact that Sherman, and other liberal or centrist supporters of Israel can continue to make this claim with a straight face is as astonishing as it is absurd. 

The conditions defining occupation are not dependent on whether or not the occupying power is “negotiating” a solution. It is supposed to work to end that occupation as soon as possible. Instead, Israel has demonstrably and inarguably violated the basic laws governing occupation. The International Committee of the Red Cross lists those laws, but the most obvious ones that Israel has violated are: 

  • The occupant does not acquire sovereignty over the territory.
  • The occupying power must take measures to restore and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety.
  • To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the occupying power must ensure sufficient hygiene and public health standards, as well as the provision of food and medical care to the population under occupation.
  • Collective or individual forcible transfers of population from and within the occupied territory are prohibited.
  • Transfers of the civilian population of the occupying power into the occupied territory, regardless whether forcible or voluntary, are prohibited.
  • Collective punishment is prohibited.
  • Reprisals against protected persons or their property are prohibited.
  • The confiscation of private property by the occupant is prohibited.
  • The destruction or seizure of enemy property is prohibited, unless absolutely required by military necessity during the conduct of hostilities.

There’s no debate whatsoever that Israel has engaged in all of these actions on a regular basis, with the United States either defending or ignoring the actions. And they are only some of Israel’s violations of the laws of occupation. All of these undermine the claim that Israel is engaging in an occupation that is temporary and not intended to result in the annexation of land. Indeed, Israel has already claimed sovereignty over the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, so that cat has been out of the bag for a long time. 

Blaming Ben-Gvir for the Israeli consensus

The most important point here is that these issues that Sherman is so desperate to bury lest they harm Israel’s support among Democrats have nothing to do with the new, more radical government. They are all indisputable features of Israeli policy in the territories it has occupied since 1967. And this examination does not even include the major issue of Palestinian refugees, the gradual erosion of agreements over the holy sites in East Jerusalem, or any issues that arose prior to 1967.

Sherman also zooms in on more specific concerns, which he says include a failure to embrace the two-state solution and “toying with the idea of annexation.” This is where his anxiety over Ben-Gvir and Smotrich comes in, and why he urged Netanyahu to ostracize them. 

This is, again, emblematic of the liberal/Democratic, pro-Israel view on Israel, and it explains why that bunch, in particular, is so frantically trying to isolate the most radical part of Netanyahu’s government. Because it is not Ben-Gvir and Smotrich who led those concerns Sherman raises; it is Netanyahu.

Throughout the early part of 2020, Netanyahu was building momentum for annexing the majority of the West Bank, including some Palestinian villages whose residents would not get Israeli citizenship. In September 2019, Netanyahu said,  “I intend to extend sovereignty on all the [Jewish] settlements and the (settlement) blocs,” including “sites that have security importance or are important to Israel’s heritage,” including the settlements in Hebron/Al-Khalil.

Consternation over this built to a boiling point in 2020. The Donald Trump administration tried to take control of the process, convincing Netanyahu to work with them to annex much of the West Bank through Trump’s ludicrous “Deal of the Century” that Palestinians firmly rejected. Eventually, Netanyahu postponed the plan in order to move the Abraham Accords forward, but he explicitly stated it was merely paused, not abandoned. 

This was not Ben-Gvir or Smotrich. It was not the program of an ultra-orthodox party or an explicitly Kahanist one. This was Netanyahu, the Likud and the so-called “mainstream right” of Israeli politics. The same is true about the abandonment of the two-state solution. If you’re paying attention, it’s impossible to miss the reality that every Israeli government, including Yitzhak Rabin’s back in the early and mid-1990s, has worked to block the two-state solution with settlement expansion, the construction of Israeli infrastructure, the undermining of the Palestinian economy through Jewish-only roads and checkpoints throughout the West Bank, and the outright destruction of Palestinian infrastructure, especially in Gaza. 

But we don’t have to look at all of that to know where Netanyahu stands. In March 2015, long before Donald Trump appeared on the scene, and while Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir were minor players, at best, in Israeli politics, Netanyahu bluntly stated, “I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state today, and evacuate areas, is giving radical Islam an area from which to attack the State of Israel.” When directly asked if that meant he would not allow a Palestinian state to emerge, he simply said “Indeed.”

Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir do raise concerning issues for people living in Israel and under Israeli rule. Benjamin Netanyahu is a corrupt, far-right leader who is at the heart of the rise of the global right. Despite the efforts to sanitize his image, the immediate concerns for Sherman and other pro-Israel Democrats—annexation and Israel’s shedding any pretense of ending its rule over millions of Palestinians—are Netanyahu’s program, not Smotrich’s and Ben-Gvir’s. 

But the real issues that Sherman does not wish to solve but merely to hide from Americans? Those were not created by any of these men. They are the fruits of Israel’s birth and its long-standing policies of expansionism and apartheid. Republican policies are perfectly in line with such ideas, but Democrats profess to support more just ideas. They need to be held to that standard.

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics