Middle East Monitor / February 16, 2021
Motivated by their justifiable aversion to former US President Donald Trump, many analysts have painted, rather rashly I believe, a rosy picture of how Democrats could quickly erase the bleak trajectory of the previous Republican administration. This naivety is particularly pronounced in the current spin on the Palestinian-Israeli discourse, which is promoting, again, the illusion that Democrats will succeed where their political rivals have failed.
There are obvious differences in the Democrat approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but only in semantics and political jingoism, not policy. This assertion can be justified if the Democrat administration’s official language on Palestine and Israel is examined, and then considered within the context of policies on the ground.
Take the recent remarks by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a CNN interview on 8 February, for example. Blinken reminded us of the clever — albeit disingenuous — US foreign policy under previous Democrat administrations. His no doubt carefully selected words may seem to be a complete departure from the belligerent, yet direct, approach of his predecessor Mike Pompeo, but…
“Look, leaving aside the legalities of that question [the illegal Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights], as a practical matter, the Golan is very important to Israel’s security,” said Blinken. Later in the interview, he side-lined “legalities” yet again. “Legal questions are something else,” he insisted, before continuing to speak vaguely and non-committedly about the future of Syria.
Now juxtapose Blinken’s position on the illegal Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights with statements made by Pompeo in November. “This is a part of Israel and central part of Israel,” said the then US Secretary of State as he was accompanied by Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi on a tour of the occupied territory.
Pompeo’s position, which is a blatant violation of international law, was duly condemned by Palestinians and Arabs, and criticised by various governments and international bodies. Blinken’s position, however, generated little media attention and negligible, if any, serious criticism regionally or internationally. This should not have been the case.
By acknowledging the relevance of the issue of “legalities”, but then “leaving them aside”, in favour of the seemingly more pressing question of Israeli security, Blinken simply defended the status quo of perpetual Israeli military occupation. That is also championed enthusiastically by Republicans.
Succinctly, this is the Democrat doctrine on Palestine and Israel, and has been, in effect, more or less since the Bill Clinton era. The current Joe Biden administration is undoubtedly following the same blueprint, which allows Washington to offer itself as a neutral party — an ‘honest peace-broker‘ — while helping Israel to achieve its strategic goals at the expense of the Palestinians and Arabs.
Any distinction between the Democrat and Republican discourses on Palestine and Israel is a relatively new phenomenon. Interestingly, it was the administration of Republican George H. W. Bush that, in 1991, established the current Democrat narrative on Palestine. At the end of the First Gulf War, Bush championed the multilateral talks between Israel and Arab states in Madrid. Within a few years, a whole new US discourse was formulated.
The 11 September, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US supplanted the peace process discourse in Republican foreign policy literature with a new one, which is dedicated avowedly to fighting “Islamic terror”. Israel seized the opportunity to jump on the bandwagon and used the new American terminology and conduct in the Middle East to present itself as a partner in the US-led global “war on terror”.
To stave off the collapse of US global political leadership as a result of the Iraq invasion of 2003, the Barack Obama administration quickly restored the traditional American position, once again offering US services as an “honest broker” for peace in the Middle East. It is true to say that Obama laboured to restore America’s relevance as a “peacemaker”. His administration still utilised the disingenuous language of the past, one which constantly put the onus on the Palestinians to make concessions, while gently reminding Israel of its responsibilities towards Palestine’s civilian population.
Obama’s Cairo speech in April 2009 remains his most powerful, yet it provides damning evidence of the numerous moral lapses and legal blind spots of US foreign policy, particularly under Democrat administrations. The speech, which was meant to serve as a watershed moment in the US approach to the Middle East, exposed the caveats of Washington’s bias towards Israel, predicated mostly on emotional manipulation and historical misrepresentation.
Indeed, Obama fluctuated deliberately between the persecution of Jewish communities throughout history and Israel’s “right” to ensure its security at the expense of the oppressed Palestinians, as if systematic Israeli violence is a genuine attempt to prevent further persecution of world Jewry. In contrast, Obama insisted, with little sympathy or context, that “Palestinians must abandon violence”, thus painting the Palestinians and their legitimate resistance to Israel’s occupation of their land as the real obstacle to just peace in Palestine. Blaming the victim has been a central pillar of US foreign policy as far as Palestine-Israel is concerned, and is a trait shared by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Yet, while Republicans increasingly ignore the rights and, sometimes, the very existence of the Palestinians, the Democrats continue to support Israel with equal passion but use more moderate — although inconsequential — language. For example, Democrats believe that the Palestinians are the instigators of violence, although Israel may have, at times, used “disproportionate force” in its “response” to Palestinian violence. International law certainly exists for the Democrats, but can easily be “left aside” to accommodate Israeli security. For the Democrats, there is such a thing as internationally recognised borders, but these borders are flexible in order to accommodate Israel’s demographic fears, strategic interests and “military edge“.
Hence, it is easier to discredit and dismiss the foreign policy agenda of Trump, Pompeo and other Republicans simply because their aggressive, dismissive language and actions were and remain unmistakably objectionable. The Democrat discourse, however, cannot be censured as easily, as it utilises a deceptive mix of superficiality, political platitudes and historical clichés, worded meticulously with the aim of placing the US back in the driving seat of whatever political process is underway.
As long as the Democrat discourse remains committed to arming and defending Israel, the Biden administration can provide Palestinians and Arabs with no meaningful change. Substantive change can only occur when international law is respected. Unfortunately, according to Secretary of State Blinken’s twisted and pro-Israel logic, such seemingly trivial legalities should, for now, be “left aside”.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle; he has authored a number of books on the Palestinian struggle including ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story‘ (Pluto Press, London)