The Washington Post / August 26, 2021
This week, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made the rounds in Washington, meeting with officials from the Biden administration (a meeting at the White House was postponed on Thursday because of the attacks at Kabul airport). Both sides hope to reset the U.S.-Israeli relationship after four years of former president Trump boldly advancing expansionist Israeli interests without the liberal veneer of past U.S. administrations. The synergy between Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exposed the farcical nature of the peace process and reinforced a growing partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans regarding Israel.
However, despite their best efforts to obfuscate reality — Israel’s settler-colonization of Palestinian lands and the apartheid regime imposed to consolidate those territorial takings and reinforce Jewish supremacy — no amount of public relations or spin can change what’s happening on the ground, or the trends that are pushing Americans away from Israel and toward supporting Palestinian freedom.
On policy, nothing has changed. In his first eight months in office, Biden has rubber-stamped most of Trump’s most problematic moves, including moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, opposing the International Criminal Court investigation into Israeli actions, and adopting a highly problematic definition of antisemitism that conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry. Biden categorically opposes any conditioning of military aid to Israel on its human rights record and has ordered his officials to fight the grassroots boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights, which is inspired by the Civil Rights and South African anti-apartheid movements. During Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in May, which killed more than 250 Palestinians, including 12 families erased from the population registry, Biden resisted repeated calls from within his own party to publicly urge Israel to stop the violence.
For his part, Bennett is eager to introduce himself to Israel’s primary patron and the world. He wants to distinguish himself from Netanyahu, with whom he worked under and alongside for many years, in an effort to appease U.S. liberal Zionists desperate for a fig leaf to sustain their denial of Israeli apartheid.
If anything, however, Bennett is even more extreme than Netanyahu. Bennett used to head the Yesha Council, the main organization that represents settlers, and unequivocally opposes Palestinian statehood. According to the agreement cementing his coalition, the new government will “significantly advance construction in Jerusalem,” including Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, and reports say he promised settler leaders there will be no settlement freeze in the rest of the West Bank either.
Perhaps most alarmingly, Bennett has begun to change the status quo in the revered Noble Sanctuary mosque complex, known as the Temple Mount to Jews, to allow Jews to pray there. Since Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, it has banned Jews from praying in the Noble Sanctuary because most Jewish religious authorities opposed it for theological reasons and to avoid provoking tensions with Muslims. That is now changing under Bennett, with potentially disastrous consequences for the region and beyond.
As part of his plan to present a new image, Bennett is seeking to “shrink the conflict” by making conditions more tolerable for Palestinians while maintaining Israeli domination, much like Trump’s vision for “economic peace.” This approach will also feature exalting the Abraham Accords — Israel’s recognition pacts with U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes — as models of peace. Bennett will likely support increasing U.S. aid for the Palestinian Authority, which is part of Israel’s security apparatus; just recently it arrested dozens of Palestinian human rights defenders in an effort to quash dissent.
Biden is seemingly eager to embrace Bennett and a modified version of Trump’s containment policies. Biden represents the old guard of the Democratic Party, out of touch with Democratic voters and the U.S. public in general. Polls consistently show that Americans across the political spectrum want the U.S. to be fairer and more evenhanded when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.
This shift in U.S. public opinion was vividly illustrated this past May, when Americans took to social media and the streets in unprecedented numbers demanding an end to Israel’s assault on Gaza and a change in U.S. policy in the region. In another sign of the changing times, the popular ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s announced it will stop selling ice cream in Israeli settlements, a decision it stood by even as the highest echelons of Israel’s government vilely accused the company of antisemitism.
In any case, when Biden and Bennett do meet at the White House, Palestinians will at best just figure as shadows. This is especially insulting in light of the ongoing Unity Intifada protest movement and a testament to the fact that necessary change will not come from the top down. In the near future, Israel will likely be its own worst enemy as it insists that its racial supremacist regime is a righteous form of national liberation, and the United States will likely be the last domino to fall as was the case in the struggle against apartheid South Africa.
Noura Erakat is a human rights attorney and associate professor at Rutgers University; she is the author of Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine