Jacobin / October 2, 2020
On Palestinian rights, Bernie Sanders was a progressive outlier in 2020, sandwiched among Israel hawks and imperialists. But in the coming decades, his candidacy won’t be an outlier at all: progressives are forcing a reckoning on Israel.
As Joe Biden and Donald Trump slog to the finish line, it is accurate to say that, in this deeply polarized time, there are profound political differences between them. On the economy, on taxes, on climate change, on health care — it does the Left no good to blur the lines between even mainstream Democrats and their Republican opponents.
But the parties both operate from one bedrock bipartisan assumption: Israel must be backed at all costs, at the expense of the dignity and lives of occupied Palestinians. If Biden has pivoted leftward on certain domestic policies, including the possible embrace of greater stimulus spending, he has given no ground to progressives on the Middle East. For Israel hawks, his presidency will not represent a significant departure from the Trump administration’s incendiary approach.
The Democratic Party’s 2020 platform is a reflection of this. As Jewish Current’s Joshua Leifer noted, the word “occupation” does not appear in the platform, which states as “ironclad” the party’s commitment to Israel’s “right to defend itself” and expresses firm opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Biden himself, in his campaign platform, describes his approach to Israeli-Palestinian relations as “Joe Biden and the Jewish Community,” as if Palestinians — their hopes, dreams, and fears — do not exist here. Hardly any mention of Palestinian rights is made at all. A Trump aide could have written most of it.
As Bernie Sanders challenged Biden in the Democratic primary, commentators often failed to note that an important divide between the two men was how they viewed the rest of the world. Though Sanders is rightly associated with his lifelong quest to enact Medicare for All, his 2020 campaign was equally daring in its attempt to reimagine how the United States engages with its putative allies and enemies.
Sanders was the first mainstream Democratic candidate to speak openly about the plight of the Palestinian people and criticize unconditional aid to Israel. He elevated Palestinian voices and easily won the support of a plurality of Muslim voters through campaigning on a range of issues. Had he captured the nomination and the presidency, he would have attempted to overhaul America’s military-industrial complex and to unwind disastrous military conquests abroad.
Though Biden invited Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez onto various unity task forces after the primary, foreign policy was off-limits. Biden has made it clear, at the minimum, he wants a return to the Barack Obama years, which saw occasional mild concessions like the Iran deal and improvements in relations with Cuba mixed with far more conventional and destructive policy for oppressed people abroad. Obama, for example, was nowhere to be found as Israeli rockets slaughtered civilians in Gaza six years ago.
Biden’s team proclaimed he would never set conditions on military aid to Israel, the primary tool the United States possesses for disciplining a nation increasingly dominated by a far-right unapologetic about its quest to deny Palestinians any kind of statehood or safety. Tony Blinken, a top Biden aide, was Obama’s deputy national security advisor, and will be a key voice in ensuring Biden maintains the status quo. Blinken promised Biden would only criticize Israel privately.
“Joe Biden believes strongly in keeping your differences — to the greatest extent possible — between friends and behind doors,” Blinken said.
Though Blinken said Biden opposes the looming Israeli annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, he refused to say whether Biden would reverse a possible American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Palestinian territories. And his insistence that a President Biden will not challenge Israel publicly means Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies will have carte blanche to inflict more suffering on Palestinians.
Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, has an equally retrograde record. An American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) devotee who was feted at their 2017 conference, Harris has bragged the first resolution she ever sponsored in the Senate was in defense of Israel. She never signed onto a letter, which even her California colleague Dianne Feinstein supported, urging Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to monitor the case of Issa Amro, a Hebron-based Palestinian activist, set to stand trial in Israeli military court.
Harris never backed efforts to urge the Israeli government not to demolish the Palestinian village of Susiya and the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar. She failed to sign onto a May 2018 joint letter from thirteen senators asking the American government to address the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.
In a New York Times interview, Harris said that “overall, yes” Israel meets international standards of human rights. This is, blatantly, not true.
For Netanyahu and revanchist forces in Israel, a Biden-Harris administration would not be disruptive. Annexation and ethnic oppression could continue apace. If anything, Biden would be more welcome than Obama, who occasionally summoned up the strength to chide Netanyahu in the public sphere.
The good news is that such a posture towards Israel, in the long-term, will be unsustainable for Democrats. The progressive base of the party has no affinity for an ethno-state dominated by hard-right political forces. Jews on the Left have long understood it is possible to be proud of a religious heritage and a cultural history without binding an entire identity to the machinations of one flawed foreign government.
Biden and Harris, if they win, may represent the last gasp of a potent American Israel lobby, two Democrats willing to wholeheartedly swallow the party line. In future primaries, with more millennials and younger voters casting ballots, that willingness to appease such a lobby will disappear. A party that chants “Black Lives Matter” and cloaks itself in the rhetoric of anti-racism cannot continually erase the plight of Palestinians. At some point, this cognitive dissonance will give.
When it does, Biden’s candidacy will be remembered for how out of time it really was, how out of history. Future generations will wonder why Biden and Harris were so adamantly defending and upholding a nation violating international law. Progressives, an ever-growing bloc of the Democratic Party, will force a reckoning on Israel. Sanders may have been an outlier in 2020, sandwiched among Israel hawks and imperialists, but his candidacy won’t be in the coming decades.
Ross Barkan is a writer and journalist in New York City