The U.S. conversation on Israel is changing, no matter Biden’s meek response

A Palestinian man puts out a fire at the site of Israeli strikes in Gaza City May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

President Joe Biden is drawing fire from all fronts for his handling of the resurgent Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His administration appeared flat-footed and unprepared as violence flared. Critics pointed to the White House’s inattention as it focuses on foreign policy priorities away from the Middle East. From the right, figures like former secretary of state Mike Pompeo accused Biden of not “unequivocally” standing with Israel in the face of terrorist rocket attacks. Meanwhile, a burgeoning rift within the Democratic party is emerging, with lawmakers further to the left frustrated at Biden’s unwillingness to be both more openly critical of Israel’s policies and actions and more aware of the U.S.’s own role in bringing the crisis to this point. On Sunday (May 16, 2021), a number of leading Muslim-American advocacy organizations boycotted Biden’s virtual Eid event on grounds that the administration was “complicit” in Palestinian suffering.

For his part, Biden has issued a number of tepid statements urging deescalation and defending Israel’s right to defend itself, while equivocating over the wrongs of violence on both sides. At the United Nations Security Council, the United States once more shielded Israel from any form of meaningful censure by blocking a statement calling for a ceasefire. Appearing on both Israeli and American television on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled that his country was not ready to halt military operations no matter the mounting international outrage over its excesses.

A predawn Israeli strike Sunday on the besieged territory killed 42 people, including 10 children, according to health officials in Gaza. Israeli bombardments have now killed at least 192 people in Gaza, including 58 children, since hostilities flared last week. Hamas and other militant factions in Gaza have launched more than 3,000 rockets into Israeli territory, according to the Israeli Defense Forces – nearly three-quarters the number fired during the 2014 Gaza war, in just a fraction of the time. Israel’s sophisticated defense systems have thwarted the bulk of these indiscriminate attacks, but at least 10 people have died in Israel in rocket strikes. Violence has also spread to the West Bank and to cities within Israel’s 1948 borders.

While Israel justified its pounding of targets in Gaza as a necessary response to Hamas, its assault has invariably claimed innocent civilian lives and destroyed critical infrastructure, homes and high-rises – including offices used by international media outlets. Thousands of Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced in recent days in the cramped territory, where many residents belong to families forced to flee their homes and villages in 1948 by Israeli forces and paramilitaries. Around the world this weekend, Palestinian commemorations of the “Nakba,” or the catastrophe of their original dispossession more than seven decades ago, were deepened by the new traumas of the past week.

In Washington, support for the Palestinian plight is getting louder in Congress. On Friday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote a widely circulated New York Times op-ed pulling the spotlight away from Hamas’s provocations to the deeper reality of life for millions of Palestinians living under blockade and occupation. He pointed to the havoc unleashed in recent weeks by rampaging mobs of Jewish extremists in Jerusalem, as well as the questionable Israeli legal attempts to forcibly evict the Palestinian residents of a neighborhood in the contested holy city.

“None of this excuses the attacks by Hamas, which were an attempt to exploit the unrest in Jerusalem, or the failures of the corrupt and ineffective Palestinian Authority, which recently postponed long-overdue elections,” Sanders wrote. “But the fact of the matter is that Israel remains the one sovereign authority in the land of Israel and Palestine, and rather than preparing for peace and justice, it has been entrenching its unequal and undemocratic control.”

In another era, Sanders would have cut a lonely figure among his colleagues. But he is not alone. A number of Democratic lawmakers, including solidly pro-Israel politicians, issued statements indicating their displeasure with the casualties caused by Israel’s attacks in Gaza. Others were more vocal, accusing Israel of “apartheid” – a charge corroborated in recent months by the reports of prominent human rights groups, but which in Washington used to be taboo.

Bipartisan support for Israel still endures, but analysts say the ground is perceptibly shifting. A new focus on Palestinian rights – as opposed to the long-deferred aim of Palestinian statehood – has put a clearer social justice frame around the conflict. “We must recognize that Palestinian rights matter,” wrote Sanders. “Palestinian lives matter.”

It also serves as a particularly thorny test for a Biden administration that has insisted upon championing human rights on the world stage. “U.S. foreign policy has always been good at managing inconsistency and hypocrisy, but being so out on a limb and so far from these professed commitments and values when it comes to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians exposes the U.S. government to vulnerabilities that can easily be exploited by others,” wrote Daniel Levy and Zaha Hassan in Foreign Policy. “It’s not hard to imagine the refrain in Beijing: ‘You say Uyghurs, we say Palestinians.'” (China accused the U.S. of not shouldering “its due responsibilities” at the Security Council this weekend.)

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a center-left pro-Israel advocacy organization that increasingly reflects the mainstream position of American liberals, said in a briefing with reporters last week that the “diplomatic blank check to the state of Israel” given out by successive U.S. administrations has meant that “Israel has no incentive to end occupation and find a solution to the conflict.”

President Donald Trump’s close alliance with Netanyahu may have helped erode the once ironclad bipartisan consensus around Israel. But many Democrats are also waking up to how Trump’s predecessors, including Biden himself during the Obama years, failed to stop the steady expansion of Israeli settlements or impose any costs on Israel for undermining the prospects of a viable Palestinian state. The United States “must remain committed to Israel’s security,” said Ben-Ami, “but it also should recognize that . . . it’s facilitating the ongoing annexation of Palestinian territory and cementing a permanent one-state reality.”

The change in attitudes isn’t just reflected within the Democratic party. A slim majority of Americans now believe the U.S. government should exert more pressure on Israel, according to a Gallup poll this year. Shibley Telhami, a political scientist at the University of Maryland who has spent the past few decades polling American views of the conflict, has found that a majority of Americans surveyed believe their lawmakers lean more toward Israel than the U.S. public.

According to Telhami’s research, a majority of Democratic voters support imposing sanctions or at least some form of tougher measures on Israel over its expansion of settlements. If a two-state solution were no longer possible, a large majority of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, would choose a democratic Israel, even if it would no longer be a Jewish state, over a Jewish state without full equality for all its citizens.

Biden, for now, is not one of them. “On social and racial issues, Biden has evolved over the years, closer to his Democratic constituents,” Telhami told Today’s WorldView. “On Israel-Palestine, he’s been a throwback to another era of Democratic political culture, and out of touch with the transformed environment and with the Democratic constituency that elected him.”



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