While the U.S. policy and media landscape is indeed shifting where Israel and Palestine are concerned–as evidenced by wider public support for Palestinian human rights, more mainstream media voices criticizing Israeli brutality in Gaza, Human Rights Watch’s report stating categorically that Israel is committing the international crime of Apartheid against Palestinians, an increase in American Jewish voices criticizing Israel, and several Congresspersons speaking out clearly about the need for a change in U.S. policy towards the Palestinian people–it is still far too early for celebrations or announcements that “Palestine will soon be free.” So much hinges on circumstances that are still in flux in the interconnected realms of U.S. policymaking, electoral politics, and media coverage. And as the latest pronouncements from Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulating the new Israeli Government of extreme right-winger Naftali Bennet demonstrate, the United States’ unconditional financial, military, and diplomatic support of Israel remains as solid as ever.
For decades, U.S. supporters of Palestinian rights and aspirations fervently hoped for a dramatic change in public opinion stemming from a realization that Israel has been using U.S. tax dollars and U.S. diplomatic cover to commit serious human rights violations against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza for generations. While such public awareness has grown among average Americans, largely as a result of clear parallels with the Black Lives Matter and Native American protests movements of the last five years, not to mention increased social media coverage about Palestinians’ rights, Americans’ attention and interests are fickle where foreign affairs are concerned, and the pro-Israel lobby’s efforts to paint any and all expressions of support for Palestinians as inherently anti-Semitic has already prompted pro-Palestinian celebrities like the actor Mark Ruffalo to take back some of his stronger statements of support for Palestinians’ rights, and has led numerous National Public Radio affiliate stations across the country to air alarmist stories about the sudden rise in violent anti-Semitism, thus implying that support for Palestinians is dangerous and will automatically cause attacks on American Jews to skyrocket. Though such coverage speculates that the Israeli assault on Gaza was the proximate cause of anti-Semitic statements and vandalism, that link has not been proven in all cases.
While the divide between the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States has never been wider on a raft of issues, from health care to the environment to immigration, the chasm between the two parties on the topic of Palestinian rights is immense. Only 12 years ago, according to Gallup, 33 percent of Democrats supported putting more pressure on Israel to change its policies. By 2018, that support had risen to 43 percent. And just three months ago–before Israel’s most recent pummeling of Gaza–it increased to 53 percent. Republican opinion, conversely, hasn’t budged: only 17% of Republicans back more US pressure on Israel, a statistic that hasn’t changed in 15 years.
Yet, an equally dramatic rift is now emerging within the Democratic Party itself precisely on the question of Palestine. The moderate leadership (Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer) are scolding the growing progressive contingent (Reps. Alanna Pressley, Cori Bush, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) for their outspoken criticism of ongoing Israeli violations of Palestinians’ human rights, which can easily be read as older, white, upper middle class Democrats muzzling younger, ethnically diverse working class Democrats at a moment when the Democratic party is having a very hard time blocking concerted Republican efforts to limit voting rights. From the long-term viewpoint of the party as a whole, unity is paramount now; from the immediate viewpoint of the progressives, this is no time to waffle on support for oppressed and marginalized people at home and abroad as the Black Lives Matter movement comprises the beating heart of reform and protest movements in the United States, and the most likely conduit for a new generation of Americans to join the party.
More than 70 million Americans voted for Donald Trump last November, and Trump’s hardline supporters continue to insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he actually won the election; some fringe groups even claim that Trump will retake the White House this summer. While the Democrats currently control the White House, the House of Representatives, and have a razor thin majority in the Senate, it is not only possible, but indeed quite probable, that Democrats will lose seats to Republicans in the House in the 2022 midterm elections while forfeiting their minuscule majority in the Senate altogether. The Biden administration was not eager to engage with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its first 100 days. Biden and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have their sights set on domestic policy issues that moderate Democrats fear will be jeopardized by the sudden upsurge of public concern about Palestinians’ rights. Changing course on America’s unqualified support for Israel threatens the kinds of coalition building on Capitol Hill that Biden sees as crucial to achieving his goals.
So, the Democrats are at a troubling impasse that has its roots in both foreign and domestic policy concerns. And time is running out for Biden to push forward his ambitious agenda and reap the political rewards of investing in America’s infrastructure, creating jobs, halting COVID 19’s devastation, and putting together a Green New Deal to benefit both the environment and the economy in the coming decade. An important weapon in the Republican Party’s arsenal as the 2022 midterm elections approach is broad and uncritical support for Israel among rural, white, middle- and working-class Christian Evangelical voters–the same people who worshipped Donald Trump and view Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar as a Muslim terrorist and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez as a raving Communist. Whipping up the anger of this huge segment of the American public by painting incumbent Democrats in Congress as anti-Semitic for criticizing Israel even mildly will not be hard to do.
For those excitedly claiming that “Palestine will soon be free” on the assumption that U.S. policy is about to change dramatically, I urge caution and patience.