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The Pro-Israel Consensus on Capitol Hill Is Breaking Up

The last Democratic debate was the most useless yet. But amid the garbage, Bernie Sanders dropped a gem: for the first time, a major presidential contender brought up Palestinian rights unprompted. That’s because the pro-Israel consensus on Capitol Hill is finally breaking up.

Former vice president Joe Biden listens as Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Tyler Perry Studios November 20, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. Alex Wong / Getty Images

You could be forgiven for having fallen asleep early during the last snoozer of a Democratic Party debate. But among the nonsense, garbage, and jingoism was an important marker for the movement for justice in Palestine.

Following a pile-on of nationalist talking points from several Democratic nominees, the moderators turned to Senator Bernie Sanders on the question of US partnerships. After discussing the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, Bernie unexpectedly pivoted to Palestine:

And by the way, the same thing goes with Israel and the Palestinians. It is no longer good enough for us simply to be pro-Israel. I am pro-Israel. But we must treat the Palestinian people as well with the respect and dignity that they deserve . . . What is going on in Gaza right now, where youth unemployment is 70 percent or 80 percent, is unsustainable. So we need to be rethinking who our allies are around the world, work with the United Nations, and not continue to support brutal dictatorships.

It was the first time a major presidential contender brought up the issue of Palestine unprompted at a debate. In the past, Palestine has been the third rail nobody would touch with a ten-foot pole, certainly not willingly. But the times are changing.

A shift in public opinion about the Israeli occupation, and the success of the Palestine movement in pushing the visibility and humanity of Palestinians to the fore, have created the context in which Sanders, and more so representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, are able to take up Palestinian rights in mainstream political discourse. That shift is, in turn, being advanced dramatically by Sanders, Omar, and Tlaib, and opening up a much wider base of support for the movement for justice in Palestine.

As James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute and close Sanders ally, put it, the question of Palestine is a generational “smell-test issue. If you go to young people, they know you stink if you don’t talk about it right.” It is this new reality that led multiple Democratic nominees to sit out the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in 2019. Past conferences have been all-but-required attendance for presidential hopefuls. (In 2016, Bernie was the only candidate to skip the conference. There, Hillary Clinton accused Trump of not being pro-Israel enough because he had previously indicated that he would remain “neutral” in negotiations between Israel and Palestinians.)

Bernie’s position on Palestine could be much stronger. He could have talked about the current bombing of Gaza, which has killed dozens of men, women, and children in a matter of days, rather than only highlighting the dire economic reality there. Military assault and economic strangulation are two faces of the humanitarian crisis, which has its roots in Israel’s colonial occupation of Palestine.

And he has often reiterated his support for Israel and its “right” to self-determination. This position wrongly equates the experience of the occupied with those of their occupiers, and it confuses more than it explains. Palestinians have been struggling against decades of ethnic cleansing and apartheid, and it is their internationally recognized right to resist.

Nevertheless, his position on Palestine is not only the most progressive among the candidates (admittedly a low bar); more important, it is a decisive break from the staunchly pro-Israel consensus on Capitol Hill, and a sign of a shifting political discourse on Israel-Palestine more generally.

Bernie’s Record

Bernie’s track record on Palestine sets him apart from the Washington consensus. He has called Bibi Netanyahu’s government racist on numerous occasions, condemned Israeli aggression against Palestinians during the Great March of Return, and has come out against Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Despite his personal opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, he has come out in favor of the right to boycott amid escalating attacks on the movement.

One of Bernie’s ads features civil rights activist Shaun King decrying “apartheid-like” conditions in Palestine. Using the word “apartheid” to discuss Israel-Palestine has been inadmissable in mainstream American political discourse until now.

Significantly, Bernie has indicated that, as president, he would leverage aid to Israel in order to enforce human rights standards. At J Street’s conference in October, he said:

My solution is to say to Israel: You get $3.8 billion every single year. If you want military aid you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza. In fact, I think it is fair to say that some of that $3.8 billion should go right now into humanitarian aid in Gaza.

We have a right to say to the Israeli government that the U.S. and our taxpayers believe in human rights and democracy and we will not accept authoritarianism or racism.

The United States has maintained a bipartisan “special relationship” with Israel since 1967, and has handed over at least $3 billion in aid every year for decades, more than it provides to the rest of the world combined. This aid is unequivocal, never debated or qualified in any way by the US elite on either side of the aisle.

The roots of the pro-Israel consensus on Capitol Hill lie in a shared US-Israeli imperialist strategy in the Middle East. Year after year, Democratic and Republican administrations have given their junior partner in the Middle East carte blanche support. In return, Israel acts as a guardian of US interests in the region. Its massive military presence aims to demoralize any democratic Arab struggle and keep in check opposition to American hegemony.

Reinforcing these shared goals, a multimillion-dollar pro-Israel lobby acts as a glue to ensure no cracks emerge within the status quo. Wielding money for legislative influence, the lobby has played an outsize role in producing nearly unanimous support for Israel on Capitol Hill.

To get a sense of just how narrow the scope of discussion has been, consider Bernie’s quite moderate letter written last spring and signed by a dozen senators, calling on secretary of state Mike Pompeo to “do more to alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.” In response, Haim Saban, one of Hillary Clinton’s top five donors and an active financier of campaigns against politicians deemed too anti-Israel, sent an email to those senators that signed on. In it, he chastised their “outrageous, misinformed, offensive” lack of understanding. A senior Senate staff member told the New York Times that Saban’s letter had a “chilling effect” — which was, of course, exactly the letter’s intent.

To challenge this centerpiece of US foreign policy, indeed, to question it at all, is to break with the status quo, and that scares the donor class. The Times article included a series of Democratic Party donors and insiders explaining:

The donor class is profoundly to the right of where the activists are, and frankly, where the majority of the Jewish community is . . . I can’t imagine that mainstream Democratic Jewish donors are going to be happy about any Democratic Party that is moving in that direction . . . There’s no major donor that I can think of who is looking for someone to take a Bernie-like approach.

Last, it’s hard to overstate the significance of the only Jewish presidential candidate speaking out against the toxic conflation of criticisms of Israel with antisemitism. Bernie recently wrote in the leftist magazine Jewish Currents:

Opposing antisemitism is a core value of progressivism. So it’s very troubling to me that we are also seeing accusations of antisemitism used as a cynical political weapon against progressives. One of the most dangerous things Trump has done is to divide Americans by using false allegations of antisemitism, mostly regarding the US–Israel relationship. We should be very clear that it is not antisemitic to criticize the policies of the Israeli government.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

What makes Bernie unique among the presidential candidates is his connection to social movements. His refusal to receive any corporate funding has meant that rather than answering to the Haim Sabans of the world, he listens to regular people.

Bernie’s position on Palestine could be stronger. But like other issues, he is shifting, and that is the reason he’s gotten considerable support from Palestinians. As Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi put it, “we have listened carefully and we’ve seen a progression in terms of his positions.”

Bernie’s progression has everything to do with the stunning shifts that have taken place in connection with Palestine this past year — shifts that have largely been pushed by the first two Muslim women elected to congress: Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, both vocal supporters of BDS and among the most outspoken critics of both Israeli and US imperialism.

Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American, was sworn into Congress with a Quran, wearing a traditional Palestinian thobe. On her first day in the halls of Congress, a Post-it with the word “Palestine” scrawled on it was used to correct the world map in her office. And rather than participate in the all-but-mandatory AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel for freshmen members of congress, she organized her own delegation to the West Bank. When Israel ultimately denied entry to her and Representative Omar, the two remained defiant in response.

Ilhan Omar has endured a daily barrage of death threats and slander, and has responded with courage, speaking out against US imperialism and the corporate class. Anyone who had the pleasure of watching Omar skewer war criminal Elliott Abrams on national television knows she is a force to be reckoned with and is playing a significant role in building anti-imperialist sentiment in this country.

Most remarkable, comments that Omar made condemning AIPAC’s abusive power in US politics sent Republicans gunning for her, while establishment Democrats threw her under the bus rather than defend her. But the tide turned in her favor. Grassroots support for Omar was so significant that a House resolution initially intended to condemn her supposed antisemitism instead turned into a resolution condemning all forms of hatred, including Islamophobia and white supremacy.

The willingness and courage of Omar and Tlaib to argue for Palestinian rights in the national spotlight has strengthened and given renewed confidence to the movement on the ground. It has also opened up a much wider discussion within the mainstream media about BDS.

The reality on Capitol Hill, particularly since Omar and Tlaib’s election, is that, as the pro-Israel New York Times admitted: “Politicians speaking on Israel-Palestine used to worry primarily about attacks from pro-Israel media and activist groups; now progressives are starting to feel some heat from the pro-Palestinian side.”

Omar and Tlaib’s campaign victories and political stature have been conditioned by deeper shifts in public opinion on the question of Palestine. A Gallup poll from earlier this year reported that for the first time since 2012, at least half of Americans favor the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Democrats in particular have waned in their support for Israel. Gallup reports that just 43 percent of Democrats are partial to Israel — the lowest number in fourteen years.

Young Jewish Americans, who had previously made up a hardcore contingent of supporters for Israel, have been abandoning their identification with the Jewish state. Among people of color, Palestine is increasingly seen as an important racial justice issue. Activists in the Movement for Black Lives connected police violence in Ferguson with repression in Gaza. Latino student groups have cosponsored anti-apartheid weeks on campuses.

These shifts in public opinion run parallel to escalating Israeli brutality in Gaza over the past decade. Operation Cast Lead in 2008, followed by countless invasions, bombings, and massacres of civilians in Gaza since, have severely punctured the myth that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East,” much less a helpless victim to Arab aggression. In this context, the voice given to the Palestinian struggle through the BDS campaign has helped spotlight an issue that had thus far remained largely invisible and confusing to all but the radical left.

Bernie’s progression on Palestine is a product of movements on the ground and deeper shifts in public opinion. But it is also advancing those very movements. He and the squad are uniquely positioned to provide breathing room and confidence for activists to step up organizing efforts.

As one senior Democratic staffer told the New York Times: “People like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Bernie Sanders have opened the floodgates on this issue. It may be painful for the party as we move in a more progressive direction.” Painful for the party establishment — but a breath of fresh air for the rest of us.