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Have Democrats Reached a Turning Point on Israel?

Recent violence and shifts in public opinion have created an opportunity for advocates to push President Biden on a policy that’s been fixed in amber.

President Joe Biden glances over his right shoulder as he walks through the White House.
Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

On Thursday, Israel and Hamas reached a ceasefire, putting a tentative end to 11 days of fighting that began with protests over the eviction of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem and a subsequent Israeli raid at the Al Aqsa mosque on the last Friday of Ramadan. In a statement praising the agreement Thursday night, President Joe Biden described talks between the United States and Israel over the past week. “In my conversation with [Prime Minister] Netanyahu, I commended him for the decision to bring the current hostilities to a close within less than 11 days,” he said. “I also emphasized what I have said throughout this conflict: The United States fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks from Hamas and other Gaza-based terrorist groups that have taken the lives of innocent civilians in Israel.”

Statements like this have been pro forma for American presidents for years. But this one came after days of protest and criticism that underscored how dramatically the discourse on Israel and Palestine has changed since Biden was last in the White House. Six days after hostilities began, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called Israel an apartheid state, capping off a week of bold statements from progressives including Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Cori Bush, and Betty McCollum, who reintroduced a bill restricting Israel’s use of military aid in April. House progressives and Senator Bernie Sanders also offered resolutions opposing the sale of $735 million in American weapons to Israel. All of this amounted to the most significant rift yet between the Biden administration and the Democratic left, and an indication of how broader changes within the party and the American political scene might shake up the relative stasis of Israel policy further in the years ahead.

“I think what we’re seeing now is a few things combining to create the situation we’re in,” says Beth Miller, senior government affairs manager at Jewish Voice for Peace. “One is all of the hard work that the Palestinian-led Palestinian rights movement in this country has been doing for decades. The other is the broader political moment in the United States right now. We are in a post-Trump era. We’re living in a global pandemic. We’re in a time where Black Lives Matter is a rallying cry for progressives across this entire country, where we’ve seen incredible Black-led organizing has made real, tangible change. And we’re at a time where, more broadly speaking, the progressive left in America is starting to understand in new ways that all of our struggles are interconnected and that everything we work on has to be in solidarity with one another.”

In her speech before the House last week, Rashida Tlaib, the representative of a majority-Black Detroit district and the first Palestinian-American woman elected to Congress, made that argument explicitly and encouraged her constituents to draw parallels between racist policies at home and the treatment of Palestinians in Israel. “As Palestinians talk about our history, many of my Black neighbors and Indigenous communities may not know what we mean by nakba,” she said, referring to the exodus of Palestinians from Israel during its creation in 1948. “But they do understand what it means to be killed, expelled from your home, land, made homeless, and stripped of your human rights.”

Obviously, most Democrats and the party’s leaders still resist these comparisons and other efforts to bring attention to the realities of day-to-day life under the occupation. But the disparate impact of the current Gaza crisis on the Israeli and Palestinian populations proved difficult even for moderates to ignore. Hamas’s rocket attacks killed at least 12 in Israel, a figure Israelis credit to the efficacy of their Iron Dome defense system. In Gaza, Israel’s strikes killed at least 230 Palestiniansroughly six times the number of Israelis killed by Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza between 2000 and 2020and displaced an estimated 72,000 more, owing to the damage or destruction of over 1,000 buildings and civilian infrastructure. Those buildings included 17 hospitals and clinics, Gaza’s lone coronavirus testing facility, and a high-rise that housed offices for the Associated Press and Al Jazeera.

The destruction of the latter and overall casualty count in Gaza drew a rare rebuke from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, typically a reliable defender of Israeli policy. “I am deeply troubled by reports of Israeli military actions that resulted in the death of innocent civilians in Gaza, as well as Israeli targeting of buildings housing international media outlets,” he said in a statement. “In response to thousands of rocket attacks fired by Hamas aimed at civilians, Israel has every right to self-defense from terrorists committed to wipe her off the face of the map. But no matter how dangerous and real that threat may be, I have always believed the strength of the U.S.-Israeli relationship flourishes when it is based on the shared values of democracy, freedom, pluralism, and respect for human rights and the rule of law.”

The voices working now to reconceptualize that relationship include not only figures like Tlaib, who comfortably place themselves on the Democratic Party’s left wing, but organizations like J Street, whose advocates are angling to replace Israel hawks in the political mainstream. While J Street remains at odds with Jewish Voice for Peace and other organizations that support the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement, the group sharply criticized Biden in the early days of fighting for not urging a ceasefire more strongly and is pushing the administration to fully close the Trump era of Israel policy by, among other actions, declaring Israel’s settlements in Palestinian territory illegal and reopening the American consulate in East Jerusalem. 

“Those are small steps that could be taken,” Logan Bayroff, J Street’s vice president for communications, says. “But we’ve also said it’s not enough to just reset to an Obama-era status quo. And I think part of that involves, frankly, centering much more of the concept of the rights of both peoples on a day-to-day basis and the reality of the occupationthe fact that this is not just a conflict between two armed groups but that there’s a systemic, ongoing injustice that’s part of the root cause of the overall conflict.”

Of the candidates who ran in last year’s Democratic presidential primary, Biden was among the least likely to adopt that understanding of the conflict. In a 1986 Senate floor speech defending aid to Israel, Biden condensed the views that have defined his career on the subject into a few sentences. “I think it’s about time we stopthose of us who support, as most of us do, Israel in this bodyapologizing for our support for Israel,” he said. “There’s no apology to be made. None. It is the best $3 billion investment we make. Were there not an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region.” As Peter Beinart, a former editor of this magazine, wrote for Jewish Currents last year, Biden carried that sensibility with him into the Obama administration, as he repeatedly undermined modest efforts to pressure Netanyahu on settlements.

But despite his history and handling of the Gaza crisis, activists like Miller are nevertheless hoping that public pressure might pull Biden in a new direction as his term continues.

“I don’t think that Joe Biden can be drawn to a more ethical position on Palestine, but I think he can be forced to one,” she says. “I think he’s shown, over the course of his decades in public service, that he is ideologically a staunch supporter of Israeli government violence toward Palestinians. However, he’s also the president of the United States and subject to the pressure of Americans.”

The segment of the public favoring real change in America’s Israel policy is growing, but still small. According to Gallup, the proportion of Americans who believe pressuring Israel will be key to achieving peace has increased by seven points, from 27 to 34 percent, since 2018. But a 44 percent plurality still emphasizes pressure on the Palestinians, although that figure is down six points from 50 in 2018. And 56 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the latest crisis, according to a Hill/Harris poll.

That’s not to say, though, that louder criticisms of Israel now aren’t being shaped by public sentiment. Gallup’s numbers show a 53 percent majority of Democrats favor pressuring Israela 10-point jump since 2018and progressive figures are clearly betting that the broader electorate is more willing to hear critics out than ever before. They’re probably right: Even pro-Israel Democrats can understand revulsion at a government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu and the special relationship Netanyahu forged with Donald Trump. And invocations of “America’s interests” in the region don’t land quite as easily for the public as they did before the “war on terror”those words no longer have the power to sweep concerns about what the U.S. does and endorses abroad aside. A wholesale shift in Israel policy probably isn’t around the corner. But those advocating for one are clearly operating within a changed political landscape.