Be Ready to Fight President Joe Biden on Israel-Palestine

A Joe Biden presidency will attempt to return to the hawkish Democratic status quo on Israel. Leftist activists and elected officials have to be prepared to stop him.

Former vice president Joe Biden in Jerusalem, 2016. (Ilia Yefimovich / Getty Images)

While the world breathes a collective sigh of relief at Donald Trump’s defeat and laughs at his attempts to stay in power, we now have to ready ourselves for the “return to normalcy” that we’ve been promised. Joe Biden, a  hawk with a long history as Israel’s “close friend” throughout his political career, will occupy the White House come January.

Right-wing Zionist, Zev Chafets recently reflected on meeting a starry-eyed Senator Biden in Israel some decades ago, who had teared up while talking about his love for Israel. Now, Chafets reports:

[Biden] has retained an affection for Israel, but he’s no longer a neophyte. Compared to George W. Bush, Barack Obama or Donald Trump, he’s an old Middle East hand, a Democrat but not an idealist. While much is made of the closeness between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump, Biden is likely to differ more in tone than substance.

Chafets reassures readers that a President Biden will likely do little “beyond restoring U.S. aid to Ramallah, reopening the [Palestinian Liberation Organization] office in Washington and perhaps renewing the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem. Absent real pressure (of the kind even Obama didn’t exert), however, Israel won’t make concessions that go far beyond the Trump Plan.”

During his tenure in Washington, Trump took unprecedented measures to bolster Israel’s most right-wing elements. He moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, stopped all US aid to Palestinians, closed the Palestinians’ diplomatic mission in Washington, withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, and (under the guise of fighting antisemitism) signed an executive order which empowered the federal government to withhold money from educational institutions that don’t clamp down on Palestine activism.

Yet the pro-Israel lobby by and large backed Biden — and for good reason. As Ross Barkan explained: “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.”

“Unwaveringly” Pro-Israel

Biden’s pro-Israel record is as steadfast as any in the Democratic Party’s mainstream, and his ties to Israel lobbyists as long. He has assured Israeli policymakers that he would make no public criticism of their actions, supported extra-judicial killings by the Israeli state, and touted his long-standing friendship with Benjamin Netanyahu.

In the lead up to the election, Raytheon Technologies CEO Gregory Hayes told CNBC, “Obviously there is a concern that defense spending will go way down if there is a Biden administration, but frankly I think that’s ridiculous.” Raytheon is known for supplying Israel with white phosphorus artillery shells and is the main contractor for the US military’s Iron Dome project on the US-Mexico border.

The hawkish record of the Obama-Biden administration toward Israel is well-known. After all, it was Barack Obama who doubled down on his party’s support for Israel during three major assaults on Gaza in 2009, 2012, and 2014. The last of these, Operation Protective Edge, continued for fifty days and resulted in over 2,000 Palestinian casualties, including 551 children.

The attack coincided with the 2014 Ferguson Uprising. The Obama administration’s response was similar in both cases: The White House insisted on condemning protesters, while issuing hollow rebukes of state violence. Two years later, the Obama administration, with Biden playing a leading role in negotiations, signed a ten-year, $38 billion military funding package with Israel.

Vice president visit to Israel January 13, 2014. (US embassy in Tel Aviv / Wikimedia Commons)

In case there was any question of the direction a Biden presidency will go in, the Biden/Harris 2020 website called Biden’s support for Israel “unstinting,” “stalwart,” “unshaking,” “unwavering,” “unbreakable.” The site reiterated Biden’s support for getting such “lifesaving technologies” for Israel like Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow 3 anti-rocket and missile defense systems.

Biden lauded his role in securing the “unprecedented $38 billion, ten-year memorandum of understanding for defense assistance to Israel … the largest such military aid package in U.S. history.” And of course, he proudly led efforts to oppose the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

A Reunified Lobby

But Biden has demonstrated one major advantage over Trump to Israel’s supporters. Trump’s presidency, by aggressively and publicly lining up with the most right-wing zionist causes, had undermined a bipartisan, pro-Israel consensus. His provocative approach has caused consternation among Zionists like Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who argued in the Times of Israel:

It is true that Trump has made decisions that many in our community have waited for, including his decision on Jerusalem, which I support. But these decisions have come at the cost of Trump’s frontal assault on bipartisan support for Israel, and some have been clothed in deeply offensive stereotypes about Jews and their ties to the Jewish state… Our community has an enormous stake in bipartisanship. It is the only way to combat anti-Semitism and bigotry. It is how we built a strong US-Israel alliance… Trump has damaged that necessary consensus, and we cannot permit Jews and Israel to be weaponized for anyone’s narrow political interests.

Now the pro-Israel lobby has reunified through the Biden campaign, from liberal zionists at J Street, to Democratic Majority for Israel (an AIPAC offshoot), to neoconservative Never Trumpers like Bill Kristol (who had criticized Barack Obama for not showing strong enough support of Israel, but has no such equivocation regarding Biden).

Joe Biden, Israel’s supporters believe, is best positioned to quell dissent within the Democratic Party ranks and resuscitate a liberal consensus behind support for Israel. As journalist Philip Weiss has argued: “Biden has quietly sold himself as a hawk who will end the politicization of Israel. He promises to reestablish the consensus on Israel support inside the Beltway and reassert the use of American force in the Middle East.”

On the campaign trail, Biden embraced that role, lecturing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for pulling out of an event to commemorate former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The Pro-Israel Consensus is Breaking

The Democratic Party establishment relies on the tacit acceptance of the lower rungs of the party and its liberal base to sustain its uncritical support for Israel. This will no longer be a simple and straightforward matter. A significant shift is occurring within sections of the Democratic Party on a number of issues, from health care and environmental justice to Palestine, an issue that’s long been avoided with no questions asked.

But for the past four years, the ranks of openly socialist and increasingly left-wing Democrats like members of “the Squad” have been growing in the halls of Congress. From state representatives Betty McCollum and Ilhan Omar, to a new wave of elected officials, Left legislators are taking on the question of Palestine — not as a depoliticized humanitarian mantra, but as an integral part of their message against racism and austerity.

Take for example Zohran Mamdani, among a group of socialists heading to the New York State Assembly. In a campaign e-mail sent out in May, only a few weeks before the primary, Mamdani openly commemorated the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of over 700,000 Palestinians in order to establish the Israeli state, and directly called out the US government’s “uncritical defense of Israel.”

In another compelling case, Cori Bush, a Democratic Socialists of America member running for the US House in Missouri’s district, defeated ten-term incumbent (and staunch Israel supporter) William Lacy Clay. Although she was running as an underdog in a contested race — one she lost in 2018 — her campaign released a bold statement reaffirming her commitment to Palestinian justice mere days before the primary in August: “Cori Bush has always been sympathetic to the BDS movement, and she stands in solidarity with the Palestinian people just as they have stood in solidarity with Black Americans fighting for their own lives.”

Demonstrators rallied in New York City’s Times Square before marching to the Israeli consulate-general, to protest the seventieth anniversary of al-Nakba. (Joe Catron / Flickr)

Cori Bush’s commitment to Palestinian liberation can be traced to the Ferguson protests, where Bush was a leading organizer and witnessed firsthand the outpouring of solidarity from Palestinians in the United States and Palestine. Palestinian support for the emerging Black Lives Matter movement was built on a legacy of Black-Palestine solidarity spanning decades. The 2016 Black Lives Matter policy platform openly called out US financial backing for Israel and its complicity “in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.”

Bush, Mamdani, and other democratic socialists that have recently won elections will join a small but growing chorus of elected officials advocating for Palestinian rights, who have already done much to shift the terrain of public discourse. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the first two Muslim women elected to congress, are both vocal supporters of BDS and among the most outspoken critics of both Israeli and US imperialism.

Alongside them, Rep. Alexandria Ocacsio-Cortez (AOC), a working-class, Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx who knows well the suffocating ramifications of US imperialism, has argued that “foreign policy is also domestic policy.” She has pushed for legislative action to defund Israel’s ongoing annexation of Palestinian land.

The growth and visibility of a left flank with the Democratic Party that supports Palestinians shows an important radicalization within the progressive movement. A movement which is beginning to see Palestine as inherently connected to the fight for social justice.

Anti-racist and immigrant struggles, as well as demands for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, are all held back by bloated Pentagon budgets and the US’s expansive web of military projects abroad. At the same time, the kind of solidarity that we saw between Ferguson protesters and Palestinian activists strengthens the power and effectiveness of the Left. AOC is right: US foreign policy does not exist in an isolated sphere of its own, but is in fact inseparable from domestic policy.

The cracks emerging within the Democratic Party on the question of Palestine reflect — and also help to advance — underlying changes in public opinion. The University of Maryland’s 2018 Critical Issues Poll laid bare some of these shifts. Among the most telling questions in the survey was one which asked whether respondents favored a Jewish state to a single democratic state with equal rights. Seventy-eight percent of Democratic respondents favored a single democratic state. Significantly, Jewish Americans, too, have been abandoning their identification with the Jewish state, despite some recent claims to the contrary.

The advances in public discourse, while significant, are not the same as victory. But they point to openings to push a bolder approach to Palestinian liberation. As we’ve argued: “it’s time we contend with the fact that most people today are far closer to understanding the integral ties between the injustices they are experiencing at home and those they are learning about in Palestine than ever before.”

The Democratic Party establishment’s core figures, from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, remain tied to bipartisan support for Israel and indifference to Palestinian lives. Their mission, along with new groups like Democratic Majority for Israel, is to strengthen and ensure the party’s continued allegiance to Israel’s settler-colonial project. They will try to bring the left flank in line, as they always have. But too much has changed for this to be guaranteed.

We are at a moment when we can and should expect elected officials to go beyond empty humanitarian rhetoric and push for more robust political transformation. The Left must make Palestine one of its priorities as the incoming Biden-Harris presidency attempts to bring back the hawkish status-quo.