Biden Promises a Return to the Obama Era. That’s Bad News for Palestinians.

A campaign built on nostalgia is no comfort for those who are not at all nostalgic for the Obama administration.

Alex Kane August 6, 2020

Barack Obama and Joe Biden wave after accepting the nomination during the final day of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 6, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Joe Biden is run­ning a cam­paign of restora­tion. The pre­sump­tive Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee nev­er tires of say­ing he wants to restore the soul of the nation,” or of invok­ing his time as vice-pres­i­dent under Barack Obama.

The Biden campaign’s throwback plan on Israel is most evident in how it approaches the over $3 billion in military aid the United States sends to Israel every year.

It’s com­fort­ing rhetoric for many Democ­rats, a way to dream about return­ing to a time before Don­ald Trump.

But for Pales­tini­ans and their allies, Biden’s plan to return Amer­i­ca to the Oba­ma era is a fright­en­ing prospect. With few ques­tions asked, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion armed Israel and blocked efforts to hold Israel account­able in inter­na­tion­al forums. A Biden pres­i­den­cy promis­es to fol­low the same path on Pales­tine — and Pales­tini­ans will pay the price.

Amid his nos­tal­gic cam­paign, Biden has man­aged to promise some change: He’s pledged to invest near­ly $2 tril­lion to com­bat cli­mate change, backed some crim­i­nal jus­tice reforms and says he wants the min­i­mum wage to be raised to $15 an hour.

But on U.S. pol­i­cy towards Israel-Pales­tine, Biden has giv­en no indi­ca­tion he would change a thing from his pre­vi­ous time in the exec­u­tive branch.

Biden wants to reverse some of the Trump administration’s attacks on Pales­tini­ans by restor­ing human­i­tar­i­an aid and secu­ri­ty assis­tance to Palestinians.

He would also stick to the long-stand­ing Wash­ing­ton con­sen­sus on Israel: back nego­ti­a­tions between Pales­tini­ans and Israelis to reach a two-state solu­tion and rhetor­i­cal­ly oppose Israeli set­tle­ment activ­i­ty, but nev­er sanc­tion Israel for its theft of Pales­tin­ian land.

Biden will con­tin­ue to let Israel do what it wants and at the same time sug­ar-coat it — he’s a wolf in sheep’s cloth­ing,” said Huwai­da Arraf, a Pales­tin­ian-Amer­i­can human rights attor­ney and Bernie Sanders del­e­gate to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion. Under the guise of a peace process, he’ll blame the Pales­tini­ans while hor­rors are being com­mit­ted by Israel.”

The Biden campaign’s throw­back plan on Israel is most evi­dent in how it approach­es the over $3 bil­lion in mil­i­tary aid the Unit­ed States sends to Israel every year.

Through­out the 2020 cam­paign sea­son, pro­gres­sives have called on can­di­dates to endorse con­di­tion­ing U.S. mil­i­tary aid to Israel. Such a pol­i­cy would bar Israel from using U.S. mil­i­tary fund­ing to car­ry out demo­li­tions of Pales­tin­ian homes and arrests of Pales­tin­ian chil­dren. Biden, how­ev­er, called the idea of con­di­tion­ing aid bizarre.”

Instead, Biden has pledged to uphold the Oba­ma administration’s com­mit­ment to giv­ing Israel $38 bil­lion in mil­i­tary aid over the next decade with no strings attached. The U.S. weapons Israel buys with that mon­ey go towards bomb­ing Gaza, the coastal enclave under a dev­as­tat­ing Israeli block­ade, and main­tain­ing Israel’s vio­lent mil­i­tary rule over mil­lions of Pales­tini­ans. Dur­ing Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, U.S.-made Hell­fire mis­siles, artillery shells and Mark 84 bombs killed scores of Pales­tin­ian civil­ians in Gaza.

The Biden cam­paign has also pledged to block UN efforts to hold Israel account­able. This cam­paign plank, too, is noth­ing new: In 2009, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion stopped efforts to refer the find­ings of the UN Gold­stone Report, which found Israel com­mit­ted war crimes in its 2009 war in Gaza, to the Inter­na­tion­al Crim­i­nal Court. In 2011, Susan Rice, Obama’s ambas­sador to the UN — and today a lead­ing con­tender to be Biden’s vice-pres­i­dent—vetoed a UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing Israeli set­tle­ments built on Pales­tin­ian land.

But it’s not just Biden’s pol­i­cy pledges that promise more of the same destruc­tive poli­cies on Israel. It’s also his advisers.

His chief for­eign pol­i­cy advis­er is Tony Blinken, Biden’s for­mer Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advis­er and a for­mer Deputy Sec­re­tary of State. Blinken was part of the State Depart­ment team that helped nego­ti­ate the 2016 Mem­o­ran­dum of Under­stand­ing that com­mit­ted the Unit­ed States to send­ing bil­lions in mil­i­tary aid to Israel. The Biden cam­paign has dis­patched Blinken as an emis­sary to explain Biden’s Israel posi­tions. In a July call with Arab-Amer­i­can activists, Blinken said Biden oppos­es any effort to dele­git­imize or unfair­ly sin­gle out Israel, whether it’s at the Unit­ed Nations or through the BDS move­ment.” Dur­ing a May call with Demo­c­ra­t­ic Major­i­ty for Israel, an AIPAC-linked lob­by group com­mit­ted to stop­ping pro­gres­sives from chang­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty pol­i­cy on Israel, Blinken said Biden would nev­er con­di­tion U.S. mil­i­tary aid to Israel.

It’s not only Blinken who has Pales­tin­ian rights activists dis­s­a­point­ed. Two Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion fig­ures, for­mer U.S. ambas­sador to Israel Dan Shapiro and for­mer Under­sec­re­tary of State Wendy Sher­man, played key roles in draft­ing the DNC plat­form lan­guage on Israel. The result was ugly: The plat­form did not men­tion the words Israeli occu­pa­tion” and endorsed the Oba­ma administration’s mil­i­tary aid agree­ment with Israel. The DNC also reject­ed amend­ments to the plat­form lan­guage that called on the Unit­ed States to con­di­tion aid to Israel so that US mon­ey doesn’t sub­si­dize Israeli human rights abuses.

But while the Biden cam­paign isn’t giv­ing Pales­tin­ian rights activists a rea­son to cheer, their out­look isn’t all grim. If Biden wins the White House, he will be con­fronting a slow­ly-grow­ing pro­gres­sive bloc of law­mak­ers who do want to con­di­tion U.S. mil­i­tary aid to Israel.

That is where the hope is, if we con­tin­ue to elect pro­gres­sives into offices that are going to help change the debate,” said Arraf, the Pales­tin­ian-Amer­i­can human rights lawyer.

In June, as fears grew about Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Netanyahu’s plan to for­mal­ly annex West Bank set­tle­ments to Israel, 13 law­mak­ers, led by Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.), signed a let­ter pledg­ing to with­hold some US mil­i­tary aid if Israel car­ries out annex­a­tion. It also warned that annex­a­tion would lead to Israel becom­ing an apartheid state,” unusu­al­ly strong lan­guage from Demo­c­ra­t­ic mem­bers of Congress.

The let­ter was a sign of how embold­ened pro­gres­sives are becom­ing on Israel. If there’s one thing that’s clear about a Biden White House, it’s that he will do his best not to fol­low these pro­gres­sives’ lead. But a clash over U.S. fund­ing of Israeli human rights abus­es may come any­way. The Biden White House will have to con­tend with a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty that doesn’t take its cues from Oba­ma-aligned Democ­rats. Pro­gres­sives will be look­ing to see if Biden can be forced to change.

Alex Kane is a New York-based free­lance jour­nal­ist who writes on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy in the Mid­dle East.
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