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.
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.