Trump’s Far-Right Israel Stance Creates an Opening for the Left

But congressional Democrats won’t act without a push.

Stephen Zunes

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu hold a joint press conference in the White House on February 15. (Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It was a sur­re­al scene: On Feb­ru­ary 15, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Netanyahu met in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. and spoke of their shared val­ues” which have advanced the cause of human free­dom, dig­ni­ty and peace,” while at the same time retreat­ing from the long­stand­ing call for a two-state solu­tion to the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian conflict.

Democrats who support Israel uncritically must either be convinced to change or be replaced.

Trump’s appointee for ambas­sador to Israel, David Fried­man has also insist­ed the Unit­ed States should end the two-state nar­ra­tive” and claims that even mod­er­ate Zion­ist groups like J Street, which sup­port an end to the occu­pa­tion, are far worse than kapos — Jews who turned in their fel­low Jews in the Nazi death camps.”

Many pro­gres­sives believe — as a result of ongo­ing Israeli col­o­niza­tion of land that Pales­tini­ans would need to have a viable state of their own — that a sin­gle shared state may be the best and most real­is­tic solu­tion. But the one-state” solu­tion Trump and Netanyahu now speak of is unlike­ly to be a demo­c­ra­t­ic bi-nation­al state where Israeli Jews and Pales­tin­ian Arabs have equal rights. Instead, Trump and Netanyahu’s solu­tion would effec­tive­ly be an apartheid state, where Israel would main­tain its con­trol over the Pales­tin­ian pop­u­la­tion indefinitely.

While the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion refused to take any con­crete actions, such as tar­get­ed sanc­tions, to stop the expan­sion of set­tle­ments, its pub­lic crit­i­cisms of Israel may have had at least some impact in curb­ing the extent of their expan­sion in the occu­pied ter­ri­to­ries. But the new admin­is­tra­tion is aban­don­ing even those crit­i­cisms. Trump appears to be reject­ing the long-held inter­na­tion­al con­sen­sus that Israeli col­o­niza­tion of the Pales­tin­ian West Bank and East Jerusalem is both ille­gal and an obsta­cle to peace, and pledged to block any inter­na­tion­al action to pre­vent it.

This gives par­tic­u­lar urgency for peace and human rights activists to chal­lenge U.S. pol­i­cy toward Israel and Pales­tine — and giv­en Trump’s unpop­u­lar­i­ty and the far-right extrem­ism of his stances, it cre­ates an open­ing to shift the terms of debate.

A Bipar­ti­san Consensus

For years, the Unit­ed States has been in the con­tra­dic­to­ry role of being the sole medi­a­tor in the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict and the pri­ma­ry mil­i­tary, finan­cial and diplo­mat­ic sup­port­er of the more pow­er­ful of the two par­ties. At this point, with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion effec­tive­ly endors­ing a per­ma­nent Israeli occu­pa­tion, there should no longer even be the pre­tense that the Unit­ed States is an hon­est broker.”

The Pales­tin­ian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Abbas, the Pales­tin­ian Author­i­ty and the Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Orga­ni­za­tion have long rec­og­nized Israel with­in its inter­na­tion­al­ly accept­ed bor­ders, which encom­pass 78% of his­toric Pales­tine, and agreed to a mini-state com­pris­ing only the ter­ri­to­ries seized by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. How­ev­er, as the remain­ing Pales­tin­ian pop­u­la­tion cen­ters in East Jerusalem and the West Bank have become sur­round­ed by large Israeli set­tle­ment blocs, the cre­ation of a viable con­tigu­ous Pales­tin­ian state along­side Israel is becom­ing increas­ing­ly problematic.

If chang­ing demo­graph­ics makes the cre­ation of a viable Pales­tin­ian state along­side Israel impos­si­ble, Pales­tini­ans would have no choice but to demand equal rights with­in a greater Israel. Israelis would then have to decide whether to remain a Jew­ish state, in which non-Jew­ish Pales­tini­ans are sec­ond-class cit­i­zens, or become a tru­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic state, in which both peo­ples par­tic­i­pate in gov­er­nance on equal foot­ing. They could no longer claim to be both. This real­i­ty was rec­og­nized by then-Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry’s address on Dec. 28, 2016— an address that was strong­ly denounced by the Israeli gov­ern­ment, the Repub­li­cans and many con­gres­sion­al Democrats.

That even Kerry’s rel­a­tive­ly mod­er­ate obser­va­tion was opposed by mem­bers of both major U.S. par­ty estab­lish­ments shouldn’t be surprising.

The Repub­li­can Party’s 2016 plat­form not only fails to sup­port the estab­lish­ment of a Pales­tin­ian state along­side a secure Israel, as it had in pre­vi­ous years, it puts the par­ty in oppo­si­tion to vir­tu­al­ly the entire inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty by pro­claim­ing Repub­li­cans reject the false notion that Israel is an occu­pi­er.” It also insists that Israel stands out among the nations as a bea­con of democ­ra­cy and human­i­ty,” that sup­port for Israel is an expres­sion of Amer­i­can­ism,” and that there should be no day­light between Amer­i­ca and Israel.”

The plat­form also declares that the Unit­ed States should with­hold fund­ing from the Unit­ed Nations, the World Court or any oth­er inter­na­tion­al author­i­ty that attempts to pres­sure Israel to with­draw or impose any kind of peace settlement.

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has already put this extreme anti-Pales­tin­ian posi­tion into action. In ear­ly Feb­ru­ary, the Unit­ed States blocked the appoint­ment of for­mer Pales­tin­ian Prime Min­is­ter Salam Fayyad, a pro-West­ern mod­er­ate, to become the UN Sec­re­tary General’s Spe­cial Envoy to help resolve the con­flict in Libya — sim­ply because he was Palestinian.

Iron­i­cal­ly, this right­ward shift in U.S. pol­i­cy comes at a time when pub­lic opin­ion has nev­er been more mod­er­ate. This is an area where the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty could take some lead­er­ship in dis­tin­guish­ing itself from Trump and the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Con­gress on a key for­eign pol­i­cy issue. How­ev­er, it appears unlike­ly that this will hap­pen any time soon.

For exam­ple, the 2016 Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty plat­form—while sup­port­ing the con­cept of a two-state solu­tion in the­o­ry — insists it could only come on Israeli terms through direct nego­ti­a­tions, ignor­ing how the gross asym­me­try in pow­er between the occu­py­ing pow­er and those under occu­pa­tion pro­vides lit­tle incen­tive for Israel’s rightwing gov­ern­ment to com­pro­mise. Not only did the plat­form refuse to oppose or even acknowl­edge the occu­pa­tion and set­tle­ments, it crit­i­cized the Unit­ed Nations and civ­il soci­ety move­ments for their efforts to stop them, while prais­ing Israel’s sup­posed com­mit­ment to equal­i­ty, tol­er­ance and pluralism.”

There is prob­a­bly no issue where elect­ed Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty offi­cials take posi­tions so far to the right of their con­stituents. Polls show most Democ­rats believe the Unit­ed States should impose sanc­tions or even more stren­u­ous mea­sures against Israel to stop the expan­sion of ille­gal set­tle­ments. Yet when Oba­ma refused to veto a mild­ly word­ed and large­ly sym­bol­ic UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion crit­i­cal of Israel’s col­o­niza­tion dri­ve, most con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats vot­ed for a res­o­lu­tion crit­i­ciz­ing the pres­i­dent. A major­i­ty of rank-and-file Democ­rats believe the Unit­ed States should sup­port the Unit­ed Nations for­mal­ly rec­og­niz­ing the State of Pales­tine, but the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of Con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats have gone on record insist­ing the Unit­ed States should veto such a measure.

In fact, Democ­rats in Con­gress have joined bipar­ti­san majori­ties this past year pass­ing a series of bills and res­o­lu­tions defin­ing Israel” as includ­ing ter­ri­to­ries con­trolled by Israel.” Such a legal rede­f­i­n­i­tion of what con­sti­tutes Israel” has in large part been designed to make it more dif­fi­cult to oppose the Israeli occu­pa­tion or col­o­niza­tion of the West Bank, such as through boy­cotting or even sim­ply label­ing prod­ucts pro­duced in ille­gal settlements.

The list goes on: Eighty per­cent of Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers believe the Unit­ed States should at least be neu­tral (some even said the U.S. should favor Pales­tini­ans) in the peace process, yet the vot­ing records and state­ments of con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats near-uni­ver­sal­ly favor Israel. Less than one-third of reg­is­tered Democ­rats believed that Israel’s actions dur­ing the 2014 war on Gaza were jus­ti­fied, yet con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats joined Repub­li­cans in back­ing a series of res­o­lu­tions by unan­i­mous con­sent giv­ing uncon­di­tion­al sup­port for the Israeli offensive.

This dis­con­nect between the Demo­c­ra­t­ic rank-and-file and their elect­ed lead­er­ship is grow­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly giv­en that younger Amer­i­cans take a far more crit­i­cal, or at least more bal­anced, view of Israel than old­er Amer­i­cans. The move­ment on col­lege cam­pus­es in sup­port for boy­cotts, divest­ment and sanc­tions (BDS) against the Israeli occu­pa­tion has sup­port com­pa­ra­ble to sim­i­lar cam­paigns on South Africa thir­ty years ago, yet Democ­rats in both Wash­ing­ton and in state capi­tols have joined Repub­li­cans in denounc­ing BDS as anti-Semit­ic,” alien­at­ing many up-and-com­ing activists whose sup­port they will need in future campaigns.

Going on Offense

As with Viet­nam, Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, the nuclear arms race, South Africa, East Tim­or and Iraq, this could sim­ply be anoth­er case where there is a lag time between when anti-war/pro-human rights sen­ti­ments first take hold among rank-and-file Democ­rats and when these sen­ti­ments lead to chang­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty pol­i­cy, and even­tu­al­ly U.S. pol­i­cy. So, it should be pos­si­ble to even­tu­al­ly force the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to sup­port a pol­i­cy on Israel/​Palestine more con­sis­tent with human rights and inter­na­tion­al law. Indeed, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s cam­paign shat­tered the myth that a seri­ous Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date could not take a more bal­anced stance on Israel and Palestine.

Israel will not end its occu­pa­tion, col­o­niza­tion, and repres­sion in the Pales­tin­ian ter­ri­to­ries as long as it con­tin­ues to receive uncon­di­tion­al mil­i­tary, finan­cial and diplo­mat­ic sup­port from the Unit­ed States. Wash­ing­ton will not end its mil­i­tary, finan­cial and diplo­mat­ic sup­port for the Israeli gov­ern­ment as long as con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats con­tin­ue to sup­port the administration’s right-wing policies.

And the Democ­rats will not end their sup­port for the administration’s poli­cies until pro­gres­sives, peace activists and human right advo­cates make end­ing the Israeli occu­pa­tion a pri­or­i­ty. These groups could counter the per­ceived clout of the pro-Israel lob­by and pro-occu­pa­tion cam­paign con­trib­u­tors by form­ing a com­mit­ted anti-occu­pa­tion bloc ded­i­cat­ed to oppos­ing mem­bers of Con­gress and can­di­dates for fed­er­al office who sup­port the Israeli occu­pa­tion and relat­ed vio­la­tions of inter­na­tion­al human­i­tar­i­an law.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, some pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions have con­tin­ued to endorse even some of the most hard­line Demo­c­ra­t­ic sup­port­ers of Israel’s right-wing gov­ern­ment, effec­tive­ly over­look­ing the sort of hawk­ish for­eign pol­i­cy posi­tions that would have been seen as unac­cept­able dur­ing pri­or strug­gles against U.S. pol­i­cy in Iraq, Cen­tral Amer­i­ca and elsewhere.

Tar­get­ing anti-Pales­tin­ian can­di­dates is not a sin­gle-issue approach. Rather, it is a mat­ter of con­sis­ten­cy, of apply­ing pro­gres­sive prin­ci­ples of human rights and inter­na­tion­al law in Israel and Pales­tine in the same way that ear­li­er like-mind­ed activists approached Viet­nam, Nicaragua, El Sal­vador, South Africa and East Tim­or. In the 1980s, for exam­ple, orga­niz­ers protest­ed the offices of Death Squad Democ­rats” who sup­port­ed Rea­gan’s polices in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca. Today, any polit­i­cal office-hold­er or can­di­date who advo­cates uncon­di­tion­al sup­port for a right-wing gov­ern­ment engaged in a per­sis­tent pat­tern of gross and sys­tem­at­ic vio­la­tions of human rights and inter­na­tion­al law should not be con­sid­ered pro­gres­sive except Pales­tine,” as some describe them. They aren’t pro­gres­sive, peri­od, and must either be con­vinced to change or be replaced.

The way to cre­ate such a move­ment is to avoid get­ting bogged down in ide­o­log­i­cal debates over the nature of Zion­ism or about con­flict­ing his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives or past atroc­i­ties, but to focus on human rights and inter­na­tion­al law. Most Amer­i­cans are sym­pa­thet­ic toward these nor­ma­tive val­ues of peace and jus­tice, and in past strug­gles they’ve proven a pow­er­ful tool. Whether the solu­tion should be one state or two is a legit­i­mate ques­tion, but what­ev­er the answer, the move­ment must empha­size the need to rec­og­nize that both Israeli Jews and Pales­tin­ian Arabs have equal rights that must be acknowl­edged and defended.

It should no longer be accept­able for pro-Demo­c­ra­t­ic groups to avoid address­ing Israel/​Palestine because it is sup­pos­ed­ly com­pli­cat­ed.” Instead the move­ment can empha­size that the sit­u­a­tion is not excep­tion­al, that this is yet anoth­er case of the Unit­ed States aid­ing and abet­ting a repres­sive right-wing ally engag­ing in gross and sys­tem­at­ic vio­la­tions of inter­na­tion­al legal norms.

By empha­siz­ing the same kind of pro-peace and pro-human rights agen­da that result­ed in stop­ping U.S. sup­port for oth­er repres­sive gov­ern­ments and occu­pa­tions, move­ments like BDS are more like­ly to be under­stood and accept­ed by the main­stream as advanc­ing a con­sis­tent agen­da for peace and jus­tice — and thus more like­ly they can force a change in U.S. policy.

While alle­ga­tions that pro­gres­sives unfair­ly sin­gle out” Israel are often unfound­ed, a broad­er anti-mil­i­tarist and pro-human rights cam­paign might include call­ing for an end to U.S. arms trans­fers to Israel, Sau­di Ara­bia and all gov­ern­ments that vio­late human rights. It could do more to chal­lenge those ele­ments of the far Left who real­ly do ratio­nal­ize human rights abus­es by per­ceived anti-impe­ri­al­ist” actors like Syr­ia. And it could expand the BDS cam­paign to include Morocco’s occu­pa­tion of West­ern Sahara, the only oth­er case of a UN-rec­og­nized non-self-gov­ern­ing coun­try suf­fer­ing under a for­eign bel­liger­ent occupation.

While a pletho­ra of oth­er urgent issues brought to the fore by Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion could dis­tract activists from the plight of the Pales­tini­ans, the strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties between Trump and Netanyahu — dis­crim­i­na­to­ry prac­tices towards Mus­lims, the defense of war crimes in the name of fight­ing ter­ror­ism, close ties to the reli­gious right, mil­i­tarism, ultra-nation­al­ism, intol­er­ance of dis­sent, oppo­si­tion to the Unit­ed Nations and more — could help build broad­er alliances against their two administrations.

As a result, the elec­tion of the most right-wing gov­ern­ment in mod­ern Amer­i­can his­to­ry might para­dox­i­cal­ly allow for Amer­i­cans to see the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict in a new light. The stark­ness of Trump’s poli­cies could break down the bipar­ti­san con­sen­sus in sup­port of the occu­pa­tion and end the polit­i­cal mar­gin­al­iza­tion of pro-Pales­tin­ian activists, draw­ing atten­tion to the under­ly­ing racism of deny­ing a con­quered peo­ple their fun­da­men­tal rights. And a renewed peace move­ment could draw on the tra­di­tion of past for­eign pol­i­cy strug­gles to paint the con­flict in sim­pler terms: Those who sup­port peace, human rights, inter­na­tion­al law and self-deter­mi­na­tion ver­sus those who do not.

Stephen Zunes is a pro­fes­sor of Pol­i­tics and Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of San Fran­cis­co. Read more of his work at stephen​zunes​.org.
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