Democrats Are Out of Step with Their Base on Israel-Palestine
Ali Abunimah of The Electronic Intifada says Democratic politicians, even progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are out of touch with their supporters when it comes to defending Palestinian rights
Aaron Maté: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Mate.
A recent piece on AlterNet asked the question: “Is it true that not a single senator, even Bernie Sanders, cares about the Palestinian plight?” The reason for this question is a letter recently sent to the UN complaining of an anti-Israel bias. It was signed by every single member of the US Senate, including progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. It also complains about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement that seeks to pressure Israel to comply with international law. Well, to discuss the state of Palestine discourse in US politics right now, I spoke recently to Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada.
Now, Ali, on the issue of the two-state/one-state solution, there was just a new poll out of American public opinion that shows some evolving public attitudes towards the Israel-Palestine conflict, and one of the findings was that 37% of Americans favor a two-state solution, but a growing number of Americans actually say they would prefer a single, democratic state, and you wrote about this result at your website, the Electronic Intifada. Can you talk about what this poll signals?
Ali Abunimah: Yeah, I think this is an interesting and important poll commissioned by professors Shibley Telhami and Stella Rouse at the University of Maryland of over 2000 Americans on key foreign policy issues. The most striking finding is that two in five Americans now support sanctions, economic sanctions, or tougher measures against Israel over its settlements in the occupied West Bank, and that number goes up to more than 50%, 56%, among Democrats, which is striking given that not one Democrat in Congress supports sanctions. And that, by the way, includes Bernie Sanders who signed this ridiculous letter from 100 senators claiming that Israel is being singled out for special mistreatment at the UN. It really shows this growing disconnect between the American public and the American political class where the American public are really ready to see a much tougher stance towards Israel.
The second really striking number coming out of this poll is that the majority of Americans want the United States to be even-handed between the Israelis and Palestinians, but they do not see the US doing that. They see the US being biased towards Israel. Again, the American public shows a much more sensible approach saying that if the US wants to have a role, it should be even handed.
Then, I think the findings regarding one and two states are very interesting because, as you noted, they show that almost the same number of Americans favor a one-state solution as a two-state solution, but here’s where it gets even more interesting. By something close to two-thirds, Americans say that if there is not gonna be a two-state solution — and it’s looking like that’s getting ever more unlikely — if there’s not gonna be a two-state solution, they overwhelmingly, by a two-thirds majority, support a single, democratic state where everyone has equal rights. A very small number, single digits, support what Israel actually seems to be doing, which is moving towards annexing the West Bank without giving Palestinian rights. So what this shows is that the vast majority of the American public will not tolerate Israeli apartheid. The question is: What can be done to bring the political class up to where the American public is?
Aaron Maté: This letter that you mentioned earlier that was signed by every single member of the US Senate also singles out BDS. Were you surprised to see it signed by progressives in the Senate, including Bernie Sanders, who, on the campaign trail, voiced some substantial support for Palestinian rights, which is extremely rare in mainstream US political discourse?
Ali Abunimah: I wish I could say I was surprised. I’ll say I’m disappointed, but I’m not in any way surprised. I mean, the two progressives who are mentioned in this context are Bernie Sanders, as you just said, and Elizabeth Warren. I mean, let’s be clear about Elizabeth Warren. She has never in her history, as far as I know, said anything remotely critical of Israel or anything remotely in support of Palestinian rights. So, absolutely you would expect to see Elizabeth Warren’s name at the top of any letter circulated by an Israel lobby group. No surprise there. She is the stereotypical progressive except Palestine.
As for Bernie Sanders, that is definitely disappointing because Sanders had started from a very bad position a couple of years ago. You may remember the notorious video of him during the 2014 war on Gaza shouting down his constituents who were challenging him over this, and he was defending Israel’s horrific attack on Gaza. But during the campaign, because of the changing mood at the grassroots of the Democratic Party and the growth of Palestine solidarity in the United States, they did push Bernie Sanders in a better direction, and we actually saw him challenging Hillary Clinton in a primetime debate for being too pro-Israel. That was something unprecedented.
Bernie Sanders: But in the long run, if we are ever going to bring peace to that region, which has seen so much hatred and so much war, we are gonna have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.
Ali Abunimah: So it’s really disappointing to see Bernie Sanders regress to this absurd position, which claims falsely that Israel is being singled out at the United Nations in a letter which repeats a number of talking points from Israel and the lobby groups that have absolutely no basis in reality. I don’t know why Bernie Sanders thinks that would be a good direction to go. As we mentioned, that University of Maryland poll now shows that the majority of Democrats support sanctions on Israel, and Bernie Sanders is now running away from the base of the Democratic Party. I don’t know if it’s part of a quid pro quo with Tom Perez, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, who Bernie was competing against for that post, and then Perez appointed Sanders as his deputy. So maybe they made some quid pro quo there that Sanders would tone down any statements that are critical of Israel, but it’s very disappointing and I think that the people, the activists, who’ve been pushing the Democratic Party are gonna look at that with some disappointment that Sanders would move in the wrong direction and away from the base of the party.
Aaron Maté: There was a piece in the New York Review of Books last fall by Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group, who knows the region very well, and he was talking about the Obama administration’s deliberations around Israel in its final months and whether it was going to allow for a resolution at the UN. He wrote that one consideration for the administration was just allowing something symbolic because they didn’t want to push through something costly to donors of the Democratic Party. I wonder how big of a factor that is right now in Democratic politics, especially for all those jockeying for a presidential nomination slot in 2020.
Ali Abunimah: Well, it has to be a factor, and in the last election cycle we were presented with two models. That was the Hillary Clinton model reliant on big donors and party apparatchiks and party bigwigs, and Hillary Clinton had received, or her political action committee supporting her campaign had received, more than $6 million, I think it was, from Haim Saban, the Israeli-American billionaire who went on record publicly saying that his main concern was to influence American policy to be even more favorable toward Israel, and Haim Saban is a big donor to the Democratic National Committee. So, that’s one model. The other model was the Bernie Sanders model, which said, “We’re not gonna be reliant on big donors. We’re going to build a grassroots movement that is built up with donations averaging $27,” and that freed Sanders to challenge the establishment and to challenge the status quo, and really to do far better than anyone expected. The question now is: Are we seeing Sanders signing up to the old Democratic National Committee model, which has so clearly failed?
Aaron Maté: Finally, Ali, next month is the fiftieth anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As this occupation turns half a century old, what most concerns you right now about the situation on the ground in the occupied territories?
Ali Abunimah: What should concern us all is that for 50 years, since 1967, in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Israel has been able to rampage unchecked whether is its repeated massacres in Gaza, and its Israeli military officials have been making noises that they may be getting ready to strike Gaza again at some point, they talk periodically about — they use this horrific euphemism — mowing the lawn, and in the West Bank Israel’s aggressive colonization, theft of Palestinian land for settlement, and all of this is possible because of the complicity of governments. First and foremost the United States, but let’s not forget about the European Union, and Arab regimes, and many others as well, who are complicit with Israel’s crimes. In Gaza, the siege has reduced the society there to a desperate and very vulnerable condition where people are not even able to recover from the success of Israeli assaults, and now you have people, families, children, who are without electricity sometimes for 20 hours a day. Imagine your life without electricity for 20 hours a day. This is entirely the product of Israel’s policies and the international complicity with them.
So, I don’t like to mark anniversaries like this. I like to spend all my time working to make sure there are no more anniversaries and I think that the best way to do that is to escalate. Israel has made it very clear that the thing it fears most is an escalation of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions because people around the world are fed up of this and they want to translate their support to the Palestinian struggle and to real political action and pressure. It worked with apartheid South Africa. Boycotts work in America. People use boycotts all the time. This is a legitimate political tactic. Why should Israel be singled out for special impunity and exempt from any kind of pressure and activism? That’s the message that Palestinians are giving: boycott, divest, sanction, show your solidarity with the prisoners, tell Congress.
By the way, one thing we didn’t mention, right now in Congress there is yet another effort to crush the Palestine solidarity movement, the so-called Israel Anti-Boycott Bill, and so people should be telling their members of Congress, just as they’re telling them don’t vote to repeal the already weak protections in the healthcare law, also don’t support these Israel lobby-backed efforts to restrict free speech and to try to clamp down on Palestine solidarity activism. So there are lots of things people can be doing.
Aaron Maté: Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine. Ali, thank you.
Ali Abunimah: Thank you, Aaron.
Aaron Maté: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.