Skip to content

How Israel/Palestine Became a Central Issue in US Politics

November 29, 2019

Alex Kane discusses how US-Israel relations evolved from a bipartisan to a partisan issue in recent years and how Israel/Palestine serves a symbol for other social struggles over social justice in the US

Alex Kane discusses how US-Israel relations evolved from a bipartisan to a partisan issue in recent years and how Israel/Palestine serves a symbol for other social struggles over social justice in the US


palesstine

Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

Recently, U.S. foreign policy towards Israel-Palestine has become a matter of mainstream political debate in a way that it rarely was previously. Presidential candidates such as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have brought the issue of how the U.S. should relate to Israel and Palestine to the forefront. Here are some recent examples of what Senator Sanders and Warren have said.

BERNIE SANDERS: The Palestinian people have a right to live in peace and security as well. And it is not–let me underline this because it will be misunderstood–it is not antisemitism to say that the Netanyahu government has been racist.

ELIZABETH WARREN: I will welcome the Palestinian General Delegation back to Washington and I will reopen an American mission to the Palestinians in Jerusalem. I will make clear that in a two-state agreement, both parties should be able to have their capitals in Jerusalem.

GREG WILPERT: And here are examples of remarks Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have made.

RASHIDA TLAIB: All I can do, as her granddaughter, is help humanize her and the Palestinian people’s plight. I know that when we can finally see them as deserving of human dignity, everyone who lives there will be able to live in peace.

ILHAN OMAR: Fortunately, we in the United States have a constructive role to play. We give Israel more than $3 million in aid every year. This is predicated on their being an important ally in the region and the only democracy in the Middle East. But denying visits to duly-elected members of Congress is not consistent with being an ally; and denying millions of people freedom of movement or expression or self-determination is not consistent with being a democracy.

GREG WILPERT: Also, Trump’s policies of recognizing the annexation of the Syrian Golan, cutting aid to Palestinians, of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the U.S. embassy and most recently, claiming that illegal colonies in the West Bank do not violate international law, these all show a change in U.S. policies that is also happening in the Republican Party. An article that was recently published in +972 Magazine sheds light on the reasons for why the Israel-Palestine issue has become so central to U.S. politics. The article is titled How Israel-Palestine Jumped to the Heart of U.S. Politics, written by Alex Kane.

Joining me now to discuss his article is Alex Kane. He’s a freelance journalist who writes on Israel-Palestine, civil liberties, Jewish communities in the U.S. and the war on terror. Thanks for joining us today, Alex.

ALEX KANE: Thanks for having me.

GREG WILPERT: In your article, you focus on the Democratic Party and you talk about the events of recent years that altered the U.S.-Israel relationship; such as the Israeli invasion of Gaza, the sour relationship between Netanyahu and Obama, and so on. Give us a brief summary of how these and other events have changed the Democratic Party’s approach towards Israel-Palestine.

ALEX KANE: This, the sort of modern change, begins I think with Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 when Israel bombed Gaza from the air and killed 1400 people; majority of them civilian. I think a lot of grassroots activists and progressives in the United States saw that and saw an Israel that was brutally bombing Palestinian civilians in Gaza. That was one start to how progressives and people who vote for the Democratic Party had begun to change their minds. Instead of seeing Israel as a sort of democracy and the U.S. ally, they saw Israel as an overwhelming military force pummeling a civilian population that’s under Israeli blockade. I think that you saw that in a lot of sort of demonstrations and protests, over large protests around the country for the 22 days that Israel bombed Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.

But the sort of high politics of that really heated up when Barack Obama came into office. Of course in the beginning, we had Obama attempting to forge a new path in the Middle East with his speech in Cairo in which he decried yes, Palestinian violence, but also Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank in Jerusalem. But the high watermark of this clash between Obama and Netanyahu was, of course, the Iran deal. This was President Obama’s signature foreign policy move, normalizing or attempting to begin to normalize relations between the United States and Iran with a deal that would remove U.S. sanctions and return for allowing Iran integration into the world economy as long as they give up their nuclear energy program.

Netanyahu, of course, was invited to Congress by the Republican Party to torpedo that deal. It failed, but the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu at that point was incredibly toxic. Even though Obama a year later gave Netanyahu $38 billion in U.S. weapons over the next 10 years, an agreement that is still being played out today, the relationship, the personal relationship trickled down to the grassroots of the Democratic Party. They began to see Netanyahu has just another Republican who’s essentially campaigning for Republican control.

GREG WILPERT: Now actually, I want to turn exactly to the Republican Party, which you have also in your article identified as a party of older and wealthier voters, but this party itself actually has also not remained static with regard to policies towards Israel-Palestine as Trump’s own policies show. Talk to us about why and how the Republican Party’s policies have changed.

ALEX KANE: Yeah. So interestingly, I think a lot of people forget that President Ronald Reagan suspended exports of U.S. munitions when Israel invaded Lebanon. And George H.W. Bush cut off what are called loan guarantees to Israel because Israel kept building settlements at a time when the first President Bush tried to jumpstart a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and eventually of course, did in the early 1990s.

That was a sort of Republican foreign policy that was more even-handed, I guess you could say, even though of course, overwhelmingly pro-Israel but still willing to sort of impose some consequences on Israeli governments that take steps that were not in line with U.S. foreign policy, which was inching towards pushing the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israeli government to negotiate towards an eventual two-state solution where an independent Palestinian state would be born.Today, the party has radically shifted to the right on Israel. A big part of that of course is the white evangelical Christian vote becoming more and more important to how the Republican Party wins elections.

And of course, you have a somewhat of a shift in the Jewish community, the right wing of the Jewish community, a minority of the Jewish community to be sure, but people like Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer. These are right wing members of the Jewish community who are incredibly hawkish on Israel. You see these, both the right wing elements of the Jewish community, giving a lot of donations to the Republican Party, and the white Christian evangelicals giving a lot of vote. And of course, white Christian evangelicals believed that Israel has been blessed by God, that it is sort of a religious mandate to support Israel and of course, to support Israeli settlements in the biblical heartland, which is what Christian evangelicals and Jewish settlers called Judea and Samaria or as we as non-evangelicals would say the occupied West Bank.

GREG WILPERT: Actually, I want to turn to the progressive Jewish communities in the U.S. You wrote about Jewish Voices for Peace, which is clearly on the side of BDS and of ending U.S. aid to Israel. Do you also see shifts in other Jewish American groups and their stance towards Israel-Palestine, for example, such as the J Street?

ALEX KANE: Netanyahu is also a big part of this shift. I think it’s fair to say the majority of American Jews were brought up to see Israel as a haven for Jews, particularly of course, after the Holocaust, when Jews were persecuted and genocide was committed against them, and Israel was seen as a haven for them, a safe place and a democracy that was a key ally of the United States. This alliance between the American Jewish community and Israel really intensified after 1967 when Israel was seen as a sort of underdog that miraculously conquered the invading Arab armies.

The real history is more complicated than that, but this is how American Jews saw it. It cemented a bond between American Jews who are overwhelmingly liberal and vote in the Democratic Party and Israel, which is where you see in part the Democratic Party’s consensus on Israel come from. But as Israel shifted to the right, particularly in the Netanyahu era, as Netanyahu became more belligerent towards Palestinians building Israeli settlements, scuttling any chance of an independent Palestinian state and fear-mongering over Iran to the point where he would join forces with the Republican Party and essentially spit in the face of most American Jews who vote Democrat. this relationship began to shift.

Today, we see that the majority of American Jews do not believe Israel should be building settlements in the occupied West Bank, do not believe Israel should be sort of essentially taking policies that scuttle any chance of an independent Palestinian state. They still, I think the majority of American Jews who are liberal, remain in the Democratic Party, still see Israel as an ally and as an important country in the world. That’s where you get, that kind of view is most expressed in sort of J street who supports Israel as a Jewish and democratic state but wants the U.S. to criticize Israel when it does things like build settlements or take hawkish positions on Iran that may increase tensions in the region. But you also have a younger flank of Jews, like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now, who are really, they’re not afraid to criticize Israel.

Jewish Voice for Peace of course, they’re the one Jewish group that endorses Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which remains incredibly controversial within the establishment Jewish community. And then you have If Not Now, which was founded by former members of J Street, of J Street U. They saw an opportunity to take direct action against American-Jewish institutions that are complicit in Israel’s occupation. You have a number of different blocks within the American Jewish community. J Street, If Not Now, JVP. They’re all different. but I would say they’re all united in seeking to change the contours of the U.S. relationship with Israel.

GREG WILPERT: Now finally, I just want to turn briefly to something that you already mentioned but that’s the role of Benjamin Netanyahu. You mentioned in your article that Republicans back in 2015 considered him to be the most important world leader. Now though, that Israel is enmeshed in a political crisis with Netanyahu facing severe corruption charges, does this affect the value that Netanyahu has as a symbol for the U.S.-Israeli alliance?

ALEX KANE: Yeah, it does. But the fact that he remains in power makes Netanyahu a very salient player today. You saw after Netanyahu fail once again to form a coalition, that Trump was sort of distancing himself from Netanyahu, perhaps preparing for a post-Netanyahu era, which was quite different than the sort of body language and close kind of bear hug that both leaders were engaging in immediately after Trump was elected and until Netanyahu’s political failure.

If Netanyahu is off the stage, I don’t think that really, at the end of the day, will impact how the Netanyahu era has influenced the Democratic Party’s relationship to Israel. I think Netanyahu has cemented an image in the minds of progressive Democrats that Israel is an occupying force that needs to be reined in. That said, there are certainly members of the establishment of the Democratic Party that really want Netanyahu to leave, have someone like Benny Gantz come in and restore the sort of commonality between the Democratic Party and Israel that was apparent sort of before Netanyahu was the prime minister for the past decade.

Yes, I think it will impact it for some elements of the Democratic Party, but when you get to the progressives, the grassroots, they will, I think, continue to see Israel as a force that should not be such a close ally of the United States until at least it ends its occupation.

GREG WILPERT: Very interesting. Well, we’re going to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Alex Kane, freelance journalist for +972 Magazine, The Intercept, Mondoweiss and Middle East Eye among others. Thanks again, Alex, for having joined us today.

ALEX KANE: Thank you.

GREG WILPERT: Thank you for joining The Real News Network.