Progressive Democrats loosen Israel’s grip on Washington

Progressive Democrats loosen Israel’s grip on Washington

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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) during a march organised by the Women’s March Alliance, New York City, U.S., January 19, 2019. (Reuters)

While the US administration of President Donald Trump remains adamant that it will continue to support Israel, the traditional Democratic leadership employs underhand language, the kind of “strategic ambiguity” that offers full support to Israel and nothing but lip service to the Palestinians.
Trump’s policies on Israel and Palestine have been damaging — culminating in the outrageously unfair peace plan unveiled in January — and his administration remains largely committed to the trend of growing affinity between the Republican establishment and the right-wing Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The views of the Democratic leadership, represented by the presumptive challenger in the upcoming November presidential election, Joe Biden, remain those of a bygone era, when the Democrats’ unconditional love for Israel equaled that of the Republicans. It is safe to say that those days are drawing to a close, as opinion polls confirm that the political landscape in Washington is changing.
Formerly, the Republicans and Democrats wholeheartedly agreed on one single foreign policy matter: Their blind and unconditional support for Israel. In those days, the influential pro-Israel lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) ruled the roost. It reigned supreme in the US Congress and almost single-handedly decided on the fate of congressmen and women based on their support, or lack thereof, for Israel.
While it is too early to proclaim that those days are over, the vastly changing political discourse on Palestine and Israel, many opinion polls, and the electoral successes of anti-Israeli occupation candidates in national and local elections compel one to say that AIPAC’s tight grip on US foreign policy is finally loosening.
Such a statement may seem premature considering the current administration’s unparalleled bias toward Israel, with its illegal US Embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the dismissal of the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and its support of the Israeli plan to illegally annex parts of the West Bank, among other actions. However, a distinction must be made between support for Israel among the ruling — and increasingly isolated — clique of politicians and the general mood of the country, which, despite numerous infringements on democracy in recent years, is still somewhat democratic.
Last month, a whopping 191 Democratic representatives, including some of the most staunch supporters of Israel, signed a letter calling on Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials to scrap their plan to illegally annex nearly 30 percent of the West Bank. “We express our deep concern with the stated intention to move ahead with any unilateral annexation of West Bank territory, and we urge your government to reconsider plans to do so,” the letter said.
While the wording of the letter was far from threatening, the fact it was introduced by stalwart Israeli allies such as Reps. Ted Deutch and Brad Schneider speaks volumes about the shifting discourse on Israel among the centrist and even conservative corners of the Democratic Party.
Equally important is that the influence of the younger and more progressive generation of Democratic politicians continues to push the boundaries of the party’s discourse on Israel, thanks to the tireless work of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues. She was one of a dozen Democratic lawmakers to sign another letter at the end of last month, this time addressed to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Unlike the first letter, the second was assertive and markedly daring. “Should the Israeli government continue down this path (of annexation), we will work to ensure non-recognition of annexed territories as well as pursue legislation that conditions the $3.8 billion in US military funding to Israel to ensure US taxpayers are not supporting annexation in any way,” it read.
Imagine if this exact wording had been used by Democratic representatives in July 1980, when the Israeli Knesset voted to unlawfully annex East Jerusalem. The fate of these politicians would have been similar to those who dared to speak out at the time, risking losing their seats in Congress and even their political careers altogether.
But times have changed. It is quite unusual, and refreshing, to see AIPAC scrambling to put out the many fires ignited by the new radical voices in the Democratic Party.
The reason it is no longer easy for the pro-Israel lobby to maintain its decades-long hegemony over Congress is that the likes of Ocasio-Cortez are a byproduct of a generational and likely irreversible change that has taken place among Democrats.
The trend of polarization in American public opinion regarding Israel goes back nearly 20 years, to when Americans began basing their support for Israel on party lines. More recent polls suggest that this polarization is growing. A Pew survey published in 2016 showed that sympathy for Israel among Republicans had reached an unprecedented 75 percent, while it had fallen among Democrats to 34 percent.

It is quite unusual, and refreshing, to see AIPAC scrambling to put out the many fires ignited by the new radical voices in the Democratic Party.

Ramzy Baroud

The following year, for the first time in history, support for Israel and the Palestinians was almost equally split among Democrats: 33 percent and 31 percent, respectively. This was the period in which we began seeing unusual mainstream news headlines, such as the Washington Post’s “Why Democrats are abandoning Israel.” This “abandonment” has continued unabated. In January 2018, another Pew survey showed that Democrats’ support for Israel had dwindled to 27 percent.
While many Democrats in Congress are increasingly in touch with the views of their constituencies, those at the helm, such as Biden, remain stubbornly committed to agendas that are championed by AIPAC and the rest of the old guard. The good news from Washington is that, despite Trump’s support for Israel, an incremental but lasting structural change is taking place among Democratic Party supporters throughout the country. Even Israel’s traditional hold over the country’s Jewish communities is faltering — and quickly so.
While AIPAC is likely to continue using old and new tactics to protect Israel’s interests, it will not be able to turn back time. The age of Israel’s total dominance of the US Congress is likely over; hopefully, this time, for good.

  • Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is “These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons” (Clarity Press, Atlanta). Twitter: @RamzyBaroud
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