Support for Palestinians remains limited in Washington
The response among politicians and foreign policy experts in Washington to the recent Israeli-Palestinian violence demonstrates how the debate has shifted in recent years, while reaffirming that US policy continues to privilege Israeli interests.
Official US statements have noted that the Biden administration is engaging in diplomacy in an attempt to “de-escalate” the situation and reach “sustainable calm.” President Joe Biden has sent Deputy Assistant Secretary Hady Amr to the region. Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have had calls with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Statements from the White House and senior officials have emphasized strong US support for Israel and for its right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Gaza. Beyond this, the administration has offered mostly milquetoast statements expressing concern about the loss of Israeli and Palestinian lives, support for a two-state solution, the importance of safety for journalists, and the need for Palestinians and Israelis to live in freedom and security.
The statements and press briefings have assiduously avoided criticizing Israel for airstrikes leading to a high death toll among Palestinians. Most avoided mention of evictions of Palestinians in Jerusalem, though a readout of a phone call between National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart and later a statement at the UN by the US ambassador expressed concern about evictions. Meanwhile, the US has blocked the UN Security Council from issuing a formal statement.
The US response highlights the strong pro-Israel sentiment held by many foreign policy practitioners and senior Democratic politicians. Additionally, the Biden administration has wanted to avoid centering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its foreign policy, preferring to focus on Iran’s nuclear program and priorities in other regions. Biden has rolled back some of the Trump administration’s aggressively pro-Israel positions, notably restoring aid to the Palestinians, but otherwise has preferred to make statements supporting Israel and a two-state solution while avoiding significant action.
The problem for Biden is that such positions are not neutral. Israel is by far the largest recipient of US foreign aid; Washington provides diplomatic cover for Israel at the UN, encouraged the Abraham Accords, and assists Israel in many other ways. US support for Israel is a critical factor in shaping Israeli military capabilities, which affects how it chooses to interact with the Palestinians. Furthermore, some critics argue that Biden’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict undermines his stated commitment to human rights and restoring US credibility.
While many Democratic voters and politicians hold pro-Israel views, there has been a gradual shift within the Democratic Party that is complicating the traditional bipartisan policy of unquestioning support for Israel. For example, a February Gallup poll found that, while a strong majority of Democrats still have a favorable view of Israel, a majority now think that the US should put more pressure on Israel than the Palestinians in order to achieve peace. Other polls also indicate gradually shifting views among Democrats, particularly young Democrats.
There has also been some change among Democratic politicians. Congress now has a few members — including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Betty McCollum — who advocate for an approach that takes Palestinian rights into consideration. Andrew Yang, who is running for New York City mayor, initially put out a pro-Israel statement with no mention of Palestinian deaths; but, faced with a backlash, he expressed concern for suffering on both sides. Twenty years ago, there was little if any space within the Washington think tank and foreign policy community for voices that highlighted Palestinian rights, but today there is more room for more perspectives.
Several factors are driving the shift in Democratic views from staunchly pro-Israel to a more nuanced position. Part of the shift is a reaction to increasing alignment between Israel and the Republican Party. Israeli politics has shifted further to the right over the last 20 years too. Increasing diversity of voices in the media also played a role. The Democratic Party today does much more to foreground concerns about inequality, systemic injustice, racism, and power disparities. Many Democrats apply these priorities to foreign policy as well as domestic issues and see the Palestinians’ situation through that lens.
However, US foreign policy remains pro-Israel in practical terms. While there is more room for diverse perspectives within the Democratic Party, the Democratic leadership remains committed to the alliance with Israel. The Republican Party is firmly aligned with Israel, with 80 percent of Republicans saying their sympathies lie more with Israel. In the last week, right-wing media has focused on Hamas’ rocket attacks and multiple Republican politicians have made statements supporting Israel’s right to defend itself while ignoring any concerns about Palestinian lives or rights.
The US response highlights the strong pro-Israel sentiment held by many foreign policy practitioners and senior Democratic politicians.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Despite some criticism from within the Democratic Party, Biden is unlikely to significantly shift policy in ways that would lead to practical benefits for Palestinians, beyond aid. The Israeli government understands that the Democrats have limited room to maneuver within Congress and that Republicans might soon control Congress or eventually regain the White House. This makes it easy for Israel to ignore the concerns that a Democratic president might raise, even if he publicly criticized Israel. The traditional pro-Israel position of the Democratic Party is likely to continue to erode, but there will be little benefit for the Palestinians any time soon.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch