Dissenting Democrats rattle cozy US-Israel relations
No one genuinely believed that the US House of Representatives would refuse an emergency $1 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Eventually, it approved the funding by an overwhelming 420 votes to nine. In most cases, one would probably dismiss such a tiny opposition as insignificant. However, it was the debate over whether the aid should be granted at all — a dispute that exposed deep divisions within the Democratic Party over US foreign policy toward one of its closest allies and one whose behavior is rarely questioned — that attracted public attention.
For the first time since Israel’s founding, a vocal group of Democratic representatives and activists is ready to challenge some of the basic tenets of the relationship between Washington and Israel. It might be the case that this group of lawmakers could have found a better context than that of funding a defensive weapon system in which to highlight their reservations over America’s overtly one-sided approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iron Dome is, after all, a defensive system, without which many Israeli civilians would have been killed — and in the tragic asymmetry of this conflict would have also led to a disproportionate Israeli military response, resulting in large numbers of innocent Palestinian victims in the Gaza Strip.
Among the nine representatives who voted against approving the additional funds were well-known and vociferous critics of Israel, such as Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, while another, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, voted “present” under pressure. Israeli officials responded with their usual fiery rhetoric, not only because several democratically elected US legislators “dared” to break ranks and oppose the supply of weapons to Israel, but also for their portrayal of Israel’s human rights violations as the actions of an apartheid state.
Israel’s anger was expressed to the extent that Gilad Erdan, its ambassador to the UN and departing envoy to Washington, accused the dissenting lawmakers of being “either ignorant or anti-Semitic” — a typical overreaction by one of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most devoted loyalists, and not necessarily a particularly thoughtful one.
Nevertheless, there is also genuine concern over the impact on the White House of a relatively small group of Democrats who, in addition to many ardent supporters of Israel, are rightly critical of the occupation and blockading of Palestinian land and the abuse of the human rights of millions of Palestinians — especially a White House that appears to have a dwindling interest in the Middle East.
US President Joe Biden most certainly does not belong to this faction of the Democratic Party, and his track record is one of almost unwavering support for Israel regardless of its government or policies. Nevertheless, the pressure from those who would like a more balanced approach might serve the Biden administration’s wish to withdraw from unquestioning support of Israel’s actions and create a space for the president to better serve US interests by being more critical of Israel’s entrenchment of the occupation and blockade, which continues to compromise any hope for peace. Being seen as caring for Israel’s security, but at the same time more even-handed, might just serve Biden’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian relations.
There have been some regrettable comments by several of these Democrats in relation to Israel, but it is entirely legitimate for them to question the almost blank check given to the Israeli military to use US-made weaponry against not only military targets but also civilians. In every round of violence between Hamas and Israel, many more civilians, including children and women, have been killed than militants. This is in addition to Israel’s destruction of the already impoverished and limited Palestinian infrastructure in Gaza, including hospitals and schools, in a place that is desperate for investment and development.
The strong reservations among some Democrats regarding Israel’s policies in the occupied West Bank and blockaded Gaza Strip are surprising in being confined to a relatively small group. There is no contradiction between supporting Israel’s right to safely exist and questioning Israeli policies that conflict with Washington’s official strategy and foreign policy objectives in the region and beyond; not to mention Israeli policies toward Palestinians that contravene America’s avowed values.
One of the enigmas of the Israeli psyche is whether it still genuinely believes that the country is the weak and vulnerable side in relation to the Palestinians or any other group in the Middle East, or whether that claim is simply part of its strategy. There seems to be a confusing blend, much of it driven by politicians but also with historic roots, of on the one hand being unable to let go of being the eternal victim, but at the same time boasting about the country’s military, economic and scientific prowess.
There is no contradiction between supporting Israel’s right to safely exist and questioning Israeli policies that conflict with Washington’s official strategy.
As the occupation continues and the settlements expand at the expense of the Palestinians, the more progressive-minded — and not only in the US — see Israel as the Goliath and not as the David. This change of perception to the view that Israel’s policies are much to blame could lead either to increasing pressure on the Biden administration to initiate a genuine peace process, or for it to take both sides to task but lean more heavily on Israel to ensure that Palestinians will see a marked improvement in their daily lives in terms of their security, job creation, freedom of movement and access to technology.
There is a new generation in the US, and also among the Jewish community at large. The only Israel that they have experienced is on the one hand a powerful state with constantly improving relations with most of its neighbors, but on the other a country that denies and suppresses the rights of another people to self-determination and freedom.
This new generation will continue to press for change — and they might be the true friends of Israel and the cause of peace.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg