Progressives will keep up the fight for Palestine — with or without Biden

Nov 12,2020

Rather than pegging hopes on a White House moored to bygone policies, Palestine activists should keep bolstering the movement from the ground up.

Since taking office, Donald Trump’s White House has led a vicious war of attrition against Palestinians and their supporters. From full-throated support for the Israeli right’s annexationist dreams to choking off critical funds for Palestinian refugees.


On July 23, 1986, Joe Biden, then a U S senator on the Foreign Relations Committee, publicly confronted the Reagan administration for its relationship with the Apartheid government in South Africa. While much of the international community had taken measures to sanction the racist regime, President Reagan and his State Secretary George P. Shultz instead promoted a policy of “constructive engagement” with Pretoria.

The past four years have been a boon to Israel’s “repugnant regime,” which has now outlasted South Africa’s by nearly three decades. Since taking office, Donald Trump’s White House has led a vicious war of attrition against Palestinians and their supporters. From full-throated support for the Israeli right’s annexationist dreams, to choking off critical funds for Palestinian refugees, to distorting the definition of antisemitism in order to silence critics of Israel, the onslaught has been nothing short of relentless.

President-elect Joe Biden might stymie the most egregious aspects of Trump’s war on Palestine — but there is very little to suggest that he will change course. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. As Peter Beinart reported earlier this year in Jewish Currents, while the Obama administration was contemplating putting pressure on the Israeli government to stop settlement expansion, the vice president did “more than any other cabinet-level official to shield Netanyahu” from measures that could have kept a Palestinian state alive.

Biden’s political team seems unlikely to break from that mold. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has made appearances at AIPAC’s national conference, and even co-sponsored a Senate bill condemning Obama’s decision to abstain, rather than veto, a UN Security Council resolution criticizing Israeli settlements. Meanwhile, according to a New York Times report, Biden’s foreign policy staff may simply end up being a replica of Obama’s team, which failed to make any headway in its mediation efforts.

A moment for reflection

Beyond a few basic reversals of Trump’s decisions, we should not expect Biden to expend much political capital on Israel-Palestine. Those basics will likely include re-entering the Obama-brokered Iran nuclear deal, renewing funding for UNRWA, and reopening the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem, which was merged with its Israel embassy after it was moved to Jerusalem in May 2018. The Trump-brokered normalization deals with repressive Arab monarchies, however, will likely remain in place, though it is unclear whether Biden will encourage any future deals of the sort.

This does not mean the change in administration will have no positive effects. Despite what Netanyahu claims publicly, Biden’s victory is already having a psychologically chilling effect on the Israeli right, who viewed Trump’s tenure as a sign that the winds of history were blowing behind their messianic ambitions. Judging from the campaign trail, a Democratic administration is unlikely to abide by Trump’s so-called “Deal of the Century,” concocted with the Israeli leadership to green light colonial expansion. Under Biden, formal annexation of large parts of the West Bank will be off the table, at least for a while.

The prospect of a return to Obama-esque foreign policy, then, means very little by way of ending 53 years of military dictatorship over the occupied territories. But for Palestinian rights activists in the United States, the turn away from the carnage of Trump is also a moment for genuine reflection on the way forward.

Rep. Ilhan Omar dances on stage at a Bernie Sanders rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, March 2, 2020. (Lorie Shaull/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Rep. Ilhan Omar dances on stage at a Bernie Sanders rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, March 2, 2020. (Lorie Shaull/CC BY-SA 2.0)

They do not have to look far to find signs of hope. During their primary campaigns, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg all raised the idea of conditioning aid to Israel over its policies. The re-election of progressive congresswomen such as Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Betty McCollum — all of whom speak out bravely and prominently on Palestinian rights — is a testament to the resonance of their views among their constituents. 

Biden may try to ignore these voices, including those from grassroots movements and coalitions like Black Lives Matter that have championed Palestinian freedom. But like other urgent causes — climate breakdown, healthcare for all, labor rights — Palestine is not disappearing from the left’s agenda anytime soon.

Building a new social contract

The pressure is now on American progressives and Palestinian rights activists to use the Biden era to change the terms of the conversation on Israel-Palestine. Taking the lessons of the Obama years, the progressive movement should not waste the next four years pegging hopes on a White House moored to the politics of yesteryear; rather, it should spend its energies on continuing to bolster the Palestinian rights movement from the ground up.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden share a humorous moment with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the Oval Office, May 28, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden share a humorous moment with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the Oval Office, May 28, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Among other things, this means recognizing that while formal annexation may currently be in a freeze, the way forward is not through a return to old solutions. It means continuing to back elected officials who support pressuring Israel. It means pushing centrists and liberal Zionists to recognize that apartheid exists on the ground regardless of annexation.

It means supporting those who fight, as Salem Barahmeh wrote on these pages earlier this year, to build a new social contract between the river and the sea, where everyone can be free with equal rights. It means continuing to open up the public debate on a range of solutions to the conflict, including a binational state, an Israeli-Palestinian confederation, a single democratic state, or a different kind of two-state configuration.

It means putting pressure on both left-leaning and establishment Democrats to listen to Palestinian voices, which have historically been almost entirely absent from the American public discourse. And, perhaps most importantly, it means supporting the Palestinians and Israelis on the ground who are fighting for justice in a reality of siege and military dictatorship. The Joe Biden of 1986 would have been proud.

 

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