Joining a growing number of American Jews, I have recently found myself addicted to the trials and tribulations of Israeli politics. Locked behind closed doors, I have obsessed over the drama of the "Knesset-under-COVID," and what stands out for me was how Israeli domestic policy now sets up a pressing opportunity for the American Jewish community.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party have seized the forbidden fruit known as "flirtation with despotism" from Hungary’s Viktor Orban. It appears as though Mr. Netanyahu has taken advantage of the paranoia surrounding the coronavirus in order to trap Israelis in an uncomfortable, illiberal situation in which the prime minister is king and his opposition is muzzled into submissive "negotiations."
This disturbing trend is most noticeable in the coalition government’s bipartisan agreement to annex the Jordan Valley, and other West Bank settlement blocs, a move that will further isolate the Palestinian people and slingshot Israel away from the possibility of a two-state solution.
Many on the right point to reports that the Trump administration may only greenlight annexation if Israel accepts the Trump/Netanyahu/Kushner proposed "peace plan." But this "peace plan" mandates several, disconnected autonomous zones with limited access to resources in a unified country, still does not constitute a valid state or basic human rights for Palestinians. In any case, Secretary of State Pompeo is recently on record as saying annexation is "ultimately Israel's decision to make."
Annexation is, in all interpretations of the phrase, a lose-lose for Palestine and Palestinians.
So why is this such a crucially timely issue for American Jews right now? Annexation has been an Israeli hot-button topic at least rhetorically for years, gaining real-world traction and international news cycle attention thanks to the "unity government" between Gantz and Netanyahu. What has changed is that presidential contender Joe Biden frames himself as the pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-two states candidate. He needs to express vocal opposition to annexation, and the vast majority of U.S. Jews who are Democratic party voters, should back him all the way.
Biden has won the endorsement of J-Street, the American Jewish advocacy organization that campaigns against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its expanding settlement movement.
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Democrats find themselves in a difficult situation in crafting their narrative on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Most voters who identify as Democrats support Israel existing as a sovereign Jewish state, but are increasingly sympathetic to loud calls to reform the U.S.-Israel relationship, even suggesting conditionality based on Israel’s actions towards the Palestinians, from the liberal, and especially Jewish liberal, ideological sphere.
The only problem is that the Democratic Party’s elected officials seem oblivious to this trend, and unable to actually act on their so-called "criticism of Israeli policy." Perhaps this is due to the "anti-Semitism" their Republican colleagues will inevitably accuse them of if they should so dare to criticize the settlement movement.
Regardless, American leftism is hemorrhaging unconditional support for Israel, with organizations like J-Street and If NotNow spiking in support, especially among young people, and especially among young Jews. Democrats need votes, making it crucial for them to honor their commitment to be critical of Benjamin Netanyahu and the cruel policies that rip apart the possibility of Palestinian statehood, safety and justice.
If the Democrats choose not to engage in purposeful criticism of Israel, they risk being framed by those on the left as co-conspirators to the deceitful conservative movement that conflates support for Mr. Netanyahu with support for the Jewish people, a movement that frames itself as "philosemitic" and those skeptical of its claims as "anti-Semites." For the sake of preserving a Zionist voice on the left, we cannot afford to give sustenance to that absurd analogy.
Another problem arises when Democrats hesitate to contrast sharply enough with Republicans on the subject of Palestinian national and human rights. When there’s no clearly articulated alternative American policy towards Israel, the void is filled by far more extreme voices on the left (some which are Jewish) who call for the eradication of any Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East and incessant hostility towards Zionists. And these organizations and their ideas are getting louder. In order to prevent an anti-Semitic insurgence on the left the likes of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, elected Democrats need to be tougher on Israel – because they support Israel.
A partnership between Joe Biden and J-Street in opposing annexation of the Jordan Valley and other settlement areas is a perfect opportunity to showcase this shift. If Biden were to come out publicly and forcefully against annexation, it would prove that Democrats are willing to be "tough" on Israel while staying committed to its sovereignty and protection.
Are the Democrats ready to take this plunge? Could it lead to some fraying on the more right-wing-on-Israel margins of U.S. Jewish support for the Democratic Party? Are there voices around Biden, a candidate who did speak at AIPAC, advising him against "getting into the mud" with Trump on Israel?
The truth is that the Democratic Party cannot afford to not engage with Donald Trump on Israel, considering the seismic shift of liberal opinion on the Palestinian issue. I would argue that the Democrats — moderate Democrats — would gain Jewish support rather than lose it if they struck a more critical tone on Israel, because it would prevent the Jewish Left from lumping pro-Israel Democrats and pro-Israel Republicans together under one banner of complicity in human rights violations.
There is no evidence at all that those Democrat-voting U.S. Jews uncomfortable with their candidate’s public criticism of specific Israeli policies would bizarrely jump ship to Trump. And no evidence that Democrat-voting U.S. Jews, who overwhelmingly support a two-state solution, would be alienated by a measured but forthright Biden position backing that future and opposing actions that threaten it.
On Israel-Palestine, the Democrats around Biden need to stop worrying about what the right-wing will say, and forget about competing for the unreachable votes of Trump’s evangelical and right-wing Jewish base who won’t broker any criticism of Israel’s annexation project.
Biden needs to do more to appeal to Jewish and non-Jewish leftists alike. We need their votes much more, and the bonus is that we can win them by staying true to core Democratic values, and challenging the Republicans’ false claim over the phrase "pro-Israel."
Blake Flayton is a student at George Washington University and a writer on American politics and Jewish issues. Twitter: @BlakeFlayton