WASHINGTON – The growing talk from Israeli and U.S. officials about annexing settlements in the occupied West Bank is reigniting an argument within the Democratic Party on how best to respond to the right-wing policies advanced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump.
Some Democratic politicians are urging a tougher and more critical line in light of the policy changes pushed by Netanyahu and Trump. Others, meanwhile, prefer to stick to the traditional Democratic Party approach of officially supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but refraining from applying pressure on Israel to implement it.
This week, Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, told the pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom that annexation of all the settlements to Israel could be only weeks away, with complete backing from the White House. Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is expected to visit Israel next week in order to discuss the issue further.
Annexation of settlements in the West Bank, specifically under the conditions put forward by the Trump administration’s Middle East plan, would be a major change in Israeli policy, officially ending the possibility of a Palestinian state existing next to Israel and potentially even leading to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.
In such a scenario, Israel could find itself responsible for managing the daily lives of millions of Palestinians, while the local Palestinian population could shift its struggle from demanding statehood to a demand for equal rights under one joint state – including the right to vote in Israeli elections.
For these and other reasons, every Israeli government since 1967 has resisted calls from the religious right-wing to go forward with annexation in the West Bank, and all American administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, have opposed the idea.
The Trump administration’s support for widespread annexation is being pushed mostly by Friedman, Pompeo and other officials with ties to religious right-wing groups in Israel and the United States, both Jewish and Christian, that oppose Palestinian statehood and believe in a vision of “Greater Israel.”
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This has led to an intensifying debate within the Democratic Party on how to respond. One wing of the party, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont), advocates a tough response – including the suspension of some U.S. military aid to Israel – in order to pressure the Netanyahu government to refrain from moving forward with annexation.
A smaller faction, led by politicians with close ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee such as senators Chuck Schumer (New York) and Ben Cardin (Maryland), strongly opposes the ideas suggested by Sanders and his supporters, preferring instead to continue offering unequivocal support for any steps taken by Israel.
Schumer has expressed positions, including at last year’s AIPAC Policy Conference, that are affiliated with the religious right in Israel, such as when he declared that the reason there isn’t peace is because the Palestinians don’t believe in the Torah.
In between these two groups are many Democratic elected officials who are trying to balance two priorities: supporting Israel on issues related to security, intelligence and the country’s very legitimacy to exist as a Jewish and democratic state; and being critical of Netanyahu and the policies he is promoting together with Trump – first and foremost annexation.
Where Biden stands
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee in this year’s election, falls clearly within that middle category. Biden has a long record of supporting Israel, first as a senator and then as vice president, on issues such as military aid, intelligence cooperation and tackling anti-Semitism. He has visited Israel many times and said that he considers Netanyahu a personal friend.
But on the issue of settlements and annexation, Biden has never shied from criticizing Israel’s right-wing governments. He had bitter fights on this issue with Netanyahu when he represented the Obama administration, and in recent months has made several statements expressing his opposition to annexation.
A written statement released by his campaign on Thursday reiterated that position, warning that Israel should refrain from steps that would make the two-state solution impossible to implement.
Biden has also said that while he will not reverse Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, he will, if elected president, reopen a separate U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem to serve the Palestinian population. (Friedman shut down that consulate as part of his effort to minimize U.S. interactions with the Palestinian leadership and population.)
Biden, however, has also rejected the ideas proposed by Sanders and others on the left to use military aid as “leverage” in order to get Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank. Biden has called this idea “outrageous” and has said he won’t promote it as president. He often takes pride in the fact that the “Obama-Biden administration,” as he likes to call the previous U.S. administration, gave more military aid to Israel than any other U.S. administration in history.
The line offered by Biden – support for military aid and other forms of partnership with Israel, but opposition to settlements, annexation and the “Greater Israel” vision of Netanyahu, Friedman and Pompeo – is representative of most Democratic elected officials.
Over the past year, the small group of Democratic lawmakers known as “The Squad,” including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, has repeatedly made headlines for statements related to Israel that are far more critical of the country – and are not in line with the approach preferred by Biden.
But the positions of this group, which are closer to Sanders’ stance, are still a minority within the party.
This was evident last summer when 90 percent of Democrats in Congress voted in favor of a resolution against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. In addition, very few Democratic lawmakers have joined the calls by Sanders – and The Squad – to limit military aid to Israel or use it as leverage in the future.
Annexation, however, could change the dynamic within the Democratic Party and strengthen the Sanders faction. This is what Daniel Pipes, a conservative commentator on Middle East issues and traditionally a supporter of right-wing policies regarding Israel, warned this week in an Op-Ed published in the New York Times.
Pipes wrote that annexation could cause further damage to Israel’s standing in the Democratic Party and strengthen the forces within the party that have a negative view of the country. “Annexation would alienate and weaken Israel’s diminishing number of friends in the Democratic Party,” he wrote.
A group of Democratic senators is currently collecting signatures for a letter opposing annexation and warning Israel of the damages such a move could cause to its international standing. Senators Tim Kaine (Virginia), Chris Murphy (Connecticut) and Chris Van Hollen (Maryland) are leading it, and the entire list of signatories is expected to be published next week.
Some Democratic lawmakers, however, are still skeptical that annexation will actually happen. Friedman, after all, had already promised to support full annexation of all the settlements back in January, in the midst of an Israeli election campaign, only to be overruled by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who said the timing wasn’t right.
Kushner’s explanation back then was that Israel needed a new government, and that annexation during an election campaign was a wrong move. But now, with a new government about to be formed in Jerusalem, that reason is no longer valid. In addition, the United States is entering its own election season and Trump has an incentive to rile up his evangelical supporters.
An aide to one Democratic senator who is involved in the party discussions on this question told Haaretz: “If Netanyahu actually goes through with it this time, the two American politicians who will benefit from it will be Trump and Sanders. Trump will get one more example of his strong support for Israel to show the evangelicals; Bernie will get one more example of how terrible Israel is under Netanyahu.”
The aide added that if the annexation move happens before the summer, it could have a serious impact on the Democratic Party’s official election platform, which will be written during the summer. This week, a group of more than 30 former U.S. government officials who have worked on Middle East policy released a joint letter in which they urged the Democratic National Committee to include strong opposition to Israeli annexation and settlement expansion on the 2020 platform.
No matter what Netanyahu and Trump eventually choose to do on this front, one thing is clear: The debate within the Democratic Party will intensify and Israel will find itself, once again, a political issue in the midst of an American election.