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Why Democrats Shouldn't Rush to Embrace Israel's New Government

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An Israeli policeman confiscates a Palestinian flag from a Palestinian woman as far-right Israelis participate in the Flag March at Damascus Gate, just outside Jerusalem's Old City last week
An Israeli policeman confiscates a Palestinian flag from a Palestinian woman as far-right Israelis participate in the Flag March at Damascus Gate, just outside Jerusalem's Old City last weekCredit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS
avner gvaryahu
Avner Gvaryahu

Since the announcement of a new Israeli government coalition, analysts in Israel and abroad have heralded the arrival of a possible change in course for the U.S.-Israel relationship. "New government in Israel provides Biden a chance for better ties," a New York Times headline announced, while a Haaretz sub-headline noted that both Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett "will be endeavoring to make Israel a bipartisan issue once more."

There seems to be some relief expressed in these assessments: the new coalition means that recent turbulence between the United States and Israel has some chance of subsiding.

But these aspirations miss one crucial point: The real problem we in Israel face is not about our dealings with the United States but about our relationship with and subjugation over the Palestinians. Until we end our oppression against the Palestinians, Israeli policy should not return to being a bipartisan issue in the United States. 

Tourists kiss each other as they stand in front of a mural depicting U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kissing each other in the West Bank city of Bethlehem Credit: MUSSA ISSA QAWASMA/רויטר

Political analysts, in speaking about this new moment in the U.S.-Israel relationship, have framed the problem as a personal problem of Netanyahu’s. Netanyahu, they claim, sought alignment with the Republican Party and turned Israel into a partisan issue. Tellingly, they note, it took two months for President Biden to call Netanyahu but only two hours for him to call Bennett.

But even if it is true that Democrats began to turn against Israeli policy for the wrong reasons, they must now maintain their criticism for the right ones. The issue at hand should not be about a personal conflict between Netanyahu and Biden or Netanyahu and any other member of the Democratic Party – the issue should be one of political values.

Netanyahu represented a government that enforced antidemocratic and illiberal values of political repression and Palestinian dispossession. These are values that are in direct conflict with the values of the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, when it comes to our control over Palestinians, there is every indication, including in the coalition agreements between the parties, that Israel’s new government coalition will not change course.

Democratic opposition ought to be framed in relation to Israeli policy, not Israeli politicians, and as long as these policies continue, there is no reason to cut Israel slack for the simple fact of not being led by Netanyahu

A meaningful alliance between the United States and Israel must be based on shared values. And any conversation about values in this context must focus on the military occupation of Palestinian territory for over half a century, with all that the occupation entails: Palestinian home demolitions and forced transfer, settlement expansion, theft of Palestinian land, incursions by the Israeli military into Palestinian homes in the middle of the night, the arrest of Palestinian children, settler violence, detention of Palestinians without trial, and so much more. Such a conversation must center the lived reality of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, Gaza, the South Hebron Hills, and the Jordan Valley. 

Israel is, in practice, the sole power that rules between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. While Israelis enjoy full political and civil rights wherever they live, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza lack these basic rights, including even the right to vote for the government that actually determines their fate. Israeli settlers and Palestinians live in adjacent communities in the West Bank, but Israeli settlers live under civil law while Palestinians live under military law.

Anti-Netanyahu demonstrators watch a broadcast showing the heads of the new coalition government: Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz and Avigdor Lieberman outside the Knesset earlier this monthCredit: AHMAD GHARABLI - AFP

There is no word for such a reality other than apartheid. Even if the new government coalition were to preserve the status quo – which is perhaps the best we can hope for given the coalition’s composition – this is still a status quo of apartheid. 

Democrats who only focuse on strengthening bipartisan support for Israel are clearly not friends of the Palestinians living under occupation. But they are also clearly not friends of Israel.

True friends of Israel would oppose Israeli policies that further entrench the occupation – because the occupation makes none of us safer. True friends of Israel would address the violence of the occupation and would help us work to advance a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict.

Israeli police beat up a disabled Palestinian protester at the Damascus Gate

In other words, true friends of Israel would work to preserve partisanship around dangerous Israeli policy. Confronting Israel when it acts in ways that support the occupation and promote Palestinian dispossession helps make clear to the Israeli government and public that human rights abuses will not go unchallenged, that there is a price to pay for a never-ending military occupation. 

While it is true that those of us who support democracy and equality and human rights have more friends in the current coalition than in any Israeli government coalition in the last 25 years, these individuals sadly remain a minority within the coalition. The coalition will need to be judged based on its actions and what it is able to achieve on the issue of Israel-Palestine.

The United States must insist on a relationship with Israel that centers the shared values of democracy and equality. And anyone who cares about the future of this relationship should do what’s necessary to strengthen the ties between progressives on both sides of the ocean. This is the only way to help strengthen the members of the coalition who share those same values. 

Bipartisan support for Israel makes no sense while the Israeli government dominates millions of people, in total opposition to the core values of not just Democrats but any American who believes in human rights and justice. The only bipartisan idea worth promoting is bipartisan opposition to the occupation. Only by coming together to fight the occupation can Israelis, Palestinians and Americans help advance a future of justice, dignity, and security for all.

Avner Gvaryahu is the Executive Director of Breaking the Silence. Twitter: @AGvaryahu

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