Earlier this week, New York Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand told ABC’s Martha Raddatz that the United States should hold Israel accountable for barring Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) from entering the country.
“Congress has a duty to make decisions about whether we give aid, how we protect allies such as Israel with qualitative military edge,” she said. “I don’t know why Netanyahu would want to deny members of Congress to come to Israel if they expect us to be that never-ending partner and friend. I think our obligation, as an ally and as a friend is to hold them accountable when they’re wrong…”
This certainly isn’t the first time the subject has come up on the campaign trail. The Jewish progressive organization IfNotNow has also been asking candidates about the occupation and whether or not they’re prepared to pressure Israel in order to end it. Nearly every Democrat who’s been questioned has indicated that they would be, but no one has provided much detail in how such pressure would be applied. The only two candidates who have proposed something resembling such a policy are Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Sanders has repeatedly stated that he’d be open to leveraging aid to Israel in order to help change their policies. “The United States government gives a whole lot of money to Israel and I think we can leverage that money to end some of the racism that we have recently seen in Israel,” he said most recently. Buttigieg said he wouldn’t allow U.S. aid to pay for a potential annexation of the West Bank. “If Prime Minister Netanyahu makes good on his threat to annex West Bank settlements, he should know that a President Buttigieg would take steps to ensure that American taxpayers won’t help foot the bill,” he said at Indiana University in June.
Buttigieg’s plan is obviously more specific than Sanders’, but it remains unclear how either idea would actually be implemented. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received stern criticisms from many of the Democratic candidates before he blocked Tlaib and Omar from entering the country and the move has only heightened that rhetoric, but it still hasn’t generated much in the way of policy details.
For a legislative plan that actually aims to hold Israel accountable for any of its actions, one has to turn to the House of Representatives. Earlier this year, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) introduced HR 2407, a bill that would amend the Foreign Assistance Act to block any funding for the military detention of children in Israel, or any other country. The resolution currently has 21 cosponsors (including every member of “The Squad”), but it’s not backed by Hawaii congresswoman and presidential hopeful Tulsi Gabbard, who has positioned herself as a critic of United States’ foreign policy. Last month, The Intercept reported that McCollum sent a letter to Bernie Sanders in June, asking him to introduce a companion bill to HR 2407 in the Senate. Sanders never got back to her and his office never responded to the publication when it asked whether he supports the legislation. They also got no response from Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) when they asked the same question.
Brad Parker, a senior adviser for policy and advocacy at Defense for Children International Palestine, told Mondoweiss that it remains quite difficult to push Democrats on this issue despite their disdain for Netanyahu’s government. “For decades, Palestinian rights advocates have pushed for justice and accountability yet systemic impunity and non-rights respecting policy toward Israel remain the norm,” he said. “A small group of lawmakers led by Rep. Betty McCollum have made some real headway, but over and over we see that when discussions turn toward actual justice and accountability, most lawmakers abandon their principles and maintain a specific exception for Israeli forces and officials to completely disregard international law perpetuating impunity and an occupation with no end in sight. Increasing rhetoric concerning conditions on U.S. military assistance to Israel is promising, but lawmakers generally are still hesitant to pursue any accountability measures by putting forward concrete policy vehicles or pursuing real action on their statements.”
Parker’s point was recently encapsulated at a Working Families Party event that Elizabeth Warren attended. During a Q & A session, IfNotNow co-founder and organizer Dani Moscovitch asked the Senator how she would pressure the Israeli government to end the occupation. Warren’s answer centered around pushing Israel and Palestine towards a two-state solution, but she never actually answered the question. After the event Moscovitch tweeted, “Tonight, I asked Elizabeth Warren how her plan to confront the crisis of Occupation will apply meaningful pressure on the Israeli government to move toward freedom and dignity for both Israelis and Palestinians. She said she’d ‘push, and push hard.’…It’s a start! But it’s not a plan. Elizabeth Warren you have so many incredible plans putting forth a bold vision for structural change in this country. Do you have a plan to pressure the Israeli government to end the military occupation of millions of Palestinians?”
Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies who has been working on these issues for years. She told me that “we’re in the midst of a period of amazingly strong shifts in the public and media discourse” when it comes to Israel and that these shifts could pave the way for actual policy.”
A number of statistics back up Bennis’ assertion. According to a University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll from last winter, 40 percent of Americans support imposing sanctions on Israel if the country continues to expand its settlements; 56 percent of Democrats support such measures. 38 percent of Americans believe that Israel has too much influence on United States foreign policy (55 percent for Democrats and 44 percent for people under the age of 35); and just 9 percent believe it should have more influence. There’s also reason to believe that the media coverage of Omar and Tlaib could lead to deeper statistical shifts. A J Street poll conducted before the House passed a resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement found that almost 64 percent of Democratic voters had never even heard of BDS. That same poll shows that just 12 percent of Democratic voters have a favorable view of Netanyahu’s government.
“We’re a long way from a profound US policy shift away from backing Israeli occupation and apartheid to instead support for human rights and equality for all — but the first step requires huge shifts in public opinion and the media, that’s already underway,” Bennis said. “And with a few members of Congress coming out directly in favor of BDS, others calling for Israel to be held accountable for its military juvenile detention system, or for its banning of Congress members by considering conditioning military aid on human rights compliance, a lot of new possibilities lie ahead.”