Sometimes what seems impossible in politics is impossible until it suddenly becomes possible. Such a phenomenon appears to be the case now when it comes to US military aid to Israel.
For such a long time in US politics, providing weapons to Israel unconditionally and in ever greater volume appeared to be nearly sacrosanct, wrapped in the mystique of the supposed “unshakable, unbreakable” bond between the two countries about which politicians of both parties droned ad infinitum.
And, relatedly, even raising questions about the flow of weapons to Israel was widely considered to be the “third rail of US politics”, which if touched would produce instantaneous political electrocution. Only a suicidal politician, it was reasoned by the punditry, would even dare to approach it.
To be sure, this image of inviolability was carefully cultivated over the decades by AIPAC and, in recent years, by J Street as well, which requires candidates for office to commit to “robust US foreign aid to Israel” in order to be endorsed by and receive contributions from its PAC.
This image also obfuscates the actual history of US-Israeli relations and how several (mostly Republican) administrations have threatened, conditioned, and even temporarily ended US aid to Israel to successfully induce changes in its behavior.
However, with the possible exception of President Eisenhower, who stared down Israeli aggression by suspending US aid during the height of his reelection campaign to protest Israel’s war on Egypt, major presidential candidates have avoided proactively campaigning on this issue.
Until now. Last month, The Forward noted with consternation that three of the top four polling candidates for the Democratic Party nomination–Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg–have made clear that they are willing to reexamine military aid to Israel under certain circumstances.
Their inchoate ideas started to take shape at J Street’s recent national conference where the debate about conditioning US aid to Israel burst onto the scene and dominated the discourse. In live appearances, Sanders proposed redirecting some weapons to Israel to humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip and Buttigieg advocated for ensuring that aid to Israel is “compatible with US objectives and US law.” And addressing the conference by video, Warren stated that US aid should not be allowed to support steps toward Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
How did we reach this potential tipping point in which there is a strong probability that the next president of the United States will enter the White House having campaigned on a platform of reexamining US aid to Israel?
Most importantly, let’s not give credit where it’s not due. J Street only provided the high-profile platform for the candidates to articulate this message; it is most definitely not the impetus for these ideas. In fact, the opposite is true: J Street has fought tooth and nail throughout its existence against any effort to condition military aid to Israel or hold it accountable for its violations of US laws.
Instead, major presidential candidates are now supporting conditioning US aid to Israel for three interrelated reasons. First, Palestinian rights organizations have been consistently putting forward the demand for accountability, conditionality, and even ending completely US military aid to Israel for decades. This author vividly remembers being scoffed at even by sympathetic congressional staff for pushing these ideas in the early 2000s. Despite the acknowledged merits of the case, congressional staffers deemed it to be a non-starter politically.
What was once a chimera is now tangible. Such is often the case in the amorphous process of social change. Ask many veterans of the struggles to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa, or to achieve marriage equality or criminal justice reform just how and why policy change happened and you’re likely to get a shrug of the shoulders as a response. No one really knows how and why we get to these tipping points other than as a result of persistent educating and organizing, and taking advantage of strategic opportunities when they arise.
Second, we now have unabashed champions in Congress actively promoting conditioning or ending aid to Israel, a development which was unthinkable just a few years ago. Recently this author helped organize a workshop bringing together academics and activists to strategize about “getting to sanctions” on Israel. A key player in the anti-apartheid struggle emphasized the importance of having just a few Members of Congress (and, even more importantly, their staff) really champion and drive sanctions against South Africa through the legislative process.
In this regard, it is hard to overstate the importance of Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) introducing the first-ever bill in Congress to promote Palestinian rights by conditioning aid to Israel, along with the more far-reaching rhetorical calls, but not yet legislative proposals, by Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to cut aid to Israel.
Third, it is now clear, demonstrated through repeated public opinion polls, that Democrats support imposing sanctions on Israel to induce changes in its policies. Take just two recent ones as examples of this phenomenon. According to a September 2019 Data for Progress poll, two-thirds of voters who supported a Democratic congressional candidate in the midterms support reducing aid to Israel; only 10 percent oppose. Also in September 2019, a Brookings Institute/University of Maryland poll found that of Democrats who have heard of BDS, 48 percent support the movement, while only 15 percent oppose it (the other 37 percent are neutral).
Politicians and their staff are acutely aware of these polls, which provide political cover to presidential candidates, especially those running on progressive platforms and/or small donor fundraising strategies, to stake out positions on conditioning or cutting aid to Israel that will benefit them politically.
It is up to us to support these candidates’ steps in the right direction while at the same time acknowledging that none of them go nearly far enough. But with continued education, determined and strategic organizing and mobilizing, we will get them there.