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The Democrats finally confront military aid to Israel

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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. 

Josh Ruebner

Josh Ruebner is the Senior Principal at Progress Up Consulting. Former Policy Director at the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights and Middle East Analyst at the Congressional Research Service. Author of "Israel: Democracy or Apartheid State?" and "Shattered Hopes: Obama's Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace".

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15 Responses

  1. mondonut on November 7, 2019, 1:22 pm

    Not that the Israelis and Palestinians had any real intent to negotiate, but this will certainly signal to the Palestinians to sit and wait on a new President.

    Of course none of these candidates would touch it in Year 1. So sometime in 2022 this will come up assuming political considerations and a pliable Congress, perhaps realized by 2023 if all goes well. Abbas will be gone by then, so start over with that new political reality and Hamas will continue to be unhelpful in insisting on total victory over “the entity”.

    So basically no changes on the horizon. And no plans to relieve the Palestinians of their mixed bag of kleptocrats and war-mongering leaders.

    • bcg on November 7, 2019, 6:09 pm

      First of all, Mondonut, , there really is no such thing as “negotiations” between the strong and the weak, the idea of “negotiations” between Israelis and Palestinians has been ridiculous for a long time – it’s like the “negotiations” between the U.S. government and the Apaches – who had the cannons? Secondly, Israel has been pouring concrete in the West Bank for decades, and they weren’t doing this because they thought it would be “negotiated” away.

      There are a number of good references on how Israel has repeatedly ignored the possibility to make peace; a recent one is “Paradigm Lost: From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality” by Ian S Lustick, University of Pennsylvania press. No, from now on it’s either one state or some type of apartheid.

      • ancientenough on November 8, 2019, 9:09 am

        Agreed, bcg!

        Day by day, month by month and year by year, our policies, and mainstream discourse continue to be dictated and dominated by the Israel Lobby in ways that are inimical to US interests, particularly with respect to the billions (never mind just military aid) we give to Israel without asking anything in return, like reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians, pulling back the settler project, stopping confiscation and destruction of Palestinian homes, agricultural land, schools and hospitals, attacks and war crimes, shooting of innocent civilians in Gaza and so on, certainly way out of proportion to bad acts of Hamas and any violence caused by Palestinian civilians – all of it fomenting unrest in the Middle East and anti-American sentiment and, ironically, the terrorism we’re supposedly so eager to stop.

        Basic understanding of conflict resolution shows that to bring parties together, we need the carrot and the stick. Israel gets the carrot, but not the stick. Politicians keep speaking about the two-state solution, but that’s meaningless, because Israel has shown no inclination to get serious about peace.

        Even if this were a realistic road to peace, we’re not using our resources to force Israel to the table to pursue it. For example, as a footnote, we’re not even seeking justice for Israel’s cowardly attack on the U.S.S. Liberty and the hundreds killed and wounded and the survivors.

        As Walt and Mearsheimer’s “Israel Lobby” book (but as one commenter intimates, they may have been silenced by the inability to get anything more critical of Israel published due to pro-Israel control of much of the publishing business – I’ve read both of their subsequent books on foreign policy and there’s barely a peep about Israel) and the Washington Report’s annual Israel Lobby conference shows, the Lobby is controlling Federal and State government to slant all our policies in the U.S. and the Middle East in favor of Israel and against relatively harmless countries, like Iran.

        Zionist neocons pushed the Bush administration into a disastrous war with Iraq and ill-fated post 9/11 military adventures like the War on Terror continue to this day, with almost unimaginable human and monetary costs, including US military doing Israel’s dirty work:

        Americans in general are dissatisfied with our foreign policy, endless war in the Middle East and favoritism to Israel. Moreover, they’re disgusted with official policy that equates criticism of Israel or Israeli operatives with antisemitism. Like saying the Israeli ambassador had dual loyalty. What baloney! The charge doesn’t go far enough. Their primary loyalty is to Israel. Haim Saban on the Democratic Party side and Sheldon Adelson on the Republican side come right out and say their issue is Israel.

        And if we’re serious about solving our myriad domestic problems, taxing the rich their fair share might help, but what we really need is to bring some of those trillions geographically home to the U.S.

    • RoHa on November 7, 2019, 11:25 pm

      “this will certainly signal to the Palestinians to sit and wait on a new President.”

      If the new president goes to a Palestinian restaurant then some Palestinians will stand and wait on him.

      But Palestinians in general might sit and wait for a new President.

    • Misterioso on November 8, 2019, 9:52 am


      “And no plans to relieve the Palestinians of their mixed bag of kleptocrats and war-mongering leaders.”

      Sigh, it seems your appalling ignorance knows no bounds!

      A brief review of the record:

      Contrary to Zionist propaganda, Barak and Clinton tried to shove a very bad deal down Arafat’s throat during the 2000 Camp David Summit. It could only be rejected. Suffice to quote Shlomo Ben-Ami, then “Israel’s” foreign minister and lead negotiator at Camp David: “Camp David was not the missed opportunity for the Palestinians, and if I were a Palestinian I would have rejected Camp David, as well.” (National Public Radio, 14 February 2006.)

      Shlomo Ben-Ami also set the record straight regarding the suspension of Taba II: “Despite reports to the contrary in Israel, however, Mr. Arafat never turned down ’97 percent of the West Bank’ at Taba, as many Israelis hold….” (Deborah Sontag, “Quest for Mideast Peace: How and Why It Failed,” New York Times, 26 July 2001)

      Other peace initiatives that “Israel” has rebuffed include: U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers’ The Rogers Plan (1969); The Scranton Mission on behalf of President Nixon (1970); Egyptian President Sadat’s land for peace and mutual recognition proposal (1971); U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s call for a Geneva international conference (1977); Saudi Arabian King Fahd’s peace offer (1981); U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s Reagan Plan (1982); U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz’s Schultz Plan (1988); U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s Baker Plan (1989); and the 1993 Oslo accords signed by Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that unravelled following the latter’s assassination and subsequent return to power of the Likud party from 1996-1999 under Benjamin Netanyahu; continuation of the Taba II negotiations (2001); the unofficial Geneva Peace Initiative of November/December 2003; and the 2014 Kerry Initiative.

      BTW, the PLO also agreed to the US/EU/UN supported 2002 Arab League Beirut Summit Peace Initiative, which offers “Israel” full recognition as a sovereign state (per UNSC Res. 242, i.e., within its June 4/67 boundaries with possible minor, equal and mutually agreed land swaps), exchange of ambassadors, trade, tourism, etc., if “Israel” complies with international law (e.g., the UN Charter, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Resolution 194 and the Fourth Geneva Convention, all binding on “Israel.”) Fully aware of “Israel’s” demographic concerns, the Beirut initiative does not demand the return of all Palestinian refugees. In accordance with “Israel’s” pledge given to the UNGA in 1949 and by signing the 1949 Lausanne Peace Conference Protocol to abide by UNGA Res. 194 regarding the then 800,000 Palestinian refugees (as determined by Walter Walter Eytan, then Director General of “Israel’s” Foreign Ministry) as a precondition for admittance to the UN (after being rejected twice), the Arab League’s Initiative “calls upon Israel to affirm” that it agrees to help pursue the “achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem…” “Israel” also rejected this peace overture.

      Re Hamas:
      On 16 June 2009, after meeting with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Ismail Haniya, prime minister of Hamas’s Gaza Strip government, announced that “If there is a real plan to resolve the Palestinian question on the basis of the creation of a Palestinian state within the borders of June 4, 1967 [i.e. 22% of historic Palestine as per 1949 armistice agreements] and with full sovereignty, we are in favour of it.” “Israel” ignored the offer.

      “‘We accept a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967, with Jerusalem as its capital, the release of Palestinian prisoners, and the resolution of the issue of refugees,’ Haniyeh said, referring to the year of Middle East war in which “Israel” captured East Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories. ” (Haaretz, December 1, 2010) No response from “Israel.”

      In its revised Charter, April, 2017, Hamas again agreed to a Palestinian state based on the 4 June 1967 borders. Unfortunately, “Israel” rejected the Hamas overture instead of using it to open a dialogue.

      “Senior Hamas Official: ‘I Think We Can All Live Here in This Land – Muslims, Christians and Jews.’” By Nir Gontarz. March 28, 2018, Haaretz. Again, no response from “Israel.”

      The “offer” made in 2008 by then Israeli PM Ehud Olmert was never seen as serious because it lacked cabinet approval, he was under indictment with only a few weeks left in office, had a 6% favorable rating, and therefore, couldn’t have closed the deal even if the Palestinians had accepted it. (Olmert was imprisoned.)

      Unfortunately, “Israel’s“ response to every peace overture from the Palestinians and Arab states has been an escalation of illegal settlement construction and accelerated dispossession and oppression of the indigenous Palestinians in their illegally occupied lands.

      If we lived in a just world the entity known as “Israel” would have long since been expelled from the UN or a least, had its membership suspended.

      Regarding your reference to “entity,” I presume you are referring to the borderless, expansionist, racist, fascistic, brutal occupier and ethnic cleanser known as “Israel.”

      • mondonut on November 8, 2019, 2:34 pm

        @Misterioso , Sigh, it seems your appalling ignorance knows no bounds!

        Breaking out the boilerplate cut and paste again? Somehow or other you forgot to include the part where the Palestinian leadership was NOT kleptocrats and war-mongering.

        As for your cut and paste job:

        – Camp David was absolutely a missed opportunity despite your provided quote to the contrary. Arafat had to choose between negotiating a better position or violence. He chose violence.

        – The 2002 Arab initiative, which did not address the supposed refugees, was published the day after the Passover Massacre. So yes, rejected.

        – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Resolution 194 are not International Law.

        – Israel never pledged to abide by UNGA 194 (this is a repeated lie of yours). Same goes for Lausanne, it did not create an obligation to abide by UNGA 194.

        – Your Hamas quotes are of them accepting territory. Not of them accepting Israel.

        – Somehow your strange mind believes the Olmert offer as meaningless, yet a simple letter from George Shultz is missed opportunity. Suffice to say that even the Palestinians acknowledge it as a mistake.

        – Some of the Palestinians are indeed indigenous, many are not. The same holds true for the Israelis.

        – Israel has declared borders with each and every adjacent country. Another repeated lie.

    • genesto on November 8, 2019, 1:12 pm

      Yeah, please don’t mention the crooks, con men and war criminals that make up the field of candidates for Prime Minister in Israel.

      And, as a Hamas-bashing, hard core Zionist, you’d be advised to research and discover the times that Hamas has promised to honor all previous agreements between the PLO and Israel, and live in peace side by side with the Jewish state, if it agreed to withdraw to the Green Line. Let me know if you have trouble finding this information – assuming, of course that you have any interest in even trying to do so.

      • mondonut on November 8, 2019, 2:12 pm

        @genesto Let me know if you have trouble finding this information

        Sure, show me an official position of Hamas wherein they agree to make peace with Israel (not a truce), forego their RoR, and end all claims to the remainder of Israel.

      • eljay on November 8, 2019, 4:01 pm

        || mon donut: @genesto Let me know if you have trouble finding this information

        Sure, show me an official position of Hamas wherein they agree to make peace with Israel (not a truce), forego their RoR, and end all claims to the remainder of Israel. ||

        While he’s digging that up, maybe you can provide an official position of Israel wherein it agrees:
        – to end its military occupation and colonization of territory outside of its / Partition borders (the borders it accepted and within which it was recognized as a state);
        – dismantle “Jewish State” supremacism and make Israel the state of and for all of its citizens, immigrants, expats and refugees, equally;
        – honour its obligations under international law; and
        – accept responsibility and accountability for past and on-going (war) crimes committed.


  2. lobewyper on November 7, 2019, 9:33 pm

    As the author notes, it is most encouraging that unconditional aid to Israel is now before the American public in a way that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Give credit also to the media for paying much attention to the various comments about this issue made by Betty and the Gang of Four. To me it is extremely disappointing to hear the current silence on this topic from folks such as Walt & Mearsheimer as well as David Axelrod, whom I otherwise greatly admire. Presumably, the major task facing most progressives is replacing Trump, and this may leave little time at present to concern ourselves with Palestine.

  3. brent on November 8, 2019, 12:05 am

    Trump stated he was good with one state or two, so long as both sides agreed, that he intended to settle the conflict in his first term, that after he laid down his plan, he’s cut all money if Israel rejected it (continued taking territory). No Democratic contender has gone as far, nor endeared Israelis, potentially boxing in their leadership. Hardly a peek when Palestinians threw dirt in his face over the embassy move, something every Democratic and Republican Senator had voted for. Go figure.

    • JWalters on November 9, 2019, 3:29 am

      All good points to keep in mind. I’m seeing the major struggle being between the war pushers trying to inflame situations, and Trump dodging putting American boots in hot zones needlessly. JFK had a major struggle with the CIA having its own secret, war-creation agenda. War is a major profit center, so this would be a fundamental opposition, and enough for the oligarchs to try to sideline Trump. We know now that they sidelined JFK to have a war in Vietnam. And this is why they are intensely trying to stamp out Tulsi’s campaign, even though she’s only at a few percent in the polls. They want to nip discussions of these wars in the bud.

      I do recall Trump saying, after giving something big to Netanyahu, that later he would have a big ask.

  4. JustJessetr on November 8, 2019, 5:16 am

    Israel will simply pivot towards countries that are much more honest about ignoring human rights: China, many African nations, the Arab/Muslim nations that will join Israel against Iran. Then Israel’s right-wing government will begin to expel Palestinans more quickly and take the land officially, giving all of you what you so naiively call for: a one-state solution.

    The best course for Palestinians after their many many many missed opportunities is normalization. It’s the only way for them to get the state they want. Yep, it will be smaller than they want but that’s they price they will pay for listening to all this impracticable twaddle about boycotts, comparisons to South Africa, and listening to Arafat for too long.

    • Misterioso on November 8, 2019, 10:05 am


      “Israel will simply pivot towards countries that are much more honest about ignoring human rights: China, many African nations, the Arab/Muslim nations that will join Israel against Iran.”

      To be brief:
      You live in a fantasy world. Your ignorance is beyond words. China is a close friend of Iran, African nations have no intention of joining “Israel against Iran.” Why would they? Also, I can assure you that the Arab street, Sunni and Shia, is utterly opposed to a war against Iran and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have realized that such a war is unwinnable and would only lead to a horrific catastrophe for all concerned.

  5. eljay on November 8, 2019, 7:43 am

    || JustaJester @ November 8, 2019, 5:16 am ||

    When it comes to I-P, you can always count on a Zionist to argue passionately – but so very hypocritically – against justice, accountability and equality.

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