This weekend, Jewish Insider reported that a Democratic letter opposing the Israeli government’s proposed annexation of the West Bank had been modified.
The original letter, which was led by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Chris Murphy (D-CT), warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Benny Gantz that annexation could result in “severe ramifications” for Israel’s relationship with the United States. The American people might begin to question the United States’s “unwavering security assistance” for Israel and the Democrats might “sadly conclude that Israel no longer values the bipartisan support that congress has provided for decades.” Annexation “would fray our unique bonds, imperil Israel’s future and place out of reach the prospect of a lasting peace.”
The letter was celebrated by the liberal, pro-Israel group J Street, who sent out an action alert calling for other lawmakers to support it. Van Hollen, Kaine, and Murphy got seven additional Senators to sign onto the letter, but at least one Democratic Senator made it clear that they were turned off by the letter. During a webcast hosted by the Jewish Democratic Council of America, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) declared that he wouldn’t sign the letter. “I don’t like to second-guess Israel’s government’s decisions, although I have been pretty critical of a lot of policies under the Netanyahu prime ministership,” said Cardin.
Less than a week later, the letter was revised. All the aforementioned parts were changed or removed. The weakened text no longer touches the topic of potential consequences for Israel’s actions. Additionally, a reference to the Palestinian Authority was taken out. As Dissent editor and Jewish Currents staff writer Joshua Leifer points out on Twitter, there is “a longstanding practice by Israel advocacy groups to demonize and delegitimize the internationally recognized [representatives] of Palestinian people.”
Josh Ruebner, Senior Principal at Progress Up Consulting and Former Policy Director at the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, told me that the only promising aspect of the letter was now missing. “The only redeeming feature of the initial language was its implicit threat to end Democratic support for Israel and to reexamine US military aid,” he said, “With this language now stripped out, the milquetoast statement is even more bland than before. Arguably it now does more harm than good, signaling to Israel that it will face no serious repercussions from Democrats in the Senate if it goes through with annexation.”
JVP Action Government Affairs Manager Beth Miller also used the word milquetoast while describing the letter. “For over a year, we’ve heard from Democrats that they will turn up the pressure if Israel moves to annex the West Bank,” she said, “That’s happening now and it’s been happening for decades: they’re re-drawing the map as we speak. And these Democrats are showing us that milquetoast letters are the most they are willing to do? Until our lawmakers take concrete action to hold the Israeli government accountable, nothing will change.”
Holding Israel accountable for its actions is certainly popular among Democratic voters. A 2019 Data for Progress survey found that 64% of Democrats support reducing aid to the country over its human rights violations. In fact, there’s even recent polling which suggests the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) is gaining popularity among Dem voters. Another 2019 Data for Progress poll found that 44% of Democrats support BDS and 53% of them considered the movement legitimate. A University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll generated similar results: of the Democrats who had heard of BDS, nearly half of them said they supported the movement.
The Netanyahu-Gantz coalition government will be sworn in this week and Netanyahu has made it clear that he intends to move forward with annexation plans this summer. Although the Trump administration has said that a joint committee would need to map out the potentially impacted areas, Netanyahu has said that Trump already pledged his support for the plan. Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has also told an Israeli paper that the administration is prepared to support annexation in the coming weeks.
Almost every Democrat opposes all this, but virtually none of them want to even suggest doing anything about it. Just look at the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden. Biden is on the record opposing annexation, but he also adamantly opposes conditioning military aid to Israel. “The idea that we would draw military assistance from Israel, on the condition that they change a specific policy, I find it to be absolutely outrageous,” he told a reporter in November.
This week a number of progressive and antiwar organizations sent Biden a letter calling for an end to the United States’s destructive foreign policy. The letter, which was signed by Jewish Voice for Peace Action, MoveOn, Our Revolution, and over 50 other groups, has a specific section addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “We call on you to use a combination of pressure and incentives, including leveraging the annual $3.8 billion in U.S. military funding to Israel, to get all parties to come to an agreement that upholds U.N. Security Council Resolutions and international law, including non-exhaustively:
ending Israel’s military occupation; disbanding Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; ending the Israeli military blockade of Gaza; and ending all attacks on civilians, be they Israeli or Palestinian,” it reads.
Unfortunately, the coming Democratic position on annexation can probably be gleaned by simply looking at their current take on the embassy. Nearly every Democratic presidential candidate said they opposed the Trump administration moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but not one of them were prepared to say they would do anything about it. Even Bernie Sanders (the only candidate to consistently bring up the subject of conditioning aid to Israel during the campaign) would not actually suggest moving the embassy back to Tel Aviv, although he did say he might consider the move during a February debate.
Biden recently reiterated the fact that he wouldn’t move the embassy back, if he ends up beating Trump in November. “It should not have been moved,” Biden said during a virtual fundraiser, “The move shouldn’t have happened in the context as it did, it should happen in the context of a larger deal to help us achieve important concessions for peace in the process. Moving the embassy when we did without the conditions having been met was short-sighted and frivolous. But now that is done, I would not move the embassy back to Tel Aviv.”
When I interviewed Arab American Institute co-founder and author James Zogby last month, he explained how these spectacles have basically defined the modern Democratic Party’s position on Israel.
“Even when people talk about ending the settlements, there’s no help at all,” said Zogby, “Obama said continued settlement expansion is illegitimate, but what about the ones that are already built? They became existing realities that we were expected to adapt to. So the point is, it’s illegal if you create new ones, but once you create them it’s a reality and you can’t do anything about that. So that’s become the debate on the establishment Democratic side.”