If you care about Palestinian human rights, the virtual Democratic Convention last week was dispiriting. The issue was never mentioned in any of the primetime speeches; the party leadership crushed the party’s leftwing base on the question. It was all but removed from the platform, per the instructions of Joe Biden himself reportedly… Kamala Harris is an AIPAC-style Israel supporter who famously was dumbfounded when the New York Times asked her about problems with Israel’s human rights record… Joe Biden has been visiting Israel for nearly 50 years and counts every Israeli prime minister including Netanyahu as a dear friend, and he went out of his way to stomp on Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour.
The Dems’ message is clear. Joe Biden is the most pro-Israel nominee for president, ever. We will not be out-Israel’d by Donald Trump. Joe Biden is no Barack Obama who is going to be a “troublemaker” on Israel–why he just penned a platform to the right of Likud! Reports that the Democratic Party is fracturing over the issue are the fantasies of a few hotheads on the left, as Ted Deutch and Nancy Pelosi continually assure us. (Or as Pelosi told an Israel lobby group during the last cycle, the Capitol will crumble and fall before the Democrats walk away from Israel.)
Palestine is just not a progressive issue, the Democrats will have you believe. Biden’s aides are willing to play ball on a number of leftwing issues. But not Israel. “What appeared less than a year ago to be a party pendulum swinging away from conventional pro-Israel orthodoxies has swung back,” Ron Kampeas writes at JTA. “The reason was simple: Joe Biden.”
Two questions. Why is the Party crushing the base on this issue? (Money) Will that orthodoxy hold? (No.)
1. The party cares more about big donors than voters. After all, if the Dems were to run left on the Israel issue, there’s political hay to be made. Americans are for cutting aid to Israel because of human rights violations by survey margins of 45 to 34 percent, with Democrats backing such measures, 64 to 11 percent. This is consistent with other data showing that young people and people of color are more sympathetic to Palestine than to Israel.
The party is afraid to reflect such sentiments because it fears losing a critical elite to Republicans: pro-Israel donors. I’ve gone into this subject exhaustively elsewhere. But the key facts are that the party leadership regards the Jewish community as 90-95 percent for Israel (per Jill Jacobs and Batya Ungar-Sargon) and sees that community as the source of half of its funding. Major donors such as Haim Saban and Seth Klarman care deeply about preserving Israel as a Jewish state, and the party doesn’t want any battles on this question. The playbook is simple: In 2011, when Barack Obama said peace would be based on the ’67 lines, Netanyahu went nuts, and Obama’s aide had to call Jewish donors. “A number of congressional Democrats distanced themselves from the speech. I was given a list of leading Jewish donors to call to reassure them of Obama’s pro-Israel bona fides,” Ben Rhodes wrote. No wonder VP Joe Biden swallowed the humiliation and made nice when Israel announced new settlements just as he was flying into Israel on a visit in 2010. Or that Hillary Clinton tied herself into knots for Haim Saban in 2016.
Ergo, no occupation in the platform!
2. The orthodoxy can’t hold. Joe Biden is old and conservative. Progressives want Trump out as much as he does, but as soon as Biden is in the White House (fingers crossed), the progressives will be all over him. And they are the future.
The big news of this political season has been the growth of the congressional Squad, with the victories in Missouri of Cori Bush and in the Bronx/Westchester of Jamaal Bowman, who defeated a lead voice of the lobby, Eliot Engel, chair of House Foreign Affairs. And Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar handily turning back well-funded challengers. When the Democratic base rallies, big money loses its power, is the story.
The brilliance of the Israel lobby is that it can find plenty of highly-plausible politicians of color who will support Israel. Kamala Harris says Israel is not a human rights offender. New York Congressperson-to-be Ritchie Torres has been there twice and can tell you he feels at home in Israel “as if it were my own country.” Congressional leader Hakeem Jeffries declares, “Israel today, Israel tomorrow, Israel forever.” Just as Israel was killing 500 Palestinian children in Gaza.
But these people are all politicians, they’re not ideologues. They will change when the wind finally changes. Years after George Wallace said Segregation now and forever, he changed his position, and so will Jeffries.
There is simply too much weight in the progressive camp today. Young Democrats want change. Eliot Engel and Antone Melton-Meaux got millions from Israel lobby friends. They both went down to grassroots campaigns.
For years the Israel issue wasn’t even allowed to be debated in Congress. Now it is, at the fringe, and that fringe is expanding by the day. Yes, the party leadership just conducted a perfect convention without a Palestinian in sight. But I just watched LBJ’s acceptance speech from ’64. He continually referred to the average citizen as “he,” there wasn’t a black person near the stage, and a lot of the crowd was smoking. The Israel lobby is going the way of Lucky Strikes.