There has been a chorus of liberal lamentations over the flap created by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s decision to deny two US congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib (MI-D) and Ilhan Omar (MN-D), the right to visit occupied Palestinian lands. The anguish expressed by a number of politicians and commentators has taken a variety of forms. Most, however, completely missing the mark.
Some Democrats have blamed US President Donald Trump, saying that it was his tweet to Netanyahu that caused the Israeli premier to reverse himself and deny entry. Others expressed “deep disappointment” with the Netanyahu decision, worrying about the impact it would have on the growing partisan divide over attitudes towards Israel. Still others put these two concerns together, insisting that is the Trump/Netanyahu partnership that is solely responsible for the breakdown of bipartisan support for Israel.
These views are ahistorical, naïve and insulting to the intelligence of the many American political constituencies whose views towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have changed during the past several decades. They also, quite amazingly, ignore the role played by the growing public awareness of the sheer brutality of the Israeli occupation and the resultant reality of Palestinian suffering.
To be clear, while support for Israel, in the abstract, has always been strong, there has long been a partisan divide on attitudes towards Israeli policies. This was evident during the First Intifada, when many Democratic voters recoiled at Israel’s brutal response to stone-throwing Palestinian youth. At the 1988 Democratic Convention, as polls showed growing Democratic sympathy for Palestinians, I led the Jackson delegation’s push for a pro-Palestinian peace plank in the party platform with the support of more than 1,200 delegates. Facing tremendous pressure from the party establishment, we called for “no vote” on our plank. But we still maintained our right to have a floor demonstration and speeches from the podium in favour of our position. This was the first time such views were heard at a convention.
During the 1990s, the divide was reinforced as the Republican Party fell hostage to the religious right and the neo-conservatives who combined to oppose President Clinton’s push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Back then, it was Speaker Newt Gingrich’s embrace of Israel’s Likud Party that resulted in legislation that impeded the Oslo peace process, culminating in Gingrich’s invitation to Netanyahu to deliver his first address to a joint session of Congress. The Israeli leader used that speech to make clear his intention to literally bury the “Oslo Accords”.
In the midst of the Second Intifada, after rejecting the efforts of his own peace envoys, president George W Bush embraced prime Minister Ariel Sharon, calling him a “man of peace”. While pursuing his deeply divisive war in Iraq, Bush largely neglected Israeli-Palestinian peace-making until his second term, at which point his neglect and recklessness had created conditions that made a solution more difficult to achieve. The Israeli right and its settlement agenda had been emboldened.
Once again, polls were showing a deep partisan divide, with Republicans in lock step with their president and more liberal Democrats distancing themselves not from the idea of “Israel” but from Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.
This divide only grew with the election of president Barack Obama and the return to power in Israel of Binyamin Netanyahu. Israeli efforts to stymie Obama’s peace-making diplomacy served to exacerbate the split. When Republicans once again invited Netanyahu to address a joint session, this time to oppose the Iran nuclear deal, the Democratic/Republican rupture was on full display, with 60 Democrats taking the unprecedented step of boycotting the speech.
When Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016, he gave voice to the growing disenchantment of Democratic voters with the party establishments’ support for Israel. For the first time since Jackson in 1988, we had a full-throated debate on Israel’s occupation policies.
The point is that the gap between how Republicans and Democrats have understood this issue isn’t new with Trump and Netanyahu. It’s been growing for decades. Two observations are in order.
In the first place, what appears in polling as a partisan split on views towards Israeli policies and Palestinian human rights masks the reality that it is, in fact, a demographic divide. Attitudes among Republicans are largely shaped by the 40 per cent of their voters who identify as “born-again” Christians and also by those who hold strong anti-Arab, anti-Muslim views. Attitudes of Democratic voters’ views are shaped by Millennials, Blacks, Latinos, Asians and voters without any religious affiliation — all of whom are more favourable of Arabs and Muslims and more supportive of Palestinians.
More than Trump and Netanyahu creating the divide, they are reflecting it and, to an extent, exacerbating it. Trump is simply a cruder version of Gingrich and Bush. And Netanyahu reflects mainstream Israeli attitudes towards the occupation. In the upcoming Israeli election, there is no possible winner who promises a different approach towards the Palestinians. And, in the US, the divide among voters had always been there, but the Democratic Party’s elected leadership has been able to ignore it and paper over it with resolutions of bipartisan support for Israel. What the courageous leadership of Tlaib, a Palestinian American, and Omar, a Somali-Yemeni American immigrant, have done is to make such a façade of unanimity impossible to maintain.
Just last week, 41 Democrats and 31 Republicans travelled to Israel on an AIPAC trip to demonstrate their support. It was interesting to note that most of the Democrats didn’t tweet about their visit. They knew their voters wouldn’t be interested in or supportive of their pilgrimage. The visit was greeted by the media as a largely ho-hum business-as-usual affair.
But the Tlaib/Omar visit was to be something else. They weren’t going to focus on officials. They were going to expose the reality of Palestinian daily life under occupation. They were going to visit the wall that separates Palestinians from their lands. They were going to refugee camps now cut off from US funding. They were going to see how Hebron has been horridly deformed by a settler invasion and military occupation. And they were going to hear stories of real people and how their lives have been affected by an oppressive and humiliating occupation. And the press would be with them every step of the way.
At first Netanyahu begrudgingly agreed to the visit, but then turned to Trump to give him a way out. When Trump obliged, the Israeli prime minister backtracked hoping it would put an end to the potential embarrassment. Instead, the whole episode has exposed the real Israel known all too well by the Palestinian citizens of the state, the Palestinians living under occupation, and the countless Arab Americans who have faced discrimination, detention or denial of entry for decades when attempting to visit the occupied territories.
And so, instead of just expressing disappointment, worrying about the potential impact on bipartisan support for Israel, or blaming Trump, liberals need to recognise a few realities. The partisan divide has been with us for decades and its causes are Israeli policies that have imposed unbearable hardships on Palestinians, making peace more difficult to achieve. The Israeli occupation has been enabled by both Republican encouragement and the cowardice of the Democratic establishment to challenge it. What’s new is that the voices of the Democratic voters, long disenchanted by their leadership’s acquiescence, now have champions in Congress who are bringing this divide into the open. And Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar exposed all this without even setting foot in Israel or Palestine. I, for one, cannot wait for them to conduct their official visit.
*The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly