Why more Democrats are pressing Biden to support Palestinian rights

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem, May 25, 2021.
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President Joe Biden came into office vowing to make human rights an integral plank of his foreign policy. The latest flare-ups in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the international reaction to perceived Israeli overreach, are putting a spotlight on that foreign policy.

Critics in the Democratic Party, particularly on the left, have grown impatient with unwavering U.S. support for Israel and are questioning why more attention isn’t given to Palestinian rights. This shift is partly generational and reflects the greater diversity among Democrats in Congress. But even New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat and longtime Israel ally, has chided Israel for its actions in Gaza. 

Analysts say President Biden has shifted his rhetoric on the conflict by speaking of Palestinian democracy and freedom. But that doesn’t mean he’s about to change fundamentally how he sees the conflict or the U.S.-Israel alliance. Veteran U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross says of the president, “He had a very clear sense of what was right and what wasn’t right, and he was pretty consistent in sticking by that.” 

Why We Wrote This

A shift within the Democratic Party has eroded its support for Israel in its handling of the Palestinian conflict. That shift has put a spotlight on the weight that President Biden has put on human rights in his foreign policy.

For decades, the Democratic Party has stood by Israel in times of war and peace.

Today, that support no longer looks so solid. In the Democratic-controlled Congress, more lawmakers are calling out Israel for its actions in its latest conflict with Hamas that ended in a cease-fire last week. And this poses a dilemma for President Joe Biden, a staunch ally of Israel who has vowed to make human rights a priority, not an afterthought in his administration.  

On May 15, after the U.S. blocked United Nations efforts to seek a cease-fire in Gaza, where Israeli airstrikes had leveled residential buildings in retaliation for Hamas rockets, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat, issued a caustic tweet. “If the Biden administration can’t stand up to an ally,” meaning Israel, “who can it stand up to? How can they credibly claim to stand for human rights?”

Why We Wrote This

A shift within the Democratic Party has eroded its support for Israel in its handling of the Palestinian conflict. That shift has put a spotlight on the weight that President Biden has put on human rights in his foreign policy.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and other Democratic critics say the United States looks hypocritical for standing unwaveringly by Israel even as it took actions in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Hamas-controlled Gaza that a mounting international chorus condemned as gross violations of Palestinian rights.

And it’s not just firebrands in Congress who are challenging Mr. Biden to steer away from a traditional “Israel first and unquestioned” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and toward a more nuanced and balanced approach that puts human rights at the fore.

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a longtime staunch Israel supporter, issued a statement on the same day as Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet. He called out Israel for “the death of innocent civilians” and for targeting a Gaza high-rise in which international media outlets had offices.

Taken together, this amounts to a wake-up call for the White House that the Democratic Party has now shifted on how it sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. role in addressing it.

“What we’ve seen over the past two weeks is a tectonic shift in the American approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and primarily from Congress, away from the standard ‘I stand with Israel’ response to a focus on the human rights and inalienable rights of the people suffering in this,” says Hadar Susskind, president of Americans for Peace Now, a Jewish organization supporting both Israel and an equitable settlement of the conflict.   

“No one is saying that standing with Israel is a bad thing,” he adds, “but rather that the same response people have given for 30 years in these situations is not a whole answer in terms of what we’re doing on the ground to make things better for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talks to reporters in Washington, May 13, 2021. After the U.S. blocked United Nations efforts to seek a cease-fire in Gaza, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “If the Biden administration can’t stand up to an ally, who can it stand up to? How can they credibly claim to stand for human rights?”

Greater sympathy in Congress

The shift reflects a set of domestic factors, ranging from a more diverse class of Democratic members of Congress more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and young American Jews willing to be more critical of Israel, to a backlash to President Donald Trump’s “Israel yes, Palestinians no” approach.

For some, a year of U.S. and indeed global focus on issues of race and institutional discrimination following the death of George Floyd has also placed a new spotlight on the inequalities facing Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

But Mr. Biden’s own emphasis on human rights and values like freedom and self-governance has also played a role in encouraging the trend, some political analysts say.  

On Monday, more than 500 Biden campaign workers and Democratic staffers in Congress and elsewhere sent the president an open letter “imploring” him to “hold Israel accountable for its actions and lay the groundwork for justice and lasting peace.”

The signatories then added, “The very same values that motivated us to work countless hours to elect you demand that we speak out.” 

A rhetoric shift

At the same time, the shifting American outlook reflects a perspective gaining ground in Congress and elsewhere that unquestioned U.S. support, particularly under President Trump, has only emboldened Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to steamroll Palestinian demands for greater rights and justice.

The question now, some analysts say, will be to what extent Mr. Biden will temper his support for Israel in order to incorporate the views of young progressives in his party. Last month, he promised to restore $235 million in aid to Palestinians that Mr. Trump had cut off. That was before the 11-day war erupted in Gaza after weeks of rising tensions in East Jerusalem over the eviction of Palestinian families.

Some already see evidence of a significant shift in Mr. Biden’s rhetoric. When he welcomed last week’s Israel-Hamas cease-fire, he used language that diplomats with long experience in Middle East affairs say carries weight in the region. “I believe the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and to enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy,” Mr. Biden said on May 20.

That reference by a U.S. president to equal treatment of Israelis and Palestinians may end up being remembered as the hallmark of this crisis.

“For the first time we have a president of the United States talking about equal [rights] ... that Palestinians and Israelis should enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, dignity, and so on,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, speaking Friday at a Council on Foreign Relations event.

“That word ‘equal,’” he added, “is a sign for me that the argument about rights, rather than about a two-state solution, is what is emerging from this crisis.”      

A consistent Israel ally

Some critics of Israeli policy saw Mr. Biden’s reference to Palestinian freedom and democracy as an unusually strong swipe at its occupation of the West Bank. But others with close knowledge of Mr. Biden’s thinking caution against expecting any significant change in his outlook.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Joe Biden arrives to speak about a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, in the Cross Hall of the White House, May 20, 2021, in Washington.

“Having seen Biden in action ... and especially on these issues, he had a very clear sense of what was right and what wasn’t right, and he was pretty consistent in sticking by that,” says Dennis Ross, a longtime Middle East adviser to administrations of both major parties who served as special assistant on the region to President Barack Obama.

“So, I suspect of course the arguments of those on the progressive wing are going to be heard, but how much they’ll move him from what he thinks is the right way to proceed – I would have my doubts,” adds Mr. Ross, now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Indeed, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meeting Tuesday in Jerusalem with Mr. Netanyahu on the first of three days in the region, underscored Mr. Biden’s overarching commitment to Israel’s security and right to defend itself: “For the president, as many of you know, this commitment is personal. It runs deep. He has been one of Israel’s most steadfast supporters for the last 50 years.”

But Mr. Blinken also echoed the language of Mr. Biden’s statement, saying Israelis and Palestinians “equally deserve to live safely and securely” and to “enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity, and democracy.”

This suggests that the Biden administration has settled on a new rhetorical formula for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But how far the administration moves from rhetoric to policy is unclear – just as it remains uncertain whether those moves will be enough to satisfy Democrats clamoring for a new direction.

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