The Democrats Are Not a Pro-Palestinian Party

Chuck Schumer, champion of the Palestinians. Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith wrote an obituary for the bipartisan consensus on the Israel-Palestine conflict. In it, Smith argues that Donald Trump’s zero-sum worldview will speed his party’s transition away from the two-state solution and toward the ideal of a single Jewish state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

“The concept of Palestinian Arab was created to exist only in opposition to Israel and with them it’s always been a zero-sum game,” Jeff Ballabon, a lawyer and Republican activist who has worked for years to build support for a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, told Smith. “And because it’s a zero-sum game it’s never really been about negotiating issues — it’s always been: ‘Somebody’s going to be ethnically cleansed and it ain’t going to be me.’”

That reasoning comports with Trump’s understanding of global trade (substitute “fleeced” for “ethnically cleansed” in Ballabon’s last sentence, and you have the CliffNotes version of the president-elect’s trade platform). And, as Smith astutely notes, the one-state position is of a piece with Trump’s Islamophobic brand of nationalism, which imagines an intractable “clash of civilizations” between the Muslim world and the West.

Considering this, it isn’t surprising that Trump would pick a man who thinks liberal Jews are “worse than kapos” as his ambassador to Israel — or that he would spearhead his party’s apoplectic response to last week’s U.N. resolution, which merely reiterated the illegality of Israel’s West Bank settlements.

But even if Trump weren’t ideologically sympathetic to the hard right position on Israel-Palestine, embracing the one-state reality is the path of least resistance for any Republican president.

The Netanyahu government has established over and over, in word and in deed, that it has no genuine interest in the two-state solution. You do not expand the Jewish population of the West Bank by over 100,000 in eight years if you care about furthering the prospects of a peace agreement with the Palestinians; nor, for that matter, do you promise your party’s voters that such an agreement will never happen as long as you retain your grip on power. And AIPAC and the Republican Party have worked tirelessly to brand anything less than unequivocal support for the Netanyahu government as objectively “anti-Israel.”

But while Smith attributes most of the responsibility for the dwindling prospects of the two-state solution to Trump, his party, and right-wing American Jews, Smith can’t resist the siren song of false equivalence: If the Republican Party is moving in a militantly “pro-Israel” direction, surely the Democratic Party is moving toward an evermore “pro-Palestinian” stance:

Donald Trump’s election was a vote against a certain kind of foreign policy idealism — the notions that a superpower doesn’t need to choose sides, and that diplomacy can produce “win-win” outcomes…When Obama took a step away from Israel — abstaining from a UN vote on settlements, and allowing his secretary of state to chide Israel — Trump responded with the first real foreign policy move of his pre-presidency, a decisive embrace of one side of the Middle East conflict. After all, his campaign was about choosing sides.

This is probably where US politics was going anyway. Republicans have long given half-hearted support to the notion of a Palestinian state, and only because American pro-Israel groups asked them to. Obama had kept the lid on a Democratic Party shift toward a Palestinian point of view — his 2012 convention involved awkwardly ignoring a pro-Palestinian protest — but he is ending his term in angry conflict with Israel, and seems to have set a new, more straightforwardly pro-Palestinian direction for the Democratic Party.

…In a United States where partisanship seems to shape policy views (ie, climate) rather than vice versa, it’s easy to see where this heads. There are two warring tribes. Each party supports one. Israel becomes a Republican cause, while Democrats align with the Palestinians. U.S. elections could carry even larger stakes for both sides than they have before. [Emphasis mine].

Smith suggests that by refusing to block a U.N. resolution that condemned both Palestinian terrorism and Israeli settlements — a resolution that enjoyed the unanimous support of America’s major European allies — Obama moved his party away from neutrality in the Israel-Palestine conflict and toward a “more straightforwardly pro-Palestinian” position.

But this idea — that opposing Israeli settlements is tantamount to taking the Palestinians’ side — is precisely the lie that has helped kill bipartisan support for the two-state solution.

In truth, by allowing the U.N. to condemn West Bank settlements, Obama was not abandoning the longstanding consensus on two states, but reaffirming it: Last week’s vote marked the first time in eight years that Obama had allowed the U.N. to pass a resolution that was specifically critical of Israel. Ronald Reagan allowed the U.N. to pass 21 such resolutions. Not just allowed — as Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev notes, the Gipper had the United States join Muslim and communist countries in condemning “Israel’s policies and practices” for “denying the human rights of Palestinians.”

George H.W. Bush allowed the U.N. to adopt nine resolutions critical of Israel — and cut off loan guarantees to the Israeli government over settlement expansion. Obama, by contrast, paired his rhetorical reprimand on settlements with a $38 billion aid package to the Israeli military — the largest such gift in American history.

Bill Clinton, for his part, allowed the U.N. to pass three resolutions critical of Israel; George W. Bush allowed six.

If anything, Obama’s tenure has been aberrant in its indifference to Palestinian concerns, not in its sensitivity to them.

And his single gesture on behalf of the occupied at the U.N. was immediately met with opposition from leading members of his (“pro-Palestinian”) party — including incoming Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and potential 2020 candidate Cory Booker.

Smith establishes that Trump’s top advisers see Palestinians’ aspirations for statehood as illegitimate, and ethnic cleansing as a justifiable means of preserving Israel’s Jewish majority. He notes that the GOP removed the words “two-state solution” from its 2016 platform for a reason.

This is compelling evidence that the Republican Party is abandoning the two-state solution and choosing Israel’s side in a zero-sum game for total control of Israel-Palestine.

But beyond Obama’s lone abstention, the only evidence Smith can muster for the Democratic Party moving in an analogous fashion toward the Palestinian cause is the existence of left-wing activists who favor a bi-national state.

This is a notable development, which could plausibly have implications for the future of the Democratic Party, but which says nothing about its present: The idea that the Democrats are biased toward the Palestinians would be news to anyone old enough to remember when Hillary Clinton castigated Trump for suggesting that he would try to be a “neutral” broker in the Israel-Palestine conflict, explaining, “We can’t be neutral when rockets rain down on residential neighborhoods, when civilians are stabbed in the street, when suicide bombers target the innocent.”

It would also be news to anyone who remembers when the vast majority of the Democratic caucus signed on to a resolution expressing its support for Israel’s 2014 campaign in Gaza, even as Israeli missiles decimated Palestinian homes, schools, and hospitals, killing more than 2,000 Gazans, over 60 percent of whom, by U.N and Associated Press estimates, were civilians.

But okay. Let’s pretend all this history is just a hallucination and stipulate Smith’s frame: Let’s say that Obama has moved the Democratic Party in the direction of left-wing activists who reject the two-state solution in favor of a federal, bi-national state, while Trump is leading the GOP toward an explicit endorsement of a Zionist Greater Israel, made possible via ethnic cleansing and/or Apartheid rule.

If this is the choice, supporting civil and political rights for non-Jews in Greater Israel wouldn’t be taking the “Palestinians’ side,” so much as taking the side of our own nation’s core principles — specially, the principles of self-government and equality before the law that we recently sacrificed thousands of lives and trillions of dollars in hopes of exporting to the Middle East. If one sees the Palestinians as humans, rather than as fictional people, this point would be clear: Supporters of the American Civil Rights Movement were not taking “African-Americans’ side” in a zero-sum game against white people.

Regardless, the actual, status quo position of the Republican Party on Israel-Palestine is that the Israeli government deserves America’s unconditional support, because Palestinians are not worthy of our moral concern. The Democratic Party’s position is that the Israeli government deserves America’s unconditional material support, but that there should, perhaps, be a limit to how much it can infringe on Palestinian rights without some form of rhetorical or symbolic rebuke, because Palestinians deserve a measure of moral concern, albeit infinitesimally as much as the Israelis do.

If you characterize the latter position as “straightforwardly pro-Palestinian,” then you’re the one that’s choosing sides.

The Democrats Are Not a Pro-Palestinian Party