While it may be too dismissive to declare that the US presidential election does not impact the question of Palestine, it is quite reasonable to conclude that the identity of the occupant of that office is of little relevance when it comes to Palestine. No other foreign policy issue is characterized by the intransigent and bipartisan consistency that shapes the question of Palestine and the United States’ relationship to Israel. Since the 1967 War, when President Lyndon B. Johnson scrapped a dual containment policy in the Middle East in favor of one supporting permanent Israeli military preeminence, the American political machine has systematically performed a disciplining function that makes top-down reform by the political establishment on the question of Palestine a quixotic endeavor. The workings of this disciplinary machine eclipse any meaningful distinction between Republican and Democratic administrations regardless of variations in the rhetoric deployed or the intentions espoused.
Attributing this disciplinary power to the Israel lobby is reductionist, not to mention horribly disempowering. While this lobby has performed an effective function in maintaining bipartisan consistency, it is only one part of a constellation of interests that have become so deeply enmeshed in the political establishment as to become seemingly “natural” and “timeless.”
Following the June 1967 War and in the midst of US penetration into Vietnam (a hot war in the Cold War), the Johnson Administration committed to providing Israel with a Qualitative Military Edge (QME) over its Arab neighbors. This would guarantee Israel ”the ability to counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat from any individual state or possible coalition of states or from non-state actors, while sustaining minimal damage and casualties, through the use of superior military means.” Johnson also introduced the land-for-peace framework that ultimately shaped the logic of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 242 as well as US Middle East policy into the present-day. Johnson believed that Israel should not be forced to withdraw from Arab lands as a matter of legal obligation but, instead, should use those lands as negotiating leverage to establish permanent peace with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Although every US administration since then has opposed Israeli settlements as a matter of law and policy, this two-pronged commitment has sustained the United States’ unwillingness to alter Israel’s behavior. Moreover, the United States has consistently rejected international sanctions because they would threaten Israel’s regional military prowess. In those cases where it has wanted to alter policy, as the Ford Administration sought to do as early as 1975 vis-à-vis settlements, it has been unable to do so due, in large part, to the efficacy of the Israel lobby.
This trifecta of US commitment to Israel’s QME, its desire to establish a political resolution not dictated by the bounds of law, as well as the impact of special interest groups on Congress has become so deeply internalized by the political establishment so as to collapse and conflate US and Israeli national interests as a matter of policy and even political psychology. With rare exceptions, like the 2015 Iranian Nuclear Agreement, the United States has remained unwilling and unable to adopt bold policy changes in the Middle East, even in furtherance of its national interests.
Disciplining the Obama Administration
This disciplinary power has been on full and devastating display during the two terms of the Obama Administration. When first elected into office, President Barack Obama broke with the mold and established new precedents, including telephoning Arab leaders before European allies; appointing Senator George Mitchell as a special envoy; speaking to Al-Arabiyya and thus to the Arab world for his first interview as president; and indicating a willingness to support a Palestinian unity government, including Hamas, without preconditions. But the promise of these unprecedented gestures quickly faded into the politically expedient machinations of Washington. The political cost of breaking with precedent and defying the norm was far too high for the Obama Administration which was loathe to risk undermining all of its domestic ambitions. Neither peace nor the lure of heroic legacies, and certainly not the interests of Palestinians, were worth the effort. Thus, during Obama’s time in office there were three large-scale Israeli military onslaughts against the besieged population of the Gaza Strip, with US support. Likewise, during these years it was business as usual in the Security Council where the Obama administration used its first veto to shoot down a resolution condemning Israeli settlements, even though the text was plagiarized verbatim from US policy statements. Simultaneously, the Administration urged Israel to establish a moratorium on settlement expansion putting the irony of U.S. policy into sharper reprieve.
During his final year in office, President Obama set a new precedent by signing a Memorandum of Understanding with Israel that will increase US military aid from three billion dollars to 3.8 billion annually over the next ten years.
Discipline and Compliance on the Electoral Trail
We have seen the impact of this disciplinary function throughout the elections themselves. During the Republican primary debate in February 2016, Donald Trump said he could not take Israel’s side because it would “start demeaning the neighbors... Because I would love to do something with regard to negotiating peace, finally, for Israel and for their neighbors.” He also refused to recognize Jerusalem as the united Israeli capital. By July 2016, as the presumptive nominee Trump had changed his tune and pledged his unequivocal allegiance to the powerful lobbying organization AIPAC at its annual conference where he declared, “Support for Israel is an expression of Americanism. . . . We reject the false notion that Israel is an occupier.” Notably, Trump’s shift was not just a response to the lobby to curry its support but also an appeal to his white nationalist base, which sees itself in affinity with a Western-backed colonial power at the edge of the Islamic world. Thus, it made perfect sense to select Indiana governor Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian and an avid Israel supporter, as his running mate.
For her part, Hilary Clinton was so deeply entrenched in the political establishment that she needed no disciplining to maintain the line. During the Democratic primaries, she vowed to combat the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as part of her priorities as president. The Democratic Party already had begun a rightward shift in its commitment to Israel. Although the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders created a unique opportunity to expand the discussion on Palestine, it was hardly enough. His team introduced an amendment to the draft Democratic Party Platform that affirmed US support for Israel as well as the two-state solution. Sanders also called for an end to occupation and a commitment to rebuild Gaza. The Platform Committee voted it down eight-to-five; all five yes votes were Sanders’ appointees. During the final drafting process, the Democratic Platform regressed even further on the question of Palestine. While it stayed in line with the AIPAC-inspired language of the 2012 Platform in expressing unequivocal support for Israel and recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, it also added language to oppose “any effort to delegitimize Israel, including at the United Nations or through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement [BDS].”
These trends to suppress BDS reflect the growing influence and mounting successes of the Palestine solidarity movement. As popular support for Israel cracks, the establishment is reifying its bias as a matter of outright coercion, which indicates its waning strength. In the past two years the US-based BDS movement has achieved critical mainstreaming milestones, including Ms. Lauryn Hill’s decision to cancel her concert in Tel Aviv; the endorsement by Presbyterian Church USA as well as the Methodist Church to divest from companies that profit from the occupation; more than twenty-two universities passing divestment resolutions in their student senates; and the Association of Asian American Studies, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, and the American Studies Association have all endorsed the academic boycott of Israel. This is to say nothing of how these campaigns have deepened the entwinements between the Palestine solidarity movement and the progressive left in the United States and how these alignments have catalyzed new campaigns as well as political discourses.
A May 2016 poll quantified the impact of these strides. A Pew poll showed that support for Palestinians among millennials (i.e., people in their twenties) jumped from nine percent in 2006 to twenty percent in 2014 and twenty-seven percent in 2016. On the whole, American support for Israel has shrunk to fifty-four percent, while nineteen percent said they sympathize more with Palestinians. Most notably, there appears to be an increasing partisan divide on the question of Palestine. Seventy-five percent of Republicans said they are more sympathetic to Israel while seven percent say they are more sympathetic to Palestinians indicating a positive trend that this could in fact become a partisan issue at least at the grassroots base.
How does this grassroots development comport with the intransigent and regressive positions of the US political establishment? In many ways, this conundrum reflects yet another example of how the US political establishment’s treatment of Palestine is not exceptional at all. For example, despite significant popular support for tighter gun control policies, the US political establishment, at all levels, has been unable to achieve gun reform. The dissonance reflects a very broken system or, depending on how you look at it, the seamless efficacy of a non-representative system’s ability to maintain order through voluntary compliance.
Reconciling this paradox requires looking beyond the US political establishment for transformative change. It also means reevaluating political progress as a process that does not occur across a linear continuum. Instead, seismic shifts culminate haphazardly as a result of a confluence of factors; many of which, social movements themselves have generated and others that are completely unexpected. In the aftermath of this election, the mandate for the Palestine solidarity movement in the United States remains the same: creating fractures among the grassroots base on US heterodoxy regarding Israel; running campaigns that create controversy and opportunities for broad public engagement; and further deepening political commitments within a progressive left framework so that the road to better understanding Palestine is paved along a path of labor in movements for racial, social, economic, and indigenous justice in the United States. In doing so, the primary aim of the Palestine solidarity movement is not necessarily changing the political establishment at the top but rather, establishing the foundation that will make that (inevitable) change more viable.