On Israel and Palestine, US Electeds Are Out of Touch With Their Own Voters

On Israel and Palestine, US Electeds Are Out of Touch With Their Own Voters

On Israel and Palestine, US Electeds Are Out of Touch With Their Own Voters

It’s showing up in public opinion, media coverage, and even political and policy discourse.

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The United States’ support for Israel—military, financial, diplomatic and more—is an old story. It hasn’t changed much, other than to escalate. Israel bombs Gaza, and Congress votes to send hundreds of millions of dollars beyond the $3.8 billion mandated by law, and to send new weapons to replace those used up in the assault. Israeli settlers officially backed by police and military raid Jenin and other West Bank towns, attacking residents and seizing land to expand illegal settlements, all in violation of international law, and Washington continues to protect Israel from ever being held accountable in the International Criminal Court or the United Nations. Israel elects an extremist government including self-declared fascists as cabinet ministers, and Congress invites the Israeli president to address a joint session, soon followed by a White House invitation to the leader of Israel’s extremist government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We’ve seen this story before.

Israel’s recent assault on the Jenin refugee camp killed 12 Palestinians, four of them children. It left behind over 140 injured. Bombing and shelling damaged three hospitals, and over 900 houses, many of them now uninhabitable, and forced more than 4,000 people to flee their homes—refugees becoming refugees again. The US response reflected, once again, Washington’s role as chief arms provider, financier, and protector of Israel. Biden refused even to urge a cease-fire. Despite the president’s claim to keep human rights at the center of his foreign policy, Israel’s most recent assault showed again how little Palestinian lives count in Washington’s strategic calculus.

The invitation to the Israeli president to address Congress was issued despite the campaigns of official violence against Palestinians perpetrated on his watch. It was clearly designed as a way of diverting US attention from the racist extremism at the center of the current Israeli government, as if the attacks on Gaza, the house demolitions, and the expansion of settlements across the West Bank, and so many other violations of US and international law, had not taken place under every Israeli government of every party.

US reactions were business as usual. But Washington’s predictable official answers don’t happen in a vacuum. US responses to these and earlier events show that something new is happening. In one recent example, when the invitation to President Herzog was issued, members of Congress immediately announced their intention to boycott his speech. It wasn’t surprising, because it wasn’t the first time—back in 2015, when Republicans invited the Israeli prime minister to address a joint session of Congress specifically in order to mobilize against then-President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, 60 members of Congress, mostly from the Congressional Black Caucus, outraged by Netanyahu’s overt racism toward Obama, publicly refused to attend. It was unprecedented then—but no longer.

There is an enormous, and growing, chasm between so many elected officials—in Congress and the White House—and the voters back home who elect them. It’s showing up in all kinds of ways—and public opinion, media coverage, and even, just a little bit, political and policy discourse have changed and are still changing in this country.

The shift in US public opinion toward Palestine and Israel has been dramatic over the last decade, especially transformative in the last few years. While individual polls may provide only a snapshot, consistent patterns moving in the same trajectory can and do indicate something far more important. US polls have been shifting since the mid-2000s, away from the uncritical embrace of Israel and toward a view much more critical of Tel Aviv and in favor of Palestinian rights.

In the spring of 2010, at the height of verbal tension between then-President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, US media was filled with breathless claims that Obama was going to throw Israel under the proverbial bus. In fact there was no change in actual policy—annual US military aid remained in the billions, only the rhetoric was changing a little bit. And yet a Zogby poll showed a new shift in positions on Israel, Palestine, and settlements, and a new partisan divide. Sixty-three percent of Democrats and 40 percent of independents said that Israel’s West Bank settlements should be torn down and the land returned to its original owners; only 13 percent of Republicans agreed. Over the next several years the partisan divide remained, and key constituencies, including people of color, young Democrats, and crucially, young Jews, turned away from Israel in larger numbers.

In the past three or four years, it’s been even more dramatic. Comprehensive reports from major international and Israeli human rights organizations have normalized widespread global acknowledgement of Israeli apartheid. By 2021, a Jewish Electoral Institute poll showed that 25 percent of US Jews viewed Israel as an apartheid state. And just a couple of months ago, in April 2023, a Brookings poll found that 44 percent of Democrats expressing any opinion described Israel as “like apartheid.” Respondents had been offered three other descriptions, including “a vibrant democracy,” “a flawed democracy,” or “a state with restricted minority rights.” And yet the largest plurality of Democrats linked Israel to apartheid.

Major media shifts do not yet match the transformation in public opinion. But even there, evidence is clear. The presence of Palestinian voices in the most influential venues is dramatically higher than in years past. The assault on Jenin led the New York Times’ print edition; only Muhammad Sbaghi, a Palestinian activist in the refugee camp, was named on the front page. A few days later, The Washington Post’s front page featured an above-the-fold article titled, “‘Why did this happen to us?’ Israel’s raid on Jenin through the eyes of one family.” The four-column-wide photograph showed Hussein Shibly, a Jenin resident in his extended family’s home, which was “reduced to a charred cave by a shoulder-fired missile.” The article focused solely on the impact of the assault on the Shibly family and other Palestinian residents—an important humanizing approach historically used only to give voice to Israelis. Times are changing, indeed.

Of course, public and media discourse shifts, however powerful, are ultimately not enough on their own. They’re important because they help change US policy. And during the last several years we have finally begun to see that seemingly immutable reality began to soften and change. It’s just starting. But those tantalizing hints of changing perspectives and positions in Congress, in the State Department, in the White House, are increasingly visible. And they go far beyond the amazing and visible congressional champions of Palestinian rights who have been elected in recent years.

The transformational process is already underway. During this month’s attack on Jenin, Biden refused to call for a cease-fire—just as he had during a similar attack on Gaza in 2021. At that time, demands that he reverse course came from a group of 12 Jewish members of the House and from 25-plus senators. Perhaps most significantly, though garnering far less public attention, 500 former Biden campaign staffers—the people who had put him in office—signed an open letter calling on the president to do more to protect Palestinians and to hold Israel accountable for its actions. They wrote, “To ensure a lasting ceasefire and a future of peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians, we ask that you work to end the underlying conditions of occupation, blockade, and settlement expansion that led to this exceptionally destructive period in a 73-year history of dispossession and ethnic cleansing. The resulting status quo is one that international and Israeli human rights organizations agree meets the definition of the crime of apartheid under international law.”

Five years ago, most of those 500 staffers, who always must look ahead to their next job within Democratic Party campaign structures, would likely have seen such a letter as career-ending. But by 2021 they had all decided that it was no longer political suicide to criticize Israel.

The challenge for the US movement for Palestinian rights remains—to force a change in Washington’s policy by making support for Palestinian rights a new political requirement. We have a lot of work to do; we’re not there yet, and conditions on the ground are still deadly for Palestinians. But things are changing. That day is coming.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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