The Democrats finally confront military aid to Israel
Sometimes what seems
impossible in politics is impossible until it suddenly becomes possible. Such a
phenomenon appears to be the case now when it comes to US military aid to
For such a long time
in US politics, providing weapons to Israel unconditionally and in ever greater
volume appeared to be nearly sacrosanct, wrapped in the mystique of the supposed
“unshakable, unbreakable” bond between the two countries about which
politicians of both parties droned ad infinitum.
And, relatedly, even
raising questions about the flow of weapons to Israel was widely considered to
be the “third rail of US politics”, which if touched would produce
instantaneous political electrocution. Only a suicidal politician, it was
reasoned by the punditry, would even dare to approach it.
To be sure, this
image of inviolability was carefully cultivated over the decades by AIPAC and,
in recent years, by J
Street as well, which requires candidates for office to commit to
“robust US foreign aid to Israel” in order to be endorsed by and receive
contributions from its PAC.
This image also
obfuscates the actual history of US-Israeli relations and how several (mostly
Republican) administrations have
threatened, conditioned, and even temporarily ended US aid to Israel to
successfully induce changes in its behavior.
However, with the
possible exception of President Eisenhower, who stared down Israeli aggression
by suspending US aid during the height of his reelection campaign to protest
Israel’s war on Egypt, major presidential candidates have avoided proactively
campaigning on this issue.
Until now. Last
month, The Forward noted with
consternation that three of the top four polling candidates for the Democratic
Party nomination–Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Senator
Bernie Sanders, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg–have made clear that they
are willing to reexamine military aid to Israel under certain circumstances.
Their inchoate ideas
started to take shape at J Street’s recent national conference where
the debate about conditioning US aid to Israel burst onto the scene and
dominated the discourse. In live appearances, Sanders proposed redirecting some
weapons to Israel to humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip and Buttigieg advocated
for ensuring that aid to Israel is “compatible with US objectives and US
law.” And addressing the conference by video,
Warren stated that US aid should not be allowed to support steps toward Israeli
annexation of the West Bank.
How did we reach
this potential tipping point in which there is a strong probability that the
next president of the United States will enter the White House having campaigned
on a platform of reexamining US aid to Israel?
let’s not give credit where it’s not due. J Street only provided the
high-profile platform for the candidates to articulate this message; it is most
definitely not the impetus for these ideas. In fact, the opposite is true: J
Street has fought tooth and nail throughout its existence against any effort to
condition military aid to Israel or hold it accountable for its violations of US
presidential candidates are now supporting conditioning US aid to Israel for
three interrelated reasons. First, Palestinian rights organizations have been
consistently putting forward the demand for accountability, conditionality, and
even ending completely US military aid to Israel for decades. This author
vividly remembers being scoffed at even by sympathetic congressional staff for
pushing these ideas in the early 2000s. Despite the acknowledged merits of the
case, congressional staffers deemed it to be a non-starter politically.
What was once a
chimera is now tangible. Such is often the case in the amorphous process of
social change. Ask many veterans of the struggles to impose sanctions on
apartheid South Africa, or to achieve marriage equality or criminal justice
reform just how and why policy change happened and you’re likely to get a
shrug of the shoulders as a response. No one really knows how and why we get to
these tipping points other than as a result of persistent educating and
organizing, and taking advantage of strategic opportunities when they arise.
Second, we now have
unabashed champions in Congress actively promoting conditioning or ending aid to
Israel, a development which was unthinkable just a few years ago. Recently this
author helped organize a workshop bringing together academics and activists to
strategize about “getting to sanctions” on Israel. A key player in the
anti-apartheid struggle emphasized the importance of having just a few Members
of Congress (and, even more importantly, their staff) really champion and drive
sanctions against South Africa through the legislative process.
In this regard, it
is hard to overstate the importance of Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) introducing
the first-ever bill in Congress to promote Palestinian rights by conditioning
aid to Israel, along with the more far-reaching rhetorical calls, but not yet
legislative proposals, by Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to cut aid to Israel.
Third, it is now
clear, demonstrated through repeated public opinion polls, that Democrats
support imposing sanctions on Israel to induce changes in its policies. Take
just two recent ones as examples of this phenomenon. According to a September
for Progress poll, two-thirds of voters who supported a Democratic
congressional candidate in the midterms support reducing aid to Israel; only 10
percent oppose. Also in September 2019, a Brookings
Institute/University of Maryland poll found that of Democrats who have
heard of BDS, 48 percent support the movement, while only 15 percent oppose it
(the other 37 percent are neutral).
their staff are acutely aware of these polls, which provide political cover to
presidential candidates, especially those running on progressive platforms
and/or small donor fundraising strategies, to stake out positions on
conditioning or cutting aid to Israel that will benefit them politically.
It is up to us to
support these candidates’ steps in the right direction while at the same time
acknowledging that none of them go nearly far enough. But with continued
education, determined and strategic organizing and mobilizing, we will get them