Dodging political and policy pitfalls on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Why Democrats should avoid the fatal error of ceding ground to a loud but tiny group of extreme activists
Last month’s outbreak of unrest and fighting in Israel, Jerusalem, and Gaza revived Washington’s perennial policy focus on the Middle East – though this time with a twist. If a critical mass of foreign policy observers and analysts are to be believed, we’ve witnessed a sea-change in the politics and policy surrounding the decades-old conflict. Loud voices on the so-called progressive left now command the political debate, while the Biden administration has shifted to a so-called “rights-based” approach to the conflict – or at least so we’re told.
But Democrats should not allow a small but extremely vocal faction to define the party or its policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the same way they effectively allowed a tiny group of “defund the police” activists to define their position toward police reform and public safety in the summer of 2020. Public figures ranging from former President Barack Obama and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) to data analysts like David Shor and our very own Ruy Teixeira have noted, the association of the Democratic Party with this extreme position likely cost it votes and House seats in the November 2020 election. What’s more, evidence indicates that violence and unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin depressed Biden’s vote share in the municipality and its environs in comparison with other demographically similar communities in the state.
It’s unlikely that association with extreme rhetoric on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will directly produce the same adverse political results for Democrats. After all, most Americans see jobs, immigration, climate change, and relations with allies as their top foreign policy priorities – not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the promotion of democratic rights and freedoms. A Democratic shift toward the self-proclaimed progressive activist position on Israel and the Palestinians would likely result in a net loss of votes, with gains in areas that already overwhelmingly support Democrats (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district, for instance) offset by losses in places that Democrats hold by the thinnest of margins (think previously Republican suburban districts that went for Biden). It’d mirror Democrats’ wider electoral problem of racking up votes where they’re not needed and bleeding them where they’re vital.
The indirect costs of an association with extreme progressive rhetoric on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would likely prove high, however. As with defunding the police, it would leave voters with the impression that allegedly progressive extremists call the shots in the Democratic Party – justified or not. After all, most Americans hold favorable views toward Israel, with Gallup polls showing 75 percent of all Americans and 64 percent of Democrats viewing Israel favorably. Though they don’t base their votes on policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, average voters will likely see progressive rhetoric on this issue as a credible signal of ideological extremism among Democrats of which they want no part. As on other issues, President Biden’s own personal position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict likely reflects the view of the Democratic Party’s mainstream. But the noisy positioning of a small group of self-proclaimed progressive ideologues on this issue would likely prove an electoral drag for the party itself.
At the same time, it’s important to note that many Democrats see no contradiction between their favorable views of Israel and support for the Palestinians. According to Gallup’s data, about the same proportion of Democrats – 65 percent – support the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza as view Israel favorably, and Democrats’ sympathies in the conflict are split 43 percent in favor of Israel and 38 percent in favor of the Palestinians. In a 2019 Pew poll, moreover, plurality of Democrats – 46 percent – said they held favorable views of both Israelis and Palestinians. Most Democrats believe that the best way to achieve progress is for America to be pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian at the same time. Progressive extremists want to force Democrats to make a false choice between Israelis and Palestinians, when the better position would be to redefine what it means for the United States to support both Israelis and Palestinians.
If forecasts of a political sea change on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are overblown at best, what of the insistence that the Biden administration’s response to the recent fighting constitutes a significant shift in and of itself? In recent months, a number of activists, analysts, and think tanks have pushed what they call a “rights-based” approach to the conflict, asserting that it would improve on previous American policies intended to reach a negotiated two-state outcome. Some observers even sense a shift of this nature in the Biden administration’s recent rhetoric toward the conflict.
The Biden administration’s approach to the recent round of fighting in Gaza doesn’t exactly bear this analysis out, however. As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius noted, Biden refused to demand an end to Israeli military action early on and instead embarked on quiet, patient diplomacy with the help of regional partners like Egypt to achieve a relatively quick cease-fire deal. It’s an approach that puts him at odds with an ostensibly progressive left that wants to cut off U.S. security assistance to Israel and take a hostile, adversarial approach to its government.
It’s true that President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly stated that “Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and to enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy.” But it’s hard to see how this amounts to a major shift in American policy or even rhetoric – after all, President George W. Bush called for much the same in his 2002 Road Map for Peace. That gets at the broader problems with “rights-based” approaches put forward by analysts and activists in recent months: they reinvent the wheel and recycle existing policy ideas while imagining they’ve split the atom and produced a groundbreaking new framework.
Advocates of a “rights-based” approach to the conflict make rather grandiose claims about how their proposals mark a shift from what they see as a dead paradigm of diplomacy aimed at achieving a two-state outcome. When these advocates get down to the details, however, they rarely differ all that much from the diplomatic framework they denounce as, in the words of a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report, the “scaffolding [that] sustains occupation and is structurally incapable of delivering peace and human security.”
Indeed, the Carnegie report itself recommends taking fairly modest policy steps like renewing U.S. diplomatic relationships with relevant Palestinian political organs, encouraging reconciliation between Palestinian political factions, and ending the Israeli blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. It’s not at all clear how this approach differs in substance from U.S. policy since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, and the Carnegie report admits that its recommended course of action remains compatible with the pursuit of a negotiated two-state outcome it dismisses as inadequate. There’s a profound disconnect between assertions that a “rights-based” approach represents a distinct break with the past and the actual policies these approaches seem to entail.
More crucially, the proposed “rights-based” frameworks fail to address the pivotal factor in the conflict: Israeli and Palestinian politics. Neither current nor likely Israeli or Palestinian political parties, movements, or formations appear interested in the sort of “rights-based” approaches offered by well-meaning and high-minded American activists and analysts. These proposals remain silent as to how to change political configurations among both Israelis and Palestinians: there’s little sense of how to shift Israeli politics away from its current right-wing tilt, for instance, or help Palestinians move on from an outdated form of politics focused more on internecine factional struggles than achieving anything of substance for average Palestinians.
Nor is it clear how a “rights-based” approach makes the conflict easier to resolve or manage – or whether its pursuit can actually secure the basic human rights of Palestinians and Israelis alike. Making the conflict a matter of “inalienable human rights” only raises the stakes of the conflict even higher and closes space for political negotiations that can ultimately end the conflict and create political systems that can secure those rights. What’s more, it begs the question of just what political entity will ultimately enforce these rights when all is said and done. At their heart, “rights-based” approaches misdiagnose a conflict rooted in competing and often decidedly illiberal national and religious claims as a simple matter of human rights abuses that international law and activist pressure can rectify.
Democrats and the center-left more broadly need to stay in touch with political and policy reality when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most Americans – Democrats included – view Israel positively, and most Democrats support the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Moreover, both advocates of a “rights-based” policy paradigm and so-called progressives have fatal blindspots as to how both Israelis and Palestinians could move their politics in more productive and truly progressive directions.
There’s every reason for the U.S. government and its political leaders to be critical of Israel and its policies towards the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. But there’s no political or policy reason Democrats or the wider center-left should retreat from their principled commitment to a negotiated two-state outcome that secures basic rights, dignity, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians alike.