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Democrats and Palestinians

Democrats and Palestinians

Sunday, 16 May, 2021 - 07:15
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

The Israel-Palestinian conflict usually is absent from news programs in America, but events in East Jerusalem, Gaza and Israel in the past week generated noteworthy criticism of Israel from some prominent Democratic Party politicians.

In comparison, the Republican Party is united in defending Israeli actions. Why do some Democrats criticize Israel but not Republicans? Shibly Telhami at the University of Maryland supervised an opinion survey last year and he concluded that Americans in the Republican Party want to help Israel more and more. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Trump administration’s policies favored Israel. Telhami also concluded from his survey that the Democratic Party supporters more and more want the American government either to be neutral in the conflict or to help the Palestinians more. When did you ever see an American political party whose members prefer helping the Palestinians more than Israel? It is especially interesting that a February 2021 Gallup organization opinion survey showed that two-thirds of Democrats have a favorable opinion about Israel, but two-thirds of Democrats also support creation of a Palestinian state, and a majority of Democrats want the USto exercise pressure against Israel more than pressure against the Palestinians.

Inside the Democratic Party itself, there are big differences between older party members and the younger members. An April 2019 Pew Research survey indicated that younger Democrats more often had favorable views about the Palestinians than they did about Israel. In addition, young Democrats are more often pro-Palestinian than older Democrats. Interestingly, younger Republican Party members also sympathized more with Palestinians than older Republicans, but more young Democrats had a favorable opinion about Palestinians than young Republicans had about the Palestinians. The 2019 poll also showed that 44 percent of moderate Democrats thought Trump supported Israel too strongly but 66 percent of liberal Democrats who thought Trump backed Israel too much. Of course, most young Democrats are more to the left, more liberal.

It is not surprising, therefore, that five American senators who represent the left side of the Democratic Party in March urged Secretary of State Blinken to pressure Israel to provide covid vaccines to Palestinians in accordance with Israel’s responsibilities as an occupying power. Most members of Congress won’t call Israel an “occupying power.”

Later, on April 20 Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, publicly urged Washington to restrict American military aid to Israel so that it is not used in the occupied territories. They criticized the expansion of settlements and urge Biden to take strong action to help Israelis and Palestinians achieve a two-state solution. Their presidential campaigns last year were full of young people.

It is also interesting that Matt Duss, a key advisor to Bernie Sanders, wrote on Twitter May 8 that Israel is trying to expel Palestinians and strengthen its control of Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem in violation of international law. Duss’ remarks were much stronger than the May 7 State Department statement asking Israeli authorities to show “compassion and respect” for the residents of Sheikh Jarrah.

It is also worth noting that news reports in February had speculated that Biden-Blinken State Department would appoint Duss to an official position, but in the end, it appears Duss’ leftist opinions are too strong for the centrist Biden administration.

In addition to Sanders and Warren, Senator Chris Van Hollen and Chris Murphy, both from left-leaning states called the eviction of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah “illegal” and “unjustifiable.”

Meanwhile, several representatives from the House of Representatives who also represent the left side of the Democratic Party condemned Israeli actions in East Jerusalem. Just as Senators Warren, Sanders and Van Hollen want to restrict use of American aid on the West Bank, there is a similar small bloc in the House of Representatives that also support this restriction.

It is interesting that Betty McCullum, a former secondary school teacher who represents a strongly leftist district in central Minnesota, is leading that group in the House of Representatives, and the group comes from left-leaning parts of the United States. I don’t remember such criticisms of Israel in the Congress before. I don’t want to exaggerate: the big majority of members of Congress do not want to confront Israel or restrict American military aid. American public opinion towards Israel is still positive, and the rocket attacks against Israel from Gaza don’t help the Palestinian image in America. There is now a split in the Democratic Party in this crisis between Biden’s position on Israeli actions and the Democratic Party left wing. However, in the long term, as older Democratic Party members disappear it is likely younger members will push their whole party to be more strongly pro-Palestinian. I don’t know if that change in the Democratic Party will come before the possibility of a two-state solution disappears.

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