During the Democratic presidential primaries, many observers were hopeful that there might be pushback against the Trump administration’s explicitly anti-Palestinian policies. Some Democratic contenders, including Mayor Pete Buttigieg (who later backtracked on his statement) and Senator Elizabeth Warren, discussed leveraging U.S. military aid against Israel’s continued violations of international law. Senator Bernie Sanders spoke repeatedly about how the U.S. had ignored the needs of the Palestinian people.
When Sanders endorsed Joe Biden as the Democratic presidential nominee, it was expected that the former vice-president would adopt some of the progressive movement’s positions on foreign policy, in a similar vein to the creation of six new Unity Task Forces to tackle high-profile U.S. domestic issues such as student debt, Medicare for All, and others. This has not been the case.
Joe Biden recently released foreign policy positions as part of his 2020 platform, some of which are laid out on his campaign website page, “Joe Biden and the Jewish Community: A Record and a Plan of Friendship, Support and Action.” The position paper addresses the rise in anti-Semitism in the U.S., Jewish values as part of American society, and Israel. Biden touts his long record of supporting Israeli security and states that his administration’s stance on Israel and Palestine would reverse Trump administration policies, specifically Washington’s severing of ties with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its cancellation of assistance programs to Palestinians.
In other areas, Biden’s platform aligns with Democratic establishment positions in its condemnation of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Originally, the platform stated that a Biden administration would “[f]irmly reject the BDS movement, which singles out Israel––home to millions of Jews––and too often veers into-anti-Semitism, while letting Palestinian off the hook for their choices.” The last phrase was recently removed, and replaced with “and fight other efforts to delegitimize Israel on the global stage.”
In the limited space he dedicates to foreign policy issues, Biden chooses to slander the BDS movement and falsely connect it to anti-Semitism. Such conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism is a tool that has repeatedly been used to delegitimize speech in support of Palestinian human rights, including the call for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel until the country complies with international law. These legitimate non-violent methods have been successfully employed for more than a century against oppression in Ireland, India, South Africa and the American South.
The BDS movement serves as a non-violent means to fight the injustices of the Israeli occupation, settlement activities, discrimination against Palestinians in Israel, and now the impending Israeli annexation of the West Bank. Supporters of Israel’s maximalist policies have cynically weaponized the accusation of anti-Semitism to protect these policies from criticism. A recent example was the smear campaign recently waged against Professor Ilana Feldman, who was appointed interim dean of the George Washington University Elliott School of Foreign Affairs, simply because she is a supporter of the BDS movement.
Given the BDS movement’s broad support among progressive U.S. Jewish organizations, younger members of the Jewish community, and a large part of the Democratic Party’s base, it is grotesque to tie a rejection of these methods to the part of the campaign platform addressed to the American Jewish community. This conflation of anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel in keeping with the stand of the most hardline supporters of Israel is revealing of why a Biden administration would not bring about any meaningful change for the Palestinians.
The pre-edit policy line in effect blamed Palestinians for the Israeli occupation with its statement that BDS lets “Palestinians off the hook for their choices.” One wonders what choices Biden is referring to: agreeing to non-violence, as the Palestinian Liberation Organization formally did in 1988? Or signing the 1993 Oslo accords, which have allowed for continued Israeli military occupation and settlement expansion? Because of decades of unconditional U.S. government support as Israel continued to violate international law, Palestinians have been left with few viable choices, and Biden has firmly dismissed the idea of making U.S. aid to Israel conditional on an end to abuses of the Palestinians.
In “Joe Biden’s Agenda for Muslim American Communities,” the campaign states that “Joe will actively engage Israelis and Palestinians alike to help them find ways to live together in peace, freedom, security, and prosperity and to champion a two-state solution. He will continue to oppose Israeli settlement expansion and has spoken out against annexation in the West Bank.” While this is an explicit reversal of Trump administration policies, the actual difference is nominal. Numerous administrations have called for a two-state-solution, but subsidized and supported Israel while its leaders did everything possible to make such a goal impossible.
Trump has explicitly encouraged Israel to escalate what previous American administrations tacitly approved. During the Obama administration, when Biden served as vice-president, settlements expanded in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and thousands of Palestinian civilians were killed and maimed by Israeli bombs and shells in Gaza. Yet the administration could muster little more than empty rhetoric and gestures. A month before Trump took office, it allowed a resolution to pass at the UN Security Council calling settlements a “flagrant violation of international law” but it did not vote in its favor: it simply abstained.
Simply “speaking out against” settlement expansion and annexation will not change the behavior of the Israeli government. Rejecting the BDS movement and blaming those under occupation, however, is a rejection of the Palestinian people’s right to dignity and self-determination. If Biden has any desire to facilitate real change in Palestine, he will acknowledge the asymmetric power structure that has enabled Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, including their legitimate use of non-violent resistance such as BDS. Ultimately, if a Biden administration wanted to stick to its “no malarkey” slogan, it would need to condition aid to Israel, and do much more. “No malarkey” doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to the Palestinians.