Biden, Progressives, and Palestine

Talking to Josh Ruebner About Trump and Biden

Josh Ruebner is the Senior Principal at Progress Up Consulting, former Policy Director at the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights and author of “Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace” I spoke with him about the Trump years and what to expect under a Biden administration.

There’s often not a lot of daylight between the two parties when it comes to foreign policy, especially Israel. You wrote a book about Israel/Palestine policy under the Obama administration. What were the notable changes under Trump? Was it more of the same or was he an aberration in some ways?

The Trump administration has definitely been an aberration when it comes to the extent of its anti-Palestinian policies and pro-Israel policies being so overtly implemented. Other administrations certainly had a similar anti-Palestinian and pro-Israel agenda, but it was more muted and more measured in terms of how it was publicly discussed.

Trump, like in so many other respects, completely broke the mold in terms of establishing new norms for U.S. political discourse and when it came to blatantly supporting Israel’s outright oppression of the Palestinians. He was exemplary in that affair.

Beyond the federal level, have you also seen a shift on Israel within the Republican party over the last four years?

Oh, definitely. The Republican party has changed immensely. Under George W. Bush, the Republican party supported a Palestinian state even as the Bush administration did so much to undercut the supposed desire to have an independent Palestinian state. That being said, it was an official part of the GOP platform that was nixed in 2016 in favor of a much more explicitly pro-Israel policy where Israel and Israel alone, according to the GOP, would be allowed to determine the parameters of resolutions to Israel/Palestinian issues.

Since that time, that phenomenon has only intensified with Republican members of congress now openly stating that they support Israel’s annexation of Palestinian land. They openly support Israel’s ongoing separate and unequal policies toward the Palestinian people and they’ve basically come out quite explicitly on the side of Israeli apartheid. The fact that they’re not even bothering to give lip service to the need for a Palestinian state speaks to where the GOP is going in this regard, which is toward the more extreme Likud right orientation within Israeli politics.

I don’t think anyone expects Biden to deliver anything for Palestinians, but something we see now, that didn’t exist under Obama, is this emerging left flank of the party that supports conditioning aid. How do you see that battle within the Democratic party playing out over the next four years?

During the Obama administration there was sort of a truce declared between the administration and the more progressive members of congress (who were much fewer in number at the time) that were willing to speak up about Palestinian rights. Obama was being attacked some viciously and in a racist way by the GOP because he supposedly threw Israel under the bus, so there was a tacit understanding that Democrats wouldn’t be too out front in terms of any criticisms they had of Obama’s policies toward Israel.

With the Biden administration, I think we’re going to get more of the same that we did under Obama. In fact, they might even be considerably worse. I think you can make a strong case that Obama was at least rhetorically supportive of Palestinian rights than Joe Biden has been over his five decades of public service up until now. The fact that he’s chosen Tony Blinken as his Secretary of State definitely portends more of the same. He was an integral part of policy-making under the Obama administration and has very, very traditional liberal, Zionist ideas about U.S. policy, which are framed in Israel’s best interest rather than in terms Palestinian rights.

I wouldn’t expect any great things out of the Biden administration, but I think we will see a more assertive block within the Democratic party and some members of congress challenge Biden. I don’t think the same constraints are going to come into play under Biden that did under Obama. I think we will see the progressive wing of the Democratic party be much more willing to challenge Biden openly on policy issues, both in general and on Israel and the Palestinians in particular. I’d anticipate that the members of congress who are supportive of Palestinian rights will continue to do what they’re doing and I think what we may see under a Biden administration is more of a willingness to engage with these issues.

So for example, Democratic members of congress sent [Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo many, many letters about Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes, its blockade of Gaza, the restrictions on access to COVID treatment, etc. All of these issues have been neglected by Pompeo. I think under a Biden administration, as Democrats continue to push on these issues, you’ll at least see some engagement and hopefully some policy changes as well, but on the margins.

Do you fear that more mainstream Democrats who have spent the last four years condemning the Israel’s government’s connections to Trump, might tone down their criticisms now that Biden is in charge?

I think that’s to be determined. One of the things that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did during the Obama administration that really riled them more than anything else was its proverbial slap in the face to Joe Biden. When he went on his first visit to Israel as vice-president, literally as he landed Israel made an announcement that they were going to expand settlements in Jerusalem.

If Israel decides to continue to try to humiliate Biden in that same kind of way, you may see some distance between the administration and Israel. I really hope that progressive Democrats in congress reframe this from being an individual to a collective issue. The issue is not Netanyahu’s personality, it’s not not his politics, it’s Israel’s policies of oppression toward the Palestinian people. That’s what needs to be remedied. It’s not a matter of who’s in the premiership in Israel.

Campus Fights

This week, New York appellate judges heard a case against Fordham University. Students filed a suit against the school in 2016 after it refused to recognize the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) campus group. In 2019, a judge ruled that Fordham had to recognize SJP and that decision was appealed. You can watch a post-hearing debrief from Palestine Legal, Center for Constitutional Rights, and Alan Levine on Facebook.

“It’s disgusting that Fordham is still fighting against SJP after four years of this lawsuit,” said Fordham SJP member Veer Shetty in a statement. “While we organize and educate about an important human rights issue, the school continues to spend our tuition money on a team of lawyers to silence us. Palestinians deserve justice!”

This week students at Tufts University will vote on an historic referendum to end its police department’s relationship with the Israeli military. This is the question on the ballot:

“Do you support Tufts University administration 1) apologizing for sending the former Tufts police chief to an intensive week-long course led by senior commanders in the Israel National Police, experts from Israel’s intelligence and security services, and the Israeli Defense Force, 2) prohibiting TUPD officers from attending programs based on military strategies and/or similar international trips in the future, and 3) refining the vetting process to prevent prior program attendees from being hired, not including veterans who may have been stationed or trained abroad during their service?”

Tufts SJP ran an op-ed in the school’s newspaper calling on students to vote YES. “We as the Tufts student body must declare ourselves opposed to our administration’s involvement in the Deadly Exchange and complicity in the occupation of Palestine,” it reads. “Demilitarizing our Tufts community is crucial for creating a safer campus and building a police-free world, and ending police exchanges is a key step in demilitarization.”

San Francisco State University President Lynn Mahoney said she will not support a BDS resolution that was recently passed by the school’s student government. “Some would have us believe that you are either Pro-Palestinian or Pro-Israel; that you are either an antisemite if you oppose Zionism or a racist if you support it,” reads an email that she sent to the  S.F. State’s Associated Students board of directors this week. “You can only be for or against. These binaries do not do this issue justice nor do they do justice to us as a University.”

Odds & Ends

🏛️ Elise Swain has a piece at The Intercept about how President-elect Biden has stayed silent about ending the drone wars. “There’s a pretty clear divide on our understanding of what it means to end endless war, and between what the Left actually wants to do and what they are likely to do,” Win Without War policy director Kate Kizer told Swain. “I think Biden and his team have yet to fundamentally reckon with whether or not counterterrorism even works to actually address the security challenge and whether there are other tools that are more suited than military force to undermine the influence of violent groups.”

🇺🇸 Biden has begun making his cabinet picks and his foreign policy selections are predictably hawkish. “In keep­ing with this tra­jec­to­ry, Biden is already draw­ing from a host of pro-war indi­vid­u­als from the Oba­ma era to fill his cab­i­net,” writes Sarah Lazare at In These Times, “Because many of these peo­ple have been around for a while and have rela­tion­ships across Wash­ing­ton, there is no short­age of well-known polit­i­cal fig­ures who are tes­ti­fy­ing to their decen­cy and smarts—that’s how the rel­a­tive­ly insu­lar world of Wash­ing­ton ​’nation­al secu­ri­ty pro­fes­sion­als’ works, after all. But for those on the out­side of the Wash­ing­ton Blob look­ing in, the oper­a­tive ques­tions are, ​’What are these appointees’ records, and what does this say about what exact­ly we are up against in a Biden administration?’”

🇨🇳 CODEPINK delivered a letter to VP-elect Kamala Harris demanding an end to U.S. aggression on China. It was signed by over 5,000 people. “We are concerned about the well-being of the Asian community at home, and we are also concerned about the new Cold War with China that stokes growing militarism and could lead to a catastrophic ‘hot war’ between two nuclear-armed states,” it reads.

🇵🇸 American Muslims for Palestine is holding its 13th annual convention for Palestine in the U.S. Tomorrow there’s a panel called “The Palestine Agenda & 2020 US Elections” that features Rep. Betty McCollum, Khaled Elgindy, Zaha Hassan, Phyllis Bennis, and Josh Ruebner. You can watch it at on YouTube or Facebook.

📺 Last week, Mike Pompeo became the first Secretary of State to visit an illegal settlement. At the event he declared that, “We want to stand with all other nations that recognize the BDS movement for the cancer that it is, and we’re committed to combating it.” A few days later, Biden named Antony Blinken as his Secretary of State. “Just make sure he doesn’t try to silence me and suppress my First Amendment right to speak out against Netanyahu’s racist and inhumane policies,” tweeted Rep. Rashida Tlaib. This was a clear reference to Pompeo’s war on BDS, but that didn’t stop CNN’s Jake Tapper from tweeting, “Blinken and Biden are both on the record opposing efforts to punish/sanction BDS (though they also oppose BDS) so I’m not sure what it is about Blinken that would prompt this tweet.”

Is Tapper really this dense or is he implying a Palestinian politician is antisemitic for some other reason?

🇵🇸 I interviewed Palestinian-American activist and DNC delegate Zeina Ashrawi Hutchison about battling Israeli apartheid under a Biden administration. “The Trump administration is aligned with Netanyahu on so many levels, but if Biden aligns with Netanyahu in the same way, then he is risking a huge part of his base and a huge part of the Democratic Party’s integrity.”

🏛️ Biden named Reema Dodin as a deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs, making her the first ever Palestinian-American senior White House staffer. She is now enduring attacks from the usual suspects because of past pro-Palestine activism. “Smearing Reema Dodin is part of greater effort to silence and delegitimize anyone who at some point in their life voiced strong criticism of Israel or engaged in activism in support of Palestinian human right,” tweeted the ACLU’s Jamil Dakwar. “It is particularly troubling when such smears target women of color.”

✊ Solidarity with Olivia Katbi Smith.

⚽ RIP Diego Mardona. In 2012 the football legend declared, “I am the number one fan of the Palestinian people. I respect them and sympathize with them. I support Palestine without any fear.”

👩‍🍳 The Palestinian BDS National Committee has launched a “bake for Palestinian rights” campaign for the holidays, encouraging people to use the #BoycottPillsbury hashtag. General Mills, the parent company of Pillsbury, manufactures products in an illegal Israeli settlement.

Stay safe out there,

Michael

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