No Bark, No Bite

Vice President Joe Biden in Des Moines, Iowa, May 3rd, 2019. (photo: Michael F. Hiatt via Shutterstock)
It appears the old rules governing the Israel debate in Washington—set by AIPAC and its allies—still apply.

By Peter Beinart | Jewish Currents | May 21, 2020

How could a letter asking Democrats to oppose annexation, which almost all of them ostensibly do, and pledging consequences no more severe than a decline in American public support for Israel—which AIPAC’s own Democratic front group has warned of publicly—still win so little support?

With each passing week, it becomes clearer that Joe Biden’s victory over Bernie Sanders is making it easier for Israel to annex the West Bank.

The latest evidence comes from the United States Senate. On May 1st, with the support of the pro-Israel, anti-occupation lobbying group J Street, three Democratic senators—Chris Murphy from Connecticut, Chris Van Hollen from Maryland, and Tim Kaine from Virginia—drafted a letter opposing annexation, which they asked their colleagues to sign. Murphy, Van Hollen, and Kaine are not Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s toughest critics in the Senate—in 2017, Kaine backed the Taylor Force Act, which cut aid to the Palestinian Authority—but this is precisely what made the three senators appealing messengers. “The letter,” one Senate staffer explained, “was designed to attract more moderate Democrats that don’t typically stick their neck out on these things.”

If the identity of the letter’s authors signalled conciliation, so did its content. During the presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders had called for conditioning US military aid to Israel on its treatment of the Palestinians. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg had suggested that they might restrict US assistance as well, especially if Israel annexed parts of the West Bank. But Murphy, Van Hollen, and Kaine did not ask their colleagues to go as far as these former presidential hopefuls. The letter never suggested that the signers would support restricting US aid themselves, even if Israel defied international law—and quashed hopes for a Palestinian state—by annexing parts of the West Bank. It merely warned that annexation might “erode the strong support among the American people for the unwavering security assistance” the US provides Israel. It was so tame, a Sanders staffer told me, that the Vermont senator initially held off on signing it out of concern that he might be seen as retreating from the tougher line he had advocated during his campaign, a line that polls show most Democratic voters support. (Sanders, along with Elizabeth Warren, eventually signed the letter almost two weeks after it was first sent to senators.)

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