Democrats are changing their minds about Israel. But can Biden be pushed to take a tougher stance?

Protesters and activists gather to defend the Palestinian resistance movement on May 14, 2021 in New York City. [Getty]
6 min read
Washington, DC
19 May, 2021

Though US President Joe Biden did not prioritise the Israel-Palestine conflict when he took office, it was only a matter of time before the issue demanded his attention.

Biden started his term focused on addressing urgent US domestic matters, working to get the pandemic and unemployment under control. 

Meanwhile, his month-long delay in calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after taking office, and the fact that he is yet to appoint a US ambassador to Israel or a consul to Jerusalem, demonstrate that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not been at the top of his agenda.  

Now, as worldwide condemnation of ongoing Israeli strikes on Palestinians grows, this hands-off policy is becoming less feasible. Biden has started making tepid statements, at first asserting that Israel has the right to defend itself, then issuing a statement celebrating Eid Al-Fitr, and, most recently, calling for a cease-fire.

As both international and domestic pressure mounts, can Biden be pushed to exert serious pressure on Israel to change its policy on Palestinian expulsions?  

"Although Biden did not prioritise the Israel-Palestine conflict when he took office, it was only a matter of time before the issue demanded his attention"

"There are many things one could imagine Biden doing. But he's not going to do it, for several different reasons. His principal agenda is domestic issues. If he doesn't get the economy right, he won't get re-elected," Joel Beinin, emeritus professor of Middle East history at Stanford University, told The New Arab

"Biden has two conundrums right now," David Lesch, a history professor at Trinity University, told TNA.

 "One is that he is trying to assemble a centrist-left coalition to pass important domestic agenda items, such as his trillion-dollar infrastructure proposal, yet the far left of his party, who are lukewarm on his infrastructure plan, are the most ardent in coming down harder on Israel, which, if he does, may alienate votes on his domestic agenda. His second problem is that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn't care."

A difficult track record 

Biden will also likely have Barack Obama’s experience in dealing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in mind. In November 2010, Israel announced an expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem shortly before then-Vice President Biden arrived in the country. 

In 2015, Israel made a similar announcement just before Netanyahu made a visit to Washington DC.

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"It was embarrassing for him. For that reason, Biden would be reluctant. He's already been burned. Netanyahu has already made it clear that's not an option - without way more pressure than Biden would be prepared to wield," said Beinin.  

Nevertheless, the US has options that it could use to exert pressure on Israel. 

Biden could have delayed America's gift of $735m worth of precision-guided missiles to Israel, which Biden approved last month.

"This would be the perfect opportunity to put pressure on Israel. Congress had 15 days to review and object. They decided not to use it," said Beinin.

He added, "[Secretary of State Antony] Blinken said he was concerned about this, but he's not concerned enough to stop arms." 

Furthermore, the US could go through the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to condemn the ongoing Israeli strikes on Palestinian targets. The US reportedly vetoed a UNSC statement on the Israel-Gaza killings for the third time this week. 

Meanwhile, the US is evidently in private diplomatic discussions with Israel and several Arab countries in efforts to secure a cease-fire. 

"Together with left-wing Democrats, a growing number of moderate-leaning politicians are also speaking out against Israeli strikes on Palestinians"

Although these tactics may appear futile, given America's close bond with Israel, it would not be the first time for the US to pressure Israel into compliance with international law in its policy toward Palestinians. 

Setting precedent

The 1991 Madrid Conference, the multilateral negotiations between Arab and European countries, the US, and Israel, was an instance in which the US was able to pressure Israel through conditioning aid based on settlement expansions. 

Then-US President George H.W. Bush insisted on a delay in loan guarantees to Israel until after the conference. He and Secretary of State James Baker both stood firm against pressure from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on the conference's land-for-peace principle. 

US President Joe Biden is confronted by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (L) D-MI upon arrival at in Detroit, Michigan on May 18, 2021. [Getty]
US President Joe Biden is confronted by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (L) D-MI upon arrival in Detroit, Michigan on 18 May, 2021. [Getty]

At the time, some predicted that this could be the end of Israel's close relationship with the US. 

In fact, it was possibly the last prominent example of America's tough-love diplomacy with Israel.  

"The one time Israel compromised was under pressure," Leena Dallasheh, associate professor of history ​at Humboldt State University, told TNA, referring to the Madrid Conference.  

Though Dallasheh doesn't have faith in Israeli leadership to change its policy toward Palestinians, she does see the potential for small change through grassroots campaigns, such as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. 

She cites examples of European countries cancelling contracts in Israel due to boycott pressure, such as the French company, Systra, which halted the construction of the light rail system in a settler area in 2019, citing human rights concerns.  

"You can't count on our votes when you need them and then leave us behind"

"BDS in Europe has pressured governments. We need to be reproducing it," she said.  

She is also encouraged by recent worldwide demonstrations against Israeli policy toward Palestinians. In Humboldt County, California, where she lives, there have already been three such demonstrations since this current wave of violence began. 

"The continuing presence of Palestinian voices in the streets will continue pressure," she said. "You can't count on our votes when you need them and then leave us behind." 

Across the country, in Michigan, Palestinian demonstrations were taking place as Biden arrived for a tour of auto plants on Tuesday. Though he had likely hoped the photo ops would capture his ride in an electric car, his visit was overshadowed by mass demonstrations, as well as a confrontation with Representative Rashida Tlaib. 

Michigan was one of several swing states that Arabs and Muslims were instrumental in helping Biden win.

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Shifting attitudes in Washington?  

In addition to Tlaib and other left-wing Democrats, a growing number of moderate-leaning politicians are speaking out against Israeli strikes on Palestinians. An unprecedented 28 members of Congress signed a letter urging a cease-fire. 

"With the US Congress, we can't celebrate too much, but it's still a significant shift. In the Arab uprisings, they say the wall of fear was broken," said Dallasheh. "Here, the terrorising hold of AIPAC has been loosened." 

While it is clear that attitudes on the conflict are shifting in Washington, these growing voices remain a minority. 

Moreover, it could be argued that the systems they are speaking up against have become more extreme themselves. At the outset of this current crisis, Israeli settlers in Jerusalem were marching through the streets chanting "death to Arabs."

In the US, AIPAC has increasingly aligned itself with conservative evangelical Christians.  

Zachary Lockman, a professor of Middle East and Islamic studies at New York University, also sees a shift in US attitude toward the conflict, but also largely only as a response to the situation becoming more extreme. 

"I think the pressure will continue to grow. Whether it will make a difference in the short-term is hard to say. They tend to let these things continue until enough people are killed, until the international community says enough is enough, instead of saying enough from day one," he told TNA

"Biden didn't want to get into the minefield of Israel and Palestine. He believed he could put it on the back burner. But then reality intruded."

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews