Democrats Can’t Allow Israel to Pursue Annexation Without Consequences

Israel could finally become a partisan issue in Washington—but only if Democrats put their money where their mouth is.

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem on March 9, 2016.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem on March 9, 2016. DEBBIE HILL/AFP via Getty Images

July 1, the date set by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank to begin, came and went and nothing was annexed. Of course, home demolitions, settler and police violence, land confiscation, and systemic discrimination against Palestinians all continue unabated—but U.S. politicians have been scrambling to respond to the new threat of annexation. A clear division has emerged between Democrats, who mostly oppose annexation, and Republicans, who mostly support it. After decades of bipartisan agreement on policy toward Israel, the biggest recipient of U.S. foreign aid has finally become a partisan issue in Washington—at least nominally.

A large majority of Democrats in both the House and Senate, including presumed presidential nominee Joe Biden, have come out against annexation in recent weeks. Nearly 200 House members signed onto a letter at the end of June, initiated by Rep. Ted Deutch, expressing “deep concern” that Israel’s push for unilateral annexation will make a “negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians” toward a two-state solution “harder to achieve.”

Among the signatories was House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a longtime ally of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a hawkish pro-Israel lobby which organizes bipartisan congressional trips to Israel. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted her support for the letter, too. In addition, 40 Senate Democrats, including some pro-Israel stalwarts who never seem to oppose anything Israel does, such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sens. Bob Menendez and Ben Cardin, have also penned their milquetoast opposition.

Meanwhile, more than 100 House Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Minority Whip Steve Scalise and Rep. Liz Cheney, signed a letter addressed to Netanyahu that reaffirms “the unshakeable alliance between the United States and Israel,” and indicated that Israel should do as it pleases with its sovereignty and its borders, echoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s latest statement on the matter. Sen. Ted Cruz and several other GOP senators sent a letter to President Donald Trump not only urging the president to approve Israeli annexation but to provide any resources necessary to help streamline it.

For decades, Democrats and Republicans have both held the U.S.-Israel “unbreakable bond” sacrosanct, a staple of U.S. foreign policy so ingrained that it is almost never questioned. AIPAC’s success over the past few decades has primarily been in maintaining airtight bipartisan support for Israel. Even as Democrats and Republicans have been diametrically split on many issues, Israel never seems to be one of them. But that is changing. Now, the Democratic Party is united against annexation, while the Republican Party is united behind anything Trump does—and hence supports it.

In other words, the Democratic Party’s formal position is still a negotiated two-state solution whereby an independent Palestinian state is established on roughly the pre-1967 borders. The Republican Party has effectively relinquished that position in favor of an expanded Israeli state that formalizes its sovereignty over much of the Palestinian territory it currently occupies without granting political rights to its new subjects—in other words, an apartheid regime.

Now that the partisan divide is clear, the question is, what will Democrats do? Peter Beinart, probably the most well-known liberal Zionist thinker in the United States, just published a piece in the New York Times saying he no longer believes in a Jewish state or a two-state solution and called for one binational state that can be home to both Palestinians and Israelis. The articulation of this kind of position from a prominent American Jew may embolden Democrats to move away from the two-state paradigm or at least entertain the notion that what they have done thus far simply has not worked.

But punitive policies that could actually influence the Israeli government—such as supporting boycotts, divestment, and sanctions—are still off-limits. Likewise, conditioning U.S. aid to Israel, which Sen. Bernie Sanders championed during his presidential campaign, is still mostly taboo, even though Republican presidents from Gerald Ford to George H.W. Bush have engaged in it. In 1981, Reagan suspended a military arms pact with Israel over its annexation of the Golan Heights. A decade letter, George H.W. Bush threatened to withhold a $10 billion loan guarantee to Israel over its expansion of settlements. Maybe the most salient example came under President Gerald Ford, in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger took a hard line with Israel and pressured it to withdraw from the Sinai. At the time, Ford told Kissinger that the United States would not “isolate itself from the rest of the world to stand behind Israeli intransigence”—pretty much the polar opposite of U.S. policy today. In the spring of 1975, the U.S. government implemented a “reassessment” of U.S.-Israel relations, which included the freezing of arms deliveries to Israel.

So, for Democrats, conditioning aid to Israel should actually be a no-brainer.

A recent letter initiated by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and signed by a dozen other lawmakers, including Sanders, calls on Congress to limit or withhold U.S. aid to Israel should it go through with annexation. It notably mentions aid could be withheld for other practices as well, among them home demolitions and land expropriation. It is the only statement from Democrats against Israeli annexation that doesn’t just caution against the harm to the prospects of peace and Israel’s international standing, but actually mentions “occupied Palestinian territory,” warns of “apartheid,” and specifically calls out the violation of Palestinian human rights. The anti-occupation group IfNotNow has endorsed this letter, and 1,000 former and current members of J Street U, the youth arm of the liberal pro-Israel lobby of the same name, have called on J Street to get behind legislation that would condition U.S. aid.

Unfortunately, this sort of language still appears to be beyond the pale for most Democrats. This month, Sen. Chris Van Hollen inched closer when he introduced an amendment that would block the Israeli government from using U.S. security assistance to fund annexation. This should be the baseline Democratic approach, but it has not garnered much support thus far, and Biden’s team has notably remained silent on it. A Biden advisor reiterated in May that Biden “completely” opposes any restrictions on military aid to Israel. Biden’s position, like that of many Democrats, that no side should take unilateral steps is therefore hard to take seriously, considering that Israel’s settlement enterprise is a national unilateral project for which Biden is not willing to make Israel pay any price.

In this sense, the Trump-Israel annexation plan is a real test for Democrats. They cannot just oppose annexation rhetorically; it means nothing without an actionable policy that holds Israel to account. Doing nothing will make Democrats complicit in writing a blank check to an annexationist apartheid regime. The fact that so many Democrats are uniting against annexation only highlights the obvious: that their failure until now—and particularly under former President Barack Obama—to restrain Israeli settlement-building on occupied territory, which is the primary reason a contiguous Palestinian state appears impossible, has brought the world to this point. It should force the party to reckon with what it means that they have continued to give unconditional support to a country institutionalizing a 53-year military occupation.

There are several things a Democratic administration could do that would hold the Netanyahu government accountable for taking unilateral moves that imperil peace—without being in any way “anti-Israel.”

The Democrats could begin with reversing some of Trump’s most damaging policies. Since entering office, Trump upended decades of official U.S. policy by recognizing Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem (when he moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018), and then recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights last year.

Biden should at minimum reverse Trump’s damage and adopt a policy that would rescind U.S. recognition of Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights and move the embassy back to Tel Aviv. Without doing so, Biden would be de facto recognizing Israeli sovereignty over land it occupied in a war.

Furthermore, if Biden is as committed to a two-state solution as he has claimed, his administration could recognize East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital of a future Palestinian state. A Biden administration should not only embrace Van Hollen’s amendment to ensure U.S. aid is not used for annexation, but go a step further and endorse Rep. Betty McCollum’s year-old House Resolution 2407, which seeks to prohibit the transfer of U.S. funds for use by the Israeli military to detain Palestinian children. The bill does not, in fact, prescribe withholding a single dollar of U.S. assistance, but rather redirecting the funds so that none of it is spent on the incarceration of children. This would send a clear message that Democrats are not only interested in a peaceful resolution one day in the future, but committed to ending human-rights violations right now.

While it does not seem likely any of this will happen, if the Democrats genuinely oppose annexation, they must put their money where their mouth is. If they don’t seize this opportunity, Israel will simply return to being a bipartisan issue—except, in the wake of annexation, they won’t just be helping an occupier anymore; both parties will be aiding and abetting an apartheid state.

Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli American journalist who covers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its role in U.S. politics. Twitter: @MairavZ

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