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Debate | What should Biden’s approach to Israel be?

On Monday evening, President Trump finally agreed to allow President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team to do its job. What this means is that the next presidency is on its way in. What will a Biden administration’s approach to Israel be? What should it be?

We asked Forward contributing columnists Ari Hoffman and Joel Swanson to debate the issue. Here’s what they had to say:

ARI HOFFMAN: When President Trump exits 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he will be leaving President-elect Biden a country ravaged by Covid-19, economic upheaval, and partisan fractures exacerbated by his own wild conspiracy theories and delusions. In one respect, however, Trump has left Biden a legacy to build on, not expunge: The Abraham Accords have reshaped the Middle East. Normalization agreements between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and even Sudan have unlocked a whole region. While the widely mocked “Deal of the Century” has not led to a signing ceremony between Israelis and Palestinians in the Rose Garden, it has catalyzed a new reality that has empowered moderates, banished the memory of old hatreds, and set the stage for an economic explosion. The U.S. coming out against anti-Zionism was yet another welcome indication of a world where the Jewish State can be more participant than pariah.

Ari Hoffman | Artist: Noah Lubin

Ari Hoffman Image by Noah Lubin

Late breaking news that Prime Minister Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman only illustrates how successful this strategy has been. There can be little doubt that this unprecedented meeting was intended to telegraph to the Biden team that the region has a good thing going: Don’t mess it up.

Fortunately, the news that Biden intends to nominate long-time foreign policy guru Antony Blinken to be his Secretary of State should inspire confidence that these gains will be consolidated and expanded. How to do so alongside the inevitable thawing of relationships with the Palestinians and figuring out how to handle a restive Iran, well, that’s the job Biden signed up for.

JOEL SWANSON: You mentioned outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement last week that the U.S. would formally define anti-Zionism as antisemitism.

On that same exact day, President Trump dispatched his attorney Rudy Giuliani to spread antisemitic conspiracy theories about George Soros supposedly stealing the recent presidential election from President Trump.

So on the one hand, the Trump administration took a strong stance against the BDS movement to boycott Israel, supposedly in the name of protecting Jews from antisemitism. On the other hand, on the exact same day, the administration lent credence to far-right antisemitic conspiracy theories about powerful Jews pulling the strings of American politics behind the scenes.

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

Joel Swanson Image by Noah Lubin

Who is the Trump administration really protecting from antisemitism, when members define BDS as antisemitic and spread antisemitic conspiracy theories on the exact same day? The answer is, they’re protecting the Israeli right-wing, not American Jews.

Because if Trump really listened to American Jews, he would learn something very different from what he seems to believe about our political priorities. Research shows that American Jews are actually substantially more likely than American Christians to think that our foreign policy favors Israel too heavily, and to favor a more balanced approach to Israel and Palestine-related issues. A majority of American Jews opposed moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, fearing this would make a peace deal with Palestinians impossible.

Trump may believe that his Israel policies ought to win him Jewish support, but the truth is that American Jews overwhelmingly favor a more balanced approach to the region that offers hope for a positive future to both Israeli Jews and Palestinians. The Trump administration’s sham of a “peace plan” did not offer any such hope to the Palestinian people.

So my hope for the Biden administration is this: Listen to actual American Jews and Palestinians.

Listen to us as we say that we’re as concerned about antisemitism related to George Soros as we are about BDS.

Listen to us as we say that U.S. foreign policy favors Israel too heavily.

And return to pushing for a future where Palestinians and Israeli Jews actually share equal voting rights, either in two fully independent states or in one.

ARI HOFFMAN: As an American Jew myself, I share your concerns about rising antisemitism, no matter its origin on the political spectrum. And of course it makes me queasy that Soros is bandied about as a puller of strings and corrupter of votes, as it should everyone, regardless of whether you agree with the whole suite of ideological expression he has underwritten. But in this circumstance, I’m inclined to view the Soros references in a similar vein to claims that Hugo Chavez swung the vote for Biden from beyond the grave: less as an expression of ethnic animus and more as a dollar store conspiracy theory.

But I’m glad you brought up progressive American Jews, because this spate of agreements has highlighted just how out of touch they truly are with what is happening in the Middle East and what a successful foreign policy in the region might entail. The best example of this is prominent liberal Jewish American commentator Peter Beinart arguing for the dismantling of the Jewish State on the grounds that it was morally untenable, only to have Israel’s historic enemies run to make peace with that very state, enthusiastically and bravely. This is truly astonishing: dreams of abolishing Israel coming not from Khartoum, but from the Upper West Side.

It is liberal American Jews who misjudged the possibilities of peace, alongside prominent politicians and pundits so besotted with hoary orthodoxies about the centrality of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflcit that they missed the sea change under their feet.

It requires no fealty to Trump to say that on this question, he was right, and the Jewish American left was wrong: Israel’s isolation was not inevitable. A left that wants to be listened to seriously by policy makers needs to reckon with this new reality, and until it does, Biden should tune it out.

Biden has much work to do on the foreign policy front, but a savvy approach would be to pocket Trump’s gains, build on them, and sideline the ideologues in favor of what actually works.

JOEL SWANSON: You can say what you want about Trump’s Abraham Accords, but they do nothing to bring peace or justice to the Palestinian community. Because the basic facts are these: Israel has been ruling over a subjugated population for more than half a century, and that population is further than ever from achieving legal equality. Even those previously resistant to the comparison of Israel to apartheid South Africa, like South African-Israeli Jew and Nelson Mandela ally Benjamin Pogrund, are beginning to admit that as time goes on and the occupation only becomes more deeply entrenched, the analogy is harder and harder to deny. Liberal American Jews aren’t naive or disconnected for pointing that out. We’re just being honest about the reality of a situation where a subjugated population is being systematically denied equal legal rights.

What the Abraham Accords do really show is that Arab Gulf States are willing to sacrifice the Palestinian people for their own political interests, domestic and foreign. That’s a regrettable fact, but it doesn’t change the basic reality. Peace between Israel and the UAE does nothing to improve the life of a Palestinian teenager living in Ramallah, or a Gazan facing the total collapse of their healthcare system.

The facts are these: Liberalism requires equal voting rights, either in one state or two, and the Palestinian people have systemtically been denied that basic right for half a century now. It isn’t liberal American Jews’ fault for pointing that out. Peace with the UAE, whatever you think of it, doesn’t change that basic reality. That’s why I get so worried when I see that Biden’s choices for his foreign policy team have ruled out the possibility of using U.S. military aid to Israel to push for greater Palestinian rights.

The fact is, Trump and Netanyahu do not seem to believe that Palestinians are human beings deserving of equal rights to Israeli Jews. The liberal American Jews who you lambaste for our supposed naivete do believe that. Does Biden and his team? I guess we’ll soon find out.

ARI HOFFMAN: Perhaps the real lesson of the Abraham Accords is that the narrative of Palestinians as hapless victims, a core element of the progressive perspective in the region, is decisively falling out of favor. Expressions of frustrations with the Palestinians after more than seventy years of patronage are increasingly being voiced in terms that blame Palestinian leadership, not Israeli opporession, for continued statelesness.

This is remarkable. The very countries who most vigorously championed the Palestinian cause are now adopting the Israeli line that there is no partner for peace. Put another way, they are acknowledging that the world is complicated, and a stalemated peace process is not a barrier to moving forward where possible.

Progressives can learn a thing or two about multi-tasking from the sheikhs in the Arabian peninsula.

It’s increasingly clear that the role Israel plays in American Jewish conversations actually has very little to do with policies pursued at Foggy Bottom or the White House. It is a way to signal domestic political allegiances.

JOEL SWANSON: What concerns me about Biden’s foreign policy team is that they seem so utterly cautious in their approach, so committed to restoring a pre-Trump status quo that denies the reality that the world has truly changed in the past four years. If we’re going to truly make headway on an actual Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that grants the Palestinian people the basic civil and legal rights they clearly deserve as human beings, we need more than just the return to a stated rhetorical commitment to two states that Biden has so far offered.

We need to consider bolder measures, such as conditioning U.S. aid on movement toward Palestinian statehood — which, unfortunately, both Biden and Harris have explicitly ruled out. Otherwise, we’re just going to be back in the same situation we were prior to Trump, which led to a half century of dispossession of the Palestinian people.

And the fact is, Trump’s foreign policy toward Palestine and Israel has an actual body count. Cuts to humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people have left Gaza unable to handle a COVID epidemic. They have resulted in only four hours of electricity per day, and led to conditions that the United Nations has called “unlivable” for the people of Gaza. No peace deal with Arab Gulf States can change that basic fact.

If Israel does not ease its blockade of Gaza, the COVID epidemic already reaching a boiling point there will only get worse, leading to countless deaths and misery. I don’t consider that a positive legacy of U.S. foreign policy toward the region. And I worry that the instinctive caution of Biden’s chosen foreign policy team will prevent him from taking bold steps to improve the lives of the people living in Gaza and the West Bank.

President Trump’s Abraham Accords are the result of his administration systematically placing the United States on the Sunni side of a region-wide Sunni-Shia cultural and political conflict. It’s the same reason why Trump’s administration has protected Saudi Arabia from any negative political consequences for its dangerous actions, to the point of enabling a cover-up of the murder of a journalist.

This approach of going all-in on the Sunni side of a Sunni-Shia political conflict has had major human rights consequences. Moreover, it has failed to actually make the region safer in the long-term, as Trump’s ill-fated decision to abandon the Iranian nuclear deal has left Shiite Iran closer than ever to nuclear capability.

So I think what we agree upon is this: Trump has changed the game for U.S. foreign policy toward Israel and in the Middle East writ large, for better or worse (that’s where we disagree). We can’t just go back and pretend nothing has changed, which I fear will be the Biden team’s approach.

I’d like to see Joe Biden actually listen to the American Jewish community, which is more pro-Palestine than many people realize and far less concerned about antisemitism from BDS than from the political right. Were he to listen to us, Biden might find that we as a community are open to bolder changes to the U.S. approach to Israel than he thought.

Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist at the Forward, where he writes about politics and culture. He is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at N.Y.U., and his writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, The New York Observer, and a range of other publications. He holds a doctorate in English Literature from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford.

Joel Swanson is a contributing columnist for the Forward and a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. Find him on Twitter @jh_swanson.


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