Five prominent Jewish, pro-Israel groups sent a letter earlier this week to House Democrats with a list of principles they hoped would guide the leadership in selecting a new chairperson for the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC). The current chair, Eliot Engel, lost his congressional seat to newcomer progressive, Jamaal Bowman. The political implications of the choice are important, as it will send a signal of how the Democrats intend to approach foreign policy in the next Congress, assuming they hold on to their House majority, as most expect they will.
Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now, Habonim Dror, J Street, and Partners for Progressive Israel are making the case that their pro-peace, pro-Israel style is the future of Israel advocacy. Given the increasing disdain with which more traditional and hardline pro-Israel groups like AIPAC are viewed, that case is a strong one.
Their advocacy should be viewed as distinct from Palestine solidarity groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, American Muslims for Palestine, or the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, which, as non-Zionist or anti-Zionist organizations, are not going to argue for the continued existence of a Zionist state of any kind. But even anti-Zionists should view the more dovish pro-Israel groups taking that space away from AIPAC positively. The shift of the Overton Window toward a more progressive conversation can only help the quest for securing Palestinian rights.
Still, it’s worth examining the vision the five groups expressed, because that may be the near future of the Democrats’ view of policy toward Palestine and Israel. Certainly, it is the most progressive sort of stance one can reasonably expect the party to even consider for the time being.
The groups laid out three basic principles that they hoped would guide Democrats in the selection of the new HFAC chairperson: The primacy of a diplomacy-first foreign policy; Israel’s existence as a secure, democratic homeland of the Jewish people; and the rights of the Palestinian people, including to statehood.
These are broad principles, but they revealed much once the groups fleshed them out a bit.
“The primacy of a diplomacy-first foreign policy”
It’s important that the five groups decided to put this point first. It’s perhaps even more important that they make it clear that diplomacy-first means not only before overt military action, but also before “coercive” measures “like broad punitive sanctions.” This is an especially important point, as it goes beyond merely being “not Trump,” but can mean a more progressive stance than most administrations.
It’s worth asking, though, how far these groups are prepared to go on this principle. Five years ago, there was a “pragmatic” calculus that led the Obama administration to throw a great deal of backing behind the Saudi war against Yemen in part to compensate the Saudis for the Iran nuclear deal. Most of us would say this was an example of a military measure to attain a U.S. goal. Yet most of us were silent about this at the time, only to discover what that devil’s bargain did to Yemen not long after.
One policy point that we might have hoped the groups could agree to is an across the board reduction in the massively bloated defense budget. There is no conceivable security justification for a defense budget that is greater than the next twelve countries combined. When that much is spent on weaponry and the military, it is difficult to see how it can remain an option of last resort.
But the most important aspect of this principle and the fact that it is first on the five groups’ list is that it is a broad principle not confined to the question of Israel-Palestine. It is unquestionably a policy goal that can be supported by those who would want to go much further as well as those who support a central, but not exclusive, role for the military in U.S. foreign affairs.
It stands in sharp contrast to traditional pro-Israel groups for whom coercion is the primary strategy, with diplomacy working to make gains from the U.S. and Israel’s military might. A diplomacy-first approach that treats all parties respectfully and seeks to find the best deal for all concerned would be a welcome alternative. Both the U.S. and Israel will have military superiority long into the future even with a sharp rollback in U.S. military spending, so this does not imply increasing any sort of vulnerability. But it does offer a path to address core problems that lead to insecurity of all kinds, something a military approach cannot do.
“Israel’s existence as a secure, democratic homeland of the Jewish people”
I don’t think we can overstate the importance of five self-defined Zionist groups deciding not to call for protecting the existence of Israel as a “Jewish state.” The formulation of a “democratic homeland for the Jewish people” opens possibilities that would have been antithetical to even the most left-wing Zionists mere months ago. While not in any way discounting the possibility of a two-state solution, which all these groups continue to advocate for, it opens the possibility of a single, bi-national state, a confederation, and various other formulations.
Just being open to such ideas is a sea change in liberal Zionism, and that should be duly recognized and applauded even while other parts of the groups’ letter raise hackles and frustrate observers. The language of “shared values,” for example, is something that comes off as dangerously naïve at this point and really needs to be done away with. It implies some superior moral authority to both the United States and Israel that is, to say the least, not merited by the histories or current policies of either country.
The letter also calls on a new HFAC chair to shepherd the “US-Israel Special Relationship,” something which any rational policy needs to relegate to the dustbin of history. It is neither practical, sensible, nor efficacious to call for ending the friendship and alliance between the U.S. and Israel. But if, as the letter says, we are to hold Israel “to the same standards as other countries in international for a,” we must also end this “special relationship” nonsense. The relationship between the U.S. and Israel should be that of allies who often, though not always, share values and policy goals, for better or worse. Progressives may believe it is for worse, others may differ, but this notion that Israel should be something more than an ally is indefensible and distorts the entire policy discourse around very serious issues of security, human rights, and international law and order.
The traditional pro-Israel points the five groups touch on—“defending Israel’s legitimacy” and advocacy for continued “security support” for Israel against “terrorism and regional threats”—would be served best by changes in policy, not by reinforcing either Israeli or American belligerence in the region. Still, while the level of military funding, like our own defense budget, may be too high to encourage diplomacy in favor of coercion, there is no disputing that threats exist. So, while we may hope that the five groups come to agree that reducing reliance on—and funding to—the military to address very real threats is the wiser as well as the more ethical course, it is hardly untoward of them to call for continuing military cooperation and assistance at this point.
The legitimacy question is one they would do better to get past. Yes, Israel’s legitimacy is challenged, based on both the circumstances of its creation from a settler-colonial process and its consistent policies since. But the fact is, Israel exists and the debates around these issues do not present any substantial challenge to that reality. The discourse is about bringing about recompense for Palestinian dispossession and policy change to allow the Palestinians to fully exercise their rights. The entity that is doing by far the most to delegitimize Israel in 2020 is Israel itself, through its bigoted nationalism, its total disregard for the rights of Palestinians and its neighbors, and its hubristic indifference to the concerns of other countries.
These are important and legitimate criticisms, but they should not detract from the importance of the five groups using the term “homeland for the Jewish people” rather than calling for protecting Israel as a “Jewish state.” This is a huge step for these groups, and it should be welcomed and encouraged. While, in isolation, it won’t change anything immediately, this shift in discourse could have enormous long-term impact. A positive reaction will encourage them to go even further in the future.
“The rights of the Palestinian people, including to statehood”
Inevitably, the groups needed to at least allude to a two-state formulation. Encouragingly, by doing it in this manner, they open the door to two-state formulations other than the one envisioned by the Oslo process, which is an important rhetorical marker. More importantly, the group make it clear that statehood is not the beginning and end of their idea of “Palestinian rights.” It’s incredibly important that they are using the “rights” framework, another huge reason we should all want to see these groups become the new face of pro-Israel Democrats while we continue to push the party into an even more progressive direction on this issue.
What will no doubt strike many Palestinians in its absence is any mention of Palestinian refugees. This is the question that Israel and even the most progressive of the Zionist left continues to be unable to grapple with. The idea that Palestinians “understand” that they will have to settle for a token return and compensation in the best-case scenario is seductive, but, from all available evidence, completely misguided. Palestinians across the political spectrum do not “understand,” much less accept, any such thing.
The unpleasant reality for many in these groups is that all the wishful thinking in the world is not going to make that problem go away and it’s a comfortable fiction for many liberal Zionists that recognizing other Palestinian rights without addressing this one is sufficient. But that fiction is not going to last.
As important as so much of this letter is in starting to move liberal Zionism away from trying to fit the square peg of a “Jewish state” into the round hole of universal rights, the effort will eventually be scuppered by the right of return if it is not addressed openly, forthrightly, and with all the very difficult conversations that it implies.
This section is distressing on another level. As promising as some points of this letter are, this last paragraph tries to express for Palestinian rights broadly but largely reduces those rights to the two-state paradigm. Of course, opposing annexation and settlement expansion is important, and the call for respecting Palestinian human rights in the abstract is crucial, but the focus on the settlements, and land in general, continues to imply that Palestinian rights are defined in terms of a two-state solution.
Still, these criticisms must be kept in context. APN, PPI, Habonim Dror, J Street, and Ameinu have taken some bold steps with the framing of this letter. They have resisted the temptation to focus only on annexation and are moving the liberal, anti-occupation framework in a more progressive direction. This letter is a significant step and its importance must not be minimized. We are not there yet, but this shows that there is potential for building common ground between these liberal groups and Palestinian solidarity groups to their left.
Those of us who stand to the political left of these five groups should stand fast to principles but bring their critique in a positive way. This letter provides an opening for progressive and Palestinian solidarity groups to work with liberal Zionist groups on issues like the HFAC chair, where there will be common interests and congruent goals. It’s a step toward being able to work where there is agreement, something that, given the relative strength of hardline pro-Likud Zionist groups we must do a lot more of.