America's attitude to Palestine and Israel has subtly shifted

Many factors have contributed to this new polarisation on Israel

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden is greeted by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib  at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, Detroit, Michigan,U.S., May 18, 2021. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo
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In addition to the outbreak of Jewish versus Arab communal violence inside Israel for the first time since the 1940s, one of the few novel features of an otherwise grimly familiar scenario during the Israel-Hamas fighting are the apparent new patterns in American attitudes.

The changes are striking and complex. Many were long in the making. And not all of them are positive.

US President Joe Biden stuck to the well-established, pre-Donald Trump, playbook by insisting in public on Israel's right to defend itself, while applying increasing pressure behind the scenes for a ceasefire.

In this case, it proved effective politically and diplomatically. It is unlikely any other politically plausible approach could have produced an earlier halt to the violence.

Mr Biden may well have even saved lives by denying Israel a completely free hand, through quiet pressure but by also not giving the Israelis any reason to try to demonstrate their independence – even to themselves –by continuing the fighting despite public pressure from Washington.

But beyond the White House, developments in Congress, especially among Democrats, were wildly off script.

First, there is a new and vocal faction on the progressive left, led by Bernie Sanders in the Senate and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the House.

It is critical of Israeli policies in the occupied territories to a degree seldom seen before in Congress, and does not hesitate to champion Palestinian human rights.

This faction includes Rashida Tlaib, the first female and Muslim Palestinian-American in Congress. She has been passionately outspoken and very effective in putting a human and American face on the Palestinian experience.

Palestinian-American congresswoman Rashida Tlaib attends a pro-Palestinian protest in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S., May 16, 2021. Picture taken May 16, 2021. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Palestinian-American congresswoman Rashida Tlaib attends a pro-Palestinian protest in Michigan on May 16. Reuters

When Mr Biden visited her home state, Michigan, last week to view a car factory, she was seen in animated conversation with him and he praised her determination.

He was also greeted by a large demonstration of Arab Americans protesting against Israel’s attacks in Gaza.

Crucially, the change is not limited to a left-wing faction.

Centrists and even stalwartly pro-Israel Democrats, such as senators Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez, and Congressman Jerry Nadler, maintained strong support for Israel in its battle with Hamas, but also signed on to statements deeply critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians, which would have been completely unthinkable until now.

But the breakdown of the old pro-Israel and, at least in theory, pro-two-state solution consensus in Washington is hardly unqualified good news for the Palestinians.

Despite the sympathy in some Washington quarters for Palestinians, the deck is still heavily stacked towards Israel

Attitudes have shifted dramatically on the right as well, as Mr Trump's pro-annexation and highly anti-Palestinian policies demonstrated.

With the ascendancy of a huge evangelical Christian, and a small Jewish religious right, many Republicans now openly support the creation of a “greater” Israel and, in effect, oppose any genuinely independent Palestinian state.

Many factors have contributed to this new polarisation on Israel.

More than a decade of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's relentless siding with Republicans has been crucial in turning Israel, and therefore Palestine, into a partisan issue.

So has the growing influence of narratives on the left, of casting Palestinians as oppressed victims of Israeli racism and colonialism.

Among younger Democrats, Palestinians are now routinely compared to African Americans under Jim Crow segregation in the US south or blacks in the former apartheid South Africa.

That is not anything younger liberal Americans are willing to tolerate. Palestinian lives matter, they insist.

The mythology of both Israel and the US being settler pioneer states that were battling the wilderness in the name of civilisation used to inspire identification with Israel among many Americans. Now it serves as an indictment, especially among the young.

A man, who claims to have been a member of the Israeli army for 32 years, is surrounded by pro-Palestinian supporters who shout at him and eventually steal his flag during a rally in support of Palestine in Copley Square in Boston, Massachusetts, May 15, 2021.  Speakers called for an end of international and US funding of Isreal's military. US President Joe Biden, in a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed his "grave concern" Saturday over the flareup of violence in Israel and Gaza, the White House announced.
 / AFP / Joseph Prezioso
A man, who claims to have been a member of the Israeli army for 32 years, surrounded by pro-Palestinian supporters in Boston, Massachusetts, May 15. AFP

And everyone knows that Israel has decisively turned away from the Oslo formula and a two-state solution, with Mr Netanyahu insisting that all Palestinians can aspire to is a "state minus".

Right-wing Republicans welcome this, but it profoundly alienates liberal Democrats.

Still, it is easy to overstate the policy impact to date of these cultural and attitudinal shifts.

Mr Biden was still strongly supportive of Israel's campaign in Gaza, especially in the early stages. Congress is not considering reducing US military aid to Israel, or even reversing legislation that makes it practically impossible for the Palestinians to reopen the Palestine Liberation Organisation mission in Washington.

Despite the newfound sympathy in some Washington quarters for Palestinians, the deck is still heavily stacked towards Israel and the "special relationship" remains robust for now.

Moreover, Palestinians and their allies should be alarmed at a number of violent anti-Semitic street attacks evidently started by the Gaza conflict.

One obvious parallel to these ugly anti-Jewish incidents in New York and Los Angeles is the post-9/11 anger and hatred against those perceived to be Arabs and Muslims.

These appalling incidents could not be more toxic to the Palestinian cause and the prospects for improving its standing in the US.

Pro-Palestinian supporters hold signs and wave flags while marching during a protest against the Israel-Hamas crisis in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S., on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he’d support a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas after days of calling for calm but not publicly seeking an end to the conflict, a shift in the U.S. approach to the crisis following days of rising criticism. Photographer: Matthew Hatcher/Bloomberg
Pro-Palestinian supporters in Dearborn, Michigan, US, on May 18. Bloomberg

The shift in American discourse on Palestinian rights is also partly the product of decades of dedicated, tireless effort of countless pro-Palestinian and human rights activists who successfully challenged deeply entrenched anti-Palestinian narratives in US culture.

Even within the Biden administration a subtle but key change is evident.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Mr Biden all spoke of Palestinians and Israelis deserving "equal measures" of freedom and other rights.

The phrase is so consistent it has evidently been carefully crafted and used with a full appreciation of its significance.

As a principle, the new language points US policy towards a purposive rights-based Palestinian agenda that focuses less on the form of an outcome than on its content.

It suggests the US would agree that a long-term Palestinian-Israeli arrangement must provide first-class citizenship and human and civil rights to all individuals and allow both people to effectively exercise self-determination.

That would align Washington squarely with Palestinian aspirations for freedom and equality, rather than Israeli territorial ambitions, ethnic domination and the exclusivity of Jewish national rights most explicitly defined in the 2018 “nation-state” law.

"Equal" is a word and a value that powerfully serves Palestinian interests.

Its repeated use by the Biden administration subtly but clearly shows that the tectonic cultural plates underlying US attitudes are shifting in a positive direction.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National