Will Democrats let Trump and Israel get away with apartheid?

Trump and Netanyahu on billboard

The US is joining Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his league of lawbreakers with the declaration Monday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the US doesn’t regard settlements as illegal.

Corinna Kern Reuters

The Trump administration announced on Monday that the US no longer views Israeli settlements on occupied territory as a violation of international law.

By formally stating what has in practice been the American position for years, the US signaled to Israel that it can proceed full speed with openly imposing perpetual apartheid on millions of Palestinians living under Israeli rule between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Spurred on by the US announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now pushing a bill to annex the Jordan Valley – about a quarter of the occupied West Bank on the border with Jordan.

Israel has been quietly ethnically cleansing the Jordan Valley of Palestinians for years and recently acting jointly with the US in preparation for annexation.

Recent history provides little doubt that the Trump administration would quickly recognize Israeli annexation of the area, just as it has already recognized Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights and Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Yet far from rising to this challenge, leading Democrats retreated to positions that were arguably obsolete a decade ago – specifically, an outdated commitment to the so-called two-state solution.

They cling to two states while offering no plausible path for how to overcome the Israeli-imposed facts on the ground that Democrats and Republicans alike have refused to act against for half a century.

Several of the Democratic presidential candidates jumped to castigate the decision. They were right to do so. But one after the other they offered toothless words before reverting to two-state language in the face of an apartheid tidal wave.

Senator Elizabeth Warren slammed what she called “Another blatantly ideological attempt by the Trump administration to distract from its failures in the region.”

“Not only do these settlements violate international law – they make peace harder to achieve,” she added.

So far so good. But then Warren trotted out the two-state solution in the face of the apartheid reality Israel has imposed: “As president, I will reverse this policy and pursue a two-state solution.”

How is she going to get 600,000 Israeli settlers out of the West Bank? How is she going to stand up to Israel and say disconnected Palestinian Bantustans are not a state? Will she dare to say that they are, in fact, representative of Israeli-imposed apartheid?

Most importantly, how will she “reverse” policy in any meaningful way without applying sanctions?

In this, she’s simply following the European Union’s policy of mild verbal blandishments while the EU does nothing substantive to stop Israel’s actions and much to reward Israel’s crimes.

Warren, of course, is not alone in her cautious and unimaginative thinking.

Presidential candidates Julián Castro, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar also emphasized their support for the two-state solution in their responses on Twitter Monday.

The candidates may wish for two states, but Trump and Netanyahu have been pressing ahead to consolidate a one-state reality in which Israeli Jews hold all the power and an exclusive claim to national rights while Palestinians live without rights and subject to systematic violence to keep them subjugated – the essence of the crime of apartheid as defined in international law.

Nor have any of them committed to any action that could change the reality: None is talking about applying serious pressure to Israel.

Candidates are going to have start grappling with the world as it is, rather than sticking to a paradigm that many concluded was outdated years ago.

Do they oppose apartheid? If so, will they fight for equal rights for all?

Though Senator Bernie Sanders has endorsed two states previously, his decision to omit reference to it Monday put him at odds with his rivals. Whether it was an intentional signal or not remains to be seen.

Sanders tweeted that “Israeli settlements in occupied territory are illegal,” adding, “This is clear from international law and multiple United Nations resolutions.”

He also accused Trump of “isolating the United States and undermining diplomacy by pandering to his extremist base.”

Sanders and his team, as the first to respond, appear more nimble than other candidates in speaking in favor of Palestinian rights. Nonetheless, there’s no action proposed here either.

And then there is Joe Biden.

He didn’t even bother to tweet with mild concern about settlements. Yet just last week as Israel bombed civilians in Gaza wiping out families with children, he moved quickly to voice his view that Israel, the occupying power besieging Gaza, “has a right to defend itself against terrorist threats.”

And, in late October, Biden described the notion of withholding US aid to Israel over settlement construction as “absolutely outrageous” and a “gigantic mistake.”

Biden’s views are woefully out of step with the progressive energy in the party, yet he remains the front-runner as Warren and Sanders split the progressive vote.

Recent polling confirms the long-term shift within the party’s base away from reflexive support for Israel and towards supporting Palestinian rights and the BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – movement.

Now is the time for Democratic leaders to see the larger picture of what is happening to Palestinians. Netanyahu never believed in the two-state solution, but played out the string long enough to luck into a Trump administration beyond his wildest dreams.

Democrats facilitated Netanyahu’s longevity by largely ignoring the racism pervading the Likud Party (and Labor too). On the few occasions they were willing to say something, the comments never moved beyond words to actions.

So what should Democrats do now?

They ought to begin by asserting that the two-state solution is dead. Netanyahu and Trump killed it. They “won.”

But they won only a round.

Inadvertently, the two leaders have made it more difficult for Democrats to look at the situation and fail to call out apartheid as apartheid. The next round is now on for whether Israel will entrench the apartheid reality or be told this is unacceptable and must be replaced with equal rights for all.

The top elected Democrats, however, are almost universally failures in recognizing Israeli discrimination for what it is.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer? It’s not going to happen with this old guard. They will indulge apartheid and must go.

Grassroots Democrats are already demanding new leaders who will not only support the BDS movement as acceptable free speech, but will view it as a movement they can get behind every bit as much as they did with the movement against apartheid South Africa.

The billions in military aid to Israel – boosted to record levels by the Obama administration – will have to be zeroed out to get the attention of Israeli citizens that the US does not support apartheid.

Finally, Democrats are going to have to get behind what I expect will be – along with climate change demonstrations – one of the largest international social movements of the next quarter century.

Israel has chosen its path. Now it is up to all of us – especially those who claim to be progressive – to decide whether to join a growing social movement that at every turn insists on equal rights for Palestinians between the river and the sea.

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Michael F. Brown

Michael F. Brown is an independent journalist. His work and views have appeared in The International Herald Tribune, TheNation.com, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The News & Observer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post and elsewhere.