By Ramzy Baroud
Motivated by their justifiable aversion to former US President Donald Trump, many analysts have rashly painted a rosy picture of how the Democratic Biden administration could quickly alter the bleak trajectory of its Republican predecessor. This naivety is particularly pronounced in the current spin on the Palestinian-Israeli discourse, which is once again promoting the illusion that Democrats will succeed where their political rivals have failed.
There are obvious differences in the Democrats’ approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict when compared to that of the Republicans, but only in terms of semantics and political jingoism, not policy. This assertion is borne out by the party’s official language on Palestine and Israel, particularly when that language is considered within the context of practical policies on the ground.
Take the remarks made by new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a CNN interview last week. Blinken’s comments reminded us of the clever — albeit disingenuous — US foreign policy of previous Democratic administrations. His words may seem like a complete departure from the belligerent, yet direct, approach of his predecessor, Mike Pompeo.
“Look, leaving aside the legalities of that question (the illegal Israeli occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights), as a practical matter, the Golan is very important to Israel’s security,” Blinken said. Later in the interview, he again acknowledged the question of legality, while also sidelining it as an issue. “Legal questions are something else,” he said, before continuing to speak vaguely and non-committedly about the future of Syria.
This can be compared with statements made by Pompeo in November. “This is a part of Israel and a central part of Israel,” he said as he was accompanied by Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi on a visit to the occupied Golan Heights. Pompeo’s position was duly condemned by Palestinians and Arabs and criticized by various governments and international bodies. Blinken’s position, however, generated little media attention and negligible, if any, serious reprimand regionally or internationally. This should not have been the case.
By acknowledging the relevance of the issue of legality, but then “leaving it aside” in favor of the seemingly more pressing question of Israeli security, Blinken simply defended the status quo: That of perpetual Israeli military occupation, which is also championed enthusiastically by Republicans.
This is the Democratic doctrine on Palestine and Israel, in effect largely since the Bill Clinton era. The current administration of Joe Biden is undoubtedly following the same blueprint, which allows Washington to offer itself as a neutral party — an “honest peace-broker” — while at the same time helping Israel achieve its strategic goals at the expense of the Palestinian and Arab peoples.
The clear distinction between the Democratic and Republican discourses on Palestine and Israel is a relatively new phenomenon. Interestingly, it was the Republican George H.W. Bush administration that, in 1991, established the current Democratic narrative on Palestine. At the end of the First Gulf War, Bush championed the multilateral talks between Israel and Arab states in Madrid. Within a few years, a whole new American discourse was formulated.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US supplanted the peace process discourse in Republican foreign policy literature with a new one, which is avowedly dedicated to fighting “Islamic terror.” Israel cleverly used this new American language and conduct in the Middle East to present itself as a partner in the US-led global “war on terror.”
To stave off the collapse of US global political leadership as a result of the Iraq invasion of 2003, the Obama administration quickly restored the traditional American position, once again offering US services as a benefactor of peace in the Middle East. However, President Barack Obama labored to restore America’s relevance as a peacemaker. His administration still utilized the disingenuous language of the past; constantly putting the onus on the Palestinians, while gently reminding Israel of its responsibilities toward Palestine’s civilian population.
Obama’s Cairo speech in April 2009 remains the most powerful, yet indicting, reminder of the numerous moral lapses and legal blind spots of US foreign policy, particularly under Democratic administrations. The speech, which was meant to serve as a watershed moment in the US’ approach to the Middle East, fully exposed the caveats of America’s bias toward Israel, predicated mostly on emotional manipulation and historical misrepresentations.
Obama deliberately fluctuated between the persecution of Jewish communities throughout history and Israel’s “right” to ensure its security at the expense of oppressed Palestinians, as if the systematic Israeli violence was a genuine attempt to prevent further persecution of the world’s Jewry. By contrast, Obama insisted, with little sympathy or context, that “Palestinians must abandon violence,” thus painting them and their rightful resistance as the true obstacle to any just peace in Palestine.
Blaming the victim in this theater has been a central pillar of US foreign policy, shared by Democrats and Republicans alike. However, while Republicans increasingly ignore the rights and, sometimes, the very existence of the Palestinians, Democrats, who continue to support Israel with equal passion, use more moderate — though inconsequential — language.
For Democrats, Palestinians are the instigators of violence, although Israel may have, at times, used “disproportionate force” in its response. For them, international law exists, but can easily be “left aside” to accommodate Israeli security. For them, there is such a thing as internationally recognized borders, but these are flexible in order to accommodate Israel’s demographic fears, strategic interests and “military edge.”
Hence, it is easier to discredit the foreign policy agenda of Trump, Pompeo and other Republicans, as their aggressive, dismissive language and actions are unmistakably objectionable. The Democratic discourse cannot be as easily censured, as it utilizes a mix of superficial language, political platitudes and historical cliches, carefully worded with the aim of placing the US back in the driving seat of whatever political process is underway.
While the Democratic discourse remains committed to arming and defending Israel, it provides Palestinians and Arabs with no meaningful change, because substantive change can only occur when international law is respected. Unfortunately, according to Blinken’s logic, such apparently trivial matters should, for now, be “left aside.”