Activists will continue to build allies in D.C. no matter who takes White House
This article was originally published August 2016 in Palestine in America’s second annual print issue.
Eighteen months ago in the hotbed of deal-making and lobbying, a subtle shift started to occur in Palestine solidarity activism. Perhaps capitalizing on the rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as a somewhat ‘friendly’ atmosphere among liberal Democrats on Capitol Hill, several organizations with headquarters spread throughout the country began opening offices in D.C. or on the East Coast. My organization, American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), along with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), DCI Palestine, and Adalah were among the groups who now have a presence in the nation’s capital. They were joining others, such as the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which has led legislative advocacy for Palestinian human rights for years, and others like American Friends Service Committee and Code Pink.
These groups quickly coalesced into a large network that can turn out constituency numbers like never before. The core organizations garnered more than 65,000 signatures on a petition asking for an end to military aid to Israel in 2015. Together the groups represented more than 1 million constituents, a number that even the most pro-Israel congressman won’t be able to ignore for long. In 2015, more than 100,000 messages were sent to Members of Congress demanding they skip Netanyahu’s March speech. Nearly 60 elected officials did so— the first time an Israeli prime minister did not have the full support of Congress. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) wrote a “Dear Colleague” letter last year signed by 18 representatives asking Secretary of State John Kerry to elevate Palestinian children to priority status in our relationship with Israel. This year, she spearheaded a letter, signed by a total of 20 legislators, asking President Obama to appoint a special envoy for Palestinian children. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) wrote a letter signed by several colleagues in the House asking the State Department to investigate several instances of human rights abuses perpetrated by Israeli military units.
These are just a few of the victories activists have had during the past 18 months, despite the fact that Zionist organizations—fearful of the inroads the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has made globally and in the U.S.—have ratcheted up their attacks against them.
This isn’t to say activists in D.C. have found Camelot. Despite President Obama’s public rhetoric about settlements and Palestinian rights, he’s still awarded more military aid to the apartheid state than any president before him. He’s currently renegotiating a 10-year Memorandum of Understanding that could give Israel nearly $50 billion.
“Unfortunately, the Obama administration has continued following the same old failed US policies towards Israel,” said Raed Jarrar, AFSC government relations manager.
One thing is for certain, this primary election cycle did spare the rest of us from the barrage of anti-Palestinian rhetoric Republican presidential hopefuls such as Mitt Romney, Michelle Bachman and Newt Gingrich spewed in the run up to the 2012 election. In fact, except for the obligatory “No-Light-Between-the U.S.-and-Israel” tropes, Palestine and Israel did not play a central role in most of the campaign stumping–until Sen. Bernie Sanders won the Michigan primary in an upset over Hillary Clinton, thanks largely to the Arab and Muslim vote concentrated in the Detroit suburbs. Suddenly, Sanders realized the power of this voting bloc and he seemed to refashion his campaign by utilizing Palestinian American Linda Sarsour and hiring Jewish American Simone Zimmerman, whom he suspended after Zionist pushback. Sanders hired a friend of mine, Ahlam Jbara, another Palestinian-American woman heavily involved in the movement, as his Arab and Muslim outreach director.
We know where each of the remaining candidates stand on the issues. Speaking before the AIPAC conference in March, Clinton was so hawkish in her comments she seemed more Israeli than Netanyahu himself. Trump, who originally said he’d remain neutral on Palestine/Israel, was so disrespectful of President Obama that AIPAC president Lillian Pinkus apologized for it the next day. Only Sanders refused to attend the lobby organization’s annual event. When he later released his speech, he recognized the ‘friendship’ between Israel and the U.S., but also said he recognized Palestinians’ need for security as well. Since then, he has tried to push language in the Democratic Party’s convention platform calling for an end to Israel’s occupation and illegal settlements through his appointees to the writing committee, including the Arab American Institute’s James Zogby and human rights activist Cornel West.
“We have to have the ability in our politics to say what we say in our policy,” Foreign Policy quoted Zogby as saying. But Clinton supporters so far have successfully blocked the addition of Sander’s language and activists are hoping the issue will come up on the floor of the convention in late July.
“The current situation will continue,” if Clinton is elected president, said Dr. Paul Green, American Government expert at Roosevelt University in Chicago. “There is no way under this sun that Hillary Clinton will move on [the platform language.] She’ll move on a lot of things, but she won’t move on that.”
If Trump takes the helm, well, “God only knows,”he said. “No one can predict what will happen.”
Nonetheless, Green said the current situation on the ground in the Middle East “can’t last.” He sees a two-state solution as the only possible peaceful outcome, he said.
Josh Ruebner, policy director of the US. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation sees things differently. “Obama’s successor will have to deal with the reality that a two-state solution is no longer an option,” Ruebner said. “The next president of the United States is going to be forced to reckon with a set of circumstances that will render prior U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine as irrelevant.”
While Ruebner can’t predict who will take the White House next year, he does predict the rift over Palestinian rights within the Democratic Party will continue to grow. “We may not gain traction in the next administration but it doesn’t mean we can’t build political power [in Congress]”, he said. “Regardless of who wins, we’ll see the rift within the Democratic Party continue to expand … we can continue to find and cultivate political allies through the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.”
Part of the widening rift has been caused by Sanders, part by the availability of eye-witness video and pictures coming out of Palestine via social media and a large part because of educational efforts and advocacy campaigns forwarded by the many organizations and activists in Washington. What’s measurable is that left-leaning Democrats support Palestinians over Israel by 68 to 60, according to a recent Pew Research poll, said Middle East analyst Wardah Khalid.
“Also, people are becoming aware (of Palestinian human rights),” she said. “We need to amplify their voices. They don’t want their tax dollars to be used to carry out human rights abuses.”
Khalid said activists and policy wonks can continue to build on this progress by continually engaging with policy makers and legislators “at all levels.” Like Ruebner, she believes we must continue to build our bases of political power within Congress.
Continuing our advocacy with the realization that support for Palestinians among the millennial generation has tripled in the past few years bodes well for continued progress for Palestinian rights in Washington DC in the long-term. And that leads to ever more Members of Congress who are “growing increasingly supportive of Palestinian rights and who want to see a change in U.S. policy,” Ruebner said.