Rarely in the English speaking world, particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom, has one single defining issue come to dominate national elections so passionately as to determine the outcome, given the fact that voters almost always cast their ballots for candidates nominated by a party with broad-based agenda.
Rarely, yes, but it has happened, say in the US presidential election of 1856 when the then far-right and powerful anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party (so called) threw its hat in the ring; and in the UK when in the 1880s the Gladstone government focused British politics on the single issue of the Home Rule Bill, intended to grant national autonomy to Ireland.
The Palestine-Israel conflict, though clearly of paramount significance to one-issue voters among Jewish Americans and Arab Americans, is far from being dominant among Democratic presidential candidates in primary debates.
There are, surely, more pressing issues — immigration, trade, the environment, gun laws, abortion rights, farm subsidies and the like — that ordinary Americans, in pursuit of their own individual interests, obsess over.
Pro-Israeli groups, including AIPAC, cannot bring themselves to believe that a shift in how Americans have come to see Palestinians — after contemplating half a century of colonial excesses by Israel — has indeed taken place
But in one of those debates last week sparks flew, attesting to the fact that the national mood in the US, concerning the conflict, is shifting considerably, and that the time when presidential aspirants would fall all over each other to express, with humble rectitude, their fealty to Israel, is virtually over. Criticising Israel for its excesses and Israeli leaders for their bigotry, or verbalising support for Palestinian national rights, is no longer taboo in establishmentarian politics.
The man behind helping to bring about this shift — a shift that at any rate appears responsive to the way a great many Americans, including liberal Jewish Americans, see the issue today — is a 79-year-old senator from Vermont, vying to be the next president of the United States of America, who, while making a point during primary debates, often jabs his fingers at fellow contestants, all the while seeming supremely macho — that is, Brooklyn-style, don’t-mess-with-me macho. Of course, you remember Bernie (Feel the Bern) Sanders from the 2016 Democratic Party presidential campaign.
At the last debate, in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 25, Sanders became a lightning rod for the Jewish establishment when he declared that he would not attend, address or have anything to do with AIPAC, the legendary, and overly powerful pro-Israel lobbying group before whose annual conferences politicians and presidents appear, as if by tradition, in order to do obeisance to Israel.
After calling Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s sitting prime minister, a “reactionary racist”, he said: “The Israeli people have the right to live in peace and security. So do the Palestinian people. I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and opposes basic Palestinian rights. I will not attend their conference”.
To be sure, Sanders had been pre-empted, in expressing that sentiment, by Elizabeth Warren, in an earlier primary debate, on February 6, when she promptly answered “yes” after she was asked if she would — again, as she had done the year before — skip the group’s event, which often brings together, as it did last Sunday, well over 20,000 people.
The question, asked by a member of the audience, was this: “I’m an American Jew, and I’m terrified by the unholy alliance that AIPAC is forming with Islamophobes, anti-Semites and white nationalists. Will you join me in committing to skip the AIPAC conference this March?”
Dignity for Palestinians
Then, without hesitation, Warren replied, “Yeah” — to laughter and warm applause from the assembled crowd. Should she be elected president, she said, she would “provide security for Israel” and “self-determination and dignity for the Palestinians”.
In short, no more laughable deals of the century. The sole Democratic presidential candidate to address AIPAC this year was New York City ex-mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Over the last 47 years of living in the US, engaged all the while in the very ethos of its political culture, I’ll tell you up front that this is all unprecedented.
“AIPAC is now officially a fringe, right-wing, radio-active rogue organisation”, said Glenn Greenwald of Intercept, the popular online liberal publication. “It was always that, but its mask has fallen and it’s now widely recognised as such. Only Bloomberg is willing to be near it”.
And Danny Moscovitch, of If Not Now, the national movement of young American Jews committed to changing the conversation about the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, wondered how “even moderates in the Democratic Party are now refusing to attend a conference by a right-wing lobby that allies with bigots”.
A shift, slow but sure, is underway in how ordinary, everyday Americans have come to view the issue. A case in point: One Gallop poll, released in March last year, found that, whereas 65 per cent of Americans said they were “more sympathetic to Israel over Palestinians” in 2018, 59 per cent said the same in 2019, making a six-point drop, the biggest decline over a one-year period in the history of the poll, which began in 2001.
Pro-Israeli groups, including AIPAC, cannot bring themselves to believe that a shift in how Americans have come to see Palestinians — after contemplating half a century of colonial excesses by Israel — has indeed taken place. That shift may not be enormous — not yet — but a shift it is.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.