American discourse on Israel-Palestine issue shifts for the better

by Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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Change in the perceptions and attitudes of the American public towards issues related to Israel-Palestine come very incrementally. As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once commented: "Generally change in our society is incremental. ... Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time."

Most times it takes a really close and nuanced look to notice these changes. This was certainly the case in the Democratic Party primaries where incremental yet noteworthy advances in the long, uphill struggle for a more balanced American position on the issue of Israel-Palestine were achieved.

The internal struggle over the Democratic Party's platform drafting committee hearings in St. Louis in June 2016 provided the first whiff of change. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders had appointed James Zogby, Democratic National Convention official, president of the Arab-American Institute and a decades-long leading advocate for Palestinian rights; Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of two Muslim-American congressmen; and professor Cornel West to the platform-writing committee; all three of whom spoke out explicitly and forcefully for Palestinian rights alongside Israel's security.

Zogby and the other Sanders delegates hoped the committee would discuss removing a reference to Jerusalem being the "the capital of Israel, an undivided city" while hoping to include references to ending "occupation and illegal settlements" in Palestinian lands Israel has occupied since 1967.

Despite the fact that they lost on all the above counts, with Zogby publicly attributing this loss to supporters of Hillary Clinton who feared retribution from billionaire Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, the discourse on Palestine had shifted from a predominantly pro-Israel tilt towards one that equally emphasized Israeli security and Palestinian rights to sovereignty and dignity.

Though seemingly insignificant, these small changes in vocabulary represent real political change in the sense that never before had the Democratic Party spoken about the creation of a Palestinian state without conditioning this creation on Israeli security.

By bringing the Israel-Palestine issue into the public sphere at the Democratic Party primaries, the Sanders candidacy and campaign has played a critical role in accelerating the slow yet steady change on the Israel-Palestine issue that is taking place among Democratic Party supporters.

All issues related to Israel-Palestine are now open for debate both within political parties and among the general public without fear of effective retribution, including occupation, settlements, and sanctions against Israel's occupation.

Zogby noted that "[Israel-Palestine] is no longer a narrow cast issue. It now represents consistent moral and political views of progressives in the wider political arena."

Ellison agreed with Zogby, saying: "The conversation has improved a lot ... it is broader and more inclusive." 

Sanders also proved that a legitimate presidential contender could demand even-handed treatment for Palestinians and Israelis and remain a viable and strong candidate. This demolished the political axiom that such a position is political suicide for any serious U.S. presidential candidate.

And it is not just among Democratic Party supporters that change in perceptions and attitudes are taking place on Israel-Palestine. In fact, the Democratic Party is simply reflecting the growing attitudes of younger and Millennial Americans (those born since 1980) on the issue.

A recent poll by GOP pollster Frank Luntz revealed that Americans aged 18 to 26 are increasingly liberal, something Luntz warned should "frighten every business and political leader." Part of the reason for this worry is that these same Americans continue to move towards a more even-handed position on Israel-Palestine. 

A May Pew poll revealed that most of the increased support for Palestinian rights among Americans in recent years comes from liberal Democrats. Additionally, Pew found that while 43 percent of Millennials sympathize more with Israel, those that say they support the Palestinians has increased three-fold from 9 percent support in 2006 to 27 percent in 2016.

Attitudes towards sanctioning the Israeli occupation are also changing. A 2015 Brookings poll revealed that 49 percent of Democrats said they recommended economic sanctions or other more serious action to counter illegal Israeli settlement construction.

Numbers don't lie. It is becoming increasingly clear that over time the American public's attitudes towards Israel-Palestine are becoming more fair and balanced, and the incremental but real changes that occurred on the Democratic Party platform committee bear witness to this.

This slow but real shift in American attitudes towards Israel-Palestine worries the right-wing pro-Israel crowd (as opposed to the more center and left-wing pro-Israel crowd who interpret these changes as positive towards achieving a just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.)

Perhaps more worrying to the "Israel right or wrong" forces is that these political demographic changes are increasingly manifesting themselves in the votes by national educational associations like the American Anthropological Association (where the executive committee decided to take a series of measures targeting Israel after its membership voted down by a razor-thin 2 percent margin a boycott of Israeli academic institutions) and mainstream U.S. churches and unions.

According to Rami Khouri, non-resident senior fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School, the AAA vote reflects that "the younger, more ethnically diverse, and more active and progressive members generally support sanctioning Israel for its subjugation of Palestinians, while pro-Israeli support increasingly is confined largely to older, predominantly white Americans who tend to follow Israel's lead on such issues."

Khouri presciently points out that "a dozen mainstream American churches, unions, and academic associations in the past four years have voted for boycotts and sanctions of Israeli institutions that subjugate Palestinians. In the previous half-century, even discussing the Palestine rights issue in public was virtually impossible."

The larger ramification in such cases is that it is becoming increasingly clear that the taboo is broken of discussing Israel-Palestine in an open and honest way, and as the public becomes aware of the whole truth and not only the Israeli truth, the public inevitably becomes increasingly sympathetic to the Palestinians.

This does not mean that Israel's legitimate security concerns are sidelined nor should they be. What it does mean however is that equally of concern now to the public are daily Palestinian life issues such as illegal Israeli settlement of Palestinian lands, collective punishment of the Palestinian civilian population and the manifold more Palestinian civilian deaths at the hands of Israelis than vice versa.

With this increasing public awareness comes a future inevitability that this awareness will translate into a change in U.S. policy on the issue to a more evenhanded and balanced one.

[Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American political analyst and commentator.]

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