The Democrats are Changing their Talk on Israel. Will They Walk the Walk? | Opinion

Something incredible happened at the debate this week. A Jewish democratic frontrunner to become president of the United States voluntarily declared that "We must treat the Palestinian people as well with the respect and dignity they deserve"—and the audience in Atlanta erupted into applause.

Just days after the Trump administration announced that the U.S. would no longer oppose Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land, the Democratic base is applauding Palestinian rights. When it comes to Israel and Palestine, the distance between the Democratic base and the Evangelical right has never been larger—and how we got here tells us everything about where we're headed.

A few weeks ago, one after another of the Democratic 2020 candidates announced their willingness to consider conditioning U.S. funding to Israel's military, if the expansion of Israeli settlements continued or if Israel tried to annex the West Bank. It felt both sudden, and hard-won.

This week, the Secretary of State dropped a policy bombshell, cementing U.S. support for Israeli apartheid by declaring that the U.S. officially no longer sees settlements in the occupied West Bank as contrary to international law. While in reality just a confirmation of the U.S.'s long-standing de-facto policy around settlements, despite statements to the contrary, it came with a swipe at the very premise of international law.

Together, these pronouncements amount to a true sea change in the conversation on Israel, Palestine and what sort of future we can hope for. All bets are off as the right escalates its pandering to its Christian evangelical and extremist base, while the Democratic establishment is being forced to acknowledge its increasingly progressive base. This presents a huge opportunity for progressives to push for policy changes -- like the immediate cutting of U.S. military funding to the Israeli military.

However, inside the Democratic establishment, significant work remains. Not all Democratic candidates have supported leveraging U.S. funding for Israel's military. Several stayed hunkered down in a hawkish, AIPAC approach, including former Vice President Joe Biden, who called the very idea of daring to condition funding to Israel (something commonly applied to other recipients of American aid) "absolutely outrageous." Senators Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet also declined to commit to this kind of accountability.

Others, like Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Elizabeth Warren, stated the option was on the table, and Senator Bernie Sanders staked out the most progressive vision, saying he would leverage the $3.8 billion the U.S. gives the Israeli military annually, adding that some of that aid should be redirected to Gaza "right now."

Last week, however, the convictions of each candidate were tested as Israel yet again bombed the Gaza Strip—home to 2 million Palestinians besieged under the Israeli military's 12-year blockade, which enforces inhumane restrictions on food, electricity, water and healthcare. The violence escalated dramatically after Israel assassinated an Islamic Jihad leader. Over the course of 48 hours, the Israeli military killed 34 Palestinians, including eight children. An entire home was levelled in an airstrike that killed a family of eight and left a baby girl orphaned. Palestinian militants fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, aiming as far as Tel Aviv for the first time since 2014; thankfully, no one was killed.

This was the moment for each of these contenders to stand up and say: Now is exactly when we halt the blank cheque we send this military every year. This was the time for them to say that none of our tax dollars should ever be used to kill civilians while they sleep. But Sanders was the only one to get even close. And the response his call for treating Palestinians with respect and dignity received last night indicates that Democratic voters are expecting more from their candidates.

This shift in the Democratic base is in part thanks to the rising generation of voters which brings more Black, indigenous and other communities of color into the center of electoral politics. These voters know all too well that the forces arrayed against Palestinians, and paid for by U.S. tax dollars, are the same as arrayed against them here in the U.S. They are watching closely as the candidates continue to sanction the killing of civilians in Gaza. Last week a Twitter user said it very plainly in response to Buttigieg's statement on Israel's attack on Gaza, writing: "being a black person in america and watching Mayor Pete invoke the israeli state's right to defend itself in the face of dead Gazan children and wondering how that's the guy i'm supposed to trust with dismantling institutional and systemic racism at home."

In this crowded Democratic field, progressive issues have shaped every debate so far, from healthcare to climate change to the economy. And with the Trump administration pulling the veil off of the U.S.'s actual foreign policy commitments and revealing a sharp turn toward isolationism, the candidates would do well to consider the base that is already mobilized and activated to head to the polls this coming year.

To be clear, it was decades of organizing led by Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Gaza, Israel and throughout the diaspora that led to us clearing this admittedly low bar. The applause that the simple, if radical, statement by Senator Sanders received is an indication that grassroots organizing, and the cross-issue and affiliation coalitions it has built, has gathered enough power to push for real action toward dignity and respect for Palestinians. Increasingly the Democratic base has come to realize that anything short of that leaves us all vulnerable.

Here's what I am hoping to see next time these candidates take the stage: Every single candidate must set out clear, realistic red lines for Israel, based in international law, and specify what reductions of aid and diplomatic support each transgression would entail. Doing so would send a powerful message that Palestinians have advocates, that they too are worthy of solidarity and protection—a crucial message at a time when Israel seems poised to begin the annexation of lands its military has occupied for over 50 years. It is long past time for the Democrats to take action towards a foreign policy aligned with the same ideals that drive many of the candidates' domestic agendas: a foreign policy grounded in justice, equality and freedom for all.

Rabbi Alissa Wise is Acting Co-Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace Action. She is a contributor to On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​