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Tomorrow, for the first time since I started writing the newsletter in April, I’ll be taking a Thursday off, so please consider this email your stand-in for the regular Thursday Newsletter. My partner and I had some very small and most likely safe family-oriented Thanksgiving plans, but last week we decided to cancel them out of an abundance of caution, like millions of other Americans are doing in response to the latest pandemic spikes. Instead it will just be the two of us and way too much turkey, plus some Zoom calls. This sucks, I’m sure we all agree, but hopefully in a few months we can embrace life once again having made it intact through this bleakest of winters.
In the meantime, today we have a roundup of takes responding to outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to an Israeli settlement in the West Bank last week—the highest-profile visit to a settlement by a US official to date. Pompeo declared the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to be antisemitic and announced that going forward, all goods manufactured in the West Bank will be marked as made in Israel, erasing any distinction liberal Zionists might have drawn between Israel proper and the occupied territories. As Mairav Zonszein reported for Jewish Currents this week, it’s not at all clear that Joe Biden or his newly announced foreign policy team will expend political capital reversing these policies, or others that the Trump administration has made to entrench Israel’s occupation.
Below, we have some brief responses to the Pompeo visit from Inès Abdel Razek of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, Lara Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (a Jewish Currents contributing writer), and Peter Beinart and Joshua Leifer of Jewish Currents. This is part of a new format we’re still experimenting with, so we welcome your feedback. And with that, have a happy and safe Thanksgiving!
Inès Abdel Razek (Advocacy Director for the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy): Pompeo’s announcements are a continuation of the past four years of Trump’s assaults that have choked the Palestinian people’s rights, accelerated annexation, and normalized colonization. Every day we see settlements grabbing more land and resources. Sophisticated infrastructure has been built over decades for the exclusive benefit of Jewish settlers, to fulfill an ethnonational supremacist project in which Palestinians are just a “problem” to get rid of. The international trade of goods and services produced in settlements, valued in the millions of dollars, only fuels its expansion.
It is important not to forget that behind political decisions made from the comfort of cushy offices, there are people—people whose homes are demolished, who can’t access water, who have their olive trees and livelihoods destroyed, who have to go through military checkpoints every day or who are arbitrarily detained by military courts for protesting. We are exhausted from being constantly portrayed as rejectionists and having to prove that apartheid exists while being accused of antisemitism or terrorism for resisting.
While Palestinians don’t have high expectations for a Biden administration, the next four years can hopefully allow the American political and grassroots forces who are ready to push back against Israel’s impunity to grow and to mobilize against these injustices without being harassed and delegitimized. Similarly, I hope the US government can stop patronizing the Palestinian people about our political leadership as it actively continues to sponsor the Oslo-engineered system that maintains dependency and denies us our political agency.
Lara Friedman (president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Jewish Currents contributing writer): Since taking office, the Trump administration has openly pursued a focused, extraordinarily successful policy aimed at erasing the “peace process” and all of its artifacts, and replacing them with the normalization—and, as much as possible, the implementation—of the Greater Israel political project. One by one, the Trump administration has been ticking items off the “Greater Israel” wishlist. Recognize Jerusalem? Check. Cut aid to Palestinian refugees? Check. Humiliate and marginalize the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority? Check. Legitimize settlements and greenlight annexation? Check, check.
As we near the end of Trump’s term in office, there’s not much left to check off on that list except formally recognizing annexation, and Trump’s resident Christian and Jewish zealots, Mike Pompeo and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, are not letting the fact that Israel hasn’t (yet) annexed the West Bank get in their way. That’s what the new US policy defining goods produced in Area C as “made in Israel” is about, just like last month’s move to include the West Bank in some US–Israel bilateral agreements. And that’s also what the new State Department policy labeling NGOs as “antisemitic” is about—a policy that, in fact, aims mainly to force NGOs to treat settlements as part of Israel.
Bureaucratically, a Biden administration can easily roll back these policy changes. Politically, however, this will be a heavy lift, and not because recognizing the West Bank as part of Israel is a popular move among Democrats. Rather, the obstacle will be many Democrats’ intellectually lazy and morally craven embrace of the demonization of boycotts as a tool to protest anything related to Israel—on either side of the Green Line—and of the conflation of all criticism of and activism targeting Israel with antisemitism.
Peter Beinart (Jewish Currents editor-at-large): Conceptually, what made Pompeo’s visit to a West Bank settlement possible is the fact that mainstream US political discourse has no category called “anti-Palestinian bigotry.” Politicians and pundits debate endlessly what constitutes antisemitism. But rarely is anyone even accused of—let alone held accountable for—being anti-Palestinian. Israel’s control of the West Bank is blatantly discriminatory: Israel applies one law to Jews and another to Palestinians. Therefore, any American politician who wants the US to keep funding that system—or protecting it diplomatically—can reasonably be accused of anti-Palestinian bigotry. But virtually all American politicians—including the vast majority of Democrats—want to do that. So if almost everyone is guilty of anti-Palestinian bigotry, anti-Palestinian bigotry ceases to be a category. It’s like the old David Foster Wallace line about the fish asking the other fish: What’s water? It’s so pervasive that it’s invisible.
Thus, when Pompeo goes to the West Bank, journalists note that he’s breaking with US tradition and maybe setting back the chances of peace. But the more compelling moral charge—that he’s celebrating bigotry—simply isn’t part of the American lexicon, except in marginal places. So he gets away with it.
Joshua Leifer (Jewish Currents assistant editor): “The mask has come off.” That is the phrase we often heard used to describe the Trump administration’s policies in relation to those of previous administrations. It conveyed the sense that Trump was not an unprecedented rupture with the recent past, but rather continuous with his predecessors—just more grotesque, more brazen, more unrestrained. One way to think about the Biden administration is that it’s an attempt to put the mask back on. This is especially true when it comes to US policy on Israel/Palestine, and the transition from Mike Pompeo to Tony Blinken, Biden’s pick for Secretary of State, is instructive.
The “Pompeo Doctrine” was explicit US alignment with Israeli territorial-maximalist aims: recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, greenlighting of Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, and reversing the position that Israeli settlements violate international law. It gave the American seal of approval to Netanyahu’s wildest ambitions. It is unlikely that the Biden administration, which will begin already short on political capital, will make any great effort to reverse this.
The “Blinken Doctrine,” to the extent that there will be one, will sound different: There will be less enthusiastic snubbing of international conventions, and none of the geopolitical trolling that Pompeo has excelled in. But on the ground in Israel/Palestine, it will look roughly the same. Blinken has promised that there will be no consequences for unfettered Israeli settlement construction, and he has pledged to combat the BDS movement—one of the last remaining forms of nonviolent Palestinian resistance to the occupation. He is also all but guaranteed to continue the State Department’s use of the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism, which casts anti-Zionism and certain criticisms of Israel as forms of anti-Jewish bigotry.
With Pompeo, there was no subtext. With Blinken, the subtext will be back, but the text will say the same thing: Israel has carte blanche to maintain a brutal military occupation over millions of Palestinians into perpetuity.
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