Opinion

For Progressives, Iron Dome Isn’t the Issue. It’s Israel Itself.

It would be a mistake to conclude that the sky is falling on the U.S.-Israel relationship or that the Democratic Party has distanced itself from Israel simply because a handful of progressive members of Congress recently challenged funding to resupply Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. After all, the House went on to vote overwhelmingly to fund Iron Dome with an extra $1 billion, including a large majority of Democrats.

And yet it would be an even bigger mistake to ignore the fact that the debate over the Iron Dome system represents a tectonic shift in the discourse among Democrats, one that is likely to shape U.S.-Israel relations for decades. Indeed, a small group of progressive Democrats have now forced a simmering debate within the party, and in their constituency, to the surface.

The debate within the Democratic Party is about America’s once unflinching support for Israel and about what that relationship looks like at a time when support for a two-state outcome is waning among Israelis and Palestinians, and there is increasingly vocal criticism of expanding settlements in the West Bank, housing demolitions and civilian deaths.

For this debate to lead to a successful outcome for both Israelis and Palestinians, the Biden administration must take robust action to create a two-state reality on the ground, one that gives all wings of the Democratic Party a stake in stability and security for all within Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. That means helping Israel and the Palestinian Authority to improve the lives of their people without compromising security as well as to narrow the political disagreements between the sides. Improvements in jobs, freedom of movement, technology, water and security can be achieved under the rubric of what has been called “shrinking the conflict,” an idea that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his senior coalition partners have embraced.

Even so, Iron Dome funding was never the intended target. The system is defensive; it protects countless numbers of innocent Israelis from Hamas rocket attacks and saves numerous innocent Palestinians by avoiding even more punishing Israeli military responses to those attacks.

The irony of the timing of the Iron Dome rupture within the Democratic Party is that the new Israeli coalition government — which includes an Arab-Israeli minister and the leader of the Islamist Party — appears amenable to taking steps to improve conditions for Palestinians. In the summer, I had the opportunity to sit down with Prime Minister Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in Ramallah, in the West Bank. It’s my understanding, based on those meetings, that both sides are committed to making progress for the first time in years.

While the Israel Defense Forces have continued to carry out raids against Hamas that have killed civilians, they have limited their nighttime incursions in the West Bank. The number of permits issued to Palestinians to work in Israel has increased in the past three months, and the Israeli Supreme Court has offered a compromise in the case of evictions of Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Of course, the Israeli government has much more to do to enhance Palestinian autonomy and jump-start the Palestinian private sector. Likewise, the Palestinian Authority must reform its prisoner payment system and better respect the human rights of its own people. The good news, from what I saw, is that the leaders on both sides seem to be aware that acting on these measures is in their self-interest.

The Trump administration era’s Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors, adds legitimacy to expanded efforts at normalization with an emphasis on Palestinian inclusion. It is not far-fetched to consider the possibility of major Moroccan or United Arab Emirates sponsorship of development projects in Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank with Israeli and Palestinian private-sector partners.I even spoke to Israeli ministers about the idea of a Palestinian railway connection to the Port of Haifa in Israel that would offer Palestinian businesses ready access to transportation hubs and world markets. It would also, in theory, enable the Palestinian Authority to exercise additional elements of sovereignty by collecting its own tariffs at the port. And it is my understanding, based on conversation with several Palestinian leaders in Ramallah, that they are generally supportive of these types of confidence-building measures.

By helping to create more of a two-state reality on the ground, rather than prematurely pushing a comprehensive settlement, the Biden administration can both preserve the opportunity for a two-state outcome and unify the Democratic Party, except for a few outliers.

It won’t be easy. For a number of years now progressive activists, and some politicians, have challenged what was once orthodoxy: resolute U.S. support for Israel. Whereas previous congressional debates were characterized by bipartisan, reflexive support for Israel’s security interests, progressives have successfully infused Palestinian rights into the equation. But these ideas need not be an either-or proposition.

U.S.-Israel relations once flourished under the umbrella of a two-state construct. Democrats and Republicans alike championed the virtues of a negotiated two-state solution as an expression of our shared values and the most equitable way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This held true, even as the prospect of a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict grew ever more remote.

The Trump administration moved American foreign policy away from support for a two-state solution and toward a reconsidered relationship with Israel and the region, one based on the erasure of the Palestinian cause. At the same time, the administration’s biggest foreign policy achievement, the Abraham Accords, necessitated the suspension of Israel’s annexation of the West Bank. So even as the politics of the Republican Party has shifted, a prevention of annexation was offered in return for regional peace.

The U.S.-Israel relationship is unique, multifaceted and evolving. It is no longer one captured by secular slogans of shared values or pursuit of peace. It has theological overtones with the American evangelical community, moral expectations from progressives about the rights of Palestinians and the interest of an active American Jewish diaspora. It is a relationship deeply meshed into the U.S. economy in dozens of states and integral in ensuring the United States commands the new frontiers of security in cyberspace.

As the Israeli government continues to reach out to Democrats, it would do well to remember that despite common policies on climate change and L.G.B.T.Q. rights, Democrats need to understand how this new Israeli government plans to change the lives of Palestinians for the better.

Maintaining a strong U.S.-Israel bipartisan relationship requires attention. I believe the Israeli coalition government has taken the initial steps toward this approach. It must continue if last week’s contested vote is to become a footnote rather than a foreshadowing of what is to come.

Robert Wexler is president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and served as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Florida between 1997 and 2010.

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