Amidst the pandemic and the protests following the murder of George Floyd, a series of important Israel-related policy statements by presidential candidate Joe Biden and his top aides have gone largely unnoticed. On June 17, Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, Tony Blinken, declared that Biden “would not tie military assistance to Israel to things like annexation or other decisions by the Israeli government with which we might disagree.” This would be an important statement on any given day, but takes on added weight in the midst of the vigorous debate about Israel’s possible extension of sovereignty to parts of the West Bank.
In addition, Blinken’s comments, as well as two recent Israel-related statements by Biden himself, are particularly significant because they reject views recently espoused by some major figures in the Democratic Party.
In a policy paper posted on his campaign website in May, Biden, referring to the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, vowed that his administration will “firmly reject the BDS movement – which singles out Israel and too often veers into antisemitism – and fight other efforts to delegitimize Israel on the global stage.” Biden also said that if elected president he will “sustain our unbreakable commitment to Israel’s security,” including “the guarantee that Israel will always maintain its qualitative military edge.”
Biden reportedly made similar comments online at a May 19 virtual event. And on other occasions, he has referred to the US’s “longstanding, moral commitment” to Israel, declaring that “the only way to ensure” that the Holocaust “could never happen again was the establishment and the existence of a secure, Jewish State of Israel.”
Biden’s firm rejection of BDS contrasts with the views of several members of Congress led by Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), both of whom have explicitly endorsed BDS. In July 2019, the House passed by a 398 to 17 vote a resolution stating the House’s opposition to BDS. While those opposing the resolution accounted for less than 10% of the 234 Democratic House members, they worryingly included many of the Democratic Party’s most voluble legislators.
Much is at stake: Disagreements between allies are bound to occur. If Biden were president, how would he address disagreements over annexation and BDS? How would he lead in the face of challenges from within his party? These policy statements signal how a President Biden would govern.
BDS calls for boycotting Israel, divesting from it and companies that do business with it, and pressuring governments to impose sanctions on Israel. The campaign advocates ending Israel’s “occupation” of what it refers to as “all Arab lands,” which denies the Jewish people’s more than 3,000-year presence there. Another objective is the “right of return” to all of Israel of all people descended from Palestinian Arab refugees (totaling more than five million), even if they are not themselves refugees. This, while rejecting the right of even a single Jew to live in parts of Jerusalem and the West Bank, where Jews have lived for millennia.
Achieving these objectives would mean the destruction of Israel, a result repeatedly advocated by Omar Barghouti, the Palestinian co-founder of the BDS movement.
BDS advocates Palestinian Arab self-determination while opposing Israeli Jewish self-determination. The definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s 31 member nations, including the United States, includes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” in Israel.
In denying Israel’s right to exist, blaming the conflict entirely on Israel and attempting to impose a one-sided solution on Israel, BDS encourages Palestinian terrorist groups to reject peace with Israel. And in urging a United States boycott of Israel, BDS would deprive the American people of Israel’s world-leading innovations in the health, technology, intelligence, scientific, economic and defense fields.
Biden is right to firmly reject the BDS movement.
Meanwhile, Biden’s pledge of “unbreakable” support for Israel is an important contrast to the approach taken by Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Chris Murphy (D-CT), who in May circulated a draft letter warning that Israel extending its sovereignty to parts of the West Bank would “threaten” the US’s “deep commitment to Israel’s security.” The final letter, which was signed by those three senators, 15 other Democratic senators and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), used more nuanced language, warning that such a step “would have a clear impact on… our vital bilateral and bipartisan relationship” and “would fray our unique bonds.”
Recent challenges, including COVID-19, cyber piracy and threats to US interests in the Middle East, have underscored the value to the American people of the US-Israel partnership. US support for Israel’s security also promotes peace by making clear to foes that they cannot destroy America’s geographically small ally. A two-state peace agreement is only achievable if Israel knows it can take risks for peace because the United States has its back in tangible, meaningful ways.
Biden will almost certainly be pushed by some in his party to threaten Israel during times of disagreement. However, bipartisan support for the fundamentals of the US-Israel relationship must take precedence over any policy dispute. Just as the United States should not pull its thousands of troops out of Germany or Japan due to a policy dispute with Chancellor Angela Merkel or Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the US should not threaten security assistance for Israel, or cut off trade, due to policy disputes with an Israeli leader.
Joe Biden’s statements make clear that he values this important principle, and understands that BDS is antithetical to US interests. But words alone will be insufficient. If elected, he will need to demonstrate this through his actions.
Orde Kittrie is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) where Toby Dershowitz is senior vice president for Government Relations and Strategy. FDD is a non-partisan think tank focused on national security issues. Follow them on twitter @Ordefk and @tobydersh.