Don’t Expect a Democratic President to Roll Back Trump’s Policies

America’s health care, its poor, its black and Hispanic minorities and the contest between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders don’t amount to a hill of beans in the Middle East.

And many American voters – save for pro-Israeli lobbyists, liberal Jewish groups and disparate Muslim organisations  – don’t care a hill of beans about the fears of Israel and the Arabs. But both Muslims and Jews in the region have been carefully studying what the three remaining Democrat contenders have said about two-state solutions, Israeli colonies in the West Bank and the US embassy, currently in Jerusalem courtesy of Donald Trump. It’s time we did the same.

First of all, despair all ye who think the Democrats are going to reverse Trump’s disastrous transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Those who believe that a Democrat president will simply roll back on Trump’s disastrous policies – not just over the embassy but anywhere else in the Middle East – had better shake off their illusions. History doesn’t go backwards. None of the Democratic candidates would commit to reversing Trump’s embassy decision when asked; only Sanders spoke vaguely of returning it to Tel Aviv. The rest chickened out by suggesting, rather outrageously, that the existence of the embassy in Jerusalem would become part of future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – something which was never part of the original Oslo negotiations nor any UN resolution.

Elizabeth Warren announced in the South Carolina debate last month that the decision should be left up to “Israel and Palestine” – presumably suggesting that the ‘capital’ of a two-state solution was up to them, even though Bibi Netanyahu believes it’s all wrapped up – Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, full stop. And “Palestine”, Warren should have been aware, doesn’t as a state actually exist.

“But it’s not up to us to determine what the terms of a two-state solution are,” quoth she. “…The best way to do that is to encourage the parties to get to the negotiating table themselves.” Repeatedly asked if she would move the embassy back to Tel Aviv, Warren equally repeatedly said that “we should let the parties determine the capital.” Later she rather eerily referred to “capitals” – without explaining if she was thinking of a Palestinian “capital” in the village of Abu Dis, the grim little solution that Madeleine Albright half-heartedly supported two decades ago.

Sanders, of course, captured the imagination and fury of Arabs and Israelis (and Israel’s supposed friends in America) by his characterisation of Netanyahu as a “reactionary racist” – a description he may now choose to soften. Faced with Zionism at its most aggressive, most US presidents tend to mellow, discovering long-standing friendships among those who most infuriate them. But Sanders has talked of Palestinian suffering and dignity on numerous occasions – which neither Biden nor Warren have yet chosen to do on the campaign – and his contention that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) promotes “bigotry” aroused perhaps too much fury from the pro-Israeli lobby group.

Its boss, Howard Kohr, is well aware that neither Sanders nor Warren – nor, apparently, Biden, though we’ll see about this — had any interest in attending this year’s AIPAC conference. His latest remarks, clearly directed at the man who could be America’s first Jewish president, are worthy of serious examination. “A growing and highly vocal and energised part of the electorate fundamentally rejects the value of the US-Israeli alliance,” he said. “…The leaders of this movement…say they support Israel’s right to defend herself. But every time Israel exercises that right, they condemn Israel.”

Kohr wasn’t referring here to BDS, the boycott, divest and sanctions movement which does frighten Israeli leaders, but the increasingly worried men and women in America – young Jewish liberals prominent among them – who are disgusted by the suffering faced by the Palestinians in Gaza. Unafraid of Sanders’ unwise use of the word “socialism” – which used to be quite acceptable in Israel many years ago – they are searching, I suspect, for a morality in international politics which the US regularly suspends when confronted by Israel’s colonial project in the West Bank.

“Israel cannot afford false friends,” Kohr continued in a very clear assault on Sanders’ condemnation of the Israeli government and its now yet-again elected prime minister, an attack he described as “demonising Israel”. Last spring, Kohr spoke of the “intense hatred” of Israel which, he contended, was moving from the margins to the centre of US politics. “…Israel has been able to count on its friendship with the United States,” he now says.

But George W Bush and Obama “each understood that America’s commitment to Israel’s safety must be consistent, it must be unequivocal [sic], and it must be dependable.” In reality – a quality often lost in any discussion of US-Israeli relations in Washington – Obama was angered by Netanyahu’s constant interference in US politics, his lone appeals to Congress over the president’s head and his absolute refusal to postpone or close down or abandon the steady theft of Palestinian Arab land for Jewish colonies between Jerusalem and the Jordan river. Kohr’s reference to the necessity of America’s “unequivocal” support is not quite what he meant.

The correct word – had he dared to say it – would have been “uncritical”. And Sanders is not uncritical. In the strait-jacket, fearful debates which pass for serious television discussion in the United States, condemnation of Israel and its grotesque occupation of another people’s land – if not splashed with accusations of antisemitism – is regarded as off-limits, unacceptable, even immoral.

Sanders has broken this silly convention. And thus he must be dismissed as a “socialist’ (this is partly his fault, of course) and a “radical”, a word which my elderly Dad would probably have interpreted as a ‘Bolshie’. Sanders is not a Bolshevik – though he sometimes looks like one when he’s on the stump – and his real threat to Israel is that in the eyes of his supporters, he is honest, and seen to be honest. The fact that Sanders is Jewish and represents the bravest of America’s liberal Jewish community is all the more frightening to Israel’s right-wing supporters.

And so we come to Joe Biden, a man whom Netanyahu used to run rings around when Biden was Obama’s vice president. In 2010, the Netanyahu government blithely announced 1,600 new settlement houses on occupied Palestinian land shortly after Biden’s arrival on an official visit to Israel. Huffily arriving 90 minutes late for dinner with Netanyahu, Biden condemned the decision – and said no more. Four years later, addressing the Saban Forum, part of the right-wing Brookings Institute, Biden spent much time condemning Iran, praising Obama’s $17 billion financial support for Israel’s military – which he calculated at $8.5 million a day – and referring obliquely to the grave reservations which the Obama administration had about Israel as “tactical disagreements”, “tactical divides”, “normal disagreements” and “different perspectives”.

Only at the very end of his 2014 peroration did Biden mildly condemn “expanding settlement activity and construction…and the demolition of homes of attackers [sic]” as “counterproductive”. He referred to “terrorist” attacks by Palestinians and “vigilante attacks” by Jewish settlers. And that’s pretty much what we can expect of a Biden presidency.

He might, conceivably, try to roll back Trump’s destruction of the Iranian nuclear agreement into which Obama put so much energy – but just as he will not commit himself to reversing Trump’s decision on the US embassy transfer to Jerusalem, he’s likely to search for another nuclear agreement to take the place of the Obama one – which, in his perverse and hopeless way, is what Trump has been suggesting.

The trouble is that while former Democrat candidates are now ganging up to destroy Sanders’ chances of nomination – along with a significant portion of the US “liberal” press – Trump, barring a virus-induced economic collapse, is unlikely to spend much time worrying about a Biden candidacy.

Just as they prefer a “safe pair of hands” to protect the party, so the Democrat elite and the “old” liberals fear the moral crusade upon which Sanders might embark – about health and human rights just as much as the Middle East. Better to avoid conflict with Israel, too. And that was Hilary Clinton’s policy, wasn’t it? And that’s how Sanders went off the rails in the last presidential election, finally asking his supporters to give their vote to Hillary, as they shouted: “No! No! No!”

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.