Rethinking U.S. Middle East policy starts with rejecting annexation

by: Aslı Bâli and Aziz Rana

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While Trump’s recent predecessors invested in a negotiated “peace process,” they also systematically placed a thumb on the scale in Israel’s favor while shielding successive governments from accountability for such actions as the expansion of settlements, the siege of Gaza, and the indiscriminate use of force against Palestinian civilians — all in violation of international law. In fact, as Israel’s governments have lurched further and further to the right, one American administration after another have essentially capitulated to whatever were presented as the new terms. 

The impunity that the U.S. affords Israel has enabled Israeli bellicosity in ways that have been destabilizing to the region and even drawn the United States into ever-increasing counter-productive military commitments.

Destructive regional policies ranging from the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the U.S. role in Syria to withdrawal from the JCPOA and mounting tensions with Iran bear some relationship to the American approach to Israel. Moreover, the actions of both Democrats and Republicans have left the U.S. complicit in Palestinian dispossession and displacement, while making the U.S. an ever greater target of regional frustration and anger. Just as critically, the basic disregard for the law implicit in American default support has undermined U.S. credibility on the global stage. Given the latest moves from the Trump White House, how can American officials assert the need for other states to obey the rule of law when it willingly embraces legal impunity as exercised by a central ally?

But if Democratic complicity partially explains the party establishment’s hesitancy to speak up, Trump’s distinctiveness has had real political effects within the American public. His explicit embrace of Netanyahu’s brazen and xenophobic politics may be turning the tide among Democratic voters. Polls and opinion pieces over the last few years reflect a marked shift in the direction of greater criticism of Israeli leadership. Right now, there is a clear public rethinking of what support for Israel — as opposed to support for the views of whatever Israeli government may be in power — might entail. But if the Democratic base is shifting, the question remains: will its leadership actually listen

This week’s Democratic National Convention is an opportunity for Democrats to signal whether they will accept the Trump administration’s bellicosity and promotion of legal impunity. For now, unilateral annexation has been suspended with the threat of Palestinian expropriation being leveraged as a means of demanding that pro-Trump Arab countries normalize relations with Israel.

The willingness of Emirati Crown Prince and staunch Trump ally, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, to recognize Israel and establish full diplomatic ties needs to be understood as much as an extension of the Trump administration’s campaign against Iran — supported by both the UAE and Israel — as a reward for threatening illegal annexation. This arrangement is primarily another way of exerting “maximum pressure” on a common regional foe. In other words, it must not be confused for a breakthrough in the peace process. And it also must not let Democratic leaders off the hook from stating clearly their position on the new American endorsement of illegal annexation. 

If the party leadership fails to embrace the very limited demands made in Rep. McCollum’s bill, that will set the tone for a Biden White House. It will mean that for all of the Democratic talk of a return to pre-Trump days, in at least one key way Biden, his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif), and company will be projecting into the future the Trump Doctrine on Israel and Palestine.

Given the stakes, supporting McCollum’s bill should be a simple litmus test for the party — a way to hold firm to an uncontroversial bipartisan consensus. And the failure to rally around it would prove that Democrats too seem committed to following the far right in the White House and in Israel down a rabbit hole of regional destabilization, more American military entanglements and ongoing rights violations. This will be a tragic and strategic mistake for the U.S. as well as the Middle East. It will also demonstrate a fundamental lack of nerve, highlighting how Democratic leaders refuse to listen to their own constituents and remain unwilling, on the global stage and at home, to squarely face the challenges of the day.

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