Herzog’s Lullaby

The Biden administration indulges the Israeli President’s nostalgia act even as the promise of a true democracy slips away in Israel/Palestine.

Matthew Duss
July 25, 2023

US President Joe Biden and Israeli President Isaac Herzog meet in the Oval Office of the White House on Tuesday, July 18th.

Susan Walsh/AP

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A few years ago, I got to see the Temptations in concert. There they were, onstage in their matching suits, moving through that iconic choreography, nailing those heavenly five-part harmonies. Singing the hits. “My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”

Of course, it wasn’t really the Temptations: It was one original member, Otis Williams, and four other performers who had joined in the decades since the founders retired or died. It was a simulacrum of the Temptations, a nostalgia act. And still, the audience loved it. The music itself was almost beside the point—more important was how the songs transported us back to who we used to be, and who we imagined we could be, when we first heard them.

I was thinking about this recently as I watched a different nostalgia act: Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to Congress. He too played the hits. Israel is a miracle. America has no better friend. Shared values. Iran is the main problem in the region. Palestinians are terrorists. Our hand remains outstretched in peace. The audience loved it, rewarding Herzog with multiple standing ovations. The most important member of that audience wasn’t in the room, though, but in the Oval Office. He loves the hits. He can sing them as well as anyone.

In truth, Herzog’s speech was completely detached from the current reality of Israel, which is in the 56th year of its military occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, with Gaza in its 16th year under a crippling Israeli blockade. The government Herzog represents is steadily consolidating its permanent control over those territories, in blatant contravention of both international law and its own past promises to the United States. It’s a reality in which Palestinians are being steadily displaced and corralled into a set of disconnected reservations (resembling South African bantustans) while facing an official Israeli government policy of collective punishment and ongoing violence by Klan-like, government-backed extremist settlers—all of it underwritten by nearly $4 billion annually from US taxpayers.

In this sense, Herzog’s address was less a speech than it was a lullaby. Yes child, we know that protesters being attacked with water cannons looks scary. We know you see us demolishing homes and putting Palestinian families into the streets. We know Israeli settlers carrying out pogroms in Palestinian villages make you feel ashamed. We know the judicial coup effort alarms you, but the protests against it are actually a sign of our robust democracy. Hush, now. It’s ok. Go back to sleep.

When I was negotiating language with the Democratic Party’s 2020 platform committee on behalf of Bernie Sanders’s foreign policy team, Israel/Palestine was unsurprisingly the thorniest issue. The Sanders team’s proposed wording was straightforward: In addition to statements of support for the security and national rights of both peoples, the platform should also state that ending the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 is a US policy goal. In any rational world, this should not have been remotely controversial. Calling the occupation an occupation is not a criticism; it is a fact, as are the daily violence, humiliation, and dehumanization which Palestinians endure under it every day. Crucially, acknowledging the occupation as such also recognizes that under international law, the occupied population has certain rights—enshrined in both humanitarian and human rights law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention—and the occupying power, certain responsibilities, which extend much further than simply an effort to make subjugation slightly more comfortable.

After some back and forth with a senior member of Biden’s foreign policy team, we tentatively agreed on language declaring that Palestinians had a right to live “free of occupation.” While this was absurdly strained language—as if the occupation was a randomly occurring natural phenomenon and not the intentional policy of a US taxpayer-subsidized government—we accepted it in the spirit of unity.

But it turned out that even this language was too much for the candidate, who nixed it at the last minute. We tried to introduce the language via the drafting committee, but the Biden team shut it down, dispatching two Democratic pro-Israel stalwarts—former Ambassadors Dan Shapiro and Wendy Sherman, both of whom went on to hold senior positions in the administration—to argue against it. Biden’s emissaries never really argued against calling the occupation an occupation, nor would they engage on the substance of the occupation’s horrors. They just sang the hits. The commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad. Israel faces critical threats from every direction. Israel has no better friend than Joe Biden. The final platform language —which could’ve been written 20 years earlier—reflected the sensibility of both Biden and, in Sherman’s words, “the view of the vast majority of Democrats in Congress.”

Those last two words were necessary to make Sherman’s statement true, because while it may be the view of most Democrats in Congress that the occupation should not be mentioned, it is clearly not the view of most Democrats. Polls have long shown that Democrats are becoming more supportive of Palestinians, and leaning toward a more even-handed approach toward Israel/Palestine. An October 2019 poll released by the Democratic Party-aligned Center for American Progress showed that 71% of Democrats (and 56% of all Americans) supported conditioning US aid to Israel in response to settlement activity, a common-sense position which Sanders had staked out in 2017, and which Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg later adopted. Earlier this year, an annual Gallup survey found that for the first time, more Democrats sympathize with Palestinians than with Israelis, by a margin of 49% to 38%. This shift is even more marked among millennials: Gallup reported that in 2019–2023, 46% of millennial Democrats sided with Palestinians versus 35% with Israel—a marked shift from 2011–2014, when those numbers were 26% to 51%, respectively.

The Biden administration’s policy, supported by most Congressional Democrats, is completely out of touch with this shift in the electorate, and instead prefers to view Israel through the haze of nostalgia. But not everyone in Congress is playing ball. Herzog’s speech came on the heels of the latest Democratic dust up over Israel/Palestine—the kind that is becoming much more common as Democrats begin to heed their voters and take a consistent position on human rights. This time, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was excoriated for referring to Israel as a “racist state,” comments which she later qualified by saying that she does “not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist,” but that its current government is full of racists carrying out racist policies. In my view, Jayapal was right to clarify her remarks, as it’s probably more accurate to refer to Israel as an ethnic supremacist state—something its current government asserts straightforwardly. But as New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg bluntly pointed out, the rush to condemn Jayapal’s remark was “not about encouraging linguistic rigor. It’s about raising the political price of speaking about Israel forthrightly.”

AIPAC and its various cut outs like Democratic Majority for Israel have been working to make sure that this price remains high, plowing tens of millions of dollars—much of it raised from Republican billionaires—into Democratic primaries against mostly young, mostly nonwhite progressives. AIPAC wants Congress to stay a nostalgia act, and they’re willing to pay big to keep hearing their favorite old tunes. So far, the Biden administration too has been happy to oblige.

There’s a video clip from 1986 of then-Senator Joe Biden calling out Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz over that administration’s policy toward apartheid South Africa. Reagan opposed Congressional sanctions on South Africa, arguing that such measures “would seriously impede the prospects for a peaceful end to apartheid.” According to people who know the president, he’s very proud of that speech. It was prominently featured on the Biden-Harris campaign website.

It’s worth watching. Biden really lays into Schultz:

I hate to hear an administration and a secretary of state refusing to act on a morally abhorrent point. I’m ashamed of this country that puts out a policy like this that says nothing. Nothing. It says, ‘Continue the same.’ We put no timetable on. We make no specific demand. We don’t set it down . . . I’m ashamed of the lack of moral backbone to this policy.

I’ve thought about this clip a lot over the past couple years; 1986 Biden could be talking to 2023 Biden about Israel/Palestine. To the extent that his administration has been willing to voice any criticism, make any specific demand, or show any moral backbone with regards to Israeli policy, it’s around the so-called judicial reform legislation—a plank of which just passed yesterday. But focusing on the Israeli governing coalition’s “internal” agenda while ignoring the daily cruelties of the occupation essentially erases Palestinians from the picture, which is precisely what Netanyahu’s government aims to do more broadly.

The irony is that, by staying silent on the occupation and voicing concern only for “Israel’s democracy,” Biden is ultimately undermining the fight for it. Israeli and Palestinian commentators have noted that the Israeli far-right’s rise has been enabled by decades of US acquiescence toward its agenda in the Palestinian territories. That authoritarian agenda is now being pursued within pre-’67 Israel as well. Having consolidated their domination over Palestinians in the territories, the Israeli far-right now seeks to do so over Israeli liberals—with Herzog’s speech essentially serving to mute the alarm. “All members of Congress who cheered President Herzog’s completely-divorced-from-reality description of the situation of democracy in Israel are doing a massive disservice to the hundreds of thousands of Israelis struggling against the constitutional coup,” tweeted Sarit Michaeli, the international affairs officer for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

On domestic policy, Joe Biden has surprised me by turning out to be the most progressive president of my lifetime, rising to the moment on a range of issues, from pandemic relief, to reinvesting in American manufacturing, to canceling student debt. Responding to both pressure and support from his left, he has shown that he can play new material well. But when it comes to Israel/Palestine, he is sticking to familiar tunes. After the 2020 platform debate, three Palestinian American Democratic delegates penned a warning to the Democratic establishment, where they noted that “without a clear and coherent Israel-Palestine policy rooted in respect for international law, human rights and justice for all, the party will remain stuck in the past.” If Biden chooses to embrace a courageous, future-looking policy on Israel/Palestine as he once advocated for apartheid South Africa, I think he’ll find that he has far more support than he might imagine. Or he can keep playing it safe and singing the hits, as any hope of a genuinely democratic Israel/Palestine evaporates.

Matthew Duss is a visiting scholar in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Previously, he was foreign policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders.