Restoring the Bipartisan Consensus

Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris, who has always toed the AIPAC line on Israel/Palestine, is part of the campaign’s pitch that polarization can be undone.

Joshua Leifer
September 15, 2020
Kamala Harris speaks at the 2017 AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC, March 28th, 2017. Photo: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

KAMALA HARRIS likes to boast that the first resolution she cosponsored as a United States senator was in defense of Israel. It was in early January 2017, and just a few weeks prior, the United Nations Security Council had condemned Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as “a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution.” The US typically vetoed such denunciations of Israeli policies, but this time, the Obama administration abstained from the Security Council vote, allowing the censure of Israel to pass. The US abstention infuriated the Israeli government, and Israeli-government-aligned groups in the US, like AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), demanded a response.

Introduced by Republican senator Marco Rubio and cosponsored by 47 Republicans and 30 Democrats, including Harris, the AIPAC-backed Senate resolution accused the UN of “a long-standing biased approach towards Israel” and charged that condemning settlements “makes negotiations more, not less challenging.” Intended as a parting shot to Netanyahu by a lame duck Obama administration—frustrated by Netanyahu’s intransigence and intervention in US politics—the abstention was seen by many as proof that the politics of Israel/Palestine was beginning to shift in Washington. Yet the Senate resolution, a clear rebuke of the Obama administration, was a reminder that there were still very clear limits to how far one could go: While the bipartisan consensus on unconditional support for the Israeli government had begun to look shaky, there was no doubt that it remained standing. And for an ambitious junior senator like Harris, there was little incentive to buck the AIPAC line, even if that meant chastising a popular outgoing president from her own party. 

In the years since Donald Trump took office, bipartisan support for the Israeli government has appeared more fragile than ever. Trump has pursued an agenda of unmasked hostility to the Palestinians, elevated pro-settlement figures within his administration, and sidelined liberal-leaning Jewish establishment organizations, long welcome in the White House, while empowering right-wing groups once considered on the fringe. Breaking with decades of Washington convention, Trump and the Republicans have sought to use support for Israel as a wedge issue, with the hope of peeling Jewish voters away from the Democratic Party. At the same time—and partly in response to Trump—the activist wing of the Democratic Party has become more outspoken in its advocacy for Palestinian rights. The 2018 midterms saw a new cohort of progressive Democrats enter Congress, among them strident critics of Israeli policies and the occupation. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign raised the prospect of a Democratic administration that would pursue a radically different vision of US foreign policy, especially on Israel/Palestine. Yet, in the end, that vision lost. Biden’s promise that “nothing would fundamentally change” won. The selection of Harris as Biden’s running mate only cements the Democratic Party’s ticket commitment to return to the pre-Trump status quo. 

As the 2020 presidential election enters its final few months, the Biden-Harris ticket is promising that the old bipartisan consensus on Israel can be restored. Like their campaign itself, this approach is undergirded by the belief that the damage of the Trump years can be undone, the asymmetric polarization of the last decades somehow reversed, the norm of bipartisanship revived, and the establishment guardians returned to power. Harris has claimed to be a progressive, and her role on the ticket is as the ostensible forward-looking foil to the openly nostalgic Biden, but that is more appearance than reality. Harris’s positions on Israel/Palestine exemplify the same transactional, values-neutral style of politics perfected by Biden. Even as her party’s base has moved left, Harris has been careful to toe the AIPAC line on Israel, reciting the Israel-advocacy lobby’s approved script whenever prompted.

While other Democratic presidential candidates competed to be the most progressive, offering “big structural change” or “a political revolution,” a common refrain of press coverage during Harris’s failed campaign was that she seemed to have few strong views about anything. During her tenure as California attorney general, Harris earned a reputation as “Cautious Kamala” for her aversion to political risk-taking. “Harris has long been seen as a politician who tries to avoid taking positions, including those in her wheelhouse,” Christopher Cadelago wrote in a late 2019 Politico profile. For a long time, the “caution and fence-straddling Harris displayed earlier in her career” had proved to be a political asset in a Democratic Party that has long prized ambition over principle. Yet during her 2020 presidential run, her propensity to equivocate and backtrack—on her support for Medicare for All, on mandatory public school busing—“raised questions about whether she knew what she stood for,” Cadelago wrote. 

It is not surprising, then, that Harris’s reflexive cautiousness extends to the politics of Israel/Palestine. In the years since she cosponsored the Senate resolution rebuking the Obama administration, Harris has been careful not to take any position that could be viewed as too left-of-center. She did not sign a September 2017 joint letter from four senators—including her state’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein—urging Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to monitor the case of Issa Amro, a Hebron-based Palestinian activist, set to stand trial in Israeli military court. She also did not sign a November 2017 joint letter from ten senators to Benjamin Netanyahu urging the Israeli government not to demolish the Palestinian village of Susiya and the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar. Nor did she sign a May 2018 joint letter from 13 senators urging the US government to address the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. When Senators Sanders, Warren, Patrick Leahy, and Barbara Lee condemned the killing of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators by Israeli forces during the 2018 Great Return March protests in Gaza, Harris’s office said they would send a statement on the violence to The Intercept, but never did. 

Harris has shown no such reticence when it comes to praising the Israeli government—a move that, until very recently, had no meaningful political consequences. She was “the star performer” at AIPAC’s 2017 Policy Conference, Haaretz reported, and the following year, she gave a private, off-the-record speech to the lobbying group’s conference, where she recalled how instead of selling Girl Scout cookies as a child, she raised money for the Jewish National Fund to plant trees in Israel. In 2019, when Democratic presidential candidates faced grassroots pressure to skip that year’s AIPAC confab, Harris, ever conscious of the optics, chose not to attend but still met with an AIPAC delegation in Washington. “Great to meet today in my office with AIPAC leaders to discuss the need for a strong U.S.-Israel alliance, the right of Israel to defend itself, and my commitment to combat anti-Semitism in our country and around the world,” she tweeted. While campaigning in 2019 and 2020, Harris has hewed closely to lines about Israel’s “right to defend itself” and the importance of the “US-Israel alliance”—longtime AIPAC talking points. Asked by The New York Times in a 2019 candidates’ questionnaire whether Israel meets international standards of human rights, Harris stood out among the younger candidates when she replied, “Overall, yes.”

It would be a mistake, however, to view Harris’s hawkishness as a deeply held ideological commitment. Rather, it is at least equally a product of the prudent choices that turned her into a national political figure. Having risen through the ranks of California politics with the backing of San Francisco’s richest families, Harris has close personal ties to major AIPAC donors, who have given generously to her senate and presidential campaigns. In Harris’s 2017 AIPAC Policy Conference speech, she began by referring to her “dear friends and AIPAC board members, Anita Friedman and Cissie Swig and Amy Friedkin.” Swig, a philanthropist and San Francisco socialite, has personally given more than $28,000 to Harris’s campaigns and PACs; Friedman, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Jewish Family Services, has given more than $23,000; and Friedkin, the first woman to lead AIPAC, has given more than $15,000

Swig, Friedman, and Friedkin constitute only a fraction of the wealthy donors backing Harris (who also has very close ties to big tech). But they are representative of the moneyed class that still exerts significant sway over the party’s decisions, especially when it comes to Israel/Palestine. And while Friedman, Swig, and Friedkin have all given very substantial sums to Democratic party campaign funds and related fundraising organs, they are the kind of pro-Israeli-government donors who recognize the utility of giving to Republicans as well. Friedman has given to John McCain, Lisa Murkowski, and Mike Lee; Swig to Marco Rubio, Ben Sasse, and Rob Portman; and Friedkin to Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, and Eric Cantor. AIPAC powerbrokers, even those who consider themselves staunch Democrats or liberals, have long preferred this model of bipartisan patronage and cross-party comity. 

Over the last half-decade or so, however, as the nationalist right in Israel and the Republican Party in the US have converged, AIPAC’s bipartisan balancing act has become more difficult. This is not because of any substantive disagreement with Trump’s policies on Israel. AIPAC has defended, and often applauded, most of the administration’s decisions. Instead, Trump’s insistent identification of his administration with pro-Israeli government policies has galvanized opposition to Israeli policies within the Democratic Party (which has, in turn, also amplified hostility toward Democrats within AIPAC). To be staunchly supportive of the Israeli government has, among many Democrats, come to be seen as a pillar of the broader Trump agenda, and so to be staunchly critical is to resist Trump and his administration. Views that, only five years ago, would have automatically disqualified a Democratic candidate in any race—for instance, support for conditioning US military aid to Israel—have become increasingly commonplace, even uncontroversial, views among those on the Democratic Party’s activist wing. 

The Biden-Harris campaign’s promise to its AIPAC donors, and to the Israel-advocacy world more generally is that it will undo, or at least stymie, this process of polarization. “I believe Israel should never be a partisan issue,” Harris told the AJC’s Global Forum in 2019, “and I will do everything in my power to ensure broad and bipartisan support for Israel’s security and self-defense.” Halie Soifer, a former national security advisor to Harris, who is currently executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said in an interview that a Biden-Harris administration “would go back to what has been the norm for the US when it comes to Israel,” meaning that it’s “not a relationship that is viewed through a political lens.” 

The Democratic Party’s 2020 platform further reflects the desire to remove Israel from the realm of partisan strife: The word “occupation” does not appear in the platform, which reaffirms as “ironclad” the party’s commitment to Israel’s “right to defend itself” and expresses opposition to the BDS movement. Despite several high-profile primary victories this summer by progressive candidates substantially to the left of the party’s platform, Soifer told me the platform represented “the mainstream position” in the Democratic party. “Support for two states, support for aid, opposition to BDS—that is the view of the overwhelming majority of Democrats,” she said.

Yet recent polls of Democratic voters paint a more complicated picture. An August Jewish Insider poll of Massachusetts District 1, where three-decade incumbent Rep. Richard Neal defeated his younger, progressive challenger Alex Morse, found that a plurality of voters in the district—48%—support conditioning aid to Israel. This is consistent with polls of the Democratic electorate more broadly. A Data For Progress survey conducted in 2019 found that a net majority of Democratic voters—and a plurality of US voters across partisan lines—support reducing military aid to Israel due to its human rights violations. These polls, combined with the enthusiasm garnered by progressive candidates who stake out more critical positions on Israeli policies, make any return to the bipartisan consensus seem unlikely. 

Still, for Palestinian rights advocates, as for many progressives, the Biden-Harris ticket offers a bitter choice. “It saddens me greatly to be put in the position of supporting two people who have not evolved as the Democratic electorate has evolved, who seem frozen in an era that is now part of the past,” said George Bisharat, a Palestinian American legal scholar and professor at UC Hastings in San Francisco. With Harris set to take up the Democratic Party mantle after Biden, who has defined himself as a “transitional figure,” “we could be looking at these very outdated positions on Palestine for the next 12 years,” he continued. “The Democratic leadership has not yet recognized the ground shift underneath them.” 

Pundits and activists alike have been quick to eulogize the bipartisan consensus on support for the Israeli government. But if and when a Biden-Harris administration takes office, many of the veterans of past administrations—which have given successive Netanyahu governments a blank check—will almost certainly return to Washington. Obama administration alumni may have spent the last four years getting rich in political exile, working in private equity and strategic consulting for weapons technology firms, but they are eager to get back to the West Wing. All indications point to a Biden-Harris administration that will exert even less pressure on the Israeli government than the Obama administration did. 

If there is any reason for hope that a Biden-Harris administration can be pushed leftward on Israel/Palestine, it is that both have a reputation for following, rather than leading, their party. Though far from a foregone conclusion, Democratic voters’ opposition to Israeli government policies, combined with the waning appeal of the two-state paradigm, may eventually make a more ambitious progressive politics impossible to ignore. Harris’s characteristic cautiousness has so far bound her to AIPAC, but that has only made political sense as long as support for hawkish Israeli policies has carried no serious political price. With enough pressure, Bisharat said, Harris may have no choice but to “listen to the political winds.” 

A previous version of this article stated that the 2020 Democratic platform does not use the word “settlements.” In fact, it does state an opposition to settlement expansion, but does not discuss the fate of existing settlement blocs.

Joshua Leifer is a Jewish Currents contributing editor and a member of the Dissent editorial board. His essays and reporting have also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Jacobin, +972 Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about American Jewish identity. He lives in New Haven, CT, where he is a history PhD student.