BY MITCHELL PLITNICK
One of the more eye-opening aspects of 2023 for Palestine and Israel is how much has happened while the essential situation for Palestinians has continued its steady decline. The occupation of the West Bank has turned into annexation, and the apartheid nature of Israel has been exposed for more of the world. Protests in Israel have shown the world that Israeli Jews will come out across political lines to protect the democracy reserved exclusively for them, while more and more people recognize the implication that this is something Israelis could have done long ago if the political will to address the apartheid reality had been there.
There’s more, of course, but through it all, day to day life for Palestinians hasn’t changed all that much. Settler pogroms are not new, although the settlers are bolder than ever. The biggest difference is that there are a few more news reports about them in the West. Settlements continue to expand. The pace has intensified but this too is not new. The Palestinian political system, such as it is, continues its collaboration, occasional shows of defiance that no one believes anymore, and every so often talks about change. Nothing new there.
Yet, for all this sameness, there are strong indications that 2023 is going to be looked back at as a landmark year and, indeed, a turning point. Profound changes are happening in Israel. The reactions to those changes have yet to be reflected in the halls of power in places like Washington, Brussels, London, Berlin, and Paris. But as resistant as those capitals are to change on this front, we may well look back at 2023 as the year their shift finally started.
This isn’t wide-eyed optimism, believe me. I’ve been working on U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine professionally for over twenty years and studying it for nearly forty. That experience does not promote optimism. And indeed, it is by no means certain that the changes that will stem from the formative events of 2023 so far will necessarily be positive. But they will be significant.
Changes in Israel
The most obvious factor is what is happening in Israel. As much as the protesters are laser-focused on an exclusive Jewish democracy and work hard to prevent anti-occupation voices from speaking (though they’re happy to have them show up silently), the obvious continuity between denying the rights of Palestinians and diminishing those rights for Jews is inescapable. Even if the protesters couldn’t care less about Palestinians, they are confronting the fact that it’s the settler movement that has been promoting anti-democratic changes and has been increasing its control over the Israeli government and military.
This is going to matter going forward. In 2011, a series of large protests in Israel were demanding increased social spending. That movement successfully resisted any connection to the plight of Palestinians. The leaders of the current protests have tried to duplicate that success, arguing, as they did in 2011, that the goals of their movement would benefit everyone, but any explicit or even implicit connection to the Palestinians would undermine chances for success.
But 2023 is different. While the protests have kept supporters of democracy for all under Israeli rule marginalized, they can’t maintain the division between Palestinian rights and democracy. From the beginning, it was already clear the protest leaders would not be able to completely erase the Palestinians as had happened in 2011.
This is not only due to the efforts of some on the Jewish Israeli left and Palestinians who are continuously reminding people that these protests are not calling for true democracy, but only for Jewish democracy. It is also intimately connected to what the protests are about.
The 2011 protests were essentially about Israel’s budgetary priorities. These protests are about the settler takeover of Israel’s government. This has been coming for decades, with the consistent rightward drift of the Israeli electorate since the late 1970s when Likud broke Labor’s monopoly of power in Israel.
In 2000, with Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton both breaking their word to Yasir Arafat and disingenuously blaming him alone for the collapse of the Camp David II talks and the beginning of the second intifada, the already tattered Israeli left, centrist though it truly was, collapsed and virtually disappeared. But now, there is a growing backlash to the extreme right that Netanyahu has courted.
For the past decade, Netanyahu has moved his governments further and further right in an effort to undermine legal structures (for Jews) and avoid accountability for his extensive and criminal corruption. An unintended consequence is now likely to develop over the next few years, with a credible opposition that has more to unify around than simply detesting Netanyahu, which is the only common thread among the current opposition, a bizarre tapestry of a few Palestinian parties and mostly right-wing and right of center Zionist parties.
That alternative will very likely coalesce around certain democratic principles in order to oppose the religious parties and the settler-dominated ones. The question is whether that will mean coalescing around right-wing figures like Benny Gantz, center-right ones, or a new leadership that legitimately wants to find a way forward for both Israelis and Palestinians. Even that would certainly be a right-of-center government that will be dedicated to maintaining Israel’s “Jewish character,” though. And that, naturally, will necessitate continued discrimination.
Even in the best case scenario, there certainly will not be a major Israeli party that would seriously consider what Palestinians would require for even minimal justice. But it could mean we might see a smaller, but still significant, party that could dedicate itself to Jewish-Arab equality and partnership. Such a party might just be big enough to be required for any non-Likud government to form a coalition, and that means leverage. If such a party could be part of supporting a less palatable one that at least offers a significant alternative to Netanyahu, Smotrich, and Ben Gvir, that could make a big difference. Certainly, 2023 has already proven that an extreme Israeli government does not do anything to enhance Palestinian prospects for better days, and it seems inescapable that true, anti-racist, Arab-Jewish unity is the only possible way out of this apartheid quagmire.
Changes in the Democratic Party
We’ve all rightly made a lot out of the Gallup poll in March that showed significantly greater support for the Palestinians than for Israel among Democratic voters. The difference in that poll—49%-36% in favor of Palestinians–was too large to be dismissed as a statistical anomaly. The fact that 56% of those same Democrats remained supportive of Israel indicates that the shift is based in great measure on Israel’s tilt toward authoritarianism over the past few years, and especially since the last election. That, in turn, implies that it was not a loss of sympathy for Jews but, at long last, recognition of Palestinians’ humanity and the authoritarianism they face.
The fact that those who do not sympathize with Palestinians skew heavily older indicates that this isn’t a transitory phase among Democrats, but very likely a trend that will remain consistent. But the party’s elected officials remain steadfast in their devotion to Israel. The recent House Democratic delegation to Israel, led with all the pro-apartheid enthusiasm he could muster by Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries demonstrated that the core of the Democratic party remains firmly in Israel’s grip and in opposition to their own constituents on this issue.
Is this sustainable? That’s going to depend, and a lot is at stake in 2024. AIPAC has already made it clear that they intend to go hard after Jamaal Bowman, Summer Lee, Pramila Jayapal, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. The Palestine solidarity community is small, but very politically active. It will be important that their energy counter AIPAC’s money and that people hear that opposition to apartheid is a winning political issue. It can be done, and it needs to be if the political cowardice that Jeffries and his fellow Democrats showed is not to be repeated.
The effect of such a victory can’t be overstated. It will mean that no matter how much contempt some Democrats and party leaders, up to and including Joe Biden and Antony Blinken, have for Palestinian lives, the Democratic position will need to start moving and leaving support for an apartheid system in Israel where it belongs—in the Republican party. Because most Democratic voters know that opposition to apartheid is in the best interests of Israelis as well as Palestinians and, above all, in the interests of justice.
If such a stance does take hold in the Democratic Party, we will surely look back at 2023, the year where liberal Zionists started to finally question our blind support for Israel, as a turning point.
The wild card: China
While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dominated Washington’s day-to-day foreign policy agenda, it is China that is their conceptual focus. Biden has relentlessly pursued a belligerent policy toward China, routinely belying his insistence that he does not want a new cold war with his Asian adversary. While Biden’s rhetoric is not as outright racist as his predecessor’s, and he’s at least smart enough to recognize that tariffs do American businesses more harm than they do to China, most of the rest of his policy toward China has differed little from Donald Trump’s.
As a result, China’s forays into international diplomacy and its attempts to establish a greater role for itself on the international stage have been greeted with hostility from the White House. And when China brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic relations between the two, Biden redoubled his efforts to secure a normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Biden also believes that brokering this deal will help Democrats at the polls, but that is a major political miscalculation. There is nothing here that is going to matter in November 2024 or thereafter. He’s also wrong about normalization being a potential counter to China. Saudi Arabia has no reason to compromise its position on Iran in order to normalize with Israel. It has much more to gain by being able to engage, and avoid escalating conflict, with Iran, and neither Israel nor the U.S. will sacrifice Saudi participation in any regional military alliance simply because it has a relationship with Iran. The Saudis understand very well that they can get normalization with Israel without having to trash their mutually beneficial rapprochement with Iran.
China is never going to dive into Israel-Palestine diplomacy like the United States has, or even like Europe. Indeed, it really didn’t play all that big a role between Saudi Arabia and Iran; most of the heavy lifting there was done by Iraq, and China just came in at the end to seal the deal.
But China places great value on its prestige on the international stage. While it won’t risk getting into the quagmire that is Israel and Palestine, they could very well act on the periphery with the intent to find ways to be a bigger part of the endgame. What might that mean?
China is a huge importer of Middle East oil. Its relationships with Iran and the Gulf Arab states are strong, and while the United States would very much like to degrade relations between the Saudis and the Chinese, its ability to do so is limited because the Saudis have a powerful interest in good relations with China. While Saudi Arabia and Iran still have many contentious issues that could certainly worsen and create the potential for renewed conflict, they are on a path toward de-escalation, much to Washington’s chagrin, as their agenda for the Gulf region, as well as Israel’s “integration into the region” are based almost entirely on tensions with Iran.
China also has good relations with Israel, another relationship that Biden, like his predecessors, has worked hard to undermine with only limited success. Israel would never accept China as a mediator, of course, as Beijing would not lean in Israel’s favor the way Washington does. But as China’s influence in the region grows, its ability to support the Palestinians while remaining too important for Israel to just abandon—especially if the United States’ support starts to waver—will also increase.
All of these changes are uncertain. The seeds planted in 2023 could also have deeply negative effects. Israel could, for example, calculate that its position will continue to worsen if its authoritarian nature does not abate, and so might finally take the aggressive steps of forcing Palestinians out in greater numbers, or move militarily against Iran. Or both.
But it seems very possible that we are looking at a major shift in the playing field, perhaps the biggest one since the disastrous Oslo Accords thirty years ago. While we still see no sign that Palestinian reunification or a new, more competent, and loyal Palestinian leadership might finally emerge, even that becomes more likely in the atmosphere that some of these changes might create. Most importantly, though, it is the increasing global support for the Palestinian cause and what seems to be its finally coalescing into some tangible political momentum that mark 2023 as a year of change and, quite possibly, the year that marks the beginning of the reversal of what has been a steady decline in hopes for a better future for Palestinians, and, yes, Israelis as well.