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US support for Palestinian rights has shifted 'across the board', experts say

Palestinian voices are now being heard within the US, but policy has yet to change
A man carries a fake body bag as people march to demonstrate in support of Palestinians in New York on 29 August 2021
A man carries a fake body bag as people march to demonstrate in support of Palestinians in New York on 29 August 2021 (AFP)
By MEE staff in Washington

The discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has changed considerably in the United States in recent years, especially among Democrats, according to experts on the issue.

The change has been reflected both in public opinion, demonstrated by a recent poll showing most Americans opposed unrestricted aid to Israel, as well as in Congress, where a growing number of Democrats have called for supporting Palestinian rights.

Speaking during a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Middle East Institute on Thursday, Shibley Telhami, a Palestinian American professor at the University of Maryland, said the shift existed beyond just a handful of vocal members of US Congress.

"This is not progressive Democrats - I'm sorry - this is Democrats. This is much broader than people assume," Telhami said.

"I'm not talking about Congress; the shift in Congress is separate. But if you're looking at public opinion, then the shift is far bigger than people assume, it transcends this progressive-moderate divide among Democrats."

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In August, the University of Maryland released a poll that found only eight percent of Democratic voters blamed Palestinians for Israel's offensive on the Gaza Strip in May.

An annual Gallup poll released in March found the majority of Democrats felt the US should be putting more pressure on the Israeli government than the Palestinian leadership.

The past few years have also seen unprecedented moves in Congress, with critical demands coming from Capitol Hill, including the condemnation of Israel's treatment of Palestinians during the Covid-19 pandemic, and a handful of lawmakers voicing support for applying conditions on US aid to Israel.

A shift has also been seen within human rights groups, activists and the media - earlier this year, Human Rights Watch published a report saying Israel was committing crimes of apartheid against Palestinians in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem.

This year also saw Palestinian activists, including siblings Muna and Mohammed el-Kurd, being listed on Time Magazine's list of the 100 Most Influential People of 2021.

Peter Beinart, a prominent Jewish-American political commentator, said the shift towards promoting the plight of the Palestinians comes as the US grapples with high profile cases of racial inequality.

"There was a new kind of embarrassment in the media about the way in which certain groups tended to be talked about, but not heard from," he said during the panel.

"That created a new awareness about the fact that so often Palestinians have been talked about but not heard from. And I think that led people to to look and be more open to Palestinian voices than they had before."

No change in policy

The experts on the panel noted that changes both in public opinion and political discourse, however, had not yet translated into policy changes.

More than 30 US states have adopted laws targeting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in the US.

The administration of US President Joe Biden has also reportedly embraced the International Holocaust Remembrance Association's (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which defines a loose set of actions such as "applying double standards to Israel" as antisemitism. 

"There's still an enormous amount of distance to go. And trying to put antisemitism and anti-Palestinianism into discourse with one another, and to think about what it means to be opposed to both antisemitism and anti-Palestinianism, that's a conversation that I still think hasn't really broken through," Beinart said.

There have also been some schisms within pro-Palestinian blocs in American politics. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading progressive voice in the US, was heavily criticised after voting "present" on a bill to fund Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system - a move for which she later apologised.

Last month, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)'s Palestine solidarity working group called for the expulsion of Congressman Jamaal Bowman, saying he did not meet the "basic demands to uphold support for the BDS movement".

But the group ended up upholding his membership, after the DSA received input from its Palestinian members.

Bowman, who defeated pro-Israel incumbent Eliot Engel in a highly contested congressional race last year, voted "yes" to providing additional funding to Israel's Iron Dome in September, and also went on a trip to Israel and Occupied Palestine that was organised by J Street, a liberal Jewish lobby.

The trip was criticised by the BDS movement as crossing the "picket line and harm[ing] our struggle for freedom, justice and equality".

The row had sparked disagreement with some Palestinian Americans arguing that they should engage with lawmakers such as Bowman, while others said the DSA was not holding them accountable for going against its platform.

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