A Major Rights Group Says Israel Is Guilty of Apartheid. It Might Fracture the Status Quo in Washington

H.A. Hellyer
·5 min read
Protest Held Outside White House Against Israel
Protest Held Outside White House Against Israel

Protesters from multiple Palestinian rights organizations march outside the White House on Sept. 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. Credit - Win McNamee—Getty Images

On Tuesday, the U.S.-based rights organisation, Human Rights Watch (HRW), accused Israel of two crimes against humanity: the crime of apartheid, and the crime of persecution. Other organisations, including Israeli ones, have previously made similar claims; but it is the first time that such designations have been made by an international organisation of this stature.

Moreover, the designations declared that elements of the crimes were applicable not simply in the occupied Palestinians territories but within the internationally recognized borders of Israel itself. The assessment was predictably met with ferocious indignation among supporters of Israel in Washington D.C.; but mostly from the right-wing of American politics and not the left. The HRW report is just one report, but it’s a significant milestone in a particular trajectory, leading us towards the moment when the bipartisan pro-Israel American consensus that has endured for decades breaks apart.

Democrats and Republicans might argue tremendously in Congress but would always unite over Israel. Congress will regularly pass bipartisan motions supporting Israel, and there was cross-party consensus in Congress on moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, many years before the Trump administration actually did so.

The U.S. is near-unique in this cross-party unity. In my native U.K, for example, deep political support exists for Israel, alongside traditions of support for the Palestinian cause. The left-wing Labour Party has a long pro-Palestinian tradition within it, and even the center-right Conservative Party has had senior figures openly critical of Israel.

In his 2019 book Blind Spot, the political scientist Khaled Elgindy describes a system in the U.S. that demands accountability of the weaker side (the Palestinians), while working to prevent any meaningful accountability or consequences for the stronger side (Israel). Critics of this ‘Blind Spot’ are becoming more vocal; the likes of Lara Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Salih Booker of the Centre for International Policy, or noted intellectual and columnist Peter Beinart, among others. The space to do so has long existed, but is now expanding. That is why it was possible for the nonpartisan Carnegie Endowment, where I am a scholar, to produce a report recently that called for human rights to be at the center of any U.S.-led approach in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Yet the insular worlds of think-tanks and academia have the potential to be echo chambers, as does the human rights community that includes HRW. The only question that matters for policy is whether the needle will move within a major political party in the future. It’s important to note that President Joe Biden was instrumental in ensuring the 2020 Democratic platform was squarely behind Israel, and the Republican Party is even more so.

But Biden’s move didn’t go unchallenged in his party. That follows a public fracturing of the bipartisan consensus on Israel in American politics. Progressive Democratic congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, were at the heart of that shift going against the party line. Their support for a boycott movement aimed at pressuring Israel to change its policy toward Palestinians was met with resistance from the overwhelming majority of House Democrats in 2019, who supported a resolution to condemn that movement. But Tlaib and Omar’s push received help from an unlikely quarter: Donald Trump, probably the most pro-Israel president in living memory.

It’s ironic indeed. The Trump White House had withdrawn funding for UNRWA, the UN’s organisation for taking care of Palestinian refugees; closed the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s office in DC; and had moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

But Trump made a crucial mistake. In 2019, it was widely suspected Tlaib and Omar were banned from Israel owing to a direct request by Trump to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; and that forced criticism of Israel by senior Democrats. The then-Democratic House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, pushed Israel to allow the congresswomen to visit; Senator Elizabeth Warren did the same. Tlaib, herself of Palestinian descent, declared, “If you truly believe in democracy, then the close alignment of Netanyahu with Trump’s hate agenda must prompt a re-evaluation of our unwavering support for the State of Israel.” It was a message that resonated with many Democrats.

But the seeds were laid before then. The more progressive wing of the Democratic Party, with whom Tlaib and Omar are immensely popular, is growing in strength due to simple demographics. Disproportionately, younger Americans, and Americans of color, are more likely to be progressive. They are more likely to favor civil rights for minorities, whether it’s the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in the U.S. or overseas. It’s hard to square that with support for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, say, where Israeli settlers are granted substantially more privileges as compared to the indigenous Palestinian population. As the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, said in 2019: “There are new voices that are more critical, single-mindedly toward Israel and they’re obviously making themselves heard.”

The Republican Party remains stalwart in its support for the Jewish state; but that’s a complex situation. White supremacist thinking appeals to many Trump supporters; and that ideology contains a strong element of anti-Semitism. At the same time, mainstreaming of white supremacy in the Republican Party only invigorates progressive activists on the Democratic side — and because of the deep polarization of American politics, it makes sense for the Democrats to resist fracturing at all costs, and hold a united front against the Republicans. That means, inevitably, more, not less, progressive influence within the party. And, invariably, that will mean more critical voices on Israel.

There’s little chance of immediate changes in American policy; the U.S. president, and the Democratic leadership in both houses of Congress, are still solidly in favor of the consensus. But the direction is becoming clear – we’re on a path toward the end of uncritical bipartisan support for Israel’s policies towards Palestinians.