The divide between the Democratic base—which is increasingly progressive—and establishment Democrats was on display again this week. We saw it after at least 60 Palestinians were killed, including women and children, and reportedly 2,700 were injured by the Israeli military during protests in Gaza on Monday. Despite this incident marking the biggest loss of life since the 2014 Gaza war, most leading Democrats were silent.
It’s time Democrats stop checking their progressivism at the door when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because that approach isn’t working for either side. Yet for too long Democratic leaders have followed that view. In fact, the second ranking Democrat in the House, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) did just that Tuesday as he expressed unconditional support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reaction to the Gaza protests.
That view, however, is out of step with the progressive base, as I saw first-hand this week on social media and from callers to my SiriusXM radio show, which airs on the network’s progressive station. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party wants our leaders to be progressives on all issues. That means we should criticize Palestinian leaders if they are acting in violation of human rights or engaging in violence and the same must apply to Netanyahu and his policies.
Knee-jerk support of Netanyahu, a man who worked closely with the GOP to undermine President Obama (remember his speech before Congress in 2015 at the invitation of Republicans), is not the route to go if you truly believe in diplomacy and a sustainable peace in the region. After all, Netanyahu declared point blank while running for re-election in 2015 that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, and he has followed that up with building of illegal settlements in the West Bank.
Some congressional Democrats did speak out after the violence Monday but it was only a handful of the nearly 250 Democrats in the House and Senate. There was Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), who criticized Netanyahu via Twitter for calling Monday a “glorious day” after the loss of life in Gaza, adding poignantly that Netanyahu “has hurt Israel’s case with American progressives more than any other Israeli leader in history.”
Others who took to Twitter included Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who tweeted that the loss of life in Gaza was “horrific,” adding, “My prayers are with those killed & injured in Gaza.” While Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) issued a statement Tuesday calling on the Israeli military to “exercise greater restraint in the use of live ammunition” and condemned U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley from blocking an investigation by the United Nations into the violence.
But of the leading Democrats who are expected to run for president in 2020, only one spoke out forcefully: Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator called the actions of the Netanyahu administration in regards to Gaza “terrible,” adding, “Instead of applauding Israel for its actions, Israel should be condemned. Israel has a right to security, but shooting unarmed protesters is not what it is about.”
Interestingly, it was Sanders during the April 2016 Democratic presidential debate against Hilary Clinton who truly exposed the growing chasm between the progressive and establishment wings on this issue. In response to a question about the Middle East conflict, Sanders made it clear that while Israel has a right to defend itself, “there will never be peace in that region unless the United States plays a role, an even-handed role trying to bring people together and recognizing the serious problems that exist among the Palestinian people.”
A Democrat calling for an even-handed approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was jaw dropping for some. But in reality, Sanders’ view lines up perfectly with an overwhelming chunk of Democrats as 76 percent of self-described Democrats support such an approach.
In that same debate, Sanders then did something previously unheard of from a leading Democrat: He expressed concern for the people of Gaza as human beings. “Right now in Gaza unemployment is somewhere around 40 percent,” he said. “You got a lot of that area continues, it hasn’t been built, decimated, houses decimated, health care decimated, schools decimated.” Sanders added, “I believe the United States and the rest of the world have got to work together to help the Palestinian people.” The audience at this debate, held in New York City, erupted in applause.
In stark contrast, Clinton’s response was to offer at best lip service to the suffering of Palestinians while defending the Israeli military’s action in the 2014 Gaza war without any reservations. This standard Democratic response elicited no such cheers.
That’s why it’s surprising that in 2018 the leading Democrats, who are progressive on issue after issue, are silent on Gaza. No tweets from Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, or Kamala Harris. At least Warren did join in a letter along with 13 other Democratic senators calling on the Trump administration to “do more to alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.” That was a positive step although in the letter there wasn’t even a suggestion that Netanyahu’s policies contributed in any way to the more than 60 dead and thousands wounded Monday in Gaza.
Let’s be clear: Hamas is a terrorist group. Period. And there’s no dispute that they bear some responsibility for the violence that took place and should be criticized. But Trump and Netanyahu blaming Hamas exclusively for the human suffering in Gaza may play well on Fox & Friends but not with the facts. This is especially true since it’s now confirmed that no Palestinians had breached the fence surrounding Gaza, meaning the Palestinians killed and wounded were all on the Gaza side of the fence. And per the IDF, only 24 of the 60-plus killed were members of Hamas.
There are 1.3 million people in Gaza. Not all are Hamas fighters, despite the recent intentionally dehumanizing claim of Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman that there are “no innocents in Gaza.” In reality, a recent poll by a well-respected Palestinian research firm found only 32 percent of Gazans would vote for Hamas if elections were held today. And per that same poll, 45 percent of Palestinians living in Gaza want to emigrate to another place (in contrast to only 19 percent of those in the West Bank), but they're in essence prisoners in a densely populated piece of land with a 77 percent poverty rate, high unemployment, little clean water and where “Breakfast for some schoolchildren is a cup of hot water flavored with a dash of salt.”
It’s time the Democratic Party leadership start reflecting its base on the issues of the day from championing health care as a right to raising the national minimum wage to even its approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In a glaring contrast to the GOP’s values, the Democratic leaders should be championing progressive ideals that advance diplomacy, regional stability, and human rights when it comes to this 70-year-old conflict. That’s not only the progressive thing to do, it’s the right thing to do—at least if you want to help the people of Palestine and Israel achieve a just and lasting peace for this generation and beyond.