A new effort to sell Israel to American liberals

A new effort to sell Israel to American liberals
6 min read
31 Mar, 2021
Comment: A new group seeks to sell Israel to American liberals. But the reality of massive and long-term violations of Palestinian rights will prove difficult to overcome, writes Mitchell Plitnick.
The new organisation seeks to amplify pro-Israel voices that also criticise its rightward shift [Getty]
With Joe Biden having replaced Donald Trump in the White House and Democrats in tenuous control of both houses of Congress, supporters of Israel have renewed their emphasis on reaching out to liberal Americans.

Some recognised even during the Trump years that Israel's interests were not well served by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's open embrace of the Republican party and the American and global far right. That resulted in the formation of the so-called Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), a group which sought to regain Israel's strong influence among Democratic foreign policy hawks.

Now a new group is being formed that seeks to reach more liberal Democrats. Dubbed "Heart of a Nation," the new organisation, unlike DMFI, will seek to amplify voices that are simultaneously pro-Israel but also critical of its rightward shift over the past decade.

The name of the organisation echoes the title of a book published by Israeli opposition figure, Yair Lapid in 2016, To Be Israeli: The Heart of a Nation, the Soul of a People. Lapid - whose rise to prominence in Israel was spearheaded, in large measure by pollster and strategist, Mark Mellman, currently DMFI's president - holds centre-right views on virtually all issues regarding the Palestinians, but is widely viewed as the liberal alternative to Netanyahu.

  Heart of a Nation steps into an arena where centrist Democrats are trying to reassert blind support for Israel  

He is much more politically aligned with centrist Democrats such as Joe Biden, a connection surely not lost on the founders of Heart of a Nation.

Those founders are led by Jonathan Kessler. He has long been a leader in AIPAC where he has focused on reaching out to potentially pro-Israel constituencies in liberal communities. A good portion of his work has been developing and leading campus outreach programmes. He excels at convincing people that support for Israel is compatible with liberal or progressive values, despite its denial of Palestinian rights.

Kessler knows his stuff, and he recognises, quite correctly, that there is a significant opportunity right now to rebuild the once powerful bond between Israel and the Democratic party with Joe Biden and Secretary of State Tony Blinken, both of whom want to rebuild the bipartisan consensus on Israel, leading American diplomatic efforts.

Read more: How Netanyahu brought Israel's biggest racists seats - and legitimacy - in parliament

He believes that ideas like formal, unilateral Israeli annexation of the West Bank and legally downgrading the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel can be opposed by American and Israeli liberals, while still promoting support for Israel itself. He also understands that if connections between American and Israeli liberals are not restored during Biden's term, they could be permanently sundered.

Kessler is well-positioned to be able to bring liberals - who see Israel as a flawed but idealistic democracy that is forced by circumstances into occupation -- even if some of their actions in that occupation are not acceptable to those liberals - together with Israelis, who are currently voting for such parties as Yesh Atid, Kahol Lavan, and Labor.

The group he has assembled includes Americans, Israelis, and several Palestinians. Two of those Palestinians, Aziz Abu Sarah and Rawan Odeh, who were obviously sensitive to concerns that might be raised by their joining a pro-Israel initiative, issued a statement that reads, in part, "Everything we do is for our people, and we believe engagement is important. We saw this as an opportunity to centre Palestinian voices in an American/Israeli Jewish space where we feared otherwise our voices may not be heard."

Heart of a Nation steps into an arena where centrist Democrats are trying to reassert blind support for Israel and counter growing support for Palestinian rights within their party. Bob Menendez is one of the most hawkish figures in the Senate on Israel from either party, and the new Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Gregory Meeks, has abandoned his previously moderate positions and embraced radical pro-Israel talking points that equate Palestinian pursuit of their legitimate rights with anti-semitism.

  Kessler clearly understands that Democratic and left-wing American voters are increasingly concerned about US support for Israel's occupation  

Kessler clearly understands that, despite the solid support for Israel's policies on Capitol Hill, Democratic and left-wing American voters are increasingly concerned about US support for Israel's occupation. This is what he is trying to address, by creating a space that simultaneously promotes strong support for Israel but also allows for a degree of criticism, in both the US and Israel.

Kessler said, "By creating a platform for progressives from the US, Israel, and Palestine to develop solutions to problems they all face, community members will feel they have a stake in each other's future. With sustained effort over time, the resulting bonds of affinity and appreciation will help ensure an enduring alliance between a progressive America and a progressive Israel."

Right now, pro-Israel forces appear far more radical and right wing than they did in the late 20th century and through Obama's first term. Kessler, and probably AIPAC too, are keen to recapture a more liberal image of Israel, before supporters of Palestinian rights turn the moral high ground that they have won in the last 10-12 years into real gains on Capitol Hill.

  As good as Kessler is at selling Israel to liberals, reality is difficult to overcome  

Members of Congress such as Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Marc Pocan, and Bernie Sanders have been successfully chipping away at that DC pro-Israel hegemony, spurred on by Netanyahu's embrace of the Trumpian right. Kessler is trying to nip that progress in the bud and, frankly, Israel couldn't find a more capable person for that job.

But Kessler and Heart of a Nation must reckon with the fact that the problem is not that Israel's side of the story is not being told with sufficient skill, but that it's a story of massive and long-term violations of Palestinians' human and civil rights. As good as Kessler is at selling Israel to liberals, reality is difficult to overcome.

Still, Heart of a Nation is only one part of an effort to repair ties between liberal Americans and Israel. It will be important for defenders of Palestinian rights to maintain and build on the momentum they've built in recent years in making the moral case for Palestinian liberation. 

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.