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Biden Memos Show Palestine Advocacy Is Working

Above photo: Upwards of 400,000 Pro-Palestine protestors take the streets in a national march in Washington, DC to show support for Palestinians and call for a ceasefire and end the genocide in Gaza, January 13, 2024. Eman Mohammed.

Two recent presidential orders show the Biden administration is feeling the heat from months of protests against his support for Israel’s genocide in Gaza.

For a very long time, Palestinians and those in solidarity with them in the United States have faced mounting frustration. The work is hard, victories are rare, and they often seem very small against the setbacks and the ongoing loss of life and general misery that Israel brings to the lives of every Palestinian under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

If that is a more or less permanent feeling for many, it is more acute than ever now and for the past five months. We mobilize, we agitate, we protest, we argue, we shout, and not only does Israel’s genocide in Gaza continue, but U.S. President Joe Biden does everything he can to maintain both material and political support for it.

The realities of power are such that, most of the time, we have to look hard for victories and guard against surrender to despair that might cause us to overlook progress when it is made. This is one of those moments.

We face the reality of entrenched support for Israel in the United States, backed by powerful forces, a great deal of money, and a mythology woven over decades that mixes with the cynical manipulation of antisemitism and deeply held anti-Arab bigotry. We are also confronted with a U.S. president who places no value on the lives of Palestinians and is, even by the standards of American politicians, a fanatical supporter of Israel, even if its current leadership holds him in much lower regard.

And yet, we have seen in recent days real evidence of a shift, even if it’s only a slight one. The protests, the sit-ins, and the political movements meant to send a message to Biden that he is risking the November election are forcing Biden to move.

That motion is slow and extremely reluctant. But it is evident in recent presidential orders that Biden is feeling the heat. One is the order sanctioning a small number of prominent West Bank settler leaders. The other introduces new procedures intended to “ensure” that all recipients of U.S. military aid, including Israel, use them in accordance with U.S. law. The initial application of both orders were minimal in scope, but both provide the potential for actions that could put significant pressure on Israel.

Many dismissed these orders as being inadequate for the moment we’re in, and they certainly are that. As they are being applied at the moment, they are not going to deter Israeli actions. Of course, this moment is when pressure is most needed, as Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza is reaching new heights—even before the likely invasion of Rafah—as Israel continues its assault on the whole Strip and people are now dying in ever-increasing numbers of thirst, starvation, disease, treatable wounds, malnutrition, and exposure.

Yet these orders still represent real steps forward, and material victories, both in terms of stopping the genocide and advancing the goal of shifting U.S. policy away from total Israeli impunity.

Pushing Biden Away From Genocide

We can readily assume that Biden—who has made it clear over the course of five decades that he has no regard whatsoever for the lives of Palestinians and any inclination toward resolving the occupation is motivated strictly by his concern for Israel—did not suddenly develop a sense of empathy for Palestinians under fire in Gaza.

These measures he has taken are instead a desperate attempt to assuage the negative public reaction to his policy of support for Israeli war crimes. But Biden is also desperate to find a way to continue to support that genocide. That’s where these orders come from.

To be sure, Biden would certainly prefer, as his predecessors also have, that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu act in a more surreptitious fashion. The brazenness with which they pursue their course in Gaza presents a political difficulty for Biden and his fellow Democrats. Thus, he allows some statements in the press reflecting his personal dislike for Netanyahu (which is likely real enough) and his concern about the far-right nature of Netanyahu’s government.

But through it all, Biden is still a self-proclaimed Zionist, and, as we have seen down through the years, the passionate Christian Zionists are even worse than their Jewish partners. And he correctly judges that the ongoing war is popular in Israel, not just with the extreme right. Far fewer Israeli Jews want to see a ceasefire than Americans.

By offering these memos, Biden is hoping to dampen some of the energy of the movement to stop the Gaza slaughter. But his efforts have been ineffective, and the message was made even clearer in Michigan this week, where over 100,000 Democrats voted “Uncommitted” in the Democratic primary. This was a strong message in a state that is almost certain to be decisive in November, warning that Biden is risking his second term if he does not change course.

How much more will it take before Biden takes the action that is the only one that has the potential to dissuade Israel from its genocidal war, the halting of military aid and support? Probably a lot more, unfortunately. But progress on that front has been made, and Biden’s attempt at a tactical retreat should tell every lobbyist, advocate, and activist pressing for an end to this crime against humanity to redouble our efforts.

The Longer View

But there are two parts to the current struggle. “End the Gaza Genocide” is one. “Free Palestine” is the other.

Of course, the immediate horror has to be stopped, but that shouldn’t mean we don’t pay attention to potential long-term advantages. Biden’s two memos should be examined in that light. The potential in them to be used as tools in a future where supporters of Palestinian rights are in a better position to impact policy should not be ignored.

The sanctions on settlers seemed, at first, to be just more performance. But a deeper look at the memo reveals real potential.

For example, Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man, the director of research for Israel-Palestine at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), demonstrated how the sanctions applied to a handful of settlers also open a path to sanction financial institutions doing business with settlers; can be used against Americans financially supporting sanctioned settlers (this was actually done to close down two GoFundMe campaigns for one of them); and can be used against Israeli military officers working with sanctioned settlers (which the U.S. has explicitly warned Israel it may do).

Indeed, the connections between the settlements and Israel run very deep. Over the years, Israel has, both out of convenience and an effort to erase the distinction between the state that many other countries recognize and the settlements that are illegal under international law, integrated the settlements in every way with the state itself. That leaves a lot of potential avenues for sanctions.

Is Biden going to do that? Of course not. But the presidential order doesn’t expire when Biden’s term does. We can count on AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbying groups to work to promote legislation to moot these tools soon after the Gaza genocide is over, one way or the other. But this is the political battle that needs to be fought after Gaza. That’s a battle Palestine advocates can win.

Biden also issued a memo at the beginning of February that spelled out specific procedures for monitoring the use of U.S. arms provided to other countries. Interestingly, the memo was issued because Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland had intended to add the provisions to the supplemental spending bill that includes $14.3 billion in additional aid for Israel, a bill that is stuck in the House of Representatives. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Biden were concerned that the amendment would cause a widening of the rift among Democrats over Israel, so Biden agreed to issue the memo. It’s a good lesson in how politics can create unexpected opportunities.

The memo requires all recipients of offensive military aid to provide “…credible and reliable written assurances … that the recipient country will use any such defense articles in accordance with international humanitarian law and, as applicable, other international law,” and that “the recipient country will facilitate and not arbitrarily deny, restrict, or otherwise impede, directly or indirectly, the transport or delivery of United States humanitarian assistance and United States Government-supported international efforts to provide humanitarian assistance.”

While Israel is not specifically mentioned, this was unmistakably aimed at Netanyahu. Penalties for transgressing the assurances can range from demanding a reissue of those assurances up to, and specifically including, “from refreshing the assurances to suspending any further transfers of defense articles or, as appropriate, defense services.” The Secretary of State has to report to Congress annually on compliance.

Again, we know that, while Biden is requiring that Israel provide this initial assurance within 45 days of the memo (and Israel will very likely provide some document with empty promises by the due date in mid-March), it’s very unlikely that he will press hard on Israel to make good on those commitments. After all, the only thing that’s new here is the procedure; the actual laws governing the use of U.S. aid have existed for a long time in the Arms Export Control Act, Foreign Assistance Act, and the Leahy Law.

But the procedure itself gives members of Congress who wish to hold Israel accountable (of which there may not be many, but the small number has been growing and is acting a bit more boldly than in the past) a tool they can use, a regular procedure that can bring to public attention issues with Israel’s use of weapons, both in the media and on the floor of Congress.

These are small steps and won’t mean much with a president like Biden in office. They are not likely to be used by congressional Democrats in an election year as sensitive as this one, either. But they are going to be there for future use both at more opportune moments and to create those opportunities.

Biden may or may not be fully cognizant of all the potential implications of these memos. But preserving them and finding ways to maximize their utility should be top of the agenda for Palestine advocacy in Washington.

The fact that they exist at all, and the fact that Biden deems it necessary to try to slow the rising tide of protest at his support for genocide, is an indication that he finally recognizes that this policy is political suicide for him.

On Thursday, it was reported that AIPAC was pumping $4.5 million into a campaign against California State Senator Dave Min, who is running for Congress in Orange County, replacing Katie Porter, who is running for the Senate. Fueled by Republican money, AIPAC is trying to knock Min out because he criticizes Netanyahu despite his having support from other pro-Israel Jewish groups.

This is typical of AIPAC and how it uses its money to disrupt Democratic politics. Indeed, much of that money is coming from Republicans, so it is clearly not meant to do Biden and Democrats any real good in the end.

Biden may not care about Palestinian lives, but he does care about his re-election. And that’s why the protests and actions like voting “uncommitted” are forcing him into this tactical retreat. They’re working, and the president is finally starting to realize it.

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