Today, President-elect Biden named key members of his foreign policy team. First among them is Tony Blinken, a long-time aide, as Secretary of State. During the campaign, Blinken spoke frequently to Israel Lobby groups and reassured them that his boss would be an ardent supporter of Israel. Blinken never offered outreach to the Muslim-American community and made no such commitments to them regarding Palestine. In fact, he angered it by claiming in a conference call with pro-Israel leaders that the Palestinians had made “bad choices.”
Blinken is Jewish and his stepfather was noted Franco-American Holocaust survivor-memoirist, Samuel Pisar. He miraculously survived incarceration in numerous death camps and went on to earn a Harvard law degree and doctorate from the Sorbonne. He served as well, as a foreign policy advisor for Pres. Kennedy in the 1960s. After earning his law degree, Blinken wrote for several years for Martin Peretz’s New Republic, in its pro-Israel iteration. In the 1990s he joined Biden’s Senate staff, playing increasingly important roles for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then serving as Biden foreign and national security policy advisor. During the Obama administration he became the number two figure at the State Department. He becomes the third Jewish secretary of state.
He will have a huge, almost impossible task reviving a hollowed-out State Department battered by the cronyism and ideological thuggery of Mike Pompeo. Hundreds of senior staff have left in despair. Key ambassadorial and diplomatic posts remain empty. Others were fired in fits of pique or after they became whistleblowers. It will take a massive effort to right this ocean liner which has already been damaged by the Trump iceberg. Some of his broader foreign policy objectives were outlined here in this podcast.
For these reasons, I doubt Biden’s top priority will be Israel-Palestine. It’s too intractable. The Israelis are too dug in and maintain too much firepower in domestic lobbying for the incoming president to make any headway. It will be four years of benign neglect in the hope that no major massacre or genocide spoils the interval. And that will be just fine as far as Israel’s right-wing government is concerned. That will permit it to continue its expansionist settlement program, its dispossession of Palestinians, and prevention of a Palestinian state.
Others have noted with alarm, Blinken’s interventionist approach to U.S. foreign policy:
Biden has named Tony Blinken his Secretary of State. Blinken was key to shoring up Democrat support for Iraq invasion and instrumental in US role in regime change wars in Ukraine, Libya and Syria. We are back to “smart” wars and they are no less deadly.
— Danny Haiphong (@SpiritofHo) November 23, 2020
Blinken, Biden and the Lobby: Not an Inch of Daylight Between Them
During the campaign, Blinken’s most notable comments were made in a conference call to pro-Israel leaders hosted by the Democratic Majority for Israel. DMI is a hawkish group which is the Democratic Party version of Aipac. Though the latter claims it is bipartisan, it’s common knowledge that the vast majority of its membership, donors and leaders are Republican. Thus, DMI was manufactured to ensure that Democrats would not stray too far from the pro-Israel party line. The group has regularly acted as an enforcer within the Party when candidates espouse positions considered anti-Israel.
Among those who’ve been taken to the woodshed are Bernie Sanders, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The group sunk over $1-million in ads in the Iowa primary attacking Bernie Sanders. Strangely, the ads didn’t mention Sanders’ views on Israel, which are anathema to the group. After Sanders ended in a virtual tie for first place in the primary, either Biden told DMI to call the dogs off or the group decided it had wasted its money.
By then, Obama, Clyburn and other Party grandees persuaded most of the moderate presidential candidates to drop out of the race, which nullified Sanders advantage as the leading progressive running. Biden then swept to victory.
When Blinken spoke to DMI, he didn’t disappoint. Among the troubling statements he made, was this old saw about not washing our dirty linen in public:
Joe Biden believes strongly in keeping your differences to the greatest extent possible, between friends, behind doors– having it out as necessary, but maintaining as little daylight as possible in public. You don’t want to put people in a corner, when it comes to your friends and partners, in public. You’re much more effective when you have a difference of opinion when you disagree on a policy matter in dealing with it in private– doing it clearly, forcefully, effectively, but not airing to the greatest extent possible any dirty laundry in public.
In contrast to three other candidates, Blinken told the pro-Israel crowd that Biden would never pressure Israel by conditioning U.S. aid on a settlement freeze or any other Israeli policy choice. This is Israel’s Get-out-of-jail-free card:
He [Biden] is resolutely opposed to [conditions on aid]. He would not tie military assistance to Israel to any political decisions it makes. Period. Full stop. He said it, he’s committed to it.
Blinken also advanced the quaint, nostalgic notion that there is, or should be a “bipartisan consensus” on Israel. This flies in the face of the clear dichotomy in support by Republicans and Democrats for the far-right policies of the current Israeli government. Even the vast majority of American Jews despise Netanyahu and the Likud.
There can be no bipartisan consensus on injustice, war crimes, and apartheid. These are crimes that cannot be papered over with happy talk. We must call it what it is, whether Biden and Blinken like it or not.
That doesn’t matter to Biden or Blinken, because the vast majority of American Jews don’t write massive checks to presidential candidates. The Jews who do have vast wealth and are ardently pro-Israel. By which, I mean that they don’t just support Israel, they support the Israeli government and take their guidance from it and its foreign agents of the Lobby. In other words, Blinken and his boss know on which side their bread is buttered and aim to keep it slathered.
Blinken clearly doesn’t feel the progressive wing of the Party merits any consideration, as he showed in this stinging criticism:
But equally wrong are those [on the left] who dismiss the daily and existential threats that Israel faces or who don’t call out Palestinians for the very bad choices that they make. The failure to recognize the right and reality of the Jewish state.
There is of course room for legitimate criticism of some Israeli policies, but that doesn’t define the relationship and too often that slides into antisemitism. So we need to call that out as well. Our party, the Democratic Party, should model what has been a bipartisan consensus.
How can anyone with a brain in their head deny that Israeli Occupation, apartheid and ongoing suffocation of Palestinian national rights “define” Israel’s relations with the U.S.? And how can such a brain-dead person claim that criticism of Israel for these outrageous violations of international law and decades-worth of U.S. policy “slides into anti-Semitism?” For what feels like the thousandth time, anti-Semitism is hatred of Jews. It has nothing to do with Israel unless the individual is conflating Israel with Jews. And by the way, how does one slide into anti-Semitism?
Even Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy advisor has become a Blinken admirer:
This is a good choice. Tony has the strong confidence of the president-elect and the knowledge and experience for the important work of rebuilding US diplomacy.
It will also be a new and great thing to have a top diplomat who has regularly engaged with progressive grassroots. https://t.co/NglVbp9YCa
— Matt Duss (@mattduss) November 23, 2020
Which “progressive grassroots” has Blinken regularly engaged with? Jewish or Palestinian progressives? Muslim-Americans? No to both. Duss may be looking for a job in the incoming administration after Sanders loss in the primary. But whatever the reason, this puffery is disappointing.
This is going to be a long four years for progressives concerned about Israel-Palestine. About the only thing we can do is continue supporting the progressive wing of the Party in Congress, support new candidates it endorses to expand the base, and promote grassroots movements like BDS, which is not dependent on electoral victories. The more of these victories there are, the weaker the Lobby will become and the sooner the Democrats can offer a more robust, progressive Middle East policy.
Rep. Ilhan Omar put forth a ringing vision of a progressive U.S. Middle East policy in The Nation:
Instead of siding with one group of dictators over another, we should position ourselves at an equal distance from both, allowing ourselves to be honest brokers, protecting our national security and interests while promoting human rights and democracy. We can hold Iran accountable for its human rights violations while also holding Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the UAE accountable.
This applies to the occupation as well. Ignoring the suffering of the Palestinians runs counter to our most basic values. Moreover, it threatens our national security. No less a figure than Trump’s former defense secretary said that the United States pays “a military price every day” for our role in perpetuating the occupation. As I have said before, we must reinsert the call for a two-state solution with full human rights and self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians back into the public debate with urgency.
More broadly, we must recognize that keeping tens of thousands of troops in the region is a failed endeavor. When people’s only interaction with the United States is through weapons sales and our military presence, they see us as an imperialist occupying force. It also sends a signal to the rest of the world that we care more about material interests like oil than we do about democracy or human rights.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reorient our foreign policy away from shortsighted military alliances and toward justice. We can create an America that means what it says when we claim to stand for human rights and democracy. An end to arms sales to dictators. An end to collective punishment of innocent civilians. And renewed support for multilateralism and accountability. I hope President Biden seizes this opportunity.
What Are We Likely to See in a Biden-Blinken Middle East policy?
Don’t expect much. They’ll possibly reopen the East Jerusalem U.S. consulate; possibly reopen the Palestinian consulate in Washington DC. They’ll resume funding for UNWRA and the PA. None of this will fundamentally alter the calculus of Palestinian suffering and oppression. Palestinians don’t need humanitarian aid or handouts, as much as they need political power and agency. If you can’t guarantee that, you’re fooling yourself. That seems to be a liberal Zionist preoccupation, and Blinken and Biden are chief examples.
They’ll continue the mealy-mouthed token opposition to Israeli settlements offered by president’s going back decades (with the exception of Trump). But they won’t move the embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv. It’s even doubtful they will rescind Trump recognition of Israeli annexation of the Golan and Israeli settlements, among the most damaging features of the soon to be ex-president’s pro-Israel policy.
Where Biden may make his most critical mark is on Iran. He’s announced that he plans to return to the JCPOA nuclear deal negotiated by Pres. Obama. He’s also denounced Saudi behavior including the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and its war on Yemen. This would mark a decided pivot away from Trump’s fawning approval of every act by the Crown Prince, whether the murder of journalists or Yemeni children.
Despite a Senate that may be controlled by Republicans, Biden may attempt to tone down the stridency of Trump pronouncements on Iran. In order to return to JCPOA, he would have to remove sanctions. A test of how far he will go to improve ties would be investing political capital in lifting sanctions, which would in turn persuade the Iranians that he is serious. If he goes through the motions, but does little, the Iranians will have no interest in such an act of political theater. In that case, Biden will have little or nothing to show for his efforts.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.