It’s been hard this past week to avoid the feeling that something has shifted in the way people are looking at Israel and Palestine. The condemnation of Israel’s ongoing assault on Palestinians (both within its own borders and in the occupied Gaza Strip) has been deeper, more widespread, and, crucially, more unapologetic than at any point in recent memory.
To give just one, very mainstream example: on his latest, mega-corporation-backed national television program, John Oliver called Israel an apartheid government carrying out war crimes. Out of curiosity, I tried to find Last Week Tonight transcripts from 2014, the last time Israel bombarded Gaza to such an extent. Well, I found them, and guess what? Back then, Oliver’s most extensive handling of the subject was centered around Anderson Cooper’s looks, which he joked were as consistent and unchanging as the situation in Israel and Palestine. Ha ha. Seven years later, Oliver’s perspective appears to have evolved dramatically.
Oliver is not the driver of this shift in the discourse; he is the product of that shift. You can point to many different factors in why Israel is so much more heavily criticized these days—the power of social media in centering Palestinian voices, the way the Black Lives Matter movement helped politicize a generation and highlighted the obvious links between the American police state and the Israeli apartheid state, and the Netanyahu government’s openly fascistic qualities all come to mind. Politicians like Rashida Tlaib (herself a Palestinian), Cori Bush, and Ilhan Omar, who have spoken with spellbinding emotional force about Palestine in ways that would seem unthinkable a decade ago, have also helped push things forward.
I also don’t want to pretend like we are in some sort of pro-Palestinian paradise. It is still much more comfortable to be pro-Israeli in the United States. Even so, something is happening. Things are changing almost everywhere you turn.
Everywhere, that is, except where it matters most: in the White House. If the past week has given us evidence of the strides that the pro-Palestinian movement has made, it has also reminded us that the single biggest obstacle to justice for Palestine remains the government of the United States.
The Biden administration has made it clear, over and over and over again, that it is content to let Israel do whatever it wants to the Palestinians, and that it will barely lift a finger in response. The statements from the White House have been repetitive and anodyne, filled with abstract sentences that gingerly avoid actually saying anything. Take the White House’s summary of a conversation between Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday:
Biden specifically tells Israel it has “a right to defend itself” and condemns Hamas by name. When it comes to things Israel has done, though, the specifics vanish. A possible critique of Israel’s bombing of a Gaza tower that housed the offices of several international media organizations is instead watered down to a general line that Biden “raised concerns about the safety and security of journalists and reinforced the need to ensure their protection.” The fact that Israel has been killing hundreds of civilians is dealt with in the most basic of ways: “the President noted that this current period of conflict has tragically claimed the lives of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, including children.” There is no indication that Biden actually asked Israel to stop anything that it’s doing.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has been blocking U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for a ceasefire. Secretary of State Antony Blinken signaled on Monday that, while the Biden administration would support any ceasefire talks if Israel and Hamas decide to have them, it won’t be doing anything in particular to make that happen. When reporters asked Joe Biden about a ceasefire, he said he would be talking to Netanyahu soon. Then the White House said there would be no more public statements coming for the rest of the day.
The message in all of this is not hard to find: the United States has looked at what Israel is doing and sees no reason to tell Israel to stop doing it. Joe Biden is giving Benjamin Netanyahu the green light to keep it up. This is not surprising coming from a man like Biden, who notoriously said that the U.S. would have had to “invent an Israel” to protect its interests in the Middle East if the real thing didn’t exist, but it bears repeating. We know that if the United States wanted to, it could exert itself. Israel is an American client state. The U.S. sends nearly $4 billion a year to Israel, and provides it with the backbone of its overwhelming military might; the Biden administration approved a $735 million arms sale to Israel just a couple weeks ago. If the U.S. felt like it, it could make some things happen right now. But the U.S. doesn’t feel like it.
This situation—in which cultural discourse rapidly radicalizes and masses of people tap into the energy around a movement for justice while the people holding political power do everything they can to neutralize and destroy that energy—should be familiar to anyone who protested against the police last year. The main difference is that Biden doesn’t feel much of a need to even pretend like he cares about Palestine. The phrase “Palestinian lives matter” has spread around the world over the past week. But it’s clear that, for the White House, Palestinian lives don’t matter much at all.
Update, 7:03 p.m. ET: Things have moved approximately one inch along.
On the surface, this seems like news: Biden wants a ceasefire! But again, there is no real demand here. A ceasefire would be nice, but it’s just something to think about, and meanwhile, Biden emphasizes his “firm support” for Israel’s ongoing assault. This is not real pressure. It’s barely anything at all.