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Progressive Democrats Push Party To Rethink Relationship With Israel

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden last night welcomed the cease-fire that was reached between Israel and Hamas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I believe the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and to enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy. My administration will continue our quiet, relentless diplomacy toward that end.

MARTIN: This crisis ended up becoming the biggest public disagreement yet between Biden and the progressive wing of his own party. For decades, Democrats and Republicans have stood by Israel almost without exception. But with this latest violence, the left started pushing the Democratic Party to fundamentally rethink that relationship. NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: When New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took to the House floor last week, she asked a simple but provocative question.

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ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: The president and many other figures this week stated that Israel has a right to self-defense, and this is a sentiment that is echoed across this body. But do Palestinians have a right to survive? Do we believe that? And if so, we have a responsibility to that as well.

BEN RHODES: Look, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is staking out her position on this, that's the Overton window shifting before your eyes.

KHALID: Ben Rhodes was a deputy national security adviser under former President Obama.

RHODES: And therefore, it's going to be harder to just stick to the old line of essentially unquestioning support for the policies of the Israeli government.

KHALID: Rhodes says the conversation is different than the last time there was a war in Gaza.

RHODES: It's just simply a fact that there was never this kind of pressure vocally from the left on issues related to Israel during the Obama years.

KHALID: Jeremy Ben-Ami with the liberal Jewish lobby J Street says the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, shifted the terms of the debate.

JEREMY BEN-AMI: Prime Minister Netanyahu really made the strategic decision for Israel to throw in the country's lot with the Republican Party and with the right wing.

KHALID: Netanyahu famously came to Washington when President Obama was in office. Republicans invited him to address Congress, where he blasted the Iran nuclear deal. Democrats say under former President Trump, most issues became more polarized, and Israel was no exception. Ben-Ami says the right tried to box Democrats in.

BEN-AMI: You were either with us or against us. And anybody who supported two states, who recognized Palestinian rights, who wanted peace was anti-Israel.

KHALID: But the shift isn't just about the politics of Netanyahu and Trump. Progressives in Congress and on the street often compare the Palestinian cause to fights for racial justice in America. That didn't just happen by accident. After the killing of Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager in Florida, Ahmad Abuznaid co-founded a group called Dream Defenders that organizes Black and brown communities.

AHMAD ABUZNAID: In 2012, on our first march, we were marching to Sanford, Fla., where Trayvon was killed. And on that march, I was wearing a kaffiyeh, the Palestinian scarf that many rightly identify with the Palestinian struggle. And we had conversations about state-sanctioned violence.

KHALID: Abuznaid went on to lead four delegations of Black activists to Israel to see how Palestinians live. Activists say social media is also a part of the equation.

RAHNA EPTING: One of the major things that is different about this moment is access to information.

KHALID: Rahna Epting leads the progressive group MoveOn.

EPTING: We are seeing videos of fathers holding their dead daughters, and we're seeing reports directly from Palestinians for probably the first time.

KHALID: Young activists see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a power struggle.

EVAN WEBER: Our generation doesn't view issues through a single-issue lens, and we have grown up participating in social movements that have been sweeping the country.

KHALID: Evan Weber is the political director of the Sunrise Movement. It's an organization focused on climate change. Sunrise was one of 140 groups to sign a statement calling for the Biden administration to condemn the Israeli government's plans to, quote, "forcibly displace Palestinians." Progressives like Weber think Biden has a vintage view of the conflict. They've been frustrated because they feel like they've been able to nudge the president on issues like climate change and racial justice, but not on this.

WEBER: It's been very disappointing. I think it's been one of the most disappointing things that we've seen so far from the Biden administration.

KHALID: This push from the left is not without controversy. When the chair of the Nevada state Democratic Party put out a statement saying the U.S. has for too long turned a blind eye to injustice and violence by the Israeli government, her comments drew criticism from multiple members of Nevada's congressional delegation. And so it is unlikely the left will actually shape Biden's foreign policy, but they will continue to prod him. They're now protesting a U.S. arms sale to Israel.

Asma Khalid, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM SCHAUFERT'S "JOURNEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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