Gaza and the Battle of Negations in the United States (and Beyond) 

At no point in the history of the Middle East has the Palestinian-Israeli conflict collided with US domestic politics in such a visceral way as today. As multiple opinion polls show, the Biden administration’s support for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza has angered many young American voters—especially Arab-Americans. Determined to send a message, 13 percent of voters in the February 27 Michigan Democratic primary chose “uncommitted” to protest President Joe Biden’s Gaza policies. Not coincidently, one week later, Vice President Kamala Harris called for an “immediate ceasefire.” Her use of a word that Biden had previously not uttered in public signaled that the Michigan vote had gotten Biden’s attention. He surely knows that he cannot afford to lose that state’s 15 Electoral College votes: for if Trump wins Michigan, Georgia, and one more state, he will be president.

Beyond this remarkable development looms a far larger story. Written in blood, disillusionment, and rage, it is a tale of how Palestinians and Israelis have lost hope in the very idea of finding a peaceful path to security and self-determination for both national groups. This narrative is not based on any one concrete plan or policy. Nor is its content or degree of popularity set in stone. Instead, as public opinion polls clearly show, it is more useful to think about this narrative as a kind of evolving impulse or aspiration. While it ebbs and flows in tandem with changing conditions and circumstances, it pivots around one shared idea, namely the rejection of the legitimacy and authenticity of the other’s national group’s aspirations for security and self-determination. The Palestinian-Israeli battle of negations has gone global, and thus now finds an echo in the vast divide between America’s Jewish and Arab/Muslim communities, as is amply demonstrated by the war of slogans on university campuses and social media and legislatures.

The divide will not be narrowed even if President Biden finally secures a ceasefire in Gaza or even the resumption of some form of diplomacy. Beyond this, what will be needed is a sustained effort by US community leaders, politicians, NGO activists, and policy experts to reclaim and redefine a vision of diplomatic engagement and mutual acceptance. If for now there appears little room to start such an initiative, the sooner it begins the better.

US Arab-Jewish Engagement: Trying to Hold the Center

Despite or perhaps because of the vastly diminished hopes for a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, over the last decade or so policy makers, analysts, and activists from an array of US NGOs and think tanks have tried to sustain a dialogue on the conflict. While it may seem paradoxical, these efforts were strengthened by growing divisions within the American Jewish community over Israel’s creeping annexation of the occupied West Bank. While J Street, Americans for Peace Now (APN), and the New Israel Fund could not compete with more powerful lobby groups such as the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), these liberal groups gave voice to American Jews who not only opposed the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies but also worried that rising religious nationalism and the corrosive effects of occupation were transforming the nature of the Israeli state. Thomas Friedman echoed this view in a March 2019 column. “AIPAC,” he argued, “will have a banner year raising money; Israel will keep…annexing the West Bank; and the question of whether or not to still support Israel—when it’s no longer a Jewish democracy—will tear apart every synagogue and Jewish organization.”

This nightmare of toxic division was a key driver for J Street, APN, and other groups to expand their outreach in the Jewish community and to expand their previous efforts to reach out to Palestinian activists in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. This work included J Street’s effort to foster discussion of a one-state “federation model.” Its push to think outside the two-state box was mirrored in the initiatives of new groups in Israel such as One Land for All. These endeavors pointed to the possibility of forging a shared vision of peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis.

Forces Eroding the Quest for Common Ground Before October 7

In the five or so years leading up to the October 7 attacks, several forces eroded such efforts to sustain Jewish-Arab engagement.

The first was the 2020 Trump administration-brokered “Abraham Accords” between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. (Sudan signed them later in 2021.) The Biden White House’s efforts to strengthen these normalization agreements furthered a process of regional diplomacy that few could have imagined only a few years before. Yet, despite claims to the contrary by Emirati leaders, the accords bypassed the Palestinians while enabling Israel to advance its West Bank annexation project. Moreover, while it did not support the accords, by helping to pay the salaries of thousands of Gaza civil servants, Qatar helped to sustain a delicate modus vivendi between Hamas and Israel that Netanyahu cynically exploited to divide the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank. This multifaceted dynamic put groups such as APN and J Street in an awkward spot. While praising the Abraham Accords, these groups did not hesitate to highlight the agreements’ drawbacks when it came to the Palestinians. But they lacked the influence to encourage Gulf and American leaders to use the accords to advance Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking. By contrast, AIPAC had little interest in fostering such a linkage, while right wing Jewish groups readily lambasted J Street’s critique of the accords.

Despite claims to the contrary by Emirati leaders, the accords bypassed the Palestinians while enabling Israel to advance its West Bank annexation project.

The second factor was the growing international de-legitimation of Israel. If Israel’s West Bank settlement project was a key driver of this shift, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) 2021 report titled “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution” helped to validate the perception that Israel was embedding a permanent system of legal and de facto discrimination. While HRW noted later that its report rejected the concept of an “apartheid state,” and while it did not suggest that the Israeli state or country was illegitimate, the report opened the door for others to advance a more sweeping if not negationist thesis: that by its very nature the state of Israel is a repressive, colonial enterprise that cannot redeem itself. Studies showed that one version or another of this critical view was gaining traction with younger Americans in tandem with a growing number of American Jews who were not affiliated with any organized faith and increasing numbers of Jews who indicated that Israel did not—or should not–play a major role in their identity.

The third factor was the growing activism of a new generation of civil society, labor, and political leaders in the United States who viewed the Palestinian struggle as integral to a national and global battle for climate justice, social equality, and gender equality. This intersectional frame created space for forging wider alliances on the left of the US political spectrum. But it also complicated the efforts of APN and other liberal groups to engage Gen Z activists while fending off accusations by right-leaning groups that they were allying with organizations seeking to impugn Israel’s existence or even to undermine American Jewish life.

This dilemma grew as a new cohort of Arab American politicians entered the US political arena. While bringing valuable attention to the Palestinian issue, their activism was sometimes marred by broad claims and crude language that played into the hands of their critics inside and outside Congress. Statements by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), who asserted in 2019 that senators opposed to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement “forgot what country they represent,” and who two years later claimed that “you cannot…hold progressive values yet back Israel’s apartheid government,” complicated matters. Efforts were made to move beyond such difficult moments. Still, Jewish-Arab engagement remained vulnerable to the claim that Tlaib and other elected leaders had effectively legitimated a narrative that implicitly or explicitly rejected Israel’s existence.

The Negationist Impulse Refracted into the US Arena

Hamas’s October 7 attack and Israel’s ensuing military onslaught on Gaza supercharged these dynamics, setting the stage for the diffusion of an ethos of negation that has not only taken hold in the Palestinian and Israeli communities but has also been refracted globally. The growing allure of this sentiment in the United States has shown a surge of confrontations and rival slogans, and counteraccusations in social action, protests, and other mobilization in the streets of US cities, on university campuses, and in the halls and legislative chambers of city, state and national governments (including Congress).

The ideological tenor animating such mobilization has been one of shared anger and mutual rejection.

The ideological tenor animating such mobilization has been one of shared anger and mutual rejection, projected through accusations and counterclaims that have blurred the lines between colliding political ideologies and ethno-religious conflict. Indeed, many American Arabs, American Muslims, and American Jews have reported a steep rise in anti-Semitic and Islamophobic verbal and even physical assaults since October 7. This climate of fear and confrontation has been amplified as American Jews and Palestinians, including some elected political leaders, have suffered the loss of family, friends, and colleagues in Gaza, Israel, and the United States. Thus, it is not surprising that the very sight of a Palestinian or Israeli flag on university campuses or in the streets often feeds each side’s belief that the other advocates the deliberate killing of civilians. In effect, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has come to America.

There are at least three reasons why the prospect of finding an exit ramp from this slide into the abyss seems remote.

First, the rage provoked by events in Palestine and Israel has created a climate in the United States that has eroded the very idea of a middle ground in the conflict. The problem is not only that activists who might otherwise favor diplomacy have little room for action or have grown disillusioned with the very idea of diplomacy as the bloodshed in Gaza has escalated. The equally troubling reality is that in the wider arena of public opinion in both communities, despair predominates.

Second, as is often the case under conditions of extreme polarization, hardliners set the tone and agenda of conflict. For many in the pro-Palestine camp, “A Free Palestine from the River to the Sea” is not ambiguous: this slogan signals a quest to remove a “colonialist” state whose creation in 1948—it is argued—was and remains illegitimate. On the pro-Israel side, many American Jewish groups and leaders now quietly or openly champion the very same slogan. In doing so, they echo the longstanding position of hard-right Israeli nationalists and political parties such as Netanyahu’s Likud, whose leaders have proudly proclaimed that the purpose of Israel’s annexation project is to create an Israel from the river to the sea. To be clear: this is the position of several members of the current Israeli government, including Prime Minister Netanyahu. Moreover, it has to be recognized that Israel’s annexation policy has placed it in a position to realize this slogan in ways that have only intensified the Palestinians’ determination to cling to maximalist aspirations.

Third, while this war of negations has become the dominant narrative, there are still divisions in each of the two camps. Slogans such as “free Palestine,” “end colonialism,” or “free Gaza of Hamas” play a role like slogans such as “defund the police”: they allow activists to interpret their meaning differently and thus to sustain a unified front. But this comes at the cost of forging a wider coalition that could have traction with activists who under other circumstances might want to move beyond the verbal (and sometimes physical) war of negation.

Polarized US Politics Sustains a Negationist Battle of Slogans

It is not surprising that in the maelstrom of polarization that now defines US politics, it is far easier for elected leaders to cling to slogans rather than to evoke a language of compromise. Indeed, as the US experience has repeatedly shown, electoral competition encourages leaders to use emotive ideas and symbols to mobilize their base, but that very logic undercuts the need to forge broader coalitions. This familiar tradeoff can have ruinous effects especially, as in the case of the ongoing battle of negation on the Palestine-Israel conflict, if it provides hardliners the very rationale and fuel the need to control and dominate the agenda.

To be fair, it is hard to overcome this familiar problem amid an escalating conflict that is costing thousands of lives of innocent civilians. It may be especially so in the case of members of Congress who try to advocate for the rights of the Palestinians. Such officials face recrimination and even censure from a body whose members have rarely if ever had to contend with or listen to colleagues who are sympathetic to Palestinians, or who represent constituents lacking the resources and allies to make their own case.

The experience of Rep. Tlaib illustrates this dilemma. In November 2023, she posted on social media a video of Palestinian protestors that included images of marchers carrying the banner “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The post sparked immediate criticism from Jewish groups and members of Congress, including Rep. Elissa Slotkin, the only Jewish member of Michigan’s congressional delegation, who argued that the phrase promotes “division and violence,” and Attorney General Dana Nessel, who noted that while she previously defended Tlaib, she now questioned her use of a term that “is so hurtful to so many.” In response, Tlaib declared that “from the river to the sea is an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate. My work and advocacy is always centered in justice and dignity for all people no matter faith or ethnicity.” A day later, she declared that her criticism had “always been of the Israeli government and Netanyahu’s actions. It is important to separate peoples and governments: no government is beyond criticism.”

However genuine, Tlaib’s effort to dissociate her position from the negationist meanings that some pro-Israel groups and their supporters attach to “from the river to the sea” was not very convincing. Even Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), while noting that he considered Tlaib a friend, added that “slogans like ‘the river to the sea,’ if that means the destruction of Israel, that’s not going to work.”

The moral of this story is not that Tlaib deserved the November 7 censure that the House of Representatives imposed on her with the backing of no fewer than 22 of her fellow Democrats. Even if she had chosen other words without the negationist meanings, her passionate call for seeing Palestinians as human beings deserving of real empathy was unlikely to sway most of her fellow lawmakers, especially Republicans eager to associate Democrats with a discourse that has deeply worried many American Jews. Instead, the key lesson is that US leaders who want to defend Palestinian interests must advance the very principle for which Tlaib seemingly (if perhaps belatedly) argued in her response to the proposed House censure: that both Israelis and Palestinians have a right to live in freedom and security.

Beyond Primaries to November 2024: Is There a Path Forward?

The results of the March 11 Super Tuesday primaries suggest that concerns with Biden’s Gaza position extend far beyond Michigan. Protest votes were registered in several states with far smaller percentages of Arab and Muslim voters, including Minnesota, North Carolina, and Virginia. Indeed, Biden’s Gaza problem is a symptom of growing unease among younger Democrats, even if such sentiment does not always translate into political clout. Indeed, the peculiarities of the Electoral College system has given Michigan’s voters an outsized role in mobilizing voters in ways that could make a difference in the November election. Biden’s recent statement on Gaza, in which he declared that an Israeli assault on Rafah is a “red line,” only to back away from this position a moment later, suggests that he know this, even if he would rather avoid a head-on collision with Israel. But if Netanyahu’s declared readiness to defy that line is hardly surprising, an Israeli attack on Rafah might still induce Biden to honor his promise by demanding a ceasefire—even as he gets ready for the political battle to hold on to the White House.

The prospects for forging a larger US coalition to support the reinvigoration of diplomacy will hinge on the readiness of American Arab and Jewish social activists to narrow their breach.

Whatever the outcome of this dangerous dance between Biden and Netanyahu, the prospects for forging a larger US coalition to support the reinvigoration of diplomacy will hinge not only on the outcome of the November elections, but also on the readiness of American Arab and Jewish social activists to heal or at least narrow their breach. An alliance between liberals and progressives that gives voice to civil society activists who reject negationist narratives might also open space for Democrats to narrow their own differences in favor of Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation.

If such a scenario seems remote at present, policy analysts, activists, and advocates of reconciliation in Washington and beyond who over the last decade have grappled with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should not simply stand by. Instead, they should discuss forming a non-partisan consortium of think tanks and policy institutes to prepare the analytical groundwork for imagining various paths forward. This will be especially hard for those who have lost friends and relatives in Gaza and Israel. To resist the allure of the negationist impulse is no easy task during death and destruction. But it is precisely the darkness of this moment that requires finding a path back to light.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.