Jewish News Service: On the campaign trail, IfNotNow baits 2020 candidates to condemn so-called ‘occupation’
(July 19, 2019 / JNS) Making headlines over the past year in targeting the mainstream Jewish community and its support for Israel, the upstart IfNowNow group has now thrown itself into the 2020 presidential ring. In the past few weeks, IfNotNow has been approaching Democratic candidates as representatives of the Jewish community and asking them about ending the so-called “occupation” of the West Bank.
Two IfNotNow activists approached Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who was campaigning last week in New Hampshire, with University of Michigan student Becca Lubow announcing publicly, “We really love the way you’re fighting corruption. We’d really love it if you also pushed the Israeli government to end occupation.”
“Yes, yes. So I’m there,” responded Warren swiftly, followed by taking a picture with the activists.
Despite defining themselves as a “progressive” group “grounded in the values of the Jewish tradition,” many observers see the organization as outside of the mainstream.
“Obviously, IfNotNow is not part of the mainstream of the Democratic Party,” former National Jewish Democratic Council head Aaron Keyak told JNS. “In fact, I think if you posed the question to them, they’d agree and they certainly don’t try to hide it. In IfNotNow’s organizational principles they clearly refuse to take a stance against BDS or in support of the two-state solution.”
He continued, “Simply put, being against the BDS movement and in favor of the two-state solution is a minimal threshold that IfNotNow, as an organization, just doesn’t reach.”
According to its mission, IfNowNow seeks to “end American Jewish support for the occupation,” which advocates say is “is a system of violence and separation by which Israel denies Palestinians freedom and dignity by depriving them of civil, political and economic rights.”
The term “occupation” initially applied to Palestinian areas the Israelis oversaw after gaining land (eastern Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and much of the Sinai) in the 1967 Six-Day War—land the Arabs refused to negotiate as part of the Khartoum Conference in 1968, signified by “Three No’s” in reference to Israel: no peace, no recognition, no negotiations.
Ever since then, the word has been used by anti-Israel groups in the attempt to delegitimize Israel. Yet as with most terminology used in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no clear definition exists, even after the Palestinian Authority has overseen Arab-majority sections (known as Area A under the Oslo Accords) of the West Bank since 1994 and Hamas has run Gaza since 2007 (taking it away from the P.A. after Israelis withdrew in 2005). Egypt negotiated with Israel to get the Sinai back in 1982 as part of direct negotiations with Israel.
Still, some consider all of Israel to be “occupied” territory.
“We understand the Occupation as the military rule over Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza,” IfNotNow spokesperson Yonah Lieberman told JNS. “We also know that the discrimination and displacement inside Israel’s 1948 borders are connected to its rule in those Occupied Territories. This system of violence deprives all Palestinians of civil, political, and economic rights.”
‘It’s a two-way street’
Following their interaction with Warren, IfNotNow issued a press release stating that she “responded to the question with a firm ‘Yes.’ ”
“In the past, Warren has regularly spoken of Israel as a strong ally in a tough neighborhood and has appeared at [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] events and used right-wing talking points,” continued the press release. “But as her career has gone on, her views on the issue have grown to be farther in line with her progressive values,” citing the senator’s support for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and criticizing the U.S. embassy in Israel moving to Jerusalem as examples.
IfNotNow fellow Elias Newman asked Biden in the first primary state of New Hampshire, “I am wondering if you think that the occupation is a human-rights crisis, and if you’ll pressure Israel when you’re president?”
“The answer is, I think the settlements are unnecessary. Here is the deal. The only answer is a two-state solution, No. 1,” replied Biden. “No. 2: The Palestinians have to step up, too, to stop the hate. So, it’s a two-way street.”
Newman asked, “Do you believe the occupation is a human-rights crisis?”
“I think occupation is a real problem, a significant problem,” said Biden.
Newman then queried, “And will you pressure Israel to end the occupation as president?”
“The answer is, you know anything about my record? You know I have,” responded Biden.
Additionally, IfNotNow member Sarah Kate confronted Biden and pressed him “on the specifics of how he‘ll pressure Israel to end the occupation. She asked 3 times. The more she pressed the more Biden retreated into AIPAC’s anti-Palestinian & false talking points,” tweeted the group.
IfNotNow released a press statement regarding Biden’s responses.
In it, Newman said that Biden took “a step in the right direction by calling Israel’s military occupation a ‘real’ and ‘significant’ problem; this is the bare minimum we should expect from Democratic hopefuls,” adding that the Obama administration, under which Biden served as vice president, is to blame for “the crisis in Israel/Palestine … during which Israel’s decades-long military occupation became more permanent than ever.”
Newman blamed Biden for playing “a key role in giving” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “government a free pass to continue settlement expansion, launch assaults on Gaza that killed thousands of Palestinian civilians and lay the groundwork to annex the West Bank.”
Buttigieg, also in New Hampshire, was confronted by Erin Sandler, who said that “politicians have talked about a two-state solution for Israel, but don’t address the ongoing military occupation. Yes or no, are you willing to condemn the occupation?”
The mayor responded that “the occupation must end,” and that there’s an “awareness that in the same way that you can be pro-America without that meaning you got to support our president, you can care about Israel’s future and believe in the U.S. relationship and alliance with Israel without being on board with right-wing policies by the Netanyahu government which is now walking away from peace in a way that I think will harm the Israeli people, the Palestinian people, and in the long run the American people.”
In a press release, Sandler labeled Buttigieg’s answer as “encouraging” in that he is “wiling to call for Israel’s military occupation to end,” adding that she “looked forward to seeing the specifics of how Mayor Pete will pressure Israel to end its military occupation and achieve freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians.”
However, an IfNotNow activist named Becca asked Booker whether “the occupation is a human-rights crisis and a violation of international law.”
“So I’m sorry that you think I’m OK with that, which I’m not, and I will continue to do everything I can to address this issue,” replied Booker. “We may not agree on strategies, but … ,” only to be interrupted by Becca, who asked, “Do you think the occupation is a human-rights crisis?”
Booker didn’t give answers similar to the other candidates who’ve been confronted by the anti-Israel organization.
“You’re not gonna get me to address the question as you want and I know that that’s a question that you’ve been asking every presidential candidate,” he said. “But I’m working on this issue probably more than any other foreign-policy issue.”
Becca retorted, “Well, that’s really disappointing because people are suffering, and we need leadership.”
“If that’s your issue, I would understand if you want to support somebody else,” said Booker.
“Looks like he’s choosing @AIPAC over the grassroots,” tweeted IfNotNow.
“@CoryBooker is refusing to even use the word “Occupation” and is sending a clear message to American Jews & the Democratic base—for now, he’s with @AIPAC and will continue the same failed policy approach that’s led to 52 years of Israeli military rule over the Palestinians,” the group subsequently tweeted.
“As in past campaigns, we are constantly engaging with a wide array of policy-makers, including those associated with presidential campaigns, to discuss key regional issues and how to better strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship,” AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann said, without specifically addressing the IfNotNow campaign.
‘There’s no need to create divisions’
Democratic pro-Israel groups have pushed back against IfNotNow’s initiative.
“We support a two-state solution. @IfNotNowOrg steadfastly refuses to acknowledge Israel’s fundamental right to exist, in any borders. Until they meet that very minimal standard, they are not even worthy of being part of the conversation,” tweeted Democratic Majority for Israel last week.
The Jewish Democratic Council of America softly refuted IfNotNow’s posture towards the conflict and getting candidates to speak out against the so-called “occupation,” without mentioning the encounter its activists had with Warren.
“There’s a very different approach from [IfNotNow] and ours, the Jewish Democratic Council of America,” said JDCA executive director Halie Soifer on i24 News last week, adding that there’s “consensus among the Democratic candidates on key issues such as support for a two-state solution, support of the U.S.-Israel relationship and opposition to the global BDS movement.”
She remarked, “By embracing a two-state solution, they are already distinguishing themselves from the policies put forward by this administration, which is even neglecting to reference a two-state solution in its so-called peace plan.”
“There’s a consensus. There’s no need to create divisions where they’re otherwise do not exist,” continued Soifer. “That’s just playing into the Republican narrative. Donald Trump would like nothing more than to see Democrats divided on issues related to Israel, and the reality is that those divisions don’t exist, so let’s not try to create them.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition also chimed in on the IfNotNow trend.
“Buttigieg answered much like Warren, Biden embraced using the term ‘occupation’ but was pretty wishy-washy on pressuring Israel, and Booker refused to accept the use of ‘occupation’ and told the activists that they probably shouldn’t support him,” RJC spokesperson Neil Strauss told JNS on Sunday. “We now have a clear split—with Biden in the hopelessly afraid to take a side middle—on this key issue on Israel.”