The 2016 Election Cycle has been one of the most memorable and irreverent elections in recent memory—certainly since the 24/7 media machine came into full operation. Unsurprisingly, foreign policy has been one of the main hot take zones of these primaries, with Donald Trump, 2016’s resident headline generator, offering suggestions ranging from building a wall on the southern US border—compliments of Mexico—to arming more nations with nuclear weapons. He’s even refused to rule out using nukes in Europe.
Trump, however, has been far from alone in making controversial foreign policy statements. Ted Cruz boasted that he would carpet bomb ISIS, as if he were conducting some sort of perverse science experiment, to discover if “sand can glow in the dark.” Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has constantly been on the defensive regarding her vote to invade Iraq in 2002, as well as her involvement in the less-than-successful NATO-led intervention of Libya. More recently, Bernie Sanders argued that the US and Israel must “treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity,” and more controversially, “Netanyahu is not right all of the time.” While Sanders’ statements may not seem too out of the ordinary, they mark a stark departure from traditional politicians’ language regarding Israel and Palestine.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, normally a key foreign policy topic during political elections, has actually taken a backseat due to the absolute havoc wreaked by the Syrian Civil War. The rise of ISIS, the redrawing of established international borders between Syria and Iraq, coupled with horrific attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels have introduced a more pressing threat to the American public. However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has still been mentioned and covered by the media at various times throughout this election cycle, with multiple candidates offering their two cents on how they would tackle the complex and convoluted issue.
In March, Donald Trump faced significant backlash (even for him) when he had the audacity to claim he would attempt to be “neutral” in negotiations between Israel and Palestine, a statement that drew instant fire from the media and various politicians, including Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton. One could accuse the American media of many things, but providing fair and unbiased coverage is certainly not one of them. Some of you may recall New Jersey Governor Chris Christie apologizing almost immediately in 2014 after referring to the West Bank as the “Occupied Territories”—legally the correct term for this small stretch of land sandwiched between Israel proper and the Jordan River—in an address to several hundred members of the Republican Jewish Coalition. So what’s the big deal; why did what seems like a simple slip of tongue cause such outrage that forced a well-respected governor to publicly apologize? Unsurprisingly, the American media fails to adequately provide the necessary context to fully grasp the issue at hand.
After the creation of Israel in 1948, the West Bank was a part of Jordan until the Six Day War of 1967, during which Israel swiftly dispatched the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon, who had been amassing troops in preparation for an invasion of Israel. In the aftermath of the war, Israel acquired the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and, more importantly, the West Bank from Jordan. This action led to 300,000 Palestinian refugees and 100,000 Syrian refugees fleeing to the surrounding Arab countries. East Jerusalem, located in the West Bank, is of extreme importance to those of the Muslim and Jewish faith, as the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, two of the holiest sites in Jewish history, are located there. The Temple Mount is likewise regarded as one of the top three holiest sites in Islam. However, in the aftermath of the war the United Nations passed Resolution 242, which states among other things that territories acquired through war are inadmissible, and therefore non-legitimate or “occupied territories”. The language is clear-cut, with not much room for interpretation.
Almost 50 years later, Israel has returned the Gaza Strip, although they maintain an extremely strict land and sea blockade of Gaza, and still occupy the West Bank and the Golan Heights. That seems unlikely to change—on April 17th, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that the Golan Heights will forever remain under Israeli rule, even in the face of widespread international criticism. While Israel maintains that Jerusalem is its capital city, half of the city is illegally occupied under UN Law and most countries have their embassies located in Tel Aviv.
This is why you will frequently hear, at least during an election year, politicians ranging from Ted Cruz to Hillary Clinton calling for the US Embassy to be relocated to Jerusalem. This is an interesting position for a former First Lady to take as it directly contradicts the US State Department’s view on the matter. The State Department consistently states that the West Bank is illegally occupied and condemns the continuous building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank (not that the US government tends to do very much about that). As relocating the US Embassy would be a rather difficult and pointless task, most of this rhetoric ultimately equates to pandering either to Evangelical voters, AIPAC, or both.
There are many reasons for this perceived bias among the American media towards Israel. These reasons, ranging from cultural to strategic, help explain the “special relationship” that both countries share, which you will hear mentioned in the news quite frequently. As recently as 2013, the US had the largest Jewish population in the world; as of early 2013 Israel is home to over 6 million Jews, with around 5.5 million residing in the US. While the US still enjoys significant alliances with other countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Israel is much closer culturally to the West than majority Arab or Muslim nations.
Travel to Israel and you will see people drinking beer at street side cafes, girls in bikinis lounging on the beach while listening to American pop music, complete with a wild nightlife scene that can compete with anything Berlin or New York might have to offer. These scenes offer a stark contrast from anything a traveler would experience in even the most liberal Muslim countries. Israel is also the largest recipient of US foreign aid, receiving $3.1 billion in 2015. This is not to say that the US does not also dole out aid to Palestine, as they received $370 million in aid during the same year.
However, the State Department will routinely withhold these funds from the Palestinian Authority (PA), the organization tasked with overseeing the day-to-day functions of the West Bank, whenever the PA makes independent decisions to seek statehood, or even simple recognition through legitimate means such as the United Nations. Israel, on the other hand, has seen no such restrictions placed on their aid, even as they continue to build internationally illegal settlements in the West Bank, which the United Nations and our own State Department have condemned.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is also regarded as one of the largest and most powerful lobbying groups in the US. According to Open Secrets, the online database for the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit and nonpartisan research group based in Washington DC, AIPAC spent $3.38 million on lobbying last year, and has already spent $911,006 in 2016. To provide some context, the National Rifle Association (NRA), also viewed as one of the top US lobbying groups, spent $3.36 million during the 2014 election cycle. This in part explains why it is common for all presidential candidates to address AIPAC at their annual Policy Conference during election years. One notable exception to this was Bernie Sanders this year, which brings us back to his previous comments regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While missing the opportunity to address around 18,000 donors in one of the largest lobbying firms in the country to instead speak at a high school in Utah is quintessential Bernie Sanders, he no doubt faced much less criticism than another candidate would have for making the same decision. This is most likely due to the fact that Sanders is Jewish, and actually lived in Israel for a short period of time on a kibbutz, a communal settlement in rural Israel, during the 1960s. Sanders has seen his fair share of criticism flow his way, regardless of his Jewish background. After his interview with the NY Daily News editorial board, Sanders faced significant backlash for misquoting the number of Palestinians killed during the 2014 Gaza War. Sanders was quoted as saying “my recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza,” a statement for which he faced instant backlash from multiple different news outlets.
The official UN statistics for the Gaza War had over 2,000 Palestinians killed, including almost 500 children, compared to 6 Israeli civilians and 64 soldiers killed during the war. While that is a large number for a prominent politician to confuse, the official number of injured Palestinians stands at around 11,000, which could contribute to Sanders’ inaccurate numbers. Despite one of the Daily News’ editors fact-checking this statement during the interview and consequently informing the Senator of his false statement, Sanders faced criticism from multiple politicians and news outlets for this section of the interview.
Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the US accused Sanders of “blood libel,” while Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post called him out for “peddling falsehoods” and undermining “Israel’s right to self-defense.” Then, in an op-ed for the Daily News, Yair Lapid, a member of Israel’s Parliament also known as the Knesset, blasted Sanders for taking Hamas’ side and assisting their propaganda aims. This would seem quite a stretch for anyone who has actually read the original Sanders interview. Lost in all the outrage ironically, was the fact that a country which receives over $3 billion annually in US aid had used American made jets and bombs during a war which killed over 2,000 people, including 490 kids.
Senator Sanders then invited even more controversy a few days later during the Democratic Presidential Debate with the aforementioned comments that “Netanyahu is not right all the time,” as well as declaring that Israel and the US must “treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.” Yet even these innocuous sounding remarks drew criticism from, among others, Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee and a prominent Jewish Congressman from New York. (Disclaimer: I currently intern in Congressman Engel’s DC office) After the debate Engel was quoted in the New York Times describing Senator Sanders’ comments as “disgraceful and reprehensible.” However, to their credit Salon, Vox, and the Huffington Post all published articles in Sanders’ defense in the aftermath of his “groundbreaking” remarks. Does this mark a significant shift in American views on Israel and Palestine? Not quite.
According to a Gallup Poll conducted in February of this year, 62% of Americans sympathize with Israel compared with 15% for Palestine, in itself not an unsurprising figure. In fact, according to Gallup since 2001 the percentage of Americans sympathizing with Israel has risen 11 points up from 51%, while those sympathizing with Palestine has actually dropped slightly from 16%. Interestingly enough, more Americans support the creation of an independent Palestinian than oppose it, with 44% favoring this proposition and 37% opposing it. This issue is also clearly split over party lines with 58% of Democrats favoring the creation of a Palestinian state with only 26% of Republicans giving their support. 2001 is an interesting year to bookmark public opinion, as after 9/11 the American media has made the Middle East a clear priority in foreign policy coverage, which should in theory result in a more educated public.
As earlier discussed though, the American media has a certain penchant for ignoring crucial details and only providing half the story, and interestingly enough the numbers do show a steady shift towards Israel in the past 15 years. The height of American support was in 2003, with 58% of Americans supporting the creation of a Palestinian state and only 22% opposing it. There is a 6 year gap in data after this, but in 2009 51% of Americans supported Palestinian statehood and 29% opposed it, with the numbers steadily growing closer over the next seven years. One can also attribute this trend to fatigue or a loss of optimism, with American and international efforts to bring the two sides together consistently falling short of expectations. However, the effect of a consistently pro-Israeli media on American public opinion is also clear to see.
Journalism is known as the pursuit of truth; society’s way of educating the public and keeping those in power honest. The American media has a duty to keep the American public well-informed about issues ranging from ISIS to income tax brackets, which in turn influences the American government’s decisions regarding all aspects of policy. When the media consistently misrepresents and omits facts crucial to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it comes as no surprise that the American public is overwhelmingly in favor of Israel’s policies, despite their illegal and self-destructive nature.
Even more concerning is that with cursory research, one finds that many tried-and-true narratives are misrepresented or even downright false. When numerous media outlets reported Hillary Clinton as having a massive delegate lead without explaining exactly how Superdelegates work, it’s not exactly wrong, but it’s a blatant withholding of valuable information and significantly alters the perception of the Democratic Primary. The true meaning of Thanksgiving, the Duke Lacrosse case, and the buildup to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq are all examples of original narratives differing wildly from the actual truth of the matter. With a crucial presidential election coming up, Americans must now, more than ever, continue to hold the mainstream media accountable and ensure that they adhere to high standards of truth in reporting.