Does the Road to Peace Lead Through Michigan?

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~ Robert Kuttner

Tuesday’s wake-up call should lead Biden to change U.S. policy on Israel-Gaza.

Sponsors of the “uncommitted” campaign in the Michigan Democratic primary got just over 100,000 votes, or about 13.3 percent of the total. That’s surely enough to get President Biden’s attention. The question is whether it’s enough to change Biden’s policy on Israel-Gaza, which could cost him the 2024 election.

Sponsors of the campaign had lowballed expectations, saying they hoped to get at least 10,000 votes. In fact, in each of the last three Democratic presidential primaries, “uncommitted” collected about 20,000 votes, no matter if the election was contested or not. That was the baseline, and despite increased turnout for a foregone conclusion of an election, uncommitted did snag over five times that figure. (The 2016 and 2020 primaries saw twice as many votes on the Democratic side.)

This success in yesterday’s primary cannot be taken lightly. It’s too easy for the Biden campaign to whistle past the graveyard by assuming that Arab American and other Muslim voters will appreciate in November that Trump would be even worse for them. Many may just not turn out.

More worrisome for Biden than the large uncommitted vote in Dearborn, which is about half Arab American, was the vote in Ann Arbor, where about a third of the ballots were cast for uncommitted. There is no other state with such a large concentration of Muslims; but every state has large numbers of students, who are increasingly disaffected.

The large turnout of the young was crucial to Democratic success in the past three federal elections, for Congress in 2018 and 2022 and the presidency in 2020. Biden cannot take it for granted in 2024.

It would make an immense difference if Biden would condition continuing aid to Israel on a cease-fire, followed by steps toward a regional peace plan. The challenge, however, as every knowledgeable observer of the Mideast has pointed out, is that too many assumptions of what happens after a cease-fire are just not plausible. The Biden administration’s idea of a “reconstituted” Palestinian Authority administering Gaza is wishful. So is the premise that Hamas will somehow stand down.

Yet the stars are in weird alignment for some kind of grand bargain because the region’s most important Arab states, led by the Saudis, have decided that a settlement with Israel, which has to include a Palestinian state, is in their interest. What’s lacking is an Israeli government as negotiating partner.

Israel’s actions in Gaza and the West Bank are appalling in their own right and could cost Biden the election. Netanyahu keeps giving Biden red lines. Settlers in the occupied West Bank continue to steal Palestinian homes and lands while Israeli police stand by. And if Netanyahu goes ahead with his threat to invade Rafah, there will be more carnage.

Biden needs to give a forceful speech saying that the United States continues to support Israel’s security but will not be associated with further Israel-sponsored carnage; that settler thefts of Palestinian land or further Israeli displacement and killing of civilians in Gaza will cause U.S. aid to cease. Biden needs to point out that Israel’s disastrous practices are making Israel’s security and survival less likely, not more.

Such a speech would likely cause Netanyahu’s government to fall. The road to peace, or even to a less dangerous armed truce, is far from certain under any circumstances. But it stands a better chance with a successor Israeli government, not to mention a second Biden term.