Can Michigan save Palestine?

The road to East Jerusalem may pass through Dearborn.

Voters fill out their ballot for the Michigan primary election in Dearborn, Mich., Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. Michigan is the last major primary state before Super Tuesday and a critical swing state in November's general election. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Voters fill out their ballot for the Michigan primary election in the city of Dearborn, US on February 27, 2024 [AP/Paul Sancya]

These are dark times for anyone with even a modicum of sympathy for the Palestinian people, who are facing another national catastrophe, comparable to the Nakba of 1948.

The despondency is entirely merited. Victimised by Israel’s war in Gaza, which many experts consider genocidal, the Palestinians are up against the strongest military in the region, which also enjoys billions of dollars of military aid and diplomatic carte blanche from the most powerful country in the world.

True to form, Washington has repeatedly blocked international efforts to impose an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza. Worse still, there appears little recourse to the Palestinians’ main demand for self-determination.

Yet there is a glimmer of hope. Recent events in US politics point to a potential pathway to better times for the Palestinian people. To be sure, it is not a probable or even a likely path. Much has to go right, not least the Democratic party replacing its current sclerotic leadership.

But thanks to Michigan, the pathway does exist, and it is now reasonable to conjecture that the road to East Jerusalem may run through Dearborn.

Domestic politics in the US

Regardless of what form Palestinian self-determination takes, one certainty is that it cannot be achieved without buy-in from major global and regional actors.

Though much has been written about the decline of American power and the return of multipolarity, the reality is the US remains the hegemon in the region – if not the rest of the world.

In this sense, waiting with bated breath for the rise of China or another superpower to result in a breakthrough on the Palestinian question is a strategy doomed to fail. The focus must be on changing the direction of American policy, not wishing away American power.

Specifically, the best bet for the Palestinian cause is for it to become a major goal of a US president’s foreign policy. So how do pro-Palestinian activists go about making this a reality?

Basic demographic and political factors make the Republican Party a dead end. Neo-conservatism, an ideology that still holds the centre of gravity among foreign policy elites on the right in the US, albeit less so than 20 years ago, considers Israel an indispensable ally, often elevating Israeli interests to the equivalent of American ones.

Furthermore, at the voter level, Christian evangelicals are one of the strongest constituencies of the GOP – and among the staunchest supporters of Israel. Finally, older and white voters are disproportionately Republican, while the biggest supporters of Palestinians are the young and people of colour. Put it all together, and you get unsurprising results such as a recent poll that found that, among Republicans, 56 percent favour taking Israel compared to only 2 percent favouring the Palestinians.

In this context, the Democrats remain the only hope for the Palestinian cause, notwithstanding President Joe Biden’s wholehearted support for Israel’s programme of ethnic cleansing and mass atrocities in Gaza.

The only pro-Palestinian voices in the US Congress and other institutions come from the Democratic party, such as Representative Rashida Tlaib. Even those expressing milquetoast bothsidesism, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are part of a political species whose presence would be unimaginable in the Republican Party.

To be clear, I am not claiming that the Democratic Party is a likely saviour of the Palestinian people. Only that it is more probable to lead a change in US policy on Israel than the alternative.

The importance of Michigan to the Middle East

And this is where Michigan comes in. By a fortunate happenstance, there is a high concentration of Arabs and Muslims in a state that is deeply important to presidential elections. Michigan is one of the last standing bricks of the erstwhile “blue wall” in the Midwest.

In the present configuration of US politics, it is essentially impossible for a Democrat to win the presidency without Michigan’s 15 electoral college votes.

This is why the results from the recent primary should send shudders down the collective spine of the Biden 2024 campaign. Usually, when incumbents are running, primaries are not just a formality but a coronation. In this context, 13.3 percent of Democrats (more than 100,000 people) in Michigan voting “uncommitted” is ominous.

Though its success was considerably more tepid across other states during primaries on March 5 (also called Super Tuesday) – partly due to a lack of organisational and institutional support, and partly to the differences in Muslim and Arab population density – the support of the “uncommitted” project does not need to be broad as long as it is deep. If pro-Palestinian Michiganders’ hard feelings carry over to November, it portends utter disaster for Biden’s re-election plans.

The ugly truth is that in American democracy, parties and politicians will ignore constituents’ demands unless they can credibly threaten to lose them an election. Until now, it was easy for Biden and mainstream Democrats to ignore Arab and Muslim opinion on Palestine. What are they going to do – the thinking went – vote for Donald Trump?

But now, Muslim, Arab and young voters’ threats to stay home this fall are a lot more credible and less likely to be dismissed as cheap talk and false bravado. Simply put, they have shown they mean business.

The path forward

Ideally, Biden would get the message and dramatically change course. In the short run, this would entail making US military, economic and diplomatic aid to Israel conditional on adherence to basic human rights and international law, while laying out a viable pathway for a settlement of the Palestinian question in the medium term.

But realistically, for someone with a record as deeply pro-Israel as Biden’s, such a drastic shift in the twilight of his career is unlikely. It is, indeed, unlikely that a man in his 80s will change the worldview that has undergirded his foreign policy thinking, as senator, vice president, and now president, for half a century.

As things stand right now, therefore, the most likely outcome appears to be Biden sleepwalking into a loss in November, largely due to a hangover from the high inflation of 2021-23, but also the largescale abandonment of young voters and important pockets of support, including the Arab and Muslim vote, that helped secure his 2020 victory.

If that is indeed what happens, then Muslims and Arabs will be hoping the loss conveys the importance of the Palestinian issue to the Democratic Party elite, and that, going forward, those vying for the party’s (and country’s) leadership would understand that they can no longer marginalise the Palestinian cause.

The Trump counterargument

A common counterargument to this logic from Biden supporters is that doing anything to help elect Trump runs contrary to Palestinian interests. Trump, after all, was pro-Israel to an almost absurd and comical extent in his first term, delegating his entire Middle East policy to his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who went about sidelining the Palestinians in the so-called “Abraham Accords” and moving the American embassy to Jerusalem.

There should be no mistake: Trump’s victory will be a disaster for the Palestinians and the Palestinian cause. But the Palestinian people and their supporters are entitled to ask: How exactly would Biden’s be any different? Would more, fewer or roughly the same number of Palestinians have been bombed, shot, crushed and starved had Trump been president post-October 7?

More importantly, from a strategic perspective, this counterargument ignores that not all political life has a four-year span; a longer-term horizon yields a clearer picture of why not voting for Biden could help the Palestinian cause. The logic is simple. Only by costing Democrats an election would Arabs, Muslims and other pro-Palestinian Americans be able to leverage their votes for meaningful change.

In other words, while Trump would be assuredly worse for the Palestinians than Biden, the Democratic candidate in 2028, and forever after, would understand at a deep and visceral level that they cannot go on ignoring Palestinian aspirations and behaving as Israel’s lawyer, banker and arms dealer. In so doing, party elites would be merely catching up to their base, which already demands more of an even-handed policy in the Middle East.

In this rendering, Michigan could serve as the anchor of US policy in the region the way Florida does for Cuban policy. The obvious difference between the two is that while the anti-Castro/communist lobby does not face organised opposition, this provisional Palestinian lobby would be taking on one of the most powerful forces in US politics: AIPAC and the rest of the pro-Israel lobby.

Indeed, it is this feature of US politics that represents the most likely pitfall for Plan Michigan. Any electoral benefit that accrues to a candidate for a more pro-Palestinian position will probably be drowned out by the immense cost of taking on the AIPAC machine, which has a long history of heavy spending against perceived critics of right-wing Israeli leaders and policies. In these conditions, even politicians privately sympathetic to the Palestinian cause may rationally end up deciding that discretion is the better part of valour.

A first step?

Aside from the genocide of the Palestinian people, the Gaza war has also resulted in irreparable harm to US foreign policy, its image as the leader of the so-called rules-based international order lying in tatters.

As for ­Biden, his financial, military and diplomatic support for the annihilation of Gaza will undoubtedly be the first thing his name will be associated with by those around the world. It will be his historical legacy.

But as leaders, neither Biden nor Trump – if elected in November – will be around forever. By channelling their demographic power to change the equation on the Palestine question in US politics, Muslims and Arabs in Michigan may have taken the first step to pushing the US, the only great power with leverage over Israel, to actually deploy it for a sovereign Palestine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.