If Palestine is treated as an exception, the settler-colonial narrative is legitimised. Mark Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick’s book, Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics is an accessible, in depth analysis that takes US politics to task for normalising both Israel’s colonial violence and, as a result, the oppression of the Palestinian people. It is an embedded status quo that drives a duplicitous stance in the US when it comes to humanitarian values and to who these are politically applied.
The authors dispel one notion immediately – the former US President Donald Trump was not an exception in US politics other than his overt approach, which broke tradition in terms supporting both the two-state diplomacy and Israel’s colonial expansion. This point is reasserted in the book – a welcome departure from mainstream analysis that fragmented Palestine by not connecting to earlier diplomacy. It is through an assessment of the Biden administration’s policy decisions so far, as well as previous administrations’ policies which were intended but not implemented, that the authors illustrate Trump’s actions – which the current administration will not reverse.
Lamont Hill and Plitnick write: “US policy on Israel rests upon decades of decisions that have been supported, either through active endorsement or silent complicity, by the American left.” Juxtaposing Palestinians against other issues such as immigration to the US, which elicited a severe response against the Trump administration, the authors illustrate how values rhetoric is applied differently, and Palestine is selected for exceptionalism, in terms of both oppression and oblivion.
Against a backdrop that delves into the Zionist colonisation of Palestine, the book explores how the US enabled Israeli authoritarianism. A thorough discussion ensues, touching upon Israel’s “right to exist”, the criminalisation of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), the Trump administration’s policies and Gaza. Through these issues, Lamont Hill and Plitnick show not only US involvement, but also how US politics shapes discourse on Palestine – the latter recently shifting yet not enough to collectively advocate for the Palestinian people’s political rights.
Progressives, the authors argue, should start “recognising the fundamental humanity of Palestinians.” The statement is impactful – if the fundamental humanity of Palestinians is still not collectively recognised, the shift to recognising Palestinians’ political rights is almost intangible. While this statement is made in the book’s conclusion, it resonates throughout the book. Israel’s colonial narrative dehumanises Palestinians, and US politics perpetuate dehumanisation. On what grounds is Palestinian dispossession justified? Lamont Hill and Plitnick assert: “The demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel’s “right to exist” is, in fact, a demand that Palestinians legitimise their own dispossession.” The authors give an example of such formal demands to acquiesce to dispossession when former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had forced the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to recognise Israel.
Positioning Palestine as an exception enables political leanings towards Israeli supremacy. US politics discusses Palestinian rights mostly in terms of how Israel is affected. At the same time, initiatives such as BDS, which is criminalised in the US, have altered the debate on Palestine to centre a rights-based discourse. The authors write: “The decision to support the rights of Palestinians as equal to those of Israelis is not a complicated one.”
Yet US politics continues to build upon decades of endorsing Israel or, at the very least, “silent complicity”, as the authors state. Vetoed UN resolutions are one example – Trump broke with the status quo with his opposition to international law and former US policy. Previous administrations attempted to withhold, not oppose, certain decisions, in order to retain a stronger bargaining position, such as in the case of the Golan Heights, which Trump recognised as Israeli territory. The authors observe: “The principle of unilateral recognition without any Israeli concessions set a precedent for what may eventually happen on the West Bank.”
The important observation made in this book is that Trump “acted to fulfil legislation that had already been enshrined in law with enormous bipartisan support.” Incremental steps by previous administrations allowed Trump to go so far. Here too, the authors note that by portraying Trump as an exception, an opportunity to analyse the legacy of US foreign policy on Israel and Palestine is missed.
On Gaza, for example, the Bush administration sought to maintain a humanitarian balance by maintaining sufficiency in terms of the flow of goods, which does not run contrary to the de-development that is nowadays a major concern when speaking about the enclave. Support for Israel, prevalent in all US governments, has directly contributed to Gaza’s suffering and the ongoing humanitarian crisis. In turn, this has made Gaza heavily dependent upon Israel, while the disengagement from Gaza led by Ariel Sharon resulted in stringent colonial control over the occupied West Bank.
The authors note that in recent years, the US Democratic party has been shifting towards a new approach on Palestine, with pro-Palestine individual lawmakers being elected. Yet exceptionalism remains deeply entrenched. There is a political responsibility to acknowledge the contradiction in proclaiming values depending upon the subject and how it affects US policy. Selective criticism, Lamont Hill and Plitnick note, does not constitute a stance built upon rights and values. Palestinians, the book states, have been perpetually required to justify their struggle for rights. For US policy to change, altering the complicity in Palestine’s political crisis would require a shift beyond altering the debate, to active participation in holding Israel accountable by applying democratic values to US influence.