House of Cards takes on Israel-Palestine — here’s what the producers did right

Warning: spoilers ahead

One of the main storylines in season three of Netflix’s House of Cards follows President of the United States Francis J. Underwood as he squares off against his Russian counterpart in the Jordan Valley. Referring to the longstanding Israel-Palestine crisis as a mere “tension,” the producers ignore much of its key historical context and, for the purpose of a plot that American viewers can collectively digest, write it off instead as the underlying cause of the most recent escalation between American and Russian brass. But as nonsensical as the plot is, the producers did get plenty right, and I think this season is evidence of a positive shift in the mainstream treatment of Israel-Palestine.

The story goes like this. The Jordan Valley is a hotbed that both the Israelis and Palestinians insist belongs to them. As the two countries threaten to conduct military operations in the area, the Underwood administration devises a plan to station a United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Valley until tensions die down or, even better, until the Israelis and Palestinians return to the bargaining table. The idea is received relatively well until the Russian government expresses its disdain over the presence of U.S. soldiers encroaching on Russia’s sphere of influence and control. Underwood and Russian President Viktor Petrov stumble through a series of shaky negotiations — each one trying to best the other — before an I.E.D. explodes and kills eight Russian soldiers. It is suspected that the Russian government ordered the attack to sabotage the joint mission, so Underwood orders a covert operation to investigate the bomb site. However, the mission is compromised and a Navy SEAL is killed in action. The Palestinians and Israelis grow restless and the peacekeeping mission collapses as quickly as it began.

To viewers familiar with the politics of the region, the plot is clearly a dramatized work of fiction. The U.S. would never dare push for foreign troops to set up shop near Israel. And if the U.N. was behind the push, the U.S. would veto the decision before you could even finish reading this sentence.

But it’s the deliberate subtleties that shined brighter than the plot itself.

Calling it for what it is

I have yet to drop the O-word because I chose not to steal the thunder from the show’s producers. Although it was only mentioned once, the Jordan Valley was referred to as “Israeli-occupied”. I understand that Netflix can be a little more liberal in the content it produces, but as far as I know, this is one of the first and loudest acknowledgements of Israel’s military occupation that I have seen in any popular political drama. I imagine it was only said once to appeal to both camps: acknowledging it would appease those critical of Israel’s occupation, while never saying it again appeases the executives worried about losing support from viewers, donors, and colleagues. I’m only speculating, but saying it once is better than not saying it at all, and I’m okay with that.

Reality of the United Nations

The U.S. calls the shots. Russia disapproves. Everyone else sways.

There is this general misconception that the U.N. is a world-first organization, that it is neutral to all and hostile to none, and that no single country bears a stronger influence than any other. But the producers made it a point to identify America’s grip on the U.N. Aside from the fact that the U.S. was instrumental in the establishment of the U.N. (as an organization to promote its own values and ideals, no less), the headquarters are based in New York, just one hour away from the Oval Office and many thousands of miles away from most other leaders. The First Lady’s appointment as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. hinted at just how closely intertwined the White House and the U.N. can be.

Such distinctions are important in the context of Israel-Palestine because the U.S. is Israel’s staunchest ally, and when executive decisions trickle down from Washington, D.C., to New York City to the rest of the world, they are often done in Israel’s favor. Had the U.N. been as neutral as it promotes itself to be, the rest of the world would have a greater say and outcomes would likely be different.

Failed strategies

Every American presidency is faced with the same challenge: devising a unique and “equitable” solution to the Israel-Palestine impasse. Even the fictional Underwood administration faces the same task. But for some reason, nobody has the foresight to recognize how quickly the table-talks fail. Underwood, too, is a doofus in this regard. The Israelis and Palestinians refuse to negotiate and all of Underwood’s work proves futile. I suspect, however, that the producers intended to send a message rather than to simply build on Underwood’s underwhelming performance as President. Negotiations don’t work — they aren’t going to work — and the American public is realizing this. As hopeful as any U.S. elected official might be, talks are doomed to collapse because there is nothing to negotiate between occupier and occupied. And even if the two sides managed to agree to at least sit at the table, something from the inside is going to sabotage the opportunity, which brings us to the next point.

Realistic blame-game

When the I.E.D. blast killed eight Russian soldiers, Israel’s first order of business was to blame the Palestinians and pull out of any prior commitments or agreements. Underwood expected it. As is so in real life, American politicians are trained on Israel’s style of diplomacy: the moment Israel feels it might be forced to make a compromise, it abandons the plan and threatens retaliation, often in the form of military mobilization. Although nothing could possibly suggest Palestinian involvement in the blast, Israel used it as an opportunity to make a point about how it and it alone is committed to peace. And then it just as quickly pulled out of any and all peace-making measures.

International manipulation

Politics is a dirty game, and House of Cards is very clear about that. One of the dirtiest moves of the series, interestingly enough, points at what many consider to be Israel’s Achilles’ heel: its deliberate exploitation of Africans. In an attempt to stall the U.N. vote on the joint peacekeeping mission, Israel buys out the African bloc by promising a large sum of money dedicated to disease research. Relentless in its pursuit of only the most perfect public relations, the Israeli ambassador touts her country as a generous donor always willing to improve the lives of others. The U.S. scoffs at Israel for pretending that the money won’t be pocketed by corrupt government leaders (and out-bids the Israeli government anyway).

The most interesting thing about this particular development is that it isn’t detached from reality. Israel frequently celebrates itself as Africa’s savior with its doors open to African migrants seeking a better life. Those doors, however, shut as soon as the migrants cross the border — literally. Thousands of African migrants are currently incarcerated in Israeli prisons and thousands more complain about their second-class status. Meanwhile, Israel’s PR machine works hard to show, via Instagram, for example, that African soldiers are well integrated into their individual combat units.

Bullying the ally

Towards the latter half of the season, the U.S. confronts Israel and demands that it act like an ally. Incidentally, I watched this scene hours before more than fifty Democrats boycotted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress. The producers of the show deserve credit for venturing far enough outside of mainstream America’s traditional comfort zone to shed light on the country’s deteriorating relationship with Israel. Despite every attempt to publicly pretend that all is well, Israel and the U.S. are often at odds over which course of action to take. Israel — the more shrewd diplomatic actor — frequently makes decisions without considering the U.S., leaving the President to clean up the mess. This happens more often than we know. When we do know, we watch two government’s compete for support in Congress. In terms of what we can learn from House of Cards, U.S. policy in the Middle East is essentially guided by Israel’s latest move. In a way, the U.S. is still Israel’s doormat, regardless of how many billions it sends in military aid, and there is little Underwood could do about it.

Palestine’s international status

Though this means virtually nothing coming from a television series, Palestine is given country-status, a seat at the U.N., and general recognition as “Palestine” rather than “the Palestinian Authority” or some other reference to a pseudo-government. The show producers were almost certainly playing it safe, but I thought it was a nice, subtle touch. Both the Israeli and Palestinian ambassadors were depicted as relative equals in terms of their capacity as diplomats and, as far as I remember, there were no portrayals of the Palestinian people themselves as weak, backwards, or militant.

Compared to the first two seasons, the third season was a letdown. I’ve convinced myself that its sole purpose was to hype up the fourth season. I will have to wait another year to hear Underwood’s smooth southern accent. But until then, I find comfort in mulling over the show’s treatment of the all-too-real Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Clearly, virtually all of the context was left out to make room for an East vs. West showdown. It is standard practice to turn the Russians into villains in the entertainment industry, so I fault the executive producers for disingenuously capitalizing on classic anti-Russian sentiments and failing to bring something new to the table. But I also credit them for somehow managing to tie in Israel and Palestine without causing so much controversy that viewers forgot about the season’s plot and decried Netflix for being so careless.

Admittedly, I wish the producers were a little more brazen in the way they depicted Israel-Palestine. A touch of context would have been nice. Watching the U.S. regurgitate Israeli talking points while the rest of the world solemnly sighs with disapproval would have also been nice (and accurate). Putting into action a regional peace plan that would have included an Israeli pull-out — even a limited one — or some kind of demilitarization would have been both gutsy (good!) and controversial enough to get more people talking (better!). There are so many ways to take the story.

Netflix’s House of Cards isn’t afraid to touch Palestine or the Israeli occupation, it seems. In season one, a senator loses his nomination as Secretary of the State Department once it is revealed that he served as editor of his college paper when it ran an editorial condemning Israeli policy. The “menacing” kuffiyeh makes a cameo appearance in the very first episode of season two. And now, in season three, Israel’s occupation of Palestine’s Jordan Valley provides a fresh premise for Underwood’s latest depravity. Here’s to hoping season four goes even further.

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