Pro-Israel Democrat’s Parting Words to Party: ‘You Can Be Progressive and Still Understand U.S. Is a Force for Good’

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Rep. Eliot Engel during the impeachment inquiry led by the House Intelligence, House Foreign Affairs and House Oversight and Reform Committees in Washington, October 17, 2019.
Rep. Eliot Engel during the impeachment inquiry led by the House Intelligence, House Foreign Affairs and House Oversight and Reform Committees in Washington, October 17, 2019. Credit: ERIN SCOTT/REUTERS

WASHINGTON – Rep. Eliot Engel, the pro-Israel congressman defeated in his primary by a more progressive opponent earlier this year, urged the Democratic Party Wednesday to avoid further drift from an interventionist, neoliberal foreign policy.

In an exit interview with the Washington Post, the outgoing New York representative, who has served in Congress since 1989, said: “You can be progressive and still understand that the United States is a force for good.”

Engel acknowledged to the Post that the U.S. made mistakes during other interventions over the past several decades, including Syria, saying that “we don’t always get it right, but we try to. And when we have the ability to save lives, we ought to use that ability.”

Engel specifically cited the testimony of a Syrian military defector in 2014 as a catalyst for his desire to protect Syrian civilians victimized by President Bashar Assad’s regime, saying pictures presented as evidence “were like the Holocaust.”

“If we want to effectuate change in the world, if there are things we want to see in the world, if we are going to be the world leader, there are responsibilities that come with that,” Engel told the Post. “We are the leaders, and we should act like it.”

Engel was defeated by Jamaal Bowman – a 44-year-old political newcomer supported by progressive groups such as Justice Democrats – in the June primary to represent New York’s 16th congressional district. His constituents ranged from low-income minorities in the Bronx to more affluent residents in areas such as Riverdale and New Rochelle, also home to large Jewish communities.

The defeat of Engel, who served as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and was a leading pro-Israel voice in Congress, was a heavy blow for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most influential lobby group supporting Israel in the United States. AIPAC’s policies were largely in lockstep with Engel’s record, including his vote against the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and his vocal criticism of the Obama administration’s failure to veto a UN Security Council resolution in December 2016 denouncing Israeli settlements.

A Democratic foreign policy adviser told Haaretz shortly before Engel’s defeat that Bowman and Engel’s different approaches on the Israeli-Palestinian issue highlight how the Democratic Party is evolving on this front.

“Engel represents a very old school and outdated approach of what it means to support Israel – basically supporting anything the Israeli government wants to do at any given time, no matter what,” the adviser said. “There is a growing constituency in the Democratic Party that doesn’t accept this approach anymore.”

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