Following the uproar over recent remarks by Rep. Ilhan Omar, Israel has become a hazardous foreign policy minefield for ambitious young Democrats like Beto O’Rourke — the charismatic former three-term Texas congressman who threw his hat in the ring for the 2020 presidential race on Thursday.
Omar’s questioning of strong congressional support for Israel and her characterization of its supporters as possessing “dual loyalty” and pushing “for allegiance to a foreign country,” as well as excessive influence on Congress through financial contributions, has led to accusations that she used anti-Semitic tropes. Reactions to the controversy sharpened the divide between mainstream Democrats and the party’s emergent progressive wing.
It also reinvigorated conversations regarding the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most prominent pro-Israel lobby and the target of some of Omar’s criticism. Newly announced candidates in the 2020 race were quickly sorted into those from the party’s more progressive wing who rose to Omar’s defense — senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — and also Kamala Harris, and other contenders like Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand who were more critical of Omar.
Many have pinned their hopes on the fact that O’Rourke — the party’s new golden boy, who resists labels along with other political conventions — could be the candidate who, like President Barack Obama, would manage to straddle the progressive-centrist divide.
The 46-year-old Texan’s six years in Congress contain a famous incident in which he learned that his maverick style doesn’t pay when it comes to dealing with AIPAC and its supporters in his district.
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He carries a scar from 2014 during his first term in Congress: The year Israel clashed with Hamas in Gaza over a bloody summer filled with Hamas missile fire, devastating Israeli airstrikes and hundreds of Palestinian casualties.
In a deep dive article on AIPAC that September, the New Yorker’s Connie Bruck recounted the fallout after O’Rourke bucked the pro-Israel lobby during that fraught time. The congressman was one of only eight out of 435 representatives voting against a House bill for $225 million in supplemental funding to replenish parts for the Iron Dome missile defense system during the Gaza conflict — a measure strongly advocated by AIPAC at a time when Israel was under harsh international criticism for the intensity of its military response.
"This isn't just about money. It is a signal from the American people and the American taxpayer that we are with the Israelis because if we, they do not have Iron Dome, they can't defend themselves," said the late Sen. John McCain, after the bill was passed unanimously in the Senate, before being signed by Obama.
O’Rourke and the seven other lawmakers, knowing the bill would pass overwhelmingly anyway, cast what was essentially a protest vote. They were objecting to the fact that what they viewed as unnecessary legislation was being rushed through with no debate on the matter just as the members of Congress were departing for summer recess.
An appropriation vote containing Iron Dome funding was coming up in October when Congress was back in session and could be properly debated then, the opponents argued.
O’Rourke posted his justification for voting against the expenditure on Facebook, writing: “I could not in good conscience vote for borrowing $225 million more to send to Israel, without debate and without discussion, in the midst of a war that has cost more than a thousand civilian lives already, too many of them children.”
According to the New Yorker story, “The morning after the vote, O’Rourke emailed a local AIPAC activist, Stuart Schwartz, to explain his vote, according to a knowledgeable person. In his explanation, which he also posted on Facebook, he pointed out that he had voted for Iron Dome in the past, and had supported the funds that were scheduled to arrive in October.”
The blowback was enormous: O’Rourke was inundated with angry reaction, and AIPAC and the local Jewish federations sharply criticized him. Schwartz told the El Paso Times that the congressman “chooses to side with the rocket launchers and terror tunnel builders.”
Following that clash, however, both O’Rourke and AIPAC appeared to move swiftly to repair the damage caused by his vote. Natan Guttman reported two months later, in a Forward article headlined “How the Israel Lobby Set Beto O'Rourke Right,” that the confrontation quickly turned to reconciliation as O’Rourke held meetings with Jewish activists and the Israeli consul general to heal the wounds his vote had caused and reassure them of his support for the Jewish state.
Capping off the episode, O’Rourke announced he would make a trip to Israel himself. He did take his first trip to Israel the following year - but instead of going with AIPAC, he travelled with the “pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby” J Street. After returning, he discussed the trip with Jewish constituents in a synagogue after his return, talking about his sympathy for Israelis living under the threat of rocket fire on the Gaza border.
By June 2017, as he was gearing up for the Senate run that would shoot him to national prominence, O’Rourke appeared to be working harmoniously with AIPAC.
Underneath a Facebook photo he posted, shared by AIPAC on its Facebook feed, he wrote: “I met with El Pasoans Stuart and Shari Schwartz from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to discuss Iranian sanctions, military aid to Israel, and the importance of U.S.-Israeli relationship.”
It was surely no coincidence that Stuart Schwartz was the same pro-Israel O’Rourke supporter who had angrily criticized O’Rourke as supporting Hamas three years earlier. The message was clear: AIPAC and the aspiring senator had buried the hatchet.
But that high-profile 2014 vote left O’Rourke vulnerable to an attack by the incumbent he almost unseated in last year’s hard-fought midterms battle that launched him to national prominence. His opponent, Sen. Ted Cruz — a staunch supporter of Israel and closely tied to the evangelical community — slammed O’Rourke for accepting support via J Street.
“The J Street PAC, which is a rabidly anti-Israel PAC, has raised over $160,000 for Congressman O’Rourke because of his many votes against the nation of Israel,” said Cruz. By “many votes,” Cruz not only included the 2014 appropriations bill but other positions in which O’Rourke stood with the more progressive wing of the party, along with many of his fellow 2020 contenders.
O’Rourke had supported the Obama administration’s nuclear deal, calling it the best “available way forward to achieve our two primary goals in the Middle East: Stopping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and ensuring the security of Israel and our regional allies.” He was among the 58 Democrats to boycott Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the joint session of Congress, warning about the prospects of a nuclear Iran.
O’Rourke also opposed moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and while he called the 2016 UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements “too one-sided,” he supported Obama’s decision to abstain from the vote, standing with a minority of House members who voted against a resolution condemning the U.S. abstention in a 342-80 vote — once again, bucking the will of the pro-Israel lobby.
In a January 2017 blog post, he explained that vote: “I think that it is in our interest and in Israel’s interest for those settlements to cease if there is to be any hope for lasting peace; and that if settlement construction does not stop, a two-state solution will be unobtainable and Israel will lose the ability to be both a democratic and Jewish state.”
O’Rourke defended himself against Cruz’s attacks, saying he backs defense assistance for Israel because he “believes Israel is critically important to the United States because it is the home of the Jewish people, because it is an exemplary democracy that shares our values, and because it is a crucial contributor to our national security objectives in the region.”
Local pro-Israel Democrats came to his defense, one writing that it “was not kosher to say Beto O’Rourke does not support Israel.”
During the Senate race, pro-Palestinians expressed disappointment in his lack of support for their cause, saying his stance on Palestinian rights “could just have easily been issued by a Republican” and classifying him in the group of Democrats known by the acronym PEP (“Progressive Except for Palestine”).
As O’Rourke heads for Iowa to kick off one of the most intriguing 2020 runs, Israel is far from the only issue on which it is unclear where he stands. What is clear, though, is that the positions the label-resistant candidate chooses will be a bellwether as to where his party is headed.