WASHINGTON – With the most recent round of Israeli-Palestinian violence creating what many see as an unprecedented rift within the Democratic Party, members of Congress are beginning to publicly push back against claims of a party divided over Israel while convening behind the scenes to discuss how to counter that narrative.
Democratic lawmakers, staffers and officials tell Haaretz that their progressive colleagues who have offered unprecedented criticism of Israel simply represent an extreme – one not dissimilar to staunchly pro-Israel Democrats on the other end of the ideological spectrum.
They also argue that there is widespread consensus on the U.S.-Israel relationship and that any supposed divide is being greatly exaggerated, by Republicans in particular.
Sen. Chris Murphy, chairman of the Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, dismissed the narrative of the supposed shift as a “GOP-fed narrative,” tweeting that his party has “always been for two states. Still are. The defining ‘shift’ has been that the Netanyahu government and the Republicans have effectively abandoned the idea of a viable Palestinian state.”
Later, while listening to “NPR talking about how the Democratic Party is ‘shifting’ on Israel,” he called it a “tired, lazy take,” adding that if Democrats are now more critical of Israel, it’s because “their politics have moved, not ours.”
Not a binary choice
The Jewish Democratic Council For America defines itself as being the progressive voice of Jewish Democrats and its CEO, Halie Soifer, believes there’s a new pro-Israel paradigm in the Democratic Party “that rejects the false dichotomy of the past. The overwhelming majority of Democrats strongly support Israel’s security and right to self-defense against Hamas terrorist attacks, while also supporting Palestinians’ safety and human rights.
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“Democrats support U.S. aid to Israel, which is protecting Israeli civilians and saving lives, while also supporting the efforts of the Biden administration to bring this violence to an end,” she says, adding that “being ‘pro-Israel’ and expressing concern about Palestinian rights are not mutually exclusive, and should not be viewed as a binary choice.”
Rep. David Price, one of the most senior and well-respected members of the Democratic Party, tells Haaretz the caucus has been evolving and moving toward a more-balanced approach to Middle East policy for some time, though he too rejects the premise of a party divided.
The North Carolina congressman cites 191 Democratic lawmakers opposing Israeli annexation of the West Bank last June, 150 lawmakers advocating for a U.S. return to the Iran nuclear deal, and Rep. Alan Lowenthal’s December 2019 resolution on annexation endorsed by all but four Democrats as examples that capture views of the “vast majority” of the caucus.
“There’s a history of movement that represents where the party firmly lies. We’re against unilateral, destabilizing moves on either side,” Price says. “We’re fully in support of two-state diplomacy, we’re broadly in support of reentering the Iran nuclear deal. The notion that we’re all of the sudden divided and have to choose between AIPAC loyalists and the progressive wing is not an accurate narrative.”
A senior Hill staffer tells Haaretz that “there’s an attempt to make a binary of AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] essentially calling Israel an apartheid state versus someone like Josh Gottheimer saying ‘I stand with Bibi no matter what.’ Neither of those are reflective of the silent majority of American Jewry or the Democratic caucus.
“Republicans are playing a dangerous game, seeking to weaponize Israel for their own political gains. But we don’t play games with this,” the staffer says. “Our caucus believes in the core values of a Jewish and democratic state living side-by-side in peace with its Palestinian neighbors,” they continue, noting that Democrats back bipartisan support for Israel.
The staffer argues that the vast majority of both Democrats and American Jews believe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken a page out of former President Donald Trump’s playbook. “We reject white supremacy, just as we reject the idea that he should bring in a Kahanist party,” the staffer says, referring to the extremist Religious Zionism party that would likely be part of any Netanyahu governing coalition. “We care about kids not being caged in the United States, just as we care about Israeli and Palestinian kids alike in the Middle East,” they add.
“That said, Democrats overwhelmingly reject calls for the destruction of Israel through BDS [the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement] and to undermine Israel’s security,” the staffer continues. “The core value of our party, carried by nearly everyone across the board, is that both people have a right to self-determination, period, and the extremes are hugely dangerous.”
The staffer notes there is a significant “middle place” – highlighted by the letter by Rep. Jerry Nadler and other Jewish lawmakers urging President Joe Biden to actively engage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sen. Jon Ossoff’s cease-fire statement and Sen. Robert Menendez’s rare criticism of Israel after it destroyed an office block in Gaza that housed both the Associated Press and Al Jazeera – that captures the silent majority’s view. “It hasn’t been named or punctuated enough, and this could be that moment,” they say.
“It’s much easier to say either ‘Israel is an apartheid state’ or ‘I stand with Israel’ – the people who occupy this middle space need to do a much better job articulating it,” the staffer states. “We need to express our values consistently while defending against extremism that threatens two states for two peoples.”
They describe this as a gravitational shift from a “lockstep you-don’t-criticize Israel” attitude, highlighting lawmakers such as Reps. Nadler, Gerry Connolly, Jamie Raskin and Jan Schakowsky as examples of congresspeople who hold both progressive and Zionist attitudes.
Price, similarly, describes the need for Democrats to take initiative instead of being reactive to other people’s whims. “I was part of a cohort over the past several years who got tired of dealing with letters and resolutions, and justify whether or not we signed onto them. There is such a thing as ‘The power of the first draft,’ and this is a challenge of the present moment,” he says.
Bridging the difference
Rep. Ro Khanna, who was a national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign but found himself targeted on social media for not being sufficiently critical of Israel, believes Democrats can bring people together around a few concrete steps.
He co-led last Wednesday’s letter to Biden by 138 House Democrats calling for a cease-fire and was one of the more forward-facing Democrats urging the administration to act with more intent on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He tells Haaretz that “the United States must urge the lifting of the [Gaza] blockade to allow aid and commercial activity in and out of Gaza, and have concrete strategies for economic development in Gaza and the West Bank.”
Khanna also calls for the United States to ensure that Palestinians aren’t being displaced or having their homes demolished, and “fully enforce the Leahy Law and the Arms Export Control Act to prevent U.S. weaponry from ever being used anywhere in the world in ways the violate human rights.”
He adds: “I believe we can affirm our alliance with Israel on the basis of liberal democratic values that recognize human rights, the rule of law, and the need for both Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side in dignity, security and peace.”
The California congressman also believes the White House should bring together lawmakers from across the spectrum on this issue in an attempt to further bring the party together.
“Biden should convene a dozen House members like Ted Deutch, Rashida Tlaib, Raskin and Schakowsky, and help bridge differences to offer a constructive way forward that is centered on dignity and human rights,” he says, also adding that Biden needs to appoint a “qualified” ambassador to the region.
“Given the moral urgency of the conflict, we need someone who has a long record of understanding the history and rights of both Israelis and Palestinians, and has dedicated their career toward working for just resolution of the conflict,” he says. “My hope is that [Biden] could convince someone of that caliber to serve at this critical time,” Khanna says.
The staffer echoes the call for Biden to appoint an ambassador, but also highlights the need to tap a Jewish liaison in the White House as well as a special envoy for antisemitism. “Without a person guiding these policies, that will lead to challenges,” the staffer says, highlighting attempts to “undermine” the memorandum of understanding in which the U.S. provides $3.8 billion in military aid to Israel annually. Biden “needs to stand strong on one hand, while making appropriate statements about the respect for all lives in the region,” they say.
Price echoes calls for the appointment of a special envoy to engage at the highest levels as well as an ambassador, enabling the United States to be engaged in the present crisis as an interlocutor who can also provide human assistance.
He also calls on the administration to reopen the consulate in East Jerusalem and PLO office in Washington that were shuttered during the previous term. “The administration needs to reverse many of the Trump administration’s hostile actions,” he says.
Price insists that all of these steps are actionable, stressing that the majority of the Democratic caucus soundly and broadly supports proactive and constructive engagement.
“There is a firmly rooted support for Israel and its security. Being pro-Israel also means settling the Palestinian question in a way that’s fair to Palestinian aspirations,” Price says. “The party has evolved, but that is a source of great strength and support for the administration. This conflict’s going to find you if you don’t find it,” he concludes.