'Crazy Backlash': Progressive Lawmakers Under Fire After Visiting Israel

Representatives on congressional delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are defending their recent visit, while activists are increasing their public pressure campaigns against them and Rep. Jamaal Bowman

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
Washington
Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna and Jamaal Bowman, whose congressional visits to Israel drew a strong backlash from pro-Palestinian activists.
Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna and Jamaal Bowman, whose congressional visits to Israel drew a strong backlash from pro-Palestinian activists. Credit: Artwork: Anastasia Shub. Photos: Reuters, Ben Margot / Jeenah Moon, AP / Silverjohn, AFP / Getty Images / iStockphoto
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
Washington

WASHINGTON – The battle over congressional delegations engaging with the Israeli government intensified following last week’s visit led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and several high-profile Democrats.

The lawmakers and pro-Palestinian activists have both defended their actions, saying their strategy is prudent – whether that involves public pressure and borderline shaming of politicians, or direct engagement that encourages behind-the-scenes pressure on the Israeli government.

Senior figures in the liberal, pro-Israel space say that while they are in favor of pushing lawmakers to do more on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they take issue with how such pressure campaigns are being conducted.

“You can disagree with certain members, but this crazy backlash and demonization is absurd, counterproductive and problematic,” says one leading official in a major liberal pro-Israel organization.

“The idea of pushing for a position of ‘Israel in and of itself is illegitimate, so you shouldn’t visit’ is promoting an idea that has barely any support at all, and it’s not going to get any. The discourse is changing, but it’s about how to think critically about the engagement, not how to engage in the first place,” the official adds.

Pro-Palestinian activists, on the other hand, argue that mainstream Democrats in Congress are wildly out of sync with their voters when it comes to Israel.

“They continue to write Israel a blank check – nearly $4 billion a year in public money with no accountability – despite polls showing that a majority of Democrats support conditioning U.S. funding to Israel over its human rights record,” says Institute for Middle East Understanding Executive Director Margaret Zaknoen DeReus.

“But just like progressive activists are pushing members of Congress on climate justice, a living wage and affordable health care, they are calling on members to lead with values when it comes to Palestine too,” she continues.

DeReus says this pressure first brought results during last May’s flare-up between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, when progressive members spoke out on the House floor in support of Palestinian human rights and attempted to block arms sales to Israel.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff in the Knesset with Yesh Atid MK Mickey Levy last week. Credit: Abir Sultan/AP

“Those were firsts, but they’ll become the norm,” she says. “With Amnesty joining the now wall-to-wall consensus in the human rights community that Israel is guilty of apartheid,” she adds, referring to Amnesty International’s recent report echoing previous ones by Human Rights Watch and several Israeli groups, “members of Congress won’t be able to continue ignoring Israel’s decades-long control of Palestinian land and lives.”

About-face

The battle entered a new phase last December when Rep. Jamaal Bowman faced significant backlash from leading progressive organizations, primarily the Democratic Socialists of America, for meeting with senior Israeli officials – including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett – on a congressional delegation to Israel and the West Bank by the pro-Israel, left-wing organization J Street.

While the New York Democrat was not expelled from the movement, despite a pronounced effort, the Democratic Socialists and leading Palestinian activists noted that Bowman shared a vision and values concerning Palestinian rights and aspirations, and that he committed to advancing Palestinian rights on a congressional level.

Earlier this month, Bowman informed his constituents that he was revoking his support for Israel’s normalization pacts with Arab states, aka the Abraham Accords, removing his co-sponsorship of legislation aimed at strengthening and expanding them, and committing to voting ‘no’ should it come to the House floor for a vote.

Bowman’s about-face on the Abraham Accords is among the more notable, tangible results of left-wing pressure over the past year. In a letter to constituents, Bowman noted that he reached his decision after speaking to a diverse group of constituents, experts and organizations, and meeting with both Israeli and Palestinian officials.

“While I originally co-sponsored the Israel Relations Normalization Act, seeing it as an opportunity to make progress toward justice and healing in the Middle East as well as a path to a two-state solution, my experience on the ground and further conversations with constituents led me to see that it is not the right step to fulfill these goals,” Bowman wrote.

Israeli lawmakers applauding House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after she entered the Knesset last Wednesday.Credit: Maya Alleruzzo/AP

He added that the Abraham Accords include deals “at odds with human rights and safety for everyday people in the region, including the recognition of Morocco’s control over Western Sahara, and conversations about arms sales with the United Arab Emirates.”

The bill in question has overwhelming bipartisan support, including from several members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and will not impact its prospects.

However, Bowman’s move did not impress the Democratic Socialists of America BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group, which noted that the sponsorship removal “was a promise he made to us months ago, and he ONLY finally came through on it after newly drawn district borders now exclude Riverdale, an area with a heavy Zionist constituency.”

Liberal pro-Israel officials reacted to the news with differing levels of alarm. One official told Haaretz it confirmed suspicions that Bowman feels inherent discomfort in engaging with Israel as a legitimate entity, while another official tempered fears by saying it was a pyrrhic victory for the far left without actually indicating any significant shift in policy approach.

‘Absurd attacks’

Progressive activists are now focusing their attention on Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna, Barbara Lee and Andy Kim – the three members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who participated in the Pelosi delegation last week.

Progressives’ criticism of Lee was compounded by the fact that she also joined last November’s J Street delegation, combined with her co-sponsorship of Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill specifying various actions that Israel may not finance with U.S. taxpayer funding while also calling for additional oversight of how aid is distributed.

Lee, incidentally, also recently found herself targeted by AIPAC after she accused the pro-Israel lobby of being a “special interest group [wielding] enormous influence in Washington.”

The brunt of the outrage, however, was aimed at her fellow California lawmaker Khanna. Progressive activists cited alleged discrepancies between his efforts to curb U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen with his participation on the Pelosi trip; his praise of the Israeli high-tech sector in the face of growing human rights concerns in the Palestinian community; and his lack of sponsorship on the McCollum bill.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, speaking at a news conference about the war in Yemen, in Washington three years ago.Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Khanna actually received plaudits from Israeli officials for his latest book, “Dignity in a Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us,” while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he wanted to work with him on tech and economic developments.

The lawmaker also defended his record of openly calling for a human rights-based two-state solution, condemning settlement expansion and housing demolitions, while spearheading anti-occupation legislation and publicly and consistently calling for the lifting of the Gaza blockade.

Liberal, pro-Israel organizations such as Americans for Peace Now have sharply criticized efforts to push lawmakers into not engaging with Israeli officials or figures on the ground, arguing that this is the best way to forge a path toward peace.

“We have seen absurd attacks on these elected officials, who are in Israel raising important issues and asking piercing questions,” says APN President and CEO Hadar Susskind. “Progressives, and anyone who wants a better future for Israelis and Palestinians, should seek constructive U.S. involvement in efforts to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and should be applauding and supporting such visits,” he adds.

Upon the trip’s conclusion and in the face of criticism, Khanna is taking a decidedly different path than Bowman and maintaining the viability of his positions and methods.

“I believe in the U.S.-Israel relationship grounded in a commitment to human rights and the dignity of both the Israeli and Palestinian people living side by side in two states. It is important to engage leaders in Israel on these issues and to hear directly from Palestinians, which we did. I am proud of Speaker Pelosi’s leadership on this delegation and our mission,” he told Haaretz.

Liberal, pro-Israel officials cannot help but draw comparisons between Khanna and Bowman’s reactions to the pressure.

They highlight Khanna’s foreign policy expertise (and the expertise of his staff and advisers), as well as the strong left-wing Israeli expat presence in his home Silicon Valley district, compared to Bowman’s preferred focus on domestic matters and the more standard American-Jewish presence in his New York district.

On a more macro level, stakeholders tracking the Pelosi delegation cite several causes for celebration.

For one, they welcome the fact that U.S. lawmakers who have been explicitly critical of Israeli policy are getting a repeated audience with both Palestinian officials and civil society leaders, as well as Israeli officials such as Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog.

Another example is Pelosi’s notable tweet highlighting a tour of Jerusalem with Terrestrial Jerusalem Executive Director Daniel Seidemann – perhaps the foremost expert on developments in Jerusalem and their effect on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While Seidemann has been giving such tours to U.S. lawmakers, officials and diplomats for many years, the fact the Pelosi delegation openly and explicitly highlighted the tour caught the attention of many. Furthermore, the delegation relayed the points discovered on the tour during their meetings with Bennett, per several officials familiar with the talks.

Critics, meanwhile, were roundly dismissive of whatever alleged advances the Pelosi delegation made – particularly dismissing Khanna’s highlighting of his meeting with Palestinian student leaders, who, in his words, emphasized the need for “fewer checkpoints.”

The ongoing clashes come as J Street’s largest-ever congressional delegation heads to the region, spearheaded by retiring Democratic Rep. David Price. Other participating Democratic members include Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, Joaquin Castro, Seth Moulton, Sean Casten, Jason Crow, Madeleine Dean, Lauren Underwood and Jennifer Wexton.

“This fact-finding trip presents an opportunity to engage the new Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority, civil society organizations, and the Israeli and Palestinian peoples,” says Price. “Now is a critical time to continue reinforcing U.S. commitments to support diplomacy and a two-state solution, and I look forward to seeing firsthand the current opportunities and challenges to promoting peace, security, and freedoms for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

Casten’s participation is particularly noteworthy, considering the closely followed nature of his primary against Rep. Marie Newman in June. She is the subject of a House ethics investigation over allegations that she promised a Palestinian-American academic a job if he didn’t compete in her Democratic primary race back in 2020. While she denies all wrongdoing and J Street previously endorsed both candidates, it is only opting to endorse Casten in the upcoming race. Newman quickly established herself as one of the most vocal critics of Israel in the House after becoming a congresswoman in January 2021.

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