Trends in Congress spell hope for Palestinians

Trends in Congress spell hope for Palestinians

They can change the story about Israel in Congress (Top row, left to right: Rashida Tlaib (D-MI-13), Cori Bush (D-MO-01), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY-16); bottom row, left to right: Ilhan Omar (D-MN-05), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY-14), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA-07))

Capitol Hill has for years been a no-questions-asked, pro-Israel fortress, with Israel advocates pushing out people like like Paul Findley, Pete McCloskey, and Cynthia McKinney when they spoke out about Palestinian human rights. Now that tide may be turning, and Israel partisans are not happy.

by Kathryn Shihadah

Before the elections, If Americans Knew assembled our election-year Scoreboards for the Senate and the House to give voters an idea of where candidates stand on the issue of justice for Palestinians. 

We told you who sponsored and cosponsored legislation, and how each Congress person voted on each bill related to Israel; and we provided the amount of money and endorsements each received from pro-Israel organizations. We then calculated a “pro-Israel score” to sum up each person’s performance over the past two years (spoiler: most of them, Democrat and Republican, scored very, very high on the pro-Israel metric).

Perhaps most eye-opening about the Scoreboards is the sheer quantity of pro-Israel legislation that the two houses of Congress entertained. As we’ve reported, the number of bills and resolutions reached almost one hundred.

All of this might suggest that support for Israel – despite its multitude of human rights abuses, its discrimination, and the damage it has done to Americans – is here to stay.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details – the winners and losers (both old and new), the rhetoric, and campaign spending tell the story.

‘The Squad,’ with Representative Ilhan Omar at the podium, 2019, Washington
‘The Squad,’ with Representative Ilhan Omar at the podium, 2019, Washington (TOM WILLIAMS/CQ ROLL CALL VIA AP IMAGES)

The young and the restless

Several newly-elected Congress members give reason for Palestine advocates to feel hopeful.

If “several” sounds meager in an ocean of 535 Congress members, consider the sea change initiated by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY-14) and her bold colleagues, Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN-5), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI-13), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA-07).

These four women – “the Squad” – gave President Trump fits, as they refused to sit quietly and ride the learning curve. They have been flipping the script on Capitol Hill ever since, insisting that Congress actually begin to address the needs of the marginalized, instead of doing the bidding of the powerful (like Israel). They don’t always play nice, they are not always “ladylike,” and they do not hold back.

As a result, they have come under numerous attacks and attempts to misrepresent who they are. Despite that, all were re-elected with resounding numbers.

In the Minnesota primaries, Ilhan Omar prevailed over her pro-Israel opposition, Antone Melton-Meaux – in spite of the $2 million his campaign spent, much of it donated by rightwing individuals and organizations (at least $500 thousand from pro-Israel PACS, and an undisclosed amount from pro-Israel conservative billionaire Seth Klarman). Omar survived vilification and Israeli disinformation campaigns, as well as schemes to overthrow her, winning her district with 64% of the vote.

Rashida Tlaib also successfully faced a well-funded primary opponent, then beat her challenger last week with an impressive 78% of the vote. Like Omar, Tlaib weathered sizable attempts by pro-Israel power brokers and media to take her down because she supports the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement and because as a Palestinian-American, she lends a face and voice to the people of Palestine.

Ayanna Pressley, who has come out strongly against Israel’s annexation plans and other Israel-related issues, took a whopping 87% of her district in the general election.

And Ocasio-Cortez took 69% of her district after taking a stand on conditional aid to Israel and declining to participate in an event celebrating the legacy of former Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin, who had initiated the “break the bones” policy against Palestinian men, women, and children.

No doubt these women will continue shaking things up on Capitol Hill, and Israel partisans will do their best to malign them in any and every way possible.

Newcomers

Newcomer Jamaal Bowman (D-NY-16), a middle school principal, appears poised to join with the Squad in speaking truth to power, as he told Jacobin magazine:

We have to have honest conversations about the humanitarian crisis taking place through the occupation of the Palestinian people. It’s a crisis that America has been complicit in through bolstering Netanyahu and his far-right government while doing next-to-nothing in terms of holding him accountable. 

jamaal Bowman israel congress
Jamaal Bowman (John Minchillo/AP)

(Gaza’s nearly two million inhabitants struggle under a brutal blockade, now in its fourteenth year, in which Israel withholds the most basic necessities, including medicine, food, and building materials. Children face malnutrition and mental health issues.)

Bowman has also called for aid to Israel – over $10 million per day – to be conditional on its compliance with international law (as per the Leahy Laws). This policy position would have been political suicide a few years ago, but today in Democratic circles, is mainstream.

As important as Bowman’s policy positions is his district: Bowman ousted sixteen-term incumbent and Israel hawk Eliot Engel in what the Yonkers Times described as a “David beats Goliath moment.”

A newcomer to politics beat an entrenched legislator who was backed by “nearly the entire Democratic Party establishment,” including New York Gov. Cuomo, Hillary Clinton, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

(Rep. Eliot had been openly using his chairmanship of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee to advocate for Israel – see this.)

Cori Bush (cdn.sitetheory.io)

Bowman won both the primary and the general election by a landslide, despite reportedly $3 million of pro-Israel donations to defeat him.

Another newcomer to Washington who will fit right in with the intrepid young crowd, Cori Bush (D-MO-01) prevailed in her primary and destroyed her opponent in the general election. 

A woman of color, Bush is an outspoken defender of the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement. BDS is based on the principle that that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.

Bush went on record before she won the primary: 

In our current geopolitical economy, money talks far louder than speech alone. This is why nonviolent actions like the BDS movement are so important – and why the effort to mischaracterize and demonize the BDS movement by its opponents is so urgent.

Support for BDS has, until recently, been almost heretical, but Bush proves that today it is electable.

israel congress
Mondaire Jones (www.gannett-cdn.com)

Mondaire Jones (D-NY-17) who is black and gay, won the seat vacated by staunch Israel partisan Nita Lowey, who is retiring. Lowey had periodically bragged about using her chairmanship of the extremely powerful Appropriations Committee to funnel money to and for Israel (see videos of some of her speeches here.)

Jones, on the other hand, walks a fine line, self-describing as both a friend to Israel and a supporter of Palestinian rights.

He opposes Israeli settlement and demolition of Palestinian homes, but also opposes BDS. It remains to be seen whether Israel or justice will win out for Jones. Either way, he is a far cry from Lowey’s fanatic support for a foreign country.

These decisive victories – the Squad, Bowman, Bush, and (possibly) Jones – indicate Americans’ growing willingness to to vote for candidates not supported by the usual dominant special interests – and the Israel lobby is one of the most powerful and pervasive.

Never too late

Change on the Israel/Palestine issue has been afoot among veteran Congress members as well.

Political analyst Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute believes the US is experiencing “an important shift generationally and ideologically within the Democratic Party” on the issue of Palestinian rights. 

Al Jazeera credits Sen. Bernie Sander (D-VT) with recently getting the ball rolling on the issue of Palestinian rights. (Previously, people like Paul Findley (R-IL), Pete McCloskey (R-CA), Cynthia McKinney (D-GA), and Gus Savage (D-IL) had taken the lead on this, until Israel partisans pushed them out.)

Over a year ago, as an Independent presidential candidate, Sanders uttered the previously inconceivable words on aid to Israel: “I would say that some of the $3.8 billion should go right now to humanitarian aid in Gaza” (he was subsequently pushed out of the presidential race).

In February, 33 Representatives – led by Mark Pocan (D-WI-02) and Debbie Dingell (D-MI-12) – signed a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, calling on the US to resume humanitarian aid to Palestine and to pressure Israel to end its illegal blockade of Gaza.

That second demand – ending the blockade – was unprecedented, in that it recognized not just Palestinian need, but Israeli responsibility.

Nevertheless, all 33 of the letter’s signatories were reelected last week. (A few years ago, such an action could have disastrous results – just ask Beto O’Rourke.)

Mark DeSaulnier, D-CA
Mark DeSaulnier

Among the signatories was Mark DeSaulnier (D-Ca), who also supported bills upholding Americans’ right to boycott and blocking the use of US funds to torture Palestinian children. He was re-elected with about 75 percent of the vote.

In June, 191 House Democrats signed another letter, this one to the Israeli government, cautioning Israel against its plan to annex parts of the Palestinian West Bank – an act that would violate international law.

Last December, over 100 Dem House members signed a letter denouncing the Pompeo/Trump announcement that Israeli settlements on Palestinian land are not “per se inconsistent with international law” (they are).

These are among a number of letters coming out of this Congress on the Israel/Palestine issue. Some directly supported Palestinian rights, others at least declined to support Israel’s every whim.

To be sure, the wording in many of the letters was less-than confrontational, but the fact that they contained criticism at all is stunning.

israel congress
Betty McCollum (www.sierraclub.org)

(While a group of House Republicans and another in the Senate also signed letters supporting Israel and its Prime Minister regardless of his actions, one Republican, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, dared to oppose the $38 billion to Israel, and was massively attacked by Israel partisans for doing so.)

Any discussion of Palestinian advocacy would be incomplete without mention of Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN-04), who has worked for years to bring justice to the people of Palestine.

Most recently, she authored H.R.2407, a bill seeking to block the use of US military aid funds to detain and torture Palestinian children. 

McCollum’s district has retained her services since 2001.

Pro-Israel push-back

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics reports that, for the 2020 election cycle, total contributions from pro-Israel organizations came in at over $28 million – almost double that of 2018 (for a total of $172.5 million since 1990).

This increase in campaign donations makes sense, given Israel’s popularity needs a shot in the arm, especially among Democrats. 

Pew Research reports that the percent of Democrats supporting Israel, which for years hovered in the low forties, has recently plummeted to just 27 percent (Republican support has climbed from the upper forties to 79 percent).

The Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) was created to address this very issue: to counter, in the words of New York Jewish Week, “the drift — if not dive — away from support for Israel within the party.” 

DMFI president Mark Mellman described the organization’s mission:

the overwhelming majority of elected Democrats are pro-Israel and we [DMFI] intend to keep it that way…there is a small group of outliers who are trying to change that and we are here to do battle with them.

Elsewhere, he compared pro-Palestine legislators to a cancer, stating that DMFI would make sure the “few discordant [read: not pro-Israel”] voices” in Congress don’t “metastasize into a bigger problem.”

Mellman was disappointed to see that out of about forty candidates DMFI supported on the national level, just 22 won (several races have not been called yet) – but he was gratified that at any rate, Congress will have what he views as plenty of pro-Israel legislators next year.

DMFI and other pro-Israel organizations have their work cut out for them: the climate is changing for Israel, as evidenced by noteworthy essay by Jewish journalist Peter Beinart, a well-known “liberal Zionist.” He wrote in the New York Times in July,

Israel has all but made its decision: one country that includes millions of Palestinians who lack basic rights. Now liberal Zionists must make our decision, too. It’s time to abandon the traditional two-state solution and embrace the goal of equal rights for Jews and Palestinians. It’s time to imagine a Jewish home that is not a Jewish state. 

Support for Israel has also been slipping among conservatives: today only 43% of Republicans are “very favorable” toward Israel. 

Conservatives used to favor support for Palestinian rights until the  pro-Israel neocons took over, and this view may be starting to return as they learn more about the issue and the cost to Americans. Among evangelicals, for example, support for Palestinian rights is growing as its members become aware of the facts. (Not long ago a poll found that only 30% supported Israel above Palestinians.)

Many in the pro-Palestine community have known about the situation for years; most believe that Israel (and its top ally, the US) has never expected, or even attempted a “solution” with two equal states. In the age of smartphones and YouTube, Israel is no longer able to keep its secret: it’s just stringing Palestinians along.

While the 2020 congressional elections may not birth an immediate or dramatic change in Israel policy, they will continue the trajectory toward justice – an arc that bends slowly but ultimately must reach its destination.


Kathryn Shihadah is staff writer for If Americans Knew. She has also written for MintPress News, and blogs at Palestine Home.


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