As midterm elections near, it is becoming clear that there is an opportunity in Washington to take the first few steps toward measurable change in U.S. politics around Israel and Palestine. Increasingly belligerent Israeli actions toward the Palestinians and toward Jews who oppose the occupation, a U.S. administration with unabashedly pro-settler leanings, and the decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to shift away from bipartisan efforts in the U.S. and depend on unflinching Republican support have combined to create a strong groundswell in the Democratic party for a change in policy.
This groundswell has not yet made a significant impact in Washington. Occasional letters of admonishment from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (who is not a Democrat, but caucuses with them in the Senate), or Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) have little impact on the ground. Meanwhile, after New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was photographed at a progressive conference holding a sign that read, “From Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go,” he scrambled to disavow the sign, claiming he didn’t know what it said.
As The Intercept pointed out, “Booker, a presumed 2020 [presidential] hopeful, has been making concessions to the left since 2016…Although he has a long history of strident pro-Israel advocacy, this year, Booker declined from speaking publicly at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee…It seemed as though Booker’s choice to enthusiastically pose with a pro-Palestine sign might be part and parcel of his move to the left, but within hours, his campaign disavowed the whole thing.”
Whether or not Booker knew what the sign said, he surely must have seen the t-shirt the young woman next to him in the photograph was wearing, which read, “Palestine is a queer, feminist, refugee, racial justice issue.” Perhaps the reference to Israel’s wall, with its purported “security implications,” spooked him. But even Booker seems to recognize that lock-step support for Israel is not going to be a winning strategy going forward in his party, even if he still recognizes that being perceived or painted as “anti-Israel” will continue to be politically damaging for some time to come.
The Progressive Blue Wave
Three newcomers who won Democratic primaries in heavily Democratic districts have really made some waves. Although none of them tried to make Palestine a major part of their electoral platform, it became a story for each of them in different ways. But this time, though the question of Israel and the Palestinians has lost none of its contentiousness, the outcomes offered a glimmer of hope.
First up was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York. Touting a progressive line very similar to the one Bernie Sanders used to give Hillary Clinton sleepless nights in 2016, Ocasio-Cortez stunned the over-confident incumbent, Joe Crowley, the erstwhile Chair of the House Democratic Caucus who was once thought to be a potential successor to Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi.
Ocasio-Cortez came under fire for her staunch criticism of Israel’s excessive use of force against protesters in Gaza. “This is a massacre,” she tweeted. “I hope my peers have the moral courage to call it such. No state or entity is absolved of mass shootings of protesters. There is no justification. Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else. Democrats can’t be silent about this anymore.”
While Ocasio-Cortez’s district is not one with a large Jewish community, in New York City Israel is always an issue. In interviews, she stumbled when interrogated about her use of the word “occupation” to describe what is happening to Palestinians. Flustered and admitting she is “not an expert” on the issue, she also drew the ire of some Palestinians and supporters when she endorsed a two-state solution and repeatedly dodged pointed questions.
In Michigan, Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, won her primary in a district that is overwhelmingly Democratic. She was endorsed in the primary by JStreetPAC, an endorsement that only comes if you support a two-state solution and would not challenge U.S. military aid to Israel. But after her victory, she too came under pressure, with leading Palestinian-American activists questioning her J Street endorsement. Ali Abunimah, of the Electronic Intifada, wrote that aid to Israel “perpetuates Israel’s military occupation and colonization and negates the prospects for any kind of peaceful and just outcome. This means that Tlaib supports the US funding or supplying the bullets that Israel has been using to kill and maim thousands of Palestinians during the Great March of Return protests in Gaza. This means Tlaib, in effect, supports the US supplying the warplanes and bombs Israel used …when Inas Muhammad Khamash, a pregnant 23-year-old, was killed in an airstrike on central Gaza along with her young daughter Bayan.”
Tlaib, who had not been explicit publicly about her support for a two-state solution, clearly took the criticism to heart. Appearing on Democracy Now!, she would not commit to either a one-state or two-state scenario, although she questioned the latter, saying, “I can’t impose my own beliefs onto a whole people. I don’t live there. I live here. But I can tell you, if it was something of possibility for a two-state solution, absolutely. Do I think it may work? That’s my only opinion, is I don’t know, because I’ve seen that, you know, South versus North didn’t work for us… And that’s what I believe in, is one day to get back to that moment where my grandfather can look to his neighbor and not think that he’s less than.” Unsurprisingly, JStreetPAC quickly rescinded its endorsement of Tlaib.
And then there’s Ilhan Omar, who is going to replace Keith Ellison in Minnesota’s 5th District. She called Israel an “apartheid state” in May, and had harsh criticism for Israel’s actions in Gaza as well. Yet when asked about Israel during her campaign, Omar said, “It is going to be important for us to recognize Israel’s place in the Middle East and the Jewish people’s rightful place within that region. I believe right now with the BDS movement, it’s not helpful in getting that two-state solution. I think the particular purpose for [BDS] is to make sure that there is pressure, and I think that pressure really is counteractive. Because in order for us to have a process of getting to a two-state solution, people have to be willing to come to the table and have a conversation about how that is going to be possible and I think that stops the dialogue.” Few seemed to notice that this position did not contradict her others in any way.
What Can the Newcomers Do?
When these three women get into Congress, they are going to face difficulties apart from the Middle East conflict. They are all women of color, two of them Muslim, and all trying to push an agenda that many in their own party find too progressive.
On the question of Palestine, they will represent probably the most pro-Palestinian views in the House. But there will only be three of them. They will be facing pressure from anti-occupation activists, like Abunimah, who stated that “Surely opposing military aid to Israel and supporting the Palestinian people’s right to nonviolent struggle through BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – are minimum positions they should demand from candidates like Tlaib.”
There is a huge gulf between those things, and the gap itself is illustrative. Opposing aid to Israel is a sure loser, both in Congress and for the member’s career. It has been so for a long time and it will continue to be.
But conditioning aid to Israel on its effort to end the occupation and its compliance with US law—specifically the Foreign Assistance Act which forbids giving aid to “any country which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights”—is a goal worth striving for. It is not going to be achieved in the next two years, or in the next ten. But the three new congresswomen could lay the groundwork for Democratic support for such a position in the long term.
They may also have a chance to lead the fight in Congress against anti-BDS laws which flagrantly violate the First Amendment.
But all three women have an agenda that stretches far beyond Israel. Most of their core issues are domestic. And “pro-Israel” lobbying groups know this very well. They will rally opposition against Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, and Tlaib in any case, but if they make themselves vulnerable by opposing aid to Israel, AIPAC and others will work to block their entire agenda.
Many idealistic politicians in the past have taken that reality as evidence that they should just stay away from the whole issue lest they become isolated and completely ineffective. But Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, and Tlaib have a chance to take a very different approach. They can avoid maximalist demands but push farther than would have been possible even five years ago.
They can call for investigations into Israeli military actions. They can push the envelope gradually farther in condemning Israel’s siege on Gaza, its intransigence in diplomacy, its routine cruelties in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They can go after the Trump administration for its callous efforts to make the lives of Palestinians in Gaza even more miserable by defunding, and potentially destroying, the United Nations refugee agency there known as UNRWA, as well as its disastrous handling of the issue of Jerusalem. Above all, they can employ the language of Palestinian rights in all of these issues, rather than framing every objection in terms of “damage to the peace process.”
None of these efforts are likely to succeed, but they will broaden the debate within the Democratic party. They will lay the groundwork for more members of Congress to take a stronger stance in defense of Palestinian rights. And when the time is ripe, they can escalate their efforts.
Capitol Hill never leads on issues like this. It reflects the political mood of the country. But much of the time, the mood it really reflects is that of donors and lobbyists. Changing that tone on Israel-Palestine is a long process and trying to jump to the end, where the U.S. actually conditions its aid to Israel on progress toward peace and respect for Palestinian rights, is a sure way to fail.
But before now, the need was to create a different discourse and change the political pressures on Congress. That work is now being done, thanks in some measure to Israel’s rightward shift, but mostly to the efforts of activists across the political spectrum, from J Street to the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. It is now possible for members of Congress to take bolder stands. Bernie Sanders did so in 2016, and proved it was not political suicide. Now these three promising and courageous women have the chance to take the next step, a chance provided by activists who must continue to support them without trying to press them into actions that will short-circuit the work they can and hopefully will do on the Hill.