Stop Worrying, Impeachment Was the Right Call

The decision by Nancy Pelosi this week to finally name the ongoing congressional investigations into President Donald Trump’s behavior “impeachment investigations” has made far too many Democrats, both officials and voters, far too nervous. Will this help Trump be re-elected, they ask? Will it be a big can of worms for Joe Biden that he will carry into a general election? Will this simply end up being another victory for Trump, no matter the facts, like the Mueller Report was? Read more at Medium

Barring Members Of Congress From Israel-Palestine

In a sudden reversal, the Israeli government decided on Thursday to bar two members of Congress—Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN)—from

Photo tweeted by MPower Change

entering Israel. This means that they also cannot enter the West Bank, which was where they intended to spend bulk of their time in Israel-Palestine. After announcing the ban on the two congresswomen, Israel said that Tlaib could visit her family in the West Bank if she agreed “not to participate in any BDS activities.”

The decision to bar entry to the congresswomen met with widespread condemnation in the United States, including by groups that normally march in lockstep with Israel. AIPAC, for example, said they disagree with Tlaib and Omar, of course, but “We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.” The American Jewish Committee said that “AJC believes that, out of two less-than-ideal options, neither of which was risk-free, Israel did not choose wisely by reversing its original decision [to allow Tlaib and Omar in].”

These were typical reactions from the center-right of the pro-Israel community in the U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), one of the most devoted Israel supporters in Congress, typified much of the congressional response, saying “No democratic society should fear an open debate. Many strong supporters of Israel will be deeply disappointed in this decision, which the Israeli government should reverse.”

Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the House Majority Leader who just returned from leading a congressional delegation of dozens of members to Israel and who is as lock-step a pro-Israel voice as any Democrat, said, “The decision of the Israeli government to deny entry to Israel by two Members of Congress is outrageous, regardless of their itinerary or their views. This action is contrary to the statement and assurances to me by Israel’s ambassador to the United States that ‘out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any Member of Congress into Israel.’ That representation was not true.”

What was so interesting about these responses, beyond the unusual tone of rebuke for Israel, is the seemingly deliberate decision not to blame President Donald Trump. After all, Israel had made it quite clear that they intended to admit Tlaib and Omar, and then reversed its decision quickly after a tweet from Trump, which read: “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel and all Jewish people, and there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds.” Read more at LobeLog

AIPAC: The Essential Profile

This week, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held its annual policy meeting, and this one was quite different from many that came before it. For years, AIPAC conferences celebrated strong bipartisan support for Israel and for the unqualified U.S. support of Israel. But in 2019, that unity is very clearly fraying.

Where once there had been a significant number of foreign policy realists in the Republican Party who felt that the U.S. approach needed to be more even-handed, the GOP these days is passionately and overwhelmingly supportive of Israel and displays little if any concern about the lives of Palestinians. Democrats, on the other hand, are displeased with the Trump administration’s approach to the regional issues, feeling it has endangered and possibly doomed a two-state solution to the conflict.

But the Republican-Democrat divide is not the only area of division on Israel and Palestine. Within the Democratic party, a schism is widening between those who insist on supporting the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu—which includes the powerful centrist leadership of the party such as Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Eliot Engel, and Hakeem Jeffries— and the more progressive wing, led proudly by women like Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Betty McCollum, and others, who want to open a debate on U.S. policy in the Middle East and orient it more toward universal human rights.

But AIPAC is not just the venue to display these growing cracks in the bipartisan consensus that have made it even more difficult for the United States to play a productive role in resolving this devastating conflict. It is also a major player in the policy process, especially in Congress, as well as a source of intense debate and controversy over the question of why the United States behaves as it does in the region.

At this year’s conference, Ilhan Omar was attacked by members of Congress from both parties as well as by members of AIPAC and by the vice president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel. The reason for these attacks was that Omar had the temerity to call out and challenge AIPAC’s destructive influence, its role in directing the campaign funds of pro-Israel political actions committees (something AIPAC itself is not, despite its confusing name), and its efforts to establish the boundaries of discourse in Washington. Read more at LobeLog

AIPAC 2017: Haley Shines, but Whither the Two-State Solution?

Every year, anyone who works on United States policy toward Israel, Palestine, or the broader Middle East watches the annual policy conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee

US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley

(AIPAC) very closely. At that conference, we expect not only to find out a great deal about where the US and Israeli governments stand at the moment, but also what is likely to occupy the attention of Congress for the coming year regarding Middle East policy.

At last year’s conference, then-candidate Donald Trump’s appearance and warm reception caused one of the deepest divides in the Jewish community in recent memory. AIPAC’s day-after public apology to President Barack Obama for the ovations that Trump’s sharply critical words drew was a landmark event, and was an incident that the powerful lobbying group was hoping to bury this year.

AIPAC wanted their 2017 conference to be one that brought its supporters–who span a considerable political spectrum apart from Middle East policy–back together, and one that also set a clear agenda for the group’s activities for the first year of the Trump Administration. It was not entirely successful in either goal.

Jewish Extremists Attack Protesters

Some of this year’s most dramatic events occurred outside the conference doors. Members of the so-called “Jewish Defense League” (JDL) demonstrated outside the conference. They were there ostensibly as a counter to the groups protesting AIPAC’s support for Israeli policies, especially the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which is about to enter its 50th year.

JDL members, however, attacked an unarmed 55-year old Palestinian man and at least one young Jewish protester with the anti-occupation Jewish group IfNotNow.

AIPAC must have been relieved that the incidents garnered little mainstream media coverage. The JDL members, whose coordinator said they were there to “protect Jews in danger of being attacked,” waved flags and wore t-shirts bearing the fist inside a Star of David that is a symbol of the outlawed Israeli political party Kach. That party was expelled and made illegal in Israel due to its outspoken racism, and has since been listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, Canada, and, most notably, Israel.

The JDL, while not listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, has been accused, and some of its members convicted, of terrorist acts in the U.S. in the past. As Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now tweeted, “If these thugs had been under the flag of an Arab/Muslim FTO (foreign terrorist organization, which Kach is), (it) would have been huge news.”

Still, despite the lack of coverage, there can be little doubt that ongoing actions by IfNotNow, a group of Jewish millennials, signals a deepening breach in the Jewish community around Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. In an attempt to reach out to both AIPAC supporters and opponents of the occupation, Knesset Member Tamar Zandberg, of Israel’s Meretz party, spoke both inside the conference and outside to the protesters, earning her severe criticism from the Israeli right.

Zandberg became one of the few links between the scene outside the conference and what was going on inside.

Where’s the Two-State Solution?

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the conference this year was the scant mention that was made from most of the featured speakers of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Officially, AIPAC still supports the two-state solution, but that support is much weaker than it has been in the past.

In the wake of the presidential election last November, AIPAC pulled mention of the two-state solution from its list of talking points on its web site. The idea does appear elsewhere on the site, but clearly there was a decision taken to de-emphasize it in the wake of the Republican victory in November, after that party had removed support for two states from its party platform. The Republican decision, AIPAC’s response to it, and Donald Trump’s ambiguous statements about the two-state solution have created a great deal of confusion about what the United States’ vision for a solution is. This confusion is only magnified by the fact that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, pays only the barest lip service to a two-state solution and most of his governing coalition explicitly opposes the creation of a Palestinian state.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi read out a letter, signed by 191 House members (including two Republicans) and backed by AIPAC’s liberal competitor, J Street, calling on Trump to reaffirm U.S. support for the two-state solution. Pelosi got enough applause to make it clear that this long-time U.S. position still enjoyed significant support among the AIPAC audience. It also set off partisan sniping from the stage, demonstrating that, on this issue like so many others, there is an enormous partisan divide and that, despite AIPAC’s efforts at unity, this divide is reflected in the pro-Israel lobby as well.

With peace negotiations off the table, for the moment at least, AIPAC’s legislative agenda focused on undermining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran (the nuclear deal) and a bill that simultaneously attacks the United Nations and extends protections against boycotts of Israel to boycotts of its settlements. These are not new issues for AIPAC. But the focus on these issues, and in support of AIPAC-sponsored bills that were brought to Congress shortly before the conference, indicates that AIPAC is satisfied to leave the Palestinian issue where it is and instead is turning its lobbying effort to ensuring that criticism of Israel will carry a very high price and that the Trump Administration will have more tools to thwart any further cooling of relations between the US and Iran.

AIPAC Loves Nikki Haley

The story that many seemed to focus on coming out of the conference this year was the popularity of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.  Haley benefits from being both a personable conservative and a crusader for the Netanyahu government in the UN. Some observers at AIPAC believed she had taken her first step toward securing a future presidential nomination. That is a vast overstatement, but there is no doubt that Haley was the one person who came out of the conference riding a rising tide.

AIPAC and its supporters had always had a guarded, and sometimes even hostile, view of Samantha Power, Haley’s predecessor under Barack Obama. But Haley has long been clear that her support for Israel is not dimmed one bit by Israel’s ongoing occupation, and this has won her unambiguous AIPAC support. She is in a perfect position in an administration that disdains international cooperation or any other arrangements that put even the slightest limits on U.S. freedom of action. That means that most of Haley’s job is establishing that the United States will do everything in its power to ensure that the United Nations is as marginalized as possible when it comes to Israel.

Nothing pleases the AIPAC crowd more than this. Haley’s unqualified defense of Israel at the UN combines well with her broader image as a “compassionate conservative” to make her AIPAC’s shining star of 2017. Still, it’s worth recalling that her anti-choice stance and support for the flying of the Confederate flag–until the 2015 Charleston Church Shooting made it politically unsustainable—are likely to mean most AIPAC attendees will not be as supportive of her outside that conference hall as they were inside it.

Success or Failure?

In the last analysis, this conference can be viewed as a glass half full or half empty. It certainly was not the divisive moment for the pro-Israel community that last year’s confab was. Yet the schisms that were so apparent in 2016 were shown not to have healed.

On a policy level, AIPAC is drifting and appears unsure of itself. The scene outside the conference was one where the Jewish alt-right extremists of the JDL were clearly closer to AIPAC’s side than the much more moderate protesters who are urging an end to the occupation, but are not advocating any anti-Israel measures. The two-state solution is still in the air, and while the Republicans have withdrawn support for it, no one has actually come out against it, as many in the current Israeli government have done.

Nikki Haley may have emerged as a new hero, but there was very little substance from the other big speakers. Vice President Mike Pence tried to prop up President Trump’s indecisive image by again dropping the idea of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (which he said the President was “seriously considering”) but few put much stock in this after the flip-flopping Trump has already done on the issue. It was also an unspoken reality that Trump’s now-confirmed pick for Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, was needlessly divisive. It increased partisanship on the issue of Israel and once more laid bare the splits in the Jewish community on the issue.

AIPAC moves on from its 2017 conference with its influence on Congress still strong, but clearly slipping, as it is torn between pushing a bipartisan agenda and working with the new President. The indecisiveness of the potent lobbying group is hardly surprising, given the lack of any sort of vision coming from either the Israeli Prime Minister or the U.S. President.

That creates an opening for other forces. In order to take advantage of it, however, someone, be it an Israeli leader or a U.S. liberal one, must articulate an alternative vision of the future, one that is achievable even if far off, and one that can inspire supporters of both Israelis and Palestinians. The window for that leader is open, but one cannot say for how long.