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Progressives press Democrats to rethink Israel policy

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Progressives press Democrats to rethink Israel policy © Getty Images Progressive House Democrats are putting pressure on the party to reconsider the amount and nature of U.S. aid to Israel...

Progressive House Democrats are putting pressure on the party to reconsider the amount and nature of U.S. aid to Israel, something that has long been supported strongly by both parties.

The shift partly reflects the liberal energy running through the Democratic Party, which is embracing more progressive positions.

The U.S. provides $3.8 billion annually for Israel to purchase American military hardware, including aircraft, tanks, munitions, missile defense, and other needs with respect to ensuring Israel’s own defense.

Progressives argue President Trump’s unflinching support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Israeli government’s own hard-line stance on Palestinian rights, demands a more robust debate of how Congress can influence U.S. policy to Israel. 

“It's not that anybody is against Israel,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, told The Hill. “But they don't like the idea that that aid might be used to move forward undemocratic or even racist policies in Israel. So I think they are getting very involved.”

Any shift among Democrats must be put in the proper context.

The party and House caucus remains adamantly pro-Israel, and earlier this year the House — in a 398 to 17 vote — approved a resolution opposing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement targeting Israel. Progressives argued the measure violated the free speech rights of Americans, but 209 Democrats backed it compared to 16 Democrats who opposed it. Four Democrats voted “present.” 

Still, lawmakers are becoming more vocal in calling for change in U.S. policies toward Israel.

The Democratic caucus includes the first two Muslim women in Congress, Reps. Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.), as well as their ally Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.). All three, along with other Democrats, have challenged the idea that protecting Israel’s security is separate from advancing Palestinian rights.

The offices of the congresswomen did not respond to a request for comment. 

That shift was on display at last months’ annual J Street conference, where 2020 Democratic presidential candidates and senior congressional leaders — including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) — made a point to appear before the group, which calls for the U.S. to exert pressure on Israel to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

“I think that the conversation is just starting and it's a big change from even a year ago when nobody was wanting to talk about this,” Jayapal said.

“I don't think that means that there is a universal comfort with the idea of conditioning the military aid. But certainly in the progressive caucus, we have more and more members who are openly speaking about it.”

Pro-Israel Democrats downplay any change in party policy, though they acknowledge Trump’s and Netanyahu’s unpopularity with Democrats is giving momentum to those who want to put more conditions on U.S. aid to Israel.

“I can see the far left exploiting that rift as a wedge issue,” said Aaron Keyak, former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “But fundamentally, the next president is not going to violate President Barack Obama’s Memorandum of Understanding and cut aid to Israel.”

The memorandum of understanding, negotiated by Obama in 2016, provides $38 billion to Israel over 10 years and was renewed through 2028.

Daniel Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said American military support largely deals with longer range threats from Lebanon, Syria, Iran and, in part, the Gaza Strip, with little impact or influence on Israeli policies and actions in the West Bank.

“If, tomorrow, we said none of our funds could be used to support annexation, we could still provide the same amount,” he wrote in an email to The Hill.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has pushed back at placing any conditions on U.S. military aid to Israel.

“At a time when America needs strong and capable partners in the Middle East, Israel is our indispensable ally in that vitally important region,” AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann wrote in an email to The Hill. “Given the growing and immediate threats to Israel from Iran and its proxies, we should certainly not attach conditions to protecting our ally's security.”

Yet progressives argue there’s no detailed reporting system on where U.S. tax dollars are going in the mass of the Israeli defense budget. They want more oversight if American funds are being used in areas they consider as violating human rights for Palestinians, including Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank.

J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami said the organization doesn’t advocate for reducing the amount of military aid to Israel, but that it echoes these calls for more oversight.

“It’s really good to see several of the candidates raising the question, ‘are we going to foot the bill for annexation?’ Should American dollars be going to pay for the expansion of settlements? Should it be going to pay for the demolition of Palestinian villages?” he said.

Ben-Ami said policy changes once seen as too left are gaining popularity as a natural reaction to conservatives moving further right on Israel. This includes the Trump administration’s endorsement of Netanyahu’s desire to have Jerusalem remain fully under Israeli control and establishing precedent for annexing the West Bank.

“Frankly I’d credit Donald Trump and [senior advisor and son-in-law] Jared Kushner and [U.S. Ambassador to Israel] David Friedman,” Ben-Ami said, “because the more that they, and Bibi Netanyahu, and the settlers, tug the conversation to the right, the more that the left is going to tug it to the left and the more that the views that J Street holds are going to be clarified as a reasonable place to be, in between these various forces pulling the debate to the polls.”

One Democratic lawmaker said that while Democrats may feel more comfortable criticizing Israel, it’s not likely to lead to meaningful legislative rebukes anytime soon.

A small consolation to progressives is an expected vote on another resolution, H.R. 326, which reaffirms Congress’s support for a two-state solution and recognizes the “legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people for a state of their own.”  

The resolution, however, has no Republican co-sponsors and its passage without GOP support could further inflame feelings of partisanship over the U.S.-Israel relationship.

In a rare move, House Foreign Affairs GOP committee members recorded their opposition to the resolution, accusing Democrats of undermining the Trump administration before their Middle East peace plan is ever released.

“H.Res. 326 is intended to cut the Administration’s peace process off at the knees,” the Republican lawmakers wrote, “ensuring that any political proposal released by the Administration already has the black mark of a rebuke by the House of Representatives.”

Pelosi, addressing the J Street conference last month, put her weight behind the resolution and called it an opportunity to reaffirm support for “a two-state solution that enhances stability and security for Israel, Palestinian people and the region.”  

One Democratic lawmaker said that, at the moment, the resolution is the least that progressive Democrats can receive when raising issues about Palestinian rights, referring to it as “baby steps.”

“It's symbolic mostly, because it’s a resolution, so it’s not a policy change,” the lawmaker said. “But things like that are important.”