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Partisan divide on annexation complicates US-Israel relationship

Partisan divide on annexation complicates US-Israel relationship

Democrats and Republicans are making a last-minute stand to have their voices heard on the Israeli government’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank and Jordan Valley.

But separate letters circulating on Capitol Hill are illustrating the stark differences between lawmakers in the two parties on the U.S.-Israel relationship, which has historically enjoyed firm bipartisan support.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE, who heads a power-sharing government with his former political rival Benny Gantz, has given a July 1 deadline to decide on annexation.

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE has yet to give the green light for Israel to annex territory, and it’s unclear how Netanyahu plans to move forward absent support from the U.S.

A map provided in the January unveiling Trump’s “vision for peace” outlined roughly 30 percent of the West Bank and the whole of the Jordan Valley as belonging to Israel. But a committee made up of U.S. and Israeli officials has yet to publish details on specific borders.

The partisan divide on annexation is reflective of the growing politicization of Israel in Congress over the past few years. The turning point in U.S.-Israel relations came in 2015 with Netanyahu’s public opposition to then-President Obama’s pursuit of the Iran nuclear deal while speaking to a joint session of Congress at the request of the then-Republican Speaker of the House.

“The most important thing for those of us who want Israel to thrive is, No. 1, to maintain bipartisan support for Israel, that is crucial,” a senior Democratic congressional staff member told The Hill. “But Benjamin Netanyahu has worked really hard to make it a partisan wedge issue, which is not in Israel’s interest.”

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoBiden faces challenges, opportunities in Middle East O'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' Israeli military instructed to prepare for Trump strike on Iran: report MORE on Wednesday said the decision to annex territory rests with Israel alone, but Israeli officials have signaled that U.S. support is necessary for moving forward on annexation.

Republicans are pushing Trump to throw his support behind annexation, with a vast majority of House GOP lawmakers saying Israel has a right to make decisions about its borders without “outside pressure.”

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Meanwhile, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol MORE (R-Texas) has led GOP colleagues in a letter to Trump calling for him to give his administration resources to help Israel annex territory if it moves forward on such action.

But the pushback by Democrats raises the stakes for Israel if there’s an administration change in November and the U.S. joins the international community in its opposition to Netanyahu moving forward on annexation. Among those who have expressed opposition are the secretary-general of the United Nations, the European Union, and Arab and Gulf states allied with the U.S.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” the Democratic congressional staff member told The Hill. “Speaking up is an option, and maybe it won’t make any difference, but we have to try.”

At least 36 Senate Democrats, along with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, have come out in opposition to annexation.

A large majority of House Democrats have also signed on to a letter to Netanyahu opposing annexation, saying "we urge your government to reconsider plans to do so," according to a copy obtained by The Hill.

The letter, led by Reps. Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchShakespeare Theatre Company goes virtual for 'Will on the Hill...or Won't They?' Florida Democrat introduces bill to recognize Puerto Rico statehood referendum Matt Gaetz, Roger Stone back far-right activist Laura Loomer in congressional bid MORE (D-Fla.), Brad SchneiderBradley (Brad) Scott SchneiderElection scrambles prospects for next COVID-19 relief bill Democrats call for IRS to review tax-exempt status of NRA 189 House Democrats urge Israel to 'reconsider' annexation MORE (D-Ill.), Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyFeinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight Pelosi, Mnuchin continue COVID-19 talks amid dwindling odds for deal Pocan won't seek another term as Progressive Caucus co-chair MORE (D-Ill.) and David PriceDavid Eugene PriceHouse panel approves measure requiring masks on public transport Overnight Energy: 350 facilities skip reporting water pollution | Panel votes to block Trump's 'secret science' rule | Court upholds regulation boosting electric grid storage Committee votes to block Trump's 'secret science' EPA rule MORE (D-N.C.), aims to show a unified opposition among the caucus, with members typically aligned with the center joining with those considered more liberal and progressive.

“Even though they come from these politically … different angles, the goal that they all share is exactly the same,” the Democratic staff member told The Hill, “which is to maintain Israel as a Jewish, democratic country living next to an independent and viable Palestinian state.”

That letter was drafted by the members and without the input or at the initiation of key advocacy groups influential on U.S. policy decisions toward Israel.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), considered one of the most powerful pro-Israel lobby organizations in the U.S., rejected the Democrats’ letter, saying it takes issue with the fact that the letter doesn’t hold Palestinians accountable for their role in failing to advance peace efforts.

“We do not support the Democratic letter because it publicly criticizes Israel for a potential decision that would only be made with the approval of the U.S. government, it fails to affirm support for full security assistance and it fails to note Palestinian rejection of direct negotiations,” Marshall Wittmann, an AIPAC spokesman, told The Hill.

Wittmann said AIPAC doesn’t take a position on annexation and did not take a position on the Republican letter.

J Street, a pro-Israel organization considered more in line with the progressive left, has put its support behind the Democrats’ letter, and criticized Trump as handicapping Republicans who might otherwise speak out against annexation.

“We generally do have regular conversations with some Republican offices,” said Logan Bayroff, director of communications for J Street. “While there are those offices that I think are sympathetic to our arguments … there’s generally reluctance to speak out in any way that would be seen as critical of the approach taken by the Trump administration.”

Conflicting statements from the Trump administration on annexation, pushback from Democrats and international voices and opposition within Israel’s security establishment are having an influence on Netanyahu’s calculation, said Shira Efron, a policy fellow with the Israel Policy Forum and co-author of an analysis evaluating the outcomes of multiple solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I think the pushback from a variety of actors is the reason why we’re not going to see the big, big, big annexation that was promised,” she said.

Netanyahu has reportedly floated four options for annexation with Gantz and Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, ranging from annexing the 30 percent identified by the Trump plan to a smaller, symbolic annexation of some land, Axios reported.

“We are likely to see a more symbolic action or a modest action on July 1,” Efron said. “There might be a declaration without action.”

“Netanyahu has been so risk-averse, so status quo on the Palestinian issue all his tenure, it’s really hard for me to see him shift so much, even a modest step would be a significant change from his policy until now,” she added.