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 TrumpUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Heller won't say if Biden won election 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 PompeoMike PompeoRepublican lawmakers raise security, privacy concerns over Huawei cloud services WashPost fact-checker gives Pompeo four 'Pinocchios' for 'zombie' claim about Obama Iran deal Poll: Biden, Trump statistically tied in favorability 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 CruzMatthew McConaughey on potential political run: 'I'm measuring it' Professor tells Cruz that Texas's voter ID law is racist Schumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks 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 DeutchHoyer tells Israel removal of Iron Dome funding is 'technical postponement' New podcast pairs lawmakers with entertainment figures House Ethics panel reviewing Rep. Malinowski's stock trades MORE (D-Fla.), Brad SchneiderBradley (Brad) Scott SchneiderMainstream Democrats keep winning — let's not stop now Biden nominates Holocaust historian as special envoy to combat antisemitism Sanders reaffirms support for Turner in Ohio amid Democratic rift MORE (D-Ill.), Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyDemocrats seek to cool simmering tensions American workers need us to get this pandemic under control around the world Democrats repeal prohibition on funding abortions abroad MORE (D-Ill.) and David PriceDavid Eugene PriceI've seen the tragedy of Camp Lejeune — we can't wait any longer to help those impacted by toxic water Overnight Defense: Biden faces pressure from Democrats to shrink size of Guantánamo Bay House Democrats call on Biden to close Guantánamo 'once and for all' 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.