Progressives see ‘historic’ moment to shift US relations with Israel

Progressive Democrats are pushing forward efforts to dramatically shift the U.S. relationship with Israel, as the dust settles from a cease-fire that ended 11 days of devastating war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. 

Emboldened by firebrand lawmakers and an agenda centered around social justice for Palestinians, calls for conditioning military aid to Israel and criticisms of its actions have moved from the fringe of the Democratic Party to the floor of the House and Senate.

But Israel advocacy groups in the U.S. are mobilizing their supporters to reject efforts by progressives to halt $735 million in arms sales to Israel and other efforts to condition military assistance. 

Meanwhile, Republicans are attacking President Biden’s “quiet, intensive” diplomacy as failing to stand up publicly for Israel while it’s under siege from Hamas rockets, and emboldening Hamas’s backer, Iran, with ongoing talks about the nuclear agreement. 

“Domestic politics has always been a reality when it comes to U.S. and Israeli relationship, and U.S. support of Israel,” said Aaron David Miller, who served as a negotiator on Israeli and Palestinian peace efforts across Republican and Democratic administrations.

“I think now more than any time I’ve watched this movie — the stress on the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the criticisms of Israel’s actions are probably greater now than ever before,” he added.

Progressive groups feel that momentum is on their side, bolstered by changing priorities among Democrats that have promoted policy shifts on climate change, health care, criminal justice reform and racial equity.

“Conditioning aid to the Israeli government is a policy that is supported by the overwhelming majority of Democrats but is not supported by the overwhelming majority of Democrats in Washington,” said Waleed Sahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, the political action committee behind the rise of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and other prominent, progressive lawmakers in Congress. 

“But that’s true about many issues that progressives campaign on. Over time, in our view, the party will change with more pressure from inside and outside on this issue.”

Ocasio-Cortez is leading the effort, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), to halt pending military sales to Israel, with a resolution introduced in both the House and Senate this past week.

“For decades, the U.S. has sold billions of dollars in weaponry to Israel without ever requiring them to respect basic Palestinian rights. In so doing, we have directly contributed to the death, displacement and disenfranchisement of millions,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement. 

Her words came amid reports of the rising death toll of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip that were caught in Israeli air strikes targeting Hamas fighters and their infrastructure.

A cease-fire that went into effect early Friday morning has so far halted the fighting. But the Gaza Health Ministry on Thursday said that 232 Palestinians were killed over the 11 days of conflict, including 65 children, 39 women and 17 elderly people. About 1,900 have been wounded. Israel says that it killed more than 130 Hamas terrorists.

Sanders’s sponsorship of the resolution opposing arms sales to Israel will force a vote on the issue in the Senate. While it is unlikely to pass, progressive activists nonetheless are hailing it as a “historic” moment.

“The progressive movement has gained power in the last few years and has elected more human rights champions,” said Yasmine Taeb, a human rights lawyer who is at the forefront of organizing progressive movements calling for more Israeli accountability in its policies towards Palestinians.

“I do believe it’s because of those gains that we made, and strengthening our inside and outside strategy, which has brought us to this moment.” 

Taeb was one of the organizers behind an open letter to the Biden administration last week, signed by more than 140 progressive groups, that called for denouncing as “war crimes” Israeli policies towards Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The letter came following weeks of rising tensions and violent clashes in the Holy City, which Hamas used as a catalyst to begin firing rockets into Israel. 

The indiscriminate rocket-fire from Hamas — which totaled more than 4,400 missiles over the course of 11 days — largely shifted attention on Capitol Hill away from growing frustrations over Israel’s policies towards Palestinians in Jerusalem and toward the debate over Israel’s right to self-defense. 

Republicans criticized Biden’s behind-the-scenes diplomacy as failing to more publicly defend Israel in the face of criticism from progressives and the international community.

The president managed to push Israel towards a cease-fire and avoided making an overt public demand that experts say would have been unprecedented in the relationship.

“If Biden is lucky, he’ll be able to continue to navigate this,” said Miller, who is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He added that the U.S. and Israel relationship is not at a crisis point, but that the bipartisanship that typically undergirds the relationship is “under greater stress than ever before.”

Israel says it does everything in its power to prevent Palestinian civilian casualties when carrying out air strikes in Gaza and condemns Hamas for setting up their military operations in population centers.

While the U.S.-supported Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted about 90 percent of Hamas rocket fire, 13 people were killed in Israel and millions were forced into bomb shelters.

Israel-advocacy groups opposed to progressives’ push for conditioning military aid to Israel say such restrictions would threaten the safety of the Israeli people because the aid is vital Israel’s attempts to deter and degrade Hamas military capabilities, and serves to strengthen Israel against threats from other terrorist groups and conflict with Syria and Iran.

“We don’t support efforts to block military sales to Israel,” said Halie Soifer, CEO of the advocacy organization Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA).

In public statements and briefings with lawmakers and staff on Capitol Hill, JDCA stresses that the proposed $735 million arms sale is unrelated to the current hostilities and part of U.S. commitments in the 2016 U.S. and Israel Memorandum of Understanding, committing $38 billion to Israel over 10 years in foreign military financing, which includes $500 million annually for the Iron Dome.  

“These sales are consistent with that MOU, and we therefore support going forward with these sales,” Soifer said. “We also don’t believe in using military assistance to Israel, which is saving lives, as leverage to influence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Advocacy groups that promote bipartisan U.S. support of Israel, like the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the 10 million-member strong Christians United For Israel, have put out action calls for its members to “reject radical attempts” by progressives to condition aid to Israel. 

Alongside those words of warning are pictures of Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, and Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the first two female Muslim members of Congress.

Omar, who has been accused of making antisemitic remarks in her criticisms of Israel, is a frequent target of AIPAC, which issued a rare apology in February 2020 following a series of ads that included criticism of Omar and other progressive lawmakers as “more sinister” than the Islamic State in their push for conditioning military aid to Israel.

But AIPAC has fine-tuned its messaging and refused to back down from a series of more recent advertisements featuring Omar, despite her office saying they incite violence against her and other Muslims.

Israel-advocacy organizations and progressive groups both agree that the majority of the Democratic Party, and Biden and his officials, stand firmly against conditioning military aid to Israel.

But progressive groups are focused on continuing the incremental changes that will shift the party. 

“All it will take is a misstep by the Israeli government to spur a whole new wave of Democratic support for the Palestinian cause of ending apartheid in Israel,” said Robert McCaw, government affairs director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

The Biden administration and Israeli government reject accusations of apartheid, defined as policies or systems of segregation and discrimination based on race, that are made by human rights organizations — most recently in a report published last month by Human Rights Watch.

But the charge of apartheid is prominent in progressive discussions around Israel and was repeated on the House floor by Omar last week. 

McCaw called Omar’s remarks and similar speeches by 10 other progressive members of Congress on the House floor “momentous.” 

“The past two weeks have caused a number of members of Congress to reevaluate these justifiable claims of apartheid in Israel,” he said.

“The question is how long will the U.S. government ignore the government of Israel’s civil rights abuses of the Palestinian people. I don’t believe it will be for long.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez American Israel Public Affairs Committee Bernie Sanders Gaza Strip Ilhan Omar Israel and the apartheid analogy Israel-Gaza conflict Israeli–Palestinian conflict Joe Biden Rashida Tlaib

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