A Shift Begins on Israel/Palestine in the 116th Congress

The famed 18th century American statesman and “founding father,” Benjamin Franklin, once quipped that nothing could be certain in this world “except death and taxes.” Had he been alive in the late 20th century, Franklin might have added a third certainty to his list: bipartisan carte-blanche support for Israel in the US Congress. But could this long-standing fixture in American politics finally be shifting in the new 116th Congress? Signs are pointing in that direction.

Long-standing Bipartisan Support

For decades, and especially since 1967, US support for Israel among the general public and in Congress has been shared by Democrats and Republicans. On a bipartisan basis, Congress has authorized billions of dollars in US weapons for Israel over the years. One presidential administration after another has worked out agreements with the Israeli government over weapons transfers, each generally totaling more than the previous one, which allowed Republican and Democratic presidents to each boast that no one did more for Israel’s security than he had. Time and again, congressional bipartisan majorities have approved these weapons transfers and  Israel’s “security” has never been a controversial issue in either house of Congress.

Weapons transfers are not the only Israel-related measures that continue to receive bipartisan backing. Other types of legislation that historically garner the support of both parties include bills aimed at Israel’s adversaries (both state and non-state actors) and resolutions condemning criticism of Israel in international institutions or affirming Israeli political claims, such as that related to Jerusalem.

The US Congress has stood unified behind Israel even—and perhaps especially—at times when the rest of the world was united in horror at the state’s actions. When Israel launched its devastating Operation Cast Lead on Gaza in 2008-2009, Congress passed a resolution supporting “Israel’s right to self-defense.” Although the same was done in the House and Senate regarding the 2014 war on the Gaza Strip, the 2009 war on Gaza likely marked a turning point.

When Israel launched its devastating Operation Cast Lead on Gaza in 2008-2009, Congress passed a resolution supporting “Israel’s right to self-defense.” Although the same was done in the House and Senate regarding the 2014 war on the Gaza Strip, the 2009 war on Gaza likely marked a turning point.

The Partisan Divide on Israel Grows

The horrific scenes from the 2008-9 war on Gaza further confirmed a perception that grew out of the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon: that while Israel had adversaries, it was far more powerful than they were. This ran counter to the long-standing perception of Israel as a weak underdog needing US support just to survive. Israel’s vulnerability had long bought it the benefit of the doubt, but if it was confronting adversaries from its own position of overwhelming strength, it would have to accept more and more criticism of its policies. This change began to take place slowly in public opinion, catalyzed over time by each high-profile Israeli bombardment. At the same time, US politics was in the process of reacting to one of the most consequential events in modern American history, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent so-called War on Terror. President George W. Bush, with a strong base of evangelical support, launched such a war that included invasions of Muslim countries. Israel was and continues to be seen as a key ally in this fight. In addition, the Israeli government worked to convey the notion to the American public that it was on the same side as the United States in a war against a predominantly Muslim threat.

But the 2008 election, which brought forward President Barack Obama, was a referendum on the policies of war, particularly that on Iraq, which had overwhelmingly come to be seen as a mistake. With this came a willingness among more Democrats to look at the War on Terror and US allies involved in it through the prism of human rights and international law. The Netanyahu government’s open animosity toward the Obama Administration, along with its more recent wholehearted embrace of the Trump Administration, further drove the partisan wedge, particularly along the bases of the parties. Polls have shown that American citizens who are older, white, and more likely to be evangelical tend to support Israel, whereas Americans who are younger, more diverse, and less likely to be evangelical are more prone to be critical of Israeli policy.

Polls have shown that American citizens who are older, white, and more likely to be evangelical tend to support Israel, whereas Americans who are younger, more diverse, and less likely to be evangelical are more prone to be critical of Israeli policy.

These shifts are primarily evident in public opinion and in other institutions in the United States, but they have not yet made major inroads into the US Congress. Some changes that have taken place there in recent years, however, suggest that the shift in public opinion is beginning to influence the thinking of the nation’s highest legislative body.

An important indicator was the bill introduced in 2017 by Representative Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Minnesota. The legislation, titled “Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act,” was the first of its kind as it sought to condition aid to the Israeli military based on its treatment of Palestinian children. By the end of 2018, the legislation had garnered over 30 cosponsors, reflecting a growing and unprecedented number of American legislators taking this type of action. The bill’s sponsors were all Democrats.

Other signs of change in Congress involve legislative initiatives that are referred to as “anti-BDS” legislation. These are bills that target the tactics of boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement in order to combat the growing international sentiment to hold Israel to account for its unjust treatment of Palestinians. Some of the bills, including the Israel Anti-Boycott Act and the Combating BDS Act, were legislative priorities for several prominent pro-Israel interest groups including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Neither of these two bills, however, made it through the legislative process. Instead, the efforts to push them through drew controversy and criticism that divided many in the Democratic Party. Civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which is an important and influential group on the liberal end of the American political spectrum, oppose all forms of anti-BDS legislation because such measures aim to use the law as an instrument to silence activities protected by the First Amendment of the American Constitution. While Democratic senators are not likely to come forward and announce support for BDS, a growing number of them have spoken out against the use of the law to intimidate BDS activists. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) have all spoken out against these legislative efforts. The only Republican to recently do the same was Rand Paul, who often breaks with his party to take more libertarian positions in support of free speech.

Civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union…oppose all forms of anti-BDS legislation because such measures aim to use the law as an instrument to silence activities protected by the First Amendment.

This contingent among Senate Democrats has staked out something of an intermediary position. They do not count themselves as supporters of using BDS to secure Palestinian rights, but they oppose efforts to legally combat BDS on First Amendment grounds. Polls have shown that a majority of Democrats are willing to back sanctions or greater measures in response to certain Israeli violations. A critical mass among Democrats seems to be coalescing, and this is enabling the possibility of holding conversations about Israel’s accountability in Congress. But given that senators almost always represent much greater numbers of people and thus tend to take more moderate positions, more prospects for this sort of change are likely to be evident in the House of Representatives. Indeed, some of the new members of Congress elected in the 2018 Democratic House takeover suggest this is already starting to happen.

With the two new Democratic representatives, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Congress gained not only its first two Muslim American women but also its first two open supporters of using BDS tactics to hold Israel accountable to international law. Their voices in the House will likely add prominence to this issue and create further space for additional members to support it.

The 116th Congress’s Legislative Agenda and Israel/Palestine

As the new Congress came into session, the government was shut down due to a political impasse over funding for President Donald Trump’s signature campaign promise: building a wall along the entire US-Mexico border. The legislation funding the government’s operations expired at the end of 2018 when the Senate did not have enough votes to support House legislation that included the wall’s funding. Meetings between President Trump and the Democratic leaders in Congress—Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (New York) and then-Speaker of the House-designate Nancy Pelosi (California)—failed to produce a compromise in December.

Throughout December, however, reports surfaced that senators sponsoring anti-BDS legislation in the 115th Congress were trying to attach it to the spending bills being negotiated; the aim was to get them passed into law outside of the normal legislative process. While these efforts failed because no consensus legislation was put forward, the first item on the Senate’s agenda in the 116th Congress included the Combating BDS Act of 2019 along with several other pieces of legislation related to the Middle East, and Israel in particular. The bill was likely aimed to divide Democrats, a number of whom have taken strong positions against anti-BDS legislation but who would likely support other parts of the bill. Following a strategy set forward by Senator Chris Van Hollen, himself on the record opposing anti-BDS laws such as this one, Senate Democrats have voted against the legislation on the grounds that they refuse to take up any bill that does not reopen the government. It is unclear what will happen when the impasse around government spending will finally end.

Legislation like the McCollum bill in the 115th congress is likely to continue to be introduced again and other similar efforts will create opportunities for representatives, including newly elected ones in the Democrat-dominated House, to take steps toward accountability by Israel. But there will surely be obstacles to this continued trend.

While there are clearly shifts in the Democratic Party on the US relationship with Israel, the divide is in part generational and overlaps with different power centers in the party apparatus.  

While there are clearly shifts in the Democratic Party on the US relationship with Israel, the divide is in part generational and overlaps with different power centers in the party apparatus. While the party base seems increasingly willing to criticize Israel, the party establishment, including longtime members, elected officials, and the donor class, are largely opposed to such criticism. This might change over time. A good example was on display in early December 2018 when congressional Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi appeared at an event for the Israeli American Council, a pro-Israel interest group, on a panel moderated by Haim Saban.

A billionaire and megadonor to the Democratic party who, earlier, had famously declared “I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel,” Saban asked Schumer and Pelosi at the event, to explain how they would work to ensure the party they lead remains committed to Israel, given the obvious shifts in public opinion along partisan lines. Both Schumer and Pelosi spoke about their own commitments to Israel through personal stories, but when pressed about how they would keep the party disciplined, Schumer encouraged the crowd to engage in informational campaigns to convince young people why Israel needs support. For her part, Pelosi made clear she had placed solidly pro-Israel members of Congress, whom she named one by one, as heads of key committees. What was most obvious is that the three people on stage, the 68-year-old Schumer, the 74-year-old Saban, and the 78-year-old Pelosi, represent an era that is clinging to power as a newer generation begins to push through with different views on Israel. The old guard has nary a clue about how to handle this new group with fresh ideas.

Exactly when and how it will happen is not clear, but a clash between these two centers of gravity in the Democratic Party—the older establishment and donor class and the activist base—is coming. The early stirrings of this clash may just start to happen in the 116th Congress, setting the stage for an even more vibrant intraparty debate on these issues as the country heads toward the 2020 presidential election.

Yousef Munayyer is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yousef and read his previous publications click here