As They Wrangle over Israel Policy, Officials Look Out of Step with Public

Days of fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza have completely warped the debate over the multiple crises facing Palestinians in the occupied territories and in Israel itself. Instead of centering Palestinian human rights, Israel and its supporters in Washington have tried to make the current conflagration about Hamas—a US designated terrorist group—instead of about Israel’s policies of exclusion, expulsion, and persecution that were on display when the government and radical Jewish settlers tried to forcibly evict Palestinian families from their homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Republicans were happy to take the lead, as pro-Israel policy has become more and more partisan in recent years. GOP members in the House and Senate released a torrent of statements and joined in press conferences in support of Israel and critical of Hamas. Rep. Steve Womack (R-Arkansas) signed on to a letter and introduced a resolution in support of Israel; others also introduced legislation and made statements backing Israel and uncritical of its policies toward Palestinians. Over 100 members of the House GOP caucus joined the letter Womack signed. Indeed, the Republican Party’s support for Israel is even larger than these actions.

It was not just Republicans who were uncritically behind Israel, however. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) refused to support any measure that pressured Israel. Furthermore, Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-New York), a vocal progressive on most issues except for Israel and Palestine—and has garnered criticism from progressive activists who call him “PEP,” or “progressive except for Palestine”—penned an op-ed in the conservative New York Post explaining that he would continue voicing his support for Israel despite its actions against Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and that he aims to aggravate the aforementioned critics, whom he described as a “Twitter mob.”

Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill took Torres’s approach and fed into the misleading framing of the latest round of fighting, but some members did work to elevate Palestinian human rights as the main issue of concern. As such, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) introduced resolutions calling for a cease-fire in Gaza and blocking a $735 million arms sale to Israel (see Ocasio-Cortez’s statement here and Sanders’s here), a move immediately met with criticism by top-ranking Republicans. Israel is afforded a privileged status in the United States on many levels, and this includes the rules for approving—or, more appropriately, disapproving—arms sales. Israeli arms deals only require 15 days to go through, as opposed to 30 days for most other sales. As this review period expired Friday, May 21, it looks like members will scuttle votes on both Senator Sanders’s and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s resolutions. Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives did send a letter to President Biden, however, demanding that he freeze the proposed sale.

But Sanders was not finished. In a very different op-ed, Senator Sanders took to the pages of The New York Times to unequivocally call for a reorientation in US policy toward Israel and Palestine. Others on the Hill were not quite as forceful but were active in calling for changes to US policy. For example, a group of House Democrats teamed up and sent a letter to President Biden calling for his administration to be more engaged with Israeli and Palestinian officials to reach a cease-fire. This letter was notable because every signatory to the letter is Jewish—constituting nearly half of the Jewish Democrats in the House—and most of them have been stalwart supporters of nearly all Israel-related policy over their careers. Across the Capitol, Senator Jon Ossoff (D-Georgia), the Senate’s youngest Jewish voice, garnered support from 29 colleagues calling for peace.

Senators Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) and Todd Young (R-Indiana), who serve as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East, respectively, released a joint statement calling for an urgent cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Interestingly, Young quickly backtracked on his call for a cease-fire, instead hinting that Israel should be allowed to continue decimating Gaza in an effort to exact some kind of cost on Hamas. Young was not the only one to revert to the old way of business that sees policy-makers too afraid to criticize Israel. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, initially supported a freeze on the aforementioned $735 million arms sale to Israel, remarking that it did indeed look bad at this time. But shortly thereafter he changed his mind and opted against signing onto a letter calling for said freeze.

In a remarkable shift, Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) stunned many observers when he released a statement that, to some extent, criticized Israeli actions over the last few days and weeks. Menendez is arguably the most hawkish voice in elite pro-Israel circles and his support for Israel has transcended governments of all kinds in Israel, including the increasingly right-wing governments that Benjamin Netanyahu has led in recent years. This unconditional support for Israel even led Senator Menendez to clash with President Barack Obama over policies related to the Iran nuclear deal and Obama’s last-minute abstention, in 2016, on a UN resolution criticizing Israeli policy. However, in his May 15 statement, Menendez demonstrated some willingness to criticize Israeli policy and called on Israel to end its bombing campaign of Gaza.

For its part, the Biden Administration focused more energy on the crisis as well, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken contacting Arab and Israeli foreign ministers. Blinken spoke with the Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi multiple times this week (see here, here, and here) and he also conferred with the foreign ministers of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia. President Joe Biden also spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu multiple times (see here, here, and here) and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III did the same with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz (see here, here, and here). President Biden also took time to speak with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. In addition to the top-level diplomacy, the Biden Administration’s point man on Israel and Palestine at the State Department, Hady Amr, visited the region and shuttled between Israeli and PA officials, seeking a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, an entity over which the PA has little-to-no control.

Despite the quiet diplomacy that the Biden Administration asserts is most productive toward securing a change in Israeli policies, its actions again spoke louder than its rhetoric. For one, White House and State Department officials announced that they had approved the roughly $735 million sale of precision-guided missiles to Israel. This is not unusual in any respect, but it does prove to be a politically oblivious move at a time when Israel continues to use US-made and US-bought weapons to level entire city blocks in Gaza, leaving hundreds dead or injured and thousands more homeless and displaced. In addition, Biden officials at the United Nations again vetoed a resolution at the Security Council, giving the world the impression that Washington would continue its uncritical support of Israeli policies despite what the Biden Administration claims is a privately tough approach. Nevertheless, the Biden Administration received some news in support of its stated approach when Israel announced it had approved the terms of a cease-fire deal with Hamas, one that was brokered by Egypt.

The back-and-forth on Capitol Hill and at the White House over whether to support Palestinian rights is increasingly out of step with the majority of constituents. The country’s population trends younger and more diverse and, considering that these two groups are the most likely to support Palestinians rights, it is no surprise that public opinion is firmly on the side of the oppressed and no longer with the oppressors. But Georgia’s Democratic Senator Jon Ossoff is the upper chamber’s sole millennial and, despite the presence of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and a few others, including hard-line Republicans, in the House, the youngest generations with the most support for Palestinians are effectively underrepresented in Congress. Until that changes and lawmakers feel unencumbered to criticize Israel, US policy will continue to be wildly out of step with public opinion, despite some heartening vocal criticism from some camps.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Repeal Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iraq Resolution. Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Virginia) and Peter Meijer (R-Michigan) led a bipartisan group of House members in introducing H.R. 3261 to repeal a 1957 authorization for use of military force (AUMF) in the Middle East. This legislation, combined with a bill the House Foreign Affairs Committee adopted to repeal the 1991 AUMF against Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait, represents the first real efforts to reform war powers and a president’s ability to freely deploy US military force abroad. On May 17, Senators Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) and Todd Young (R-Indiana) participated in a virtual event to discuss the need to repeal two resolutions that authorize the use of force against Iraq, putting more force behind the drive to reform the current system.

 2) Hearings and Briefings

Biden Administration Prefers to Outline MENA Policies in Private. The House and Senate committees whose work focuses on foreign affairs held closed hearings with Biden Administration officials this week on developments in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. In an effort to blunt congressional criticism of Israel and US policy of supporting it, the Biden Administration agreed to hold a private briefing with lawmakers to outline its diplomatic efforts. In addition, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a closed briefing with the Biden Administration’s envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, who, among other things, is focused on the dispute between Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia over the latter’s dam project on the Nile River.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Acting Assistant Secretary Hood Travels to Syria, Libya, Tunisia. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood traveled to northeastern Syria this week and then joined new Special Envoy for Libya Richard Norland on a visit to Tripoli. Both countries have suffered through years of war, so it is hopeful that these visits represent renewed US interest and involvement in resolving their conflicts. Afterward, Hood traveled to Tunisia for meetings with top Tunisian officials.

 Biden Administration Announces New Sanctions Targeting IS, Yemen’s Houthis. The Biden Administration announced a slate of new sanctions this week targeting financiers of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and individuals aligned with Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

 International Community Sees Path to Deal between US, Iran. This week, international officials expressed a glimmer of hope that ongoing indirect talks between the United States and Iran will bear fruit and will see the sides return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In addition to the indirect talks pertaining to Iran’s nuclear energy program, the two sides are reportedly exploring prisoner swaps as a show of good faith. All so-called negotiations between Washington and Tehran should be eyed critically, however, as each side leaks information, then denies it, and repeats. Indeed, officials in Iran have put out contradictory statements regarding what the United States plans to do.

State Department Number Two to Visit Turkey. Wendy Sherman, the State Department’s deputy secretary, is slated to visit Turkey in the coming week. According to the department’s press release, Sherman will visit Ankara to discuss US-Turkey relations and Turkey’s role as a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally. With US-Turkish relations frosty at this moment, it will be a crucial diplomatic trip for Sherman.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here