For nearly 15 years, a partisan divide around the US-Israel relationship has been exacerbated in American politics. It became clear and consistent during the Obama era, though its origins preceded that, and then it was more pronounced during the Trump Administration. This political split has created space for congressional advocacy around changing the nature of American-Israeli relations in ways that were not previously possible, under an almost all-encompassing bipartisan consensus. Such congressional advocacy has been boosted in recent years by a slew of progressive candidates emerging on the national spotlight and challenging reticence among Democrats to engage and attempt to create change on this issue. These progressive voices continue to lead the way in pushing a party whose base seems to be increasingly open to changing the US-Israel relationship in that direction.
During the Obama Administration—and before this became more politically possible among Democrats—Minnesota Representative Betty McCollum was leading the charge on issues related to Palestinian rights, particularly those of Palestinian children facing Israeli military detention. After spearheading a series of congressional advocacy letters on this issue in 2015 and 2016, McCollum introduced legislation in 2017 that, for the first time, would condition US military aid to Israel on its treatment of Palestinian children in Israeli military custody. The legislation had 31 cosponsors and continues to be an advocacy vehicle for policy change. Along with McCollum, Representative Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin) has also been a leader on Palestinian rights issues, often signing on early and helping initiate congressional advocacy initiatives.
While these efforts were limited in their success, they signaled a sea change in the politics around this issue; the idea of changing the US-Israel relationship toward holding Israel accountable for Palestinian rights violations was now mainstreaming and finding champions at the federal policy level. This also compelled more moderate elements within the party to respond, often in opposition to such initiatives, forcing them to defend policies that uphold an unjust status quo. For example, groups like J Street, a progressive Jewish organization in the United States that had built up meaningful credibility among Democrats, could easily dismiss the criticism of advocacy groups, but they were more hard pressed to dismiss the efforts of Democratic congress members calling for change. This early stage of a shift would be supported by newcomers to Congress who would propel it forward.
The 2018 Elections
After two years of the presidency of Donald Trump, the midterm elections of November 2018 set the stage for a change of power in the House of Representatives. It was in this important midterm election that a number of new candidates were elected who would add strength to advocacy for Palestinian rights in Congress. The first Palestinian American woman to be elected to Congress, Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib, won a primary contest and then easily won election in the district previously held for decades by the late Representative John Conyers, Jr. The first Somali American and first identifiably Muslim woman to become a member of Congress, Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, also succeeded in this election. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won election in the State of New York as well, after defeating longtime Democratic Party veteran Joseph Crowley in a primary battle.
It was in the important 2018 midterm election that a number of new candidates were elected who would add strength to advocacy for Palestinian rights in Congress.
These three new members, part of what became known as “the squad” (together with Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley [D-Massachusetts]), added new voices to congressional advocacy on Palestinian rights in the House of Representatives. Tlaib was able to speak from her own personal experience as a Palestinian American and she, along with Omar, became the first members of Congress to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israeli practices. The two US representatives were further brought into the spotlight when they were denied entry to Palestine by the Israeli government specifically because of their advocacy for Palestinian rights. Along with serving as reliable participants in congressional advocacy efforts on this issue, Tlaib, Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, and Pressley became important voices for further mainstreaming Palestinian rights into the center of Democratic Party politics. Young, Black and brown, female, and progressive, they represented the direction of the party’s future while its leadership reflected more of the party’s past; thus their voices were crucially important for shaping the party’s agenda moving forward.
The 2020 Reinforcements
The next election brought with it more reinforcements for the effort, including the election of Democratic members of Congress Jamaal Bowman (New York), Cori Bush (Missouri), and Marie Newman (Illinois). The victories of these three candidates were very significant not only because of the positions on which they campaigned and the statements they made, but also because of whom they defeated on the road to Congress. All three represent primarily Democratic districts and thus had their biggest challenges in the party primaries. Jamaal Bowman was able to defeat longtime Congressman and Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel. Representative Engel had long been backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee but the support of interest groups, even powerful ones, proved incapable of salvaging his campaign in the face of an organic grassroots effort put up by challenger Bowman. Both Cori Bush and Marie Newman have far more progressive positions on Palestinian rights and also defeated rivals in the Democratic primaries who had long held their seats. These three important victories added important voices in congressional advocacy efforts for Palestinian rights. More importantly, they signaled the generational shift that is continuing to move the Democratic Party in a direction of reevaluating its relationship with Israel.
Progressive Congressional Advocacy during the Biden Administration
During the Trump Administration, Democrats could not expect the White House to engage much of their advocacy for the human rights of Palestinians. Both the Republican Party and the president were strong supporters of Israel and Donald Trump was very set in his ways when it came to the US-Israel relationship. But a change in power that came with the November 2020 elections meant that congressional Democrats would now be able to voice their concerns about this issue to an administration led by fellow Democrats. Will the Biden Administration be more likely to listen and engage, and how will congressional advocacy on this front evolve during Biden’s term?
A change in power that came with the November 2020 elections meant that congressional Democrats would now be able to voice their concerns about this issue to an administration led by fellow Democrats.
There are some early indications of what the answer to this question might be. While the administration has been consumed with the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, some foreign affairs priorities are starting to make it onto the White House’s agenda. Most notably in Washington is US-Iran diplomacy regarding a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was a campaign commitment for then-candidate Joe Biden. The issue is being pushed to the top of the agenda at this early stage in the administration in part because of the importance of nuclear nonproliferation and also partly because of evolving dynamics in the US-Iran relationship, including the upcoming elections in Iran which could deliver a more difficult government.
In recent weeks members of Congress, led by Rashida Tlaib and Mark Pocan, sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling on the administration to engage on the issue of Palestinian rights, mentioning the numerous efforts that were made with their predecessors to address the issue to no avail. The members wrote: “As Members of Congress who are advocates for the human rights of the Palestinian people, we were deeply dismayed by your immediate predecessor’s unwillingness to engage with us about our concerns related to U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine. We look forward to establishing a new, mutually productive relationship with the State Department under your leadership that results in U.S. policy that supports the human rights and dignity of the Palestinian people.” The letter goes on to describe concerns about Israel’s failure to meet its obligations to facilitate vaccinations for Palestinians under occupation who are struggling with the pandemic, the continued demolition of homes, and illegal Israeli settlement expansion, stating sharply: “Israel’s ongoing colonization of the Palestinian West Bank, including East Jerusalem, alongside its demolition of Palestinian homes, is a form of ongoing, de facto annexation which needs to be unequivocally opposed by the United States. The message from this Administration must be clear: settler colonialism in any form—including Israel’s settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank—is illegal under international law and will not be tolerated.” The letter itself is remarkable for the unprecedented nature of its pointed language, which would have been unimaginable in a letter on this issue just a few years ago.
Further, the letter recalls eight other letters authored by members of Congress between 2020 and 2021 calling on the executive branch to address congressional concerns related to home demolitions, humanitarian aid to Palestinians, funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, and opposition to Israel’s annexation of the West Bank. Collectively, these letters were signed by hundreds of members of Congress.
The Tlaib/Pocan missive to Blinken sets the tone for progressive congressional advocacy around Palestinian rights under the Biden Administration.
The Tlaib/Pocan missive sets the tone for progressive congressional advocacy around Palestinian rights under the Biden Administration. This opening salvo in the dialogue between the White House and concerned members of the legislative branch is the start of an effort that will likely unfold over months and years to come. The letter also underscores the degree of frustration shared by its signers, who asked for an “expeditious reply” from the secretary of state because their “repeated requests were ignored” by the Trump Administration.
This letter sets out an opportunity for the executive branch to engage with members of Congress and provide some direction on US policy regarding the human rights of Palestinians. How the executive branch handles this opportunity will likely shape much of the path forward. There seems to be something of an understanding now among Democrats about priorities. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated American society, placed tremendous stress on the country’s health care system, and weakened the American economy. Recently passed legislation to respond to these profound problems represented a shared top priority for Democrats in the White House and in Congress. Other legislative initiatives continue to be top priorities as well, including those on the foreign policy front where there is an understanding regarding the importance of US-Iran diplomacy.
At this stage there is also great uncertainty about the makeup of the next government of Israel. For the fourth time in two years Israeli elections have yielded extremely divided results, leaving no single party with an easy path to power. There is a possibility that Benjamin Netanyahu will continue on as prime minister of Israel and, also, that he will be replaced. This will have an important impact on the US-Israel relationship precisely because of how significant a player Netanyahu had become in partisan American politics. Between this uncertainty and other foreign and domestic issues that are taking immediate priority, it does not seem like there will be a major push in the short term by congressional advocates for Palestinian rights. Therefore, the Tlaib/Pocan letter is an opportunity to bring some unity to the approach of congressional advocates and executive branch policy makers; at the same time, it also sets the tone for a confrontation once other issues are taken off the agenda.
Whether the confrontation—between the new direction the party’s base wants to take the US-Israel relationship and where the party’s traditional leadership wants to keep it—happens today or in the months to come, it is clear that continued pressure is building within the party to address the Israel-Palestine issue. A new Gallup poll released in March shows that a majority of Democrats (53 percent) wants more pressure exerted on Israel. What is striking about this number is that it has climbed 10 percentage points just in the last three years, when it stood at 43 percent. It took 10 years for it to climb a similar extent before that. These numbers, along with the congressional victories by progressives described above, suggest that change among Democrats is not only happening, but it is happening at an exponentially faster pace than before. If this groundswell of support leads Democratic policy makers to shift the US-Israel relationship, it is likely that the current congressional cohort of advocates will be leading the charge.
Yousef Munayyer is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yousef and read his previous publications click here